Tag Archives: Harvard

Surviving the HBS ‘Answer a Question You Wish We’d Asked’ Question

Following the various HBS applications I’m seeing, it’s clear my post today should be about how to approach the HBS “Wished-We’d-Asked” question.

The first thing, which I hope is obvious, is there are two tests here: (1) can you find a question that is appropriate and important, and ask it in an interesting way – a way that piques your reader’s interest; and (2) can you answer it in a way that advances your admissions prospects?

The two are of course related – you want to choose the single question that most allows you to advance your admissions value. As this essay comes at the end of the set, you will be looking to address a topic or factor that you have not spoken of yet (or not enough.)

The steps to a good question are as follows:

  • What is there left, that is really important to say, that hasn’t been said in my other essays?
  • What question will best let me address that?
  • How can I formulate the question in a really interesting way?

An appropriate question, in Adcom’s eyes, is one that opens a channel of insight into who you are, what you stand for, what formative experiences in your past matter and why, how you have derived your values or motivations or ambitions, or other similar important stuff about you.

In other words, the right kind of question is one where the answer will leave the reader significantly more knowledgeable about you.

The right kind of question will be hard to answer. If you ask a question you feel you can knock off “no sweat,” then the question is probably betraying your admissions prospects.

Finally, it’s important (if you want to stand out, and you most surely do) that you ask the question in an interesting way. You could say, “I wish you had asked me what my favorite TV show is,” but that’s a yawn. It would be more flavorful to say, “I wish you’d asked me why I own the full 7 season DVD box set of ‘The West Wing.’”

You could say, “I wish you’d asked me about my community service,” but that’s like a road sign “beware, extreme dullness ahead,” when you could say everything you need to say about your volunteering in a soup kitchen and beyond under a question like: “I wished you’d asked me how cook soup for 400, in the dark, with one onion.”

How Not To Fall Down on the Harvard Business School Setback Essay

Over many years I’ve written extensively — both here and in my book — about the weakness-failure MBA admissions essay and how to approach it. In fact, it has to be about 8 years since I pioneered the notion of using the failure essay to position the applicant as a leader, because all successful leaders have failed or will fail at some time or another. Moreover, a real leader will acknowledge not deny a failure, and embrace its implied learning path — demonstrating capacity for personal growth which is the real test in answering this type of question.

Anyway, as you know, this year HBS grew the category from ‘failure’ to ‘setback’ and extended their request from one failure in 400 words to 3 setbacks in 600.

In a sense, not too much new here, but seeing as I’m experiencing a few clients struggling to hit the nail on the head, let me add a few thoughts and go over one or two principles.

First, a setback is broader than a failure. A failure comes from something you did or didn’t do. It implies personal causality and responsibility. A setback can be a failure in these terms, but it can equally be due to no fault of yours — just the big wide world doing what it sometimes does in a way that helped you not.

But, recognize too that the setback category does not cover all negative events. The outcome must be a setback. If you swam too far from the beach but were rescued, you might feel like an idiot and you might have had a wake-up call. But it’s not a setback because you were not held back or slowed down in any meaningful sense.

Choosing setbacks

Assuming you’ve identified various items that count as setbacks, which do you choose?

First the basics: as with the 3 x Accomplishments, you should create a spread from professional to personal to community topics. All work and no play makes Jack a dull admissions boy.

After that, you choose between setbacks the way you choose every topic: by asking yourself “which allows me to deliver the most admissions value?”

These are the kinds of admissions value a setback can communicate:

1. You show you are a leader. All leadership implies exploration of uncertainty and action without full knowledge of the consequences. Therefore all leaders mess up now and then. If you’ve had no setbacks, you have not led enough.

2. You show you are an innovator, and can balance risk and caution. Sometimes innovators go down blind alleys or take risks that don’t pan out. It comes with the territory. If you’ve got nothing here, you are either over-conventional or over-cautious, or both.

3. You show you are determined and can persevere. The “comeback from a setback” allows you to show tenacity and how you don’t give up.

4. You show you are resourceful. Likewise, overcoming a setback may allow you to demonstrate resourcefulness and creativity.

5. You show self-knowledge and self-insight. You are able to do honest introspection, which is the litmus test of maturity. You demonstrate humility.

6. You show growth. You are willing to learn, adapt yourself and your actions, and grow through experiences such as this.

Unemployment Setback Can Set You Apart for MBA Admissions

As things roll towards R1 deadlines I’ve been seeing quite a few unemployment stories used in the setback/failure essay slot, for example in the HBS “Tell us three setbacks you have faced” essay.

This makes sense. Unemployment is a real setback. And it’s understood by Adcoms that many applicants have been laid off for no fault of their own through the Credit Crunch and global recession.

But there is a better and worse way to talk about unemployment. I see a lot of copy that goes something like this: “I was going along great in my career – then suddenly my whole department was laid off – I was totally in shock and despair – but I didn’t get downhearted – I sent out thousands of resumes – eventually I landed a good position – I learned to persevere and how important it is to have a network to rely on.”

I’m simplifying of course. But this is a reasonably accurate schematic of what I see, and at a surface level there is nothing wrong with it. No red flags. But there’s nothing there that will get the Adcom reader to notice the applicant either.

So, do you say: “I was laid off – I thought the world had ended – I moved back in with my parents and sat in a darkened room for a month”? Of course not. Telling the truth is recommended, but “too much information” also hurts you.

The path through this (and through any situation where you are likely to share the same base story with many applicants) is to demonstrate individuality not in the story, which is by definition common, but in your response and depth of reflection.

The best unemployment essays will use the experience to shine light on personality. Going beneath generically “keeping on keeping on,” what did you specifically do to motivate yourself? Even in hard times, there are events that are funny or cute or somehow emblematic of the situation or of you. What were they?

The positives to exploit are not just connected to perseverance. You can make points that have to do with creativity – how you didn’t just work hard, but worked differently.

Unemployment also forces unstructured free time. How did you fill it? Talk about volunteering, talk about courses you took sharpen your skills and keep yourself in circulation. But again, everyone will talk about that. So don’t forget the whimsical. If you fell in love with two puppies and took them for slippery winter walks in the hills around Vancouver, that’s worth saying too.

* See also ‘I’m unemployed, does this mean my MBA application will be dinged?’ http://t.co/BMpftjT