Manifestos to Myself

Part of the ordeal of a meritocracy is constantly having to prove yourself worthy, especially to gatekeepers who stand ready to exclude you from the Next Big Step Up. Any number of twentysomethings, for instance, may feel qualified to attend Harvard Business School, to learn all that its prestigious faculty has to teach about making a huge success of life. But only a very few will get in. What is the secret of their admissions success?

Impressive test scores and grades help, of course. But something more is required, something self-promoting and yet modestly revealing, something beyond mere numbers – in short, a personal essay. Even the next Bill Gates might pause at this point in the application process and wonder: What if I am a colorless writer who just cannot make a story come alive? What if I don’t really have that much to say?

The answer to such questions is essentially: not a problem. The proof is “65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays,” a collection pulled together by staff members of the Harbus, the school’s daily newspaper. “Upon graduating from college,” one essay begins, “everyone expected me to join my father’s business because I had been working for him part-time since the age of twelve. However a year before graduation the firm started experiencing financial difficulties that could lead to bankruptcy.”

Balzac this is not. The word “dull” even comes to mind. As for the prose itself, it doesn’t take an editor to replace “been working for him” with “worked” and “started experiencing financial difficulties” with “had financial difficulties.”

And yet, the system works. HBS probably did the right thing to admit the guy who wrote that essay and most of the others in the book. The business school isn’t looking for stylish and amusing writers; it is looking for good businessmen.

The essays are one way for a candidate to show “leadership potential and personal qualities and characteristics,” as the application puts it. Of course a thousand books these days tell us what leadership is: organizing tasks, understanding people, having a vision, setting an example. One thing is certain: It does not require ironic detachment, witty repartee and stylish prose.

The current application asks six personal-essay questions and allows 400 words for each answer. (With the exception of the question about your three most substantial accomplishments, for which you get 600 words; I guess the applicant pool is a very accomplished bunch.) Some questions stay the same from year to year. For example: “Provide a candid assessment of your strengths and weaknesses.” Or: “What are your career aspirations, and how can an MBA help you to reach them?” There is always some kind of leadership question. In the book, it is: “Discuss an experience that has had an impact on your development as a leader.”

Some of the most badly written essays are strangely appealing, and they often have to do with personal growth. Reading about the guy who decided not to enter his father’s business, I choked up (well, almost) thinking about how hard it must be to face your father’s failure at a time that you are choosing your career. There is the essay about an ethical dilemma in which the writer can’t deny his mother’s requests for money even though he knows that she has a gambling problem. The writer is torn between his role as the breadwinner and the loving son. He is deadly earnest and wants to succeed – perfect for the business world.

The fine art of sucking up is taken to new heights by one candidate’s blatant rephrasing of points from the business school’s Web site. She looks forward to studying “multinational businesses in an academic environment with a world-class faculty and state-of-the-art facilities.” Now there is an original thinker. In other essays, teams are de-incentivized, plans are actualized, the day is workplanned. One writer declares: “Community service has been a passionate part of my life.” Who, I wonder, was community service’s first date?

Still, something is revealed. Having been rejected by Harvard Business School before being admitted the following year, I always assumed that the admissions process made a terrible mistake the first time around. (Even an HBS graduate has to preserve her ego.) But, reading this book, I realize that I may well have been rejected because I didn’t know myself or why business school was the right place for me. And that was probably clear from my essays.

If you are applying to Harvard Business School, then, forget showing your application to your English-major roommate and certainly don’t blow 50 bucks an hour on a professional editor. Just be yourself, gambling mother and all.

Ms. Zakaria owns a jewelry business in New York.