How to write an acceptance-worthy essay for HBS [Show summary]
Harsha Mulchandani, member of the Harvard Business School Class of 2021, offers her perspective on student life at HBS, as well as what her work on the Harbus Essay Guide has taught her about writing the perfect admissions essay.
How can The Harbus Essay Guide help you craft your admissions essays? [Show notes]
Is HBS on your list? Hear from this student about her experience so far at Harvard Business School (shut down and all) and about how the Harbus Essay Guide can help you get accepted.
Our guest today, Harsha Mulchandani, lived most of her life in India. She earned an integrated MS in mathematics and computer science in 2015 from IIT Kanpur. She then launched her professional career at Boston Consulting Group and left BCG to become an investment analyst in 2017. She moved to Boston to attend Harvard Business School last summer and join the class of 2021.
For her summer internship, she is an M&A and operations associate while also serving, separately, as a product manager for Harbus, HBS’ student newspaper. For Harbus, she works primarily on the Harbus Essay Guide, which just came out, and its interview guide, which will come out shortly.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up, and what you like to do for fun? [2:05]
I grew up in India. For the largest part of my life, I was in a town in the northern part of India called Jaipur. You may have heard of it as the “Pink City” or a city famous for forts and palaces, or more recently for weddings. It’s getting popular. I spent a large part of my time, until I was 18, there. And then I shifted to Kanpur to do my integrated master’s in mathematics and scientific computing. I spent about five years there. After that, as you mentioned, I launched into management consulting with the Boston Consulting Group. A large part of my two and a half years there was focused on consumer goods, and I did a project with the government of Rajasthan, which is my home state as well. And then from there, I went on to a private equity fund called Westbridge Capital. I spent about a year and a half there, and I’m here now. That’s what I did before joining HBS, other than of course getting married.
And for fun, I’ve been into dance all my life. I used to do a lot of dance growing up, in college and now in HBS. And I like to go for short runs and listen to some of my favorite podcasts.
Why did you decide to get an MBA? [3:46]
I guess this is the question that people ask any MBA graduate often, or someone who is deciding to go into an MBA. I guess the most important question to answer is, why an MBA? And I guess for me, the answer was never just about only the hard skills or only the more tangible skills. It was a mix of a hard skills agenda and a more personal development agenda. And the answer for me somehow has always been a cross cut of those two. My exposure to working styles had only been focused on my own geography, which is India, so being able to develop a more global working style, interacting with some of my colleagues who have had experience working here or have grown up here. That was one of the things on my list. I wanted to interact with people and figure out what it is out there.
A lot of people do it on investment calculations and take the salary of their next job and say, “Okay, in how many years can I make up for the salary?” But I guess for me, it was always that you have to add that personal development equation into that. It’s a melting pot of so many different cultures, being able to listen to speakers from Brian Stevenson to Alan Horn. And also personally for me as an entrepreneur, I guess America is a much deeper market capital wise. Just to be exposed to the venture capital/private equity community here. I guess if I put all of that into the equation, it would seem favorable for me to come here and do an MBA.
Do you remember anything particularly challenging about your MBA application process, or was it smooth sailing? [5:23]
No. It was definitely one of the toughest things I’ve done in my life. I say that because I guess the process just needs a lot of patience and perseverance to go through the same essay, the same story again and again, and just having them be true, to be able to define it every time and having those meaningful conversations and figuring out what matters to you the most, developing a coherent story and saying, okay, this covers the entirety of my life. These are the events which are the most important to me, but does it also speak truly of who I am? It speaks to my achievements, it speaks to my strengths, but it’s also unique in my voice. Getting all of that together and figuring out the right set of people and mentors who were really important to me to guide me through the journey, that was the most important, crucial, critical part of the process for me.
You had very high expectations of Harvard when you decided to attend. Is it meeting your expectations? [6:32]
It’s definitely meeting my expectations, and I say that not just because I started in this school and I did make that choice. But I think in terms of giving me the access (and not just me of course, all the students), that can be really crucial and be able to let this moment in our lives, be it through speakers in a startup boot camp, or be it through a speaker who’s coming as a part of your course and speaking in the auditorium. And then bringing some of those speakers within the class and having them discuss their stories with you, through the case that you just read, and discuss extensively with your classmates.
It’s difficult to concisely put it, but I guess in those bits and pieces is where the actual change is happening. When we are in the process and stuff we can say, this is tangibly how I’m changing every day, but when you’re outside of those two years, that’s when you realize, okay. Yes, wow. This is what I took back from the experience.
I’m just going to go through the process, focus on the stuff that I like, and be sure to expose myself to everything that I came for, and take stock at the end of two years of how it went. But as of now, I think I got all that I could by being in all the right places and by speaking to a great number of people. I have developed a community of mentors, of professors, and my colleagues here who came from a breadth of experiences. And I love that.
Is there anything that could be improved at Harvard? [8:27]
I’ve thought about this a lot. And I think in terms of what could be improved, I’d say the flexibility of the academy curriculum. I think HBS has specifically designed the first year in a way that’s mandated a certain set of courses for everyone to take, but I guess for people coming from varied experiences, like for me, I had a little bit more experience in finance than maybe some of my other classmates. Some others may have a little bit more experience in operations. So I guess for everyone to be able to curate their own experience academically for the first year I felt was important. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t learn from the courses, but maybe I could have learned more if I had the opportunity to curate them myself.
How was your adjustment to online learning, social distancing, and sheltering in place in terms of your experience as a Harvard Business School student? [9:26]
When this thing broke out, somewhere in the beginning of March, we were told that our spring break travel was going to be canceled. And that was just one in a large line of dominoes that were going to be kicked down. And then immediately we were told that, through the spring break, HBS is going to work with all the classes on a Zoom model, to see how the case method could be adapted online. And then when we opened up, all we saw was our classmates replaced with these 49 boards on the Zoom screen, our actual hand being replaced with this Zoom hand that we could raise in order to be able to speak in class.
So it’s been interesting. It’s been an interesting learning experience. Some of what we lost was those 20 minute conversations in between the classes, reading from the body language of some of my classmates, going back and following up on some of the comments asking, “You said this, but did you really mean this?” I guess some of those conversations have been cut short, but to put this in light of whatever else is happening in the world right now, I still feel we are in a much better place. I think we are in an age, in an era where technology can take care of a lot of this. I don’t know if this would have happened 10 years back, how any of these courses could have been adapted to it. HBS sent out an email saying it was the first time since World War II that in-person, physical classes were being suspended and an online model was taking over.
The challenge was also on the other side for some of the professors who were so used to an in-class teaching to be able to adapt their teaching to online. How do you call everyone in the class from a calling pattern basis fairly? How do you make people feel they are heard? How do you make your appreciation still felt for everyone’s views? So I guess those were some of the changes. On the more personal side of it, my husband and I immediately shifted to deciding who’s going to take their course from the room, who’s going to sit in the living area, who’s going to make breakfast, who’s going to make lunch. So those are some of the changes that we went through.
Were there any silver linings to remote learning? [12:00]
This is a question that I’ve thought about a lot and not just for the podcast. One thing that resonates with me a lot is what online has done is it’s made everyone equally distant. No one is far, no one is near. And to that end, I think the access, which we felt was high in the sense of being able to get great speakers in school … For example, you would see that sometimes a speaker couldn’t fly in because they were snowed in or some other reason, but now given everyone is so used to this way of thinking, so used to Zoom, access to anyone and everyone is possible. So I guess bringing all those people in, being able to listen to many more people than we could have thought we would, I guess that is something which to me is an interesting experiment.
If things remain online next year or even moved to a hybrid model, that is something that I’d expect a lot more of. And I think the second bit is that people generally started becoming a lot more sympathetic towards either the class of 2020 or those who were in their MBA process in 2020. People just generally were more receptive to us reaching out, more helpful as mentors. A lot more internships opened up towards the end because so many internships got canceled in the process too, that a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t think of internships just came out. Even the HBS alumni group came out and said, “Okay, we are going to create these internships for you. Why don’t you come and work for us?” There are definitely some silver linings, although a large part of it is, I would say, disappointing compared to what could have actually been.
If you had known, let’s say in 2019, what was going to happen and that part of your education was going to be entirely online, would you still have wanted to come? [13:40]
It’s a difficult question to answer. It’s hard to imagine because we’ve lived through it. And honestly, it doesn’t seem like things are too bad because we find ways to connect somehow. It’s human to find ways to stay in touch, to find ways to be in touch with people who you’ve spent the last one year with. So I don’t think I would have canceled. Knowing what I know now, I would still not have possibly canceled my MBA because I still have the unique connections that I’ve formed. It’s just impossible to think that I could have replicated them with anything else.
A lot of people have reached out to me. And what I suggested to them was, because HBS classes are open for anyone to attend, I suggested a lot of them to come and attend classes. See for themselves how the Zoom experience works out. There will be technical glitches very often. You will have your hand raised and you still won’t be called a lot of the time, but I guess that’s the new reality we live in and we make the best of it.
Was your internship canceled, or did it go smoothly? [15:19]
When I came in, I wanted to work in a startup to see if that entrepreneurial bug that I have is actually worth exploring and to be able to see if that hustle is really for me. For me, it went fairly smoothly. It continued the way I had planned it to be. But I guess for some of my colleagues, I did see internship offers being rescinded in some of the later days as companies realized that they didn’t have enough resources to direct towards the internship program. A lot of programs were shortened. Even some of the larger firm names ended up changing their programs to a six week program from what was originally a 10, 12 week program.
How did you get involved with Harbus and the Harbus Essay Guide? [16:10]
Writing has always been a thing for me. I tried to write a personal blog. In my undergrad days, I was the newsletter editor for the entrepreneurship newsletter. The writing bug was there somewhere. And when I saw the opportunity to combine the idea of having a newspaper, and then having alongside that some products that I could product manage and eventually be independently handling, that idea was really exciting to see how we could modernize the concept of a newspaper and bring more products that are digitally available, which makes the process and the whole concept of HBS more accessible to applicants. It was exciting for me. And I remember writing down when I was researching before coming to HBS, I remember writing down Harbus as one of the top three clubs that I wanted to join.
What new products have you come up with for Harbus? [17:18]
Some of the products that we used to have are going to be presented with fresher content again this year. So we have an essay guide, which we will be talking about. And then there is an interview guide, which we are working through, to make a new version for and have it out in time so that people can address what to do as they prepare for their interviews this year or for the next year. That is another product that we’re thinking of having. We recently revamped our website. We are thinking of making some of the older newspaper archives available for alumni or for people who want to know what’s generally going on in the campus but cannot be in it. Other than of course the digital version, which is already available on the website, and some of the archives as well. Those are some of the plans that we have for this year. We may have something totally new at the end of this year.
What’s new in the guide (since Harvard’s essay question hasn’t changed)? [18:20]
The format of the guide remains exactly the same. It has 22 essays this time. We tend to keep it to that number. It starts with a brief analysis by one of the Harbus editors. We have the essay, and then we have some commentary from the person whose essay it is. What’s different and what continuously changes is that we try to bring a set of fresher voices because as career paths change, as the admissions committee looks at careers in a different way … For example, three years back, HBS did not look at startups in India the same way as it does now. The recruiting from India was a lot more focused on private equity, maybe some of the more standard career paths, but now we have some of the more unconventional career paths being taken seriously too. (This is true for a lot of geographies; I just gave an example that I’m aware of.)
We keep bringing those fresh voices to the fore and keep expanding the book of possibilities to say, “Well, this is acceptable too and this is acceptable too.” The two guides will read very differently in terms of the kind of choices people talk about, the kind of risks people take. For us, we always try to expand these choices because personally for me, when I read the guide that was available during our time, I kept thinking, “Oh, okay. So this can also be that. This essay might not work for me. This story is not mine, but I know this is possible too. And this is possible too.” It’s to keep expanding those boundaries.
Do you think there’s any difference in the nature of the essays in this essay guide, since there was a change in director in the admissions office, and the world has changed? [20:03]
Definitely. The last guide was around the time when Chad Losee became Director of Admissions. Other than what I spoke about in terms of how people have voiced some of their stories, I don’t think there is a large change. What we are trying to say is some of the things that held true, still hold true. And a lot of it is continuously changing. So the point is not to work in a given set of industries, but to be articulate about what you can take from it and keep moving forward. The primary benefit of the guide is to be able to give you all the possibilities out there. There is no perfect essay that would exactly work for you, but if any of it makes sense to you, then do think about applying.
When we say that no essay is perfect, it means that this voice might not be yours, but you have a voice and it is important for that to be heard too. People want it to be an authentic reflection of themselves, and that’s why it’s important for us to keep putting these out, to tell people what’s really out there and that your story matters too.
I can think of one or two of the essays, which when I read them, I thought, “Oh, this person took a really big risk.” For example, I think in one of the essays, a person talks about their failures, their mistakes, and their weaknesses. And I thought, “Would you want to expose all of that to the admissions committee?” But I guess that’s the voice. If you have the confidence to speak out about it, and that’s what you took from that experience, it’s a powerful experience. And it’s a narration that deserves to be told.
Similarly, I remember there’s another essay which talks about a person who’s worked in banking and private equity, yet the entire essay almost focuses on beauty and how there’s some beauty in working in a wedding dresses business or in yoga, in practicing that form of exercise. It’s about how you bring your experiences together in a coherent format and be true to what you think your personality really is. This is the only part of your application which is effectively a story. Everything else is where you’re putting facts. Your GMAT score is a fact; your resume is a collection of facts. This is authentically your story. And as humans, stories for us have been the most effective form of communication. So put all your heart and soul into it.
What are your plans for the future after the MBA? [24:04]
That’s, I guess, the million dollar question! I don’t know. With all that’s going on with the world right now and uncertainties, a lot of this is also changing the way we thought of our careers in a more global way. It’s tough to say which geography I might end up in. Will it be in the U.S. for a few more years or back to India immediately? My aim is always, and has always been, to be an entrepreneur. I come from a family of entrepreneurs. It’s a really abused term, but creating products is something that has always excited me. My family has a confectionery business, and I guess took my love for consumer products from there. The industries that I want to be in are not necessarily food-related; I think the concept of the rapidly revolving industries of skincare or apparel or fashion tech are superbly exciting to me. I see myself landing somewhere in that zone in the future.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [25:25]
Generally, whenever someone asks me about my advice on researching or thinking about an MBA, I generally tell them to not singularly focus on that one dimension of their career, or “How will this advance my career? How will this help me make a career switch?” That’s a really important question to ask because it’s a monetary investment. But through my time, I’ve realized that your own personality is such a multidimensional thing. Speak to as many people, as many seniors as you want from the school, or who have had the experience of applying, just to understand what else is added to their personality, not just career. How else did it help them? Did it help them meet new people or help them attend classes across the river or to another school? Because Boston is a wonderful town. It has MIT, it has all the other Harvard schools. What did it help you do other than be in the classroom and have the career that you wanted? If you look at that question from a more multidimensional perspective, it makes a lot more sense.
Where can listeners learn more about the Harbus Essay Guide? [26:52]
Our website is harbus.org. There is a link on the website that links to the essay book, and the direct link is harbus.org/the-essay-book. You’ll get the guide there available in three formats. We are presenting the latest version, which is the 22 essays, and we also have combined essays from some of the previous years and some of the previous guides. Pick what works the best for you. I personally had a combo guide which worked the best for me because it told me how things have evolved through the years, what kind of stories were much more acceptable now. It was a super helpful resource for me. So personally, big recommendation! Go ahead and buy it.
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