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Hbs 2016 Essay Tips For The Sat

This post is most relevant to folks applying to Harvard Business School in 2016, but in many ways, it could be helpful for folks considering application essays for many business schools.  This year, the question on the application for the class of 2019 is simply the open ended question: “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?” The website adds the parenthetical advice: “There is no word limit for this question.  We think you know what guidance we’re going to give here. Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.” 

Like the other Harvard essay questions in recent years, this is astonishingly open-ended: as Bob Dylan said, “but for the sky there are no fences facin’.”  The caveat of using clear and simple language is particularly striking: the Sermon on the Mount, Sojourner Truth’s spontaneous address at an 1851 Woman’s Convention, and Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech all are examples, in straightforward language that anyone could appreciate, of works that communicate something profound about what it is to be human.  The Gettysburg Address, a profound political statement, is also a masterpiece of earnest simplicity.  What those four have in common is the gift of capturing, in specific memorable phrases, words that touch us to the core.  That is the standard for which to strive.

What the Harvard Business School essay is not

Think about it.  The folks on the HBS adcom already will know your GPA, your GMAT score, your work experience—all the cut-and-dry aspects of your qualifications.  Keep in mind that, across the spectrum of HBS applicants, a great deal of the cut-and-dry stuff will look similar: impressive GPAs at impressive undergraduate institutions, impressive GMAT scores, impressive recommendations, impressive work experience, etc.   Think about the intelligent folks who work on adcom: they see this slate of impressive data for candidate after candidate.  These folks need something to give them a glimpse into the person behind the data.  If your papers look like those of dozens of other applicants, and there is nothing to make you stand out as special, then they are unlikely to get excited about you in particular.

So don’t use the essay to repeat any of the cut-and-dry information: that would be simply redundant and annoying.  Don’t craft an argument about why you would be particularly impressive, because this could very easily come off as weak and needy.

Think about about ordinary everyday human relationships.  If I approach potential friends with the energy of “Gee, I really want you to like me,” that is likely to be perceived as needy and off-putting.  By contrast, if I am confident in who I am and present myself unapologetically as who I am, that may put off some but it ultimately will garner more allegiance and enthusiasm.  If you can balance unapologetic confidence with heartfelt compassion and sincere vulnerability, that is a combination that will open a great many doors.

If you have faced particular challenges in your life, these might already be present in other parts of your application (perhaps in your recommendations).  If not, you might mention in passing the challenges unique to your situation, simply touch on them, but the whole focus of this essay should be where you are going, not where you have been.

Thoughts on approaching this essay

Here are a few thoughts about how one might approach this essay.  This advice is likely to applicable to many other essays on many other applications.

1) Write from the heart, not from the head: of course, once you have a message, it’s fine to use your head to make sure the grammar is good, etc.  The core message, though, should come straight from your heart.  This is your life: what inspires you? What gets you excited and passionate?  Speak about what inspires you at the deepest level.  Don’t make a head-centered argument.  Think in terms of  your heart, and make it your goal to speak to the hearts of your readers.

2) Focus more on “why” than “what”: a laundry list of what you want to do is not particularly engaging, no matter how impressive the items are.  People connect with why.  Simon Sinek argues that we should “start with why.”  Why do you want to do what you want to do? Why does it matter to you?  Why should it matter to anyone else?  Say more about your vision and your dream than about your plans.

3) Be completely honest and authentic: the folks on HBS adcom want to know who you are.  If you speak in your in full sincerity, they can feel who you are.  If you try to make yourself appear as something other than what you are, in all likelihood this will not come off well.  Make the essay an honest statement of who you are and what you are about.  Nothing is more impressive than the utter sincerity of someone who has absolutely no intention of impressing anyone.

4) Be poetic: it can be hard to communicate one’s feelings, one’s dreams, the language of one’s heart, into words.  Often a well-chosen metaphor is perfect for conveying what one has to say.  In the fourth and fifth paragraphs of the “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King uses the metaphor of a bank check to discuss issues of racial justice, and this very plain metaphor became the occasion for powerful statements.  A metaphor can powerfully convey your vision, but you must be careful: anything that sounds cliché will fall flat.  It’s tricky, because sometimes the most brilliant metaphors are just a shade different from cliché.  Please get extensive feedback on any metaphorical statement you choose.

Admittedly, this final recommendation would be more challenging if you don’t already have the habit of reading poetry for enjoyment.  Of course, Bob Dylan, mentioned above, is justifiably called “the poet” of rock music.  One poet I would recommend is David Whyte, who has work extensively with corporations and business people; his work The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of Soul in Corporate America may be a particularly germane introduction to poetry for anyone contemplating an MBA, and studying that book may give you access to some of the metaphors that mean the most to you.  If you want to be more daring in your exploration of business and poetry, you might examine the poems of the banker T.S. Eliot or the insurance executive Wallace Stevens.

Blank canvas

In giving you such a wide open prompt, HBS is giving you a blank canvas.  Some people, given a blank canvas, can barely produce stick figures.  Given a blank canvas, Leonardo produced the Lady with an Ermine.  Given a blank canvas, Botticelli produced Primavera.  Given a blank canvas, Van Gogh painted wheat fields.  Every masterpiece began with a blank canvas.  That is precisely your situation in facing this essay.  What masterpiece will you create?

Most Popular Resources

The new SAT debuts this Saturday (March 5) and there is good news and bad news. Give me the bad news first, you say? Good call. Let’s end on the happy stuff. The bad news is that the new Redesigned SAT essay is a bit more complex than the old SAT essay. But here’s the good news: it’s also going to feel a lot more like the essays you write in school. (Bonus good news: unlike the old SAT essay, it’s also optional! That is assuming your schools don’t require it.)

So let’s capitalize on these warm, fuzzy feelings and cozy on up with the new SAT essay, and talk about how you can conquer it.

The New SAT Essay Prompts

On the old SAT, you were given philosophical prompts such as “Is it better to aim for small accomplishments instead of great achievements?” or “Do rules and limitations contribute to a person’s happiness?” Or my personal (non-)favorite: the controversial “Is reality television good or bad?” prompt from a few years ago. You were then asked to develop your point of view on this debatable issue and support it with examples taken from your “readings, studies, experience or observations.”

Disgruntled SAT graders got fed up with formulaic essays that started with the rather jarring phrase, “As can be seen in the examples of Huckleberry Finn, my little brother, and Hitler…” and decided there was no hope for the future of society. Ok, maybe that wasn’t the entire reason for the change, but it was a contributing factor. Just as the overhaul of the SAT in general was motivated by a purported desire to more closely parallel what students were learning in school, the change in the essay prompt is also an attempt to better align with the writing tasks students are asked to do in their English classes: namely, “read this [novel, poem, short story, article, speech, etc.] and tell me what it is doing.”

And so that, in a nutshell, is the new SAT essay. You can find sample SAT essay prompts on the College Board website, which I highly recommend you check out.

On the test, you’ll be given a passage that is about the length of one of the longer passages on the SAT Reading Test, and you’ll be asked to explain how the author uses evidence to support their claims, reasoning to develop ideas and draw connections, and stylistic or persuasive elements to add power to their ideas.

So basically the SAT doesn’t care about your perspective anymore; it wants to know that you can see and evaluate the perspectives of others.

As I mentioned, this is probably the type of essay you write most often in your English classes: “Here’s The Great Gatsby,” says your teacher, “How does F. Scott Fitzgerald satirize American ideals?” or “Here’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ How does the poet Robert Frost convey his attitude about choices?” Or at least the College Board hopes this is the case, so you can’t accuse them of unfairness and you will hopefully write them better essays.

But how do you write a better essay for the new SAT?

Top Tips for Writing the New SAT Essay

Tip 1: You don’t have to figure out the main idea of the essay: the question will tell you.

For example, one of the sample essays released by the SAT asks you to “explain how Eliana Dockterman builds an argument to persuade her audience that there are benefits to early exposure to technology.”

This question appears after the passage, but read it first. This way you will already know that Dockterman thinks there are benefits to early exposure to technology before you start reading (you already know the main idea!) and you can read specifically looking for the support for this.

Tip 2: Spend a full 15 to 20 minutes reading, taking notes, and planning your essay.

When the clock is ticking, it can be tempting to speed read and start frantically in filling the pages of your test booklet as soon as possible. But 50 minutes is a pretty substantial amount of time for the length of essay that the SAT wants. The highest scoring sample student essays on the College Board’s website are not much longer than they used to be on the old essay when you had only 25 minutes. So make sure you use the extra time to find good support in the text and organize it into cohesive supporting paragraphs. This is so much better than writing an essay that rambles or contradicts itself.

On the new SAT essay, you are graded on 3 domains: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. So “writing” is only one part of it. If you don’t put in the time to do careful reading and analysis, you won’t do well across the board.

Tip 3: Organize your supporting paragraphs by author technique or strategy.

Now, this is not the only way to organize a winning essay, but it makes a lot of sense, and it takes some of the guesswork out the equation if you already know how you are going to organize your essay before you even walk into the SAT.

Your introductory paragraph should always include a thesis statement that states the author’s perspective and alludes to the ways in which he or she supports and develops this perspective. For example, maybe the three strategies you saw the author use (which then become developed into your three supporting paragraphs) are a “personal anecdote, historical references, and rhetorical questions.” Introduce this in your intro paragraph, then develop each one as a paragraph of its own, and finish with a conclusion that wraps it up. Boom, you’ve written your SAT essay, and it is beautifully organized.

Tip 4: Examine the sample student essays on the College Board website carefully.

This is a brand new essay, and it is brand new for everyone. The people who will be grading your essay will have been trained to grade it like the sample essays that are on the website, so these free samples and the reasons why they got the scores they did are a gold mine of information. Remember, you too are writing for a specific audience: the SAT graders. So know what they are looking for and write for them.

And if you are taking the ACT, did you know that that ACT essay completely changed this year as well?? Seriously, guys, cool it with the changes. Follow the link for more on that.

Kristin Fracchia

Kristin Fracchia is an SAT and ACT expert atMagoosh. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007.

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