Posted on May 24, 2012

Harvard Essay Questions Analysis: 2012-2013


From the Admission Committee:

  • There are two required essays.
  • There is a 400-word limit for each essay.

“We think you know what guidance we're going to give here. Do not overthink, over craft, and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who do not know your world can understand.”

Q. 1: Tell us about something you did well. (400 words)

Harvard has reworded its accomplishment essay this year. Until last year Harvard had asked multi-accomplishment essays (three accomplishments), so you had the freedom to choose one professional, one community, and one personal accomplishment to showcase multifaceted personality. This year, however, they have shrunk it to 'one accomplishment', so instead of three, you must choose just one greatest accomplishment of yours that you want them to remember about your career. Please make sure that your story should demonstrate your leadership skills, teamwork, innovation, integrity, analytical abilities, and maturity, etc.

Please do not begin your story with: "My greatest accomplishment is" or "one thing I did well was... "  Let your story/ experience speak for you.

Also, never tell the whole story in the first sentence itself. It is like telling the climax of the story in the first sentence itself.

Make sure your story has the following four components:

1.the challenge

2. the achievement (how you handled it)

3. the outcome/ result

4. the significance (what you learned from it or how it was meaningful to you)

Since the essay prompt say, “What you did well?’ you have the option of either describing one single experience or accomplishment or one particular that defines you and illustrate it by 1-2 examples from your life. The key is that your story should be sincere and true to who you really are. In the following example, the applicant wraps up his story by outlining its significance for him.

Example: “Today I recall CIT as one of the most memorable projects. From a revenue perspective it was not the biggest project I handled, nor was it the most complex project. However, it was the most challenging project: in terms of saving my company and my own reputation in front of the mounting unforeseen challenges.”

Q 2: Tell us about something you wish you had done better. (400 words)

Like Question #1, Harvard has slimmed down its question #2 as well. Instead of three setbacks, you only must discuss one. Also, like question #1, they have reworded question #2. Last year they had asked, "Tell us three setbacks you have faced." which meant setbacks that were not necessarily your faults. But now they are explicitly asking," Tell us about something you wish you had done better." This means now they are asking about your failure or mistake. In either case, you need to do some introspection and look for an experience when you could not achieve what you had expected of yourself.

When choosing your setback/ failure story, make sure to discuss an experience when you feel things could have been better if you had dealt with the situation differently. Do not hesitate in sharing your weakness (but do not be over critical). Remember, Harvard is not expecting you to be a mistake-free individual. However, it does expect its prospective students to grow from their experiences. The key here is that experience taught lessons that you later used for self-improvement. Since you must share just one story, it should preferably come from your work life.

As advised for the first question, please NEVER start your essay with- “I wish I had done X better,” because you do not want to reveal the suspense in the first sentence itself. Right! Hook the reader with an engaging opening sentence in the form of a dialogue or a description or a quote and gradually unfold your story holding the Ad Com’s interest until the end. The last and the most important aspect of your story should be what you learned from it, and how you applied that lesson later to better yourself.

Example: “This experience was a huge blow to my self-confidence, but it taught me two great lessons: being assertive when required and allocating responsibilities to all. Later, when I faced a similar situation, I did not hesitate to escalate it, and this time the overall result was much positive. Thus, this setback taught me valuable team-working skills that I am now practicing successfully.”

Q. 3: Have the Last Word: The Post-Interview Reflection (conditional on being interviewed)

From the admissions committee: “Following the interview, candidates are required to submit a written reflection using our online application system. This must be submitted within 24 hours following the completion of the interview. Detailed instructions will be provided to those applicants who are invited to the interview process.”

You must submit a final 400 words of reflection within 24 hours of interviewing. This means that you should do some groundwork for this question in advance in order to avoid panic at the last moment.

  • First, before the interview note down any aspects of your profile that you could not cover in your application package: essays, resume, and recommendation letters. For example, you may have two accomplishments that you are proud of, but you could share the only one due to limited space. Or some of you may be itching to share an event or a life experience that had a great role in shaping your character but could not do so because you did not get a chance. If, by any chance, your interviewer asks you a question about your influential life experience, here is your opportunity to reflect on your responses in your post-reflection statement.
  • Next, during the interview, pay extra attention to the interview’s questions so you can use those questions to formulate your post-reflection response.
  • Finally, after the interview, note down all of your responses to interview questions as soon as you can. Now piece together all of your information/ideas and begin formulating your response.

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