How to Get the
MBA in Harvard
to Love You Back
So you’ve got the hots for Harvard Business School! You’re stalking HBS online, checking all the hot gossip on various MBA forums, and fantasizing about your happy life together in Cambridge, MA. There’s just one burning question on your mind: “how do I get HBS to love me back?”
Read on to find out!
Table of Contents
The Secret Magic Love Spell for the Harvard MBA
First, do yourself a HUGE favor. Get the heck out of the fear mindset!
Asking yourself “am I good enough for Harvard” while obsessing over your GMAT score will subconsciously set you up for failure at the very beginning of the MBA application process. Fear and self-doubt are huge turn-offs for any MBA programs. Worse, they obscure your self-worth and incredible potential from your own eyes. Be kind to yourself!
And please don’t let anyone else pull you down either. Many prospective applicants come to Career Protocol with shattered confidence in their ability to obtain a top business education because other MBA admissions consultants box them in by their statistics or wouldn’t deign to even speak with them unless they have a high GMAT/GRE score.
High test scores help, but they won’t guarantee admission to HBS. As we explain below, the Harvard admissions committee looks at the whole candidate and evaluates your application according to a specific set of values and character standards that are important to the school.
We at Career Protocol also see you as a WHOLE PERSON, not a success-rate risk. Please don’t focus on what you lack. Focus on what makes you whole—your experiences, character, and values that make you unique.
Start by remembering that you are more than enough. You are amazing and are constantly growing more so every day!
Then, shine bright and put your best foot forward! Here’s how to do that for Harvard.
What the Harvard Admissions Committee Looks for in MBA Applicants: HBS’s Mission, Values, and Evaluation Criteria
Pro-tip: Whenever you tackle any MBA application, ALWAYS start with the school’s stated mission and values. Schools tend to tell you exactly what they stand for, as well as what they look for when evaluating applicants.
(Pro-pro-tip: whenever you start anything in life, whether it’s a new job, relationship, or activity ALWAYS start with values. Do those people or organizations resonate with you? Or are you compromising something really important to you? You’ll never regret staying true to your own core. Go forward with the things that give you meaning and purpose.)
Harvard Business School’s mission is “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.”
That’s your starting point to creating a successful Harvard MBA application. HBS tells you, quite clearly, that it is looking for three things to help them achieve their mission:
- (1) leaders
- (2) who make a difference
- (3) in the world
This mission statement speaks to the type of character that HBS is looking for when evaluating applicants. An applicant’s character is important to the Harvard MBA admissions committee because it wants students who are not afraid to step up, take charge, and inspire a positive impact, not just in their community, but in the world. HBS is a place for big dreamers and ambitious doers. If this sounds like you, read on!
After character, the next most important criteria are your values. A community is built on shared values. Therefore, in order to build a strong HBS community where all students feel heard and respected, the Harvard MBA admissions committee seeks candidates whose values align with school. HBS’s community values are clearly stated on its website:
“At Harvard Business School we believe that leadership and values are inseparable. The teaching of ethics here is explicit, not implicit, and our community values of mutual respect, honesty and integrity, and personal accountability support the HBS learning environment and are at the heart of a School-wide aspiration: to make HBS a model of the highest standards essential to responsible leadership in the modern business world. Our values are a set of guiding principles for all that we do wherever we are and with everyone we meet.”
From this statement it’s clear that HBS expects the and future business executives it educates to demonstrate by personal example the following values:
- Respect for the rights, differences, and dignity of others;
- Honesty and integrity in dealing with all members of the community; and
- Accountability for personal behavior.
These are Harvard Business School’s non-negotiables when evaluating MBA candidates for its management program. So, HBS is unlikely to admit applicants convicted of fraud, assault, harassment, or disciplined for plagiarism, especially if those applicants are unrepentant and shift blame to others. HBS has to protect its community so that its students can focus on doing good for the world. The admissions committee also has a duty of care to screen applicants carefully so that the next generation of business leaders it educates will truly advance its mission in promoting good business principles and making a positive difference in the world.
In addition to your character and values, the MBA admissions committee looks for additional factors related to your demonstrated skills, curiosity, and engagement. The following criteria is what HBS admissions is looking for in successful candidates:
- Habit of Leadership
- Analytical Aptitude and Appetite
- Engaged Community Citizenship
Since the majority of what you will learn at Harvard Business School comes from your fellow students through classroom discussion and case study preparation, HBS strives to shape a diverse class profile in terms of background, profession, and identity. Further, they want applicants who are community-minded and will share their diverse experiences with their peers through meaningful conversations in and outside the classroom. And finally, they want folks who have a ton to contribute because they’ve lived, learned, and grown into capable and accomplished leaders before they even set foot on campus.
Discovery & Self-Reflection
Showing Harvard Business School that you belong there requires deep self-discovery and reflection. You will need to brainstorm strong examples from your life demonstrating fundamental alignment with HBS’s mission, values, and three criteria.
Your transcript and tests scores may reflect your analytical aptitude and appetite. Your resume may reflect your leadership skills and experience. But stats don’t reveal much about your character and values. This is why the essay and interview are helpful components of your application.
So, when HBS asks, “what more you do want us to know?” show the admissions committee in your essay how your character and values aligns with its own, how you would be a valuable member of the HBS community, and how you would advance its mission to make a difference in the world.
We totally get that writing about your character and values is HARD! How do you even talk about your character and values without coming across as self-centered or worse, boastful? That’s where an experienced MBA admissions consultant can add value to your process.
If you work with Career Protocol, we guide you through a systematic and structured self-discovery, essay storyboarding, and story-shaping process. We work with you through unlimited drafts to ensure your character and values are accurately reflected on the page through specific and insightful anecdotes and that the tone of your writing strikes the right emotion necessary to connect with the Harvard admissions committee reader.
Whether you choose to work with a consultant or go at it alone, be sure to check out our step-by-step guide on brainstorming you HBS essay called, “Wanna Know if You’re ‘Good Enough’ for Harvard? Do These Exercises to Find Out.” Those exercises will help you get started on your discovery and self-reflection aspect of writing the HBS essay.
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Completing the Harvard Business School Application like a Rockstar
As they say, the HBS admission process is a marathon not a sprint! Meeting the admissions requirements in time for the application deadline is a process that requires thought, time, and careful self-management.
Rounds & Application Deadlines
Harvard has only two rounds in its admissions cycle for its two-year, full time MBA program that follow their two semesters. Round 1 is usually due the first week of September. Round 2 usually falls somewhere in the first week of January. HBS does not have a Round 3 admissions round like other schools.
We recommend getting your application in during Round 1 because the class is wide open then and if they aren’t sure about your candidacy, they’ll likely waitlist you till Round 2 and you’ll get a second chance. So, plan ahead and budget your time accordingly!
Here’s a detailed breakdown of the entire Harvard MBA application guidelines so that you know what to expect. If you read carefully, you will see we are giving pretty concrete advice on how to shape your own responses to the questions posed by the business school. As MBA admissions consultants, we truly believe there are no secrets to success at Harvard or any other school. You don’t need a former member of the adcom to tell you how to get in. Because, much to their credit, the Harvard admissions committee tells you what they care about right there on the page!!!
Read on for detailed step-by-step instructions to complete your own application. We give this same advice to our students. We’re holding nothing back here.
1. The Start Line
This section asks whether you are a reapplicant or are applying for a joint degree program. It also inquires whether you’ve participated in other HBS programs or outreach initiatives such as the:
It never hurts to show early and ongoing interest in a school. So, check out those programs and participate in them, if you’re eligible, before you apply.
Finally, be prepared to explain any disciplinary action or felonies, if applicable, in this section. If you’ve got any of those, please be sure to consult with professionals: an experienced MBA admissions consultant and a lawyer. Be upfront and honest here because schools will conduct an extensive background check on all incoming students. You’ll get the chance to provide greater context and explain what you’ve learned and how you grew from that experience in the Optional Essay later on. For more information, check out our blog post “Why You Need to Tell the Truth in Your MBA Applications.”
Ha! This is the easiest part of the application because it asks for information you already know off the top of your head: Name, address, contact info, birthday, gender, citizenship, and language ability. Nothing to overthink here! Just A the Qs.
HBS asks for information about the work and educational experience of your parents and siblings. This informs the context of your experience and opportunities, but there is nothing to do here but just answer the questions. Do not overthink this.
4. Optional Info
You can opt to provide information about your student loans, scholarship, and parent financial contribution to your undergraduate degree. Again, just answer these or leave them blank if you prefer.
Here is where you also indicate whether you have a partner or relatives affiliated with Harvard Business School.
5. The Resume!
Your MBA resume provides the admissions committee with a roadmap to understanding your professional story and evaluating your potential to make meaningful and insightful contributions to the HBS classroom. It also showcases your ability to communicate and condense a significant amount of information clearly and concisely to a general audience.
Harvard Business School’s pedagogy relies heavily on class discussion through the case method approach. Therefore, your level of experience, skill, and expertise in your industry, as well as your ability to communicate your knowledge to your peers matters a lot to the Harvard admissions committee.
For this reason, applicants with less than two years work experience are encouraged continue developing their skills and expertise before applying. The HBS MBA Class of 2022 had an average work experience of 4.7 years (56 months). Side note: If you have any gaps in your employment history (three months or more), be sure to address that in the textbox provided in less than 1,000 characters (roughly 200 words). Be brief and direct!
In terms of format, try to keep your resume to one-page, generally avoid pictures, and use a standard font. If you’d like to see a sample format, download Career Protocol’s resume template. You can also check out Angela’s video on Awesome Resume Formatting below:
Having multiple pages or using miniscule font to squeeze in everything could indicate lack of judgment in prioritizing what is actually important substantive information in your bullets versus mere resume fluff. To make a strong impression, be prepared to spend a significant amount of time and effort crafting each bullet in a clear, concise manner and with emphasis on your skills, impact, and achievements.
For detailed advice on mastering the art of the resume bullet, check our blog posts, “Make Your Resume Bullets Readable” and “Make Your Resume Bullets Meaningful.” Also, don’t miss “How to Make Your MBA Resume Stand Out from the Pile.”
Finally, as you get ready to proofread and finalize your resume, double check to make sure catch all the “Horrific MBA Resume Mistakes to Avoid”.
6. Employment Info
You may think perfecting your resume and uploading it to your application would be sufficient employment information. But in this section, HBS wants to know even more detail about each employer including:
- your salary and bonus
- your role and responsibilities
- description of your company/organization
- reason for leaving
- key accomplishment
- most significant challenge
HBS provides textboxes (250-character limit) for you to provide a response to the above information in more depth. Our advice here is don’t just repeat (or copy and paste) your resume bullets. Enhance your resume by providing more context and detail, as well as a thoughtful reflection of how you grew in each position and the type of impact you made in your company or organization. Treat it like a super-mini essay and be sure to add your voice and personality to your response. Punctuation and complete sentences optional! Write like you’d talk if you were just trying to bottom line it.
7. Post-MBA Career Goals
Your post-MBA career game plan is also a key part of your application. You need to have a strong idea going into the MBA about what Industry and Function you are aiming for right after graduation.
Harvard only provides a 500-character textbox to discuss your career goals, so it might seem like an unimportant question. But don’t gloss over this part. Be specific and concise when describing your career aspirations. Make sure to describe your long-term aspiration and show how your short and mid-term tactics will take you there post-Harvard MBA.
For more detailed advice on creating an MBA Career Game Plan, check out our video “How to Build a Career Game Plan.”
8. Education & Transcript
This part of your application will help the Harvard Business School admissions committee determine your analytical aptitude and appetite. You’ll provide information about your high school, college, and any graduate education experiences. Then you’ll upload transcripts from all undergraduate and graduate institutions you attended (unofficial copies are fine for the application, but if accepted you will need to provided official ones).
The average GPA for the Harvard MBA Class of 2022 was 3.70. However, according to HBS Admissions website (and in our vast personal experience), the Admissions Board looks at the whole picture your transcripts provide regarding your ability to succeed academically, not just your GPA.
“We take into account where you went to school, the courses that you took and your performance. We understand the structures of different grading systems worldwide. There is no minimum GPA to apply, although our students usually have strong undergraduate records. Undergraduate academics are just one factor the Admissions Board uses to evaluate a candidate.”
If your GPA is below the average, but perhaps you took the maximum number of credits each semester, or took a particular challenging course of study, or worked full time while studying, those factors will be taken into account (be sure to add those experience to your optional essay too…explained below). If you took a wide variety of classes in multiple disciplines, that will show intellectual curiosity and appetite. Taking non-degree or continuing education courses will also speak to your intellectual appetite.
If your transcript shows that you haven’t taken a quant class since high school, you might consider taking continuing education classes like the Harvard Business School Online’s Credential of Readiness program (CORe) in order to prep you for the quantitative rigor of Harvard’s MBA program.
Got an F on your transcript? Don’t freak out. Watch our MBA Monday video, “So You Failed a Class and Want to Apply to Business School.”
9. Extracurricular Activities
Your extracurriculars speak to the “engaged community citizenship” criteria. The HBS application allows you to list up to three extracurricular activities in order of importance to you.
What HBS cares about is whether you’ve challenged yourself and sought to contribute to others beyond your mandate—whether that’s through sports, community service, being an alumni mentor, helping out at charity events, taking extra classes, pursuing a hobby, etc. If you don’t have many outside community activities, look to where you go the distance at work. Perhaps you’ve mentored others, volunteered at recruiting events, taken on a project outside the scope of your responsibility.
If you have more than three, choose the ones that actually have the most meaning to you. You can be strategic about selecting three that highlight different skills like (teamwork, leadership, mentoring, etc.), but if those activities don’t actually hold that much importance to you, then you’re missing an incredibly important opportunity to show the HBS adcom who you really are – your true character, which – remember! – is the thing that gets you in in the end.
Don’t fret if you have fewer than three extracurricular activities. Don’t make something up just to make this section look more “complete.” Focus on the activities you already have and describe why they mean a lot to you. The number of activities is not as important as the depth of engagement and meaning you derive from them.
If you have zero extracurricular activities, there’s no need to rush to volunteer at a soup kitchen this weekend. But do think about what you love (whether it’s soccer, book club, or cooking) and reflect on why you haven’t pursued that hobby or community service yet. Not enough time? Scared? You live in the middle of no-where in an underground bunker? LOL. Stop making excuses and see if there’s a way to get meaningfully involved for your own enrichment or to be genuinely of service to your community, and not necessarily to “look good” for your MBA applications.
If the honest answer simply is: I work 90-hour weeks and travel for work, the admissions committee will understand. But then you will have hopefully shown extensive leadership and engaged community citizenship at work in the line of duty.
For more tips check out our MBA Monday video, “Can I Get MBA Admission Without Community Service.”
10. Awards and Recognition
This section will also highlight your analytical aptitude and also your habit of leadership. You can list up to three achievements in order of importance to you. Similar to the extracurricular section, it’s best to choose the ones that genuinely matter to you most so that your descriptions reflect passion and enthusiasm for your work and impact in your community or organization. If you have fewer than three awards, don’t sweat it. Focus on what you have achieved and why it matters to you.
11. Additional Information (aka the “Optional Essay”)
Worried about a low GPA, a dismal semester on your transcript, a gap in your education, or an F on your transcript? This is where you will provide the context, details, and key learning from those experiences and setbacks. Don’t dwell on the negative, make excuses, or play the victim. Take responsibility for your choices.
Remember, personal accountability is one of HBS’s values. So, this could be the place to turn a potential weakness into a demonstration of shared values with HBS…but you only have 500 characters, which is roughly 85 words. So, be clear, concise, and matter-of-fact and, if you have room, talk about your growth from those experiences.
If your GMAT/GRE Quantitative score is below Harvard’s average, you could use this space to highlight your good grades in your undergrad quant courses or point the admissions committee to the heavy quantitative nature of your job.
This is also where you can explain your recommender choices. A common issue many applicants face is that they risk getting laid off or declined a hard-earned promotion if they let their employer know they might be leaving to pursue an MBA. The Harvard Admissions Board understands it’s not always possible for applicants to get recommendations from their direct supervisors at work due to these factors. But be sure to let them know of your situation, if that is the case.
The application explicitly instructs applicants not to send additional recs or work portfolios. So, don’t. Simple.
12. Test Scores
Your GMAT/GRE score is one component of your MBA application that helps the Harvard admissions committee gauge whether you have the quant skills and communicative ability to succeed in their classroom with its infamous case method approach (for more detail on the case method, see our article “Why Everyone is Crazy About the Harvard MBA.”
HBS doesn’t prefer one test over the other.
- The median GMAT score for the Class of 2022 was 730, with a range of 620-790.
- The median Verbal GRE score for the Class of 2022 was 163, with a range of 148-170.
- The median Quantitative GRE score was also 163, with a range of 145-170.
Don’t know which test to take? Check out the Career Protocol blog for more information about “How to Decide Which Test is Right For You” and “What is a Good Enough GMAT Score.” Also see our MBA Monday video, “GMAT or GRE for Admissions Success?”
If you plan to retake a test, be aware that unlike some other schools, HBS does NOT superscore your best combined score. So, you should report the test session where you scored the highest. HBS also only allows you to submit one test score, either the GMAT or GRE, not both. So, if you took both tests, choose the test format (either GMAT or GRE) that gives you the higher score.
The HBS code for the GMAT is HRLX892 and the HBS code for the GRE is 4064.
If your undergraduate degree was primarily taught in a language other than English, HBS requires that you submit proof of English proficiency. HBS “discourages any candidate with a TOEFL score lower than 109 on the iBT, an IELTS score lower than 7.5, or a PTE score lower than 75 from applying.” For further information about these tests, visit: www.toefl.org or www.ielts.org or www.pearsonpte.com.
The HBS code for the TOEFL is 3444.
HBS requires two recommendations, and only two. You will provide the name and contact information of both recommenders (one of which should be a current work supervisor, but not required). For detailed advice on choosing your recommenders, check out our MBA Monday video, “Please Don’t Choose the Wrong Recommenders for Your MBA Applications.”
The HBS online system will directly send your recommenders a form. They’ll need to fill out a skills assessment grid and answer the following two questions:
- How do the candidate's performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (300 words)
- Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response. (250 words)
Don’t forget to follow up with your recommenders to ensure they send their responses on time. Incomplete applications will result in an automatic ding.
In terms of who to choose as your recommenders, HBS provides the following tip on its Admissions website:
“Use your best judgment on who you decide to ask – there is no set formula for who should be your recommenders. We know it is not always possible to have a direct supervisor write your recommendation – we would not want you to jeopardize your current position for the application process. Look at the questions we are asking recommenders to complete. Find people who know you well enough to answer them. This can be a former supervisor, a colleague, someone you collaborate on an activity outside of work. How well a person knows you should take priority over level of seniority or HBS alumni status.”
If your recommenders need advice on how to write a strong letter of recommendation fully answering both questions, feel free to send them links to our blog post “How to Write an Awesome MBA Recommendation” and our MBA Monday videos “How Does This Candidate Compare to Other Qualified Individuals” and “Describe the Most Important Piece of Feedback.”
14. Military Experience
This section is pretty self-explanatory. HBS grants fee waivers to full-time reserve and active military applicants.
Ah at last, we come to the epic Harvard MBA essay. This is the biggest component of the Harvard Business School application to complete because it showcases your voice, communication skills, character, values, and all the intangibles that make you a compelling candidate for admission. HBS’s essay question hasn’t changed in years. It remains:
“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?”
For many applicants, the Harvard MBA essay is probably the hardest out of all the top MBA applications. On the surface, the question appears so broad. There is also no set framework or word limit. Free rein to write whatever you want can be daunting! What to do?
Just wait for it. Or skip down a few sections to the essay advice!
16. Acknowledge and consent to HBS Policy
This is where you testify to the veracity, accuracy, and integrity of your information and responses in your application.
17. Application Fee
The cost of the application is $250. The fee is nonrefundable and payable by credit card only. However, there are exceptions for active military and former SVMP participants.
The application fee costs $100 for 2+2 Program applicants. However, there is a need-based fee waiver available to 2+2 applicants with financial need.
Curious what happens when you click “Submit”? Check you our YouTube video on “The Pile Game: How MBA Admission Really Works.”
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Top Mistakes People Make When Applying to Harvard Business School
There’s a lot of bad advice out there on the forums and message boards about admissions to the Harvard MBA program. Here are some of the top misconceptions out there:
1. Admissions decisions largely based on GMAT/GRE score.
Harvard Business School dispels this misconception in its Direct from the Director Admissions Tips. Some highlights from its application guidelines are:
- “We consider every element of your application to get to know you as a whole person, and we know that you are more than a standardized test score!”
- “A standardized test gives us one indication of your verbal and quantitative agility—important for thriving in the HBS MBA program and the case method.”
- “You can see from the Class Profile that we admit students with a wide range of standardized test scores. While a higher score will never hurt you, it’s not a guarantee to be admitted either. And some of the admitted students who have the biggest impact while at HBS and beyond didn’t have the highest test scores. We’re looking to craft a Class of diverse thinkers and leaders who will make a difference in the world, and that goes well beyond a test score. We always keep that in mind as we get to know you through the whole application and make our decisions.”
Our own experience with our students echoes this reality: the scores are a small piece of the puzzle! Check out the next section for more insight!
2. You need to sign up for lots of extracurriculars/volunteering in order to look good before applying to HBS.
While engaging in your community is a great thing to do, and many applicants pursuing business education have done so, it’s not a dealmaker or dealbreaker. Harvard values a sense of purpose and passion, a commitment to others, and adherence to principles of honesty, integrity, and service. How you embody those values is up to you and it very definitely doesn’t have to be through community service to count.
The important thing is your impact on those activities and how doing them impacts you too. The adcom can tell the difference between a meaningful extracurricular vs. just going through the motions superficially. If you have a common extracurricular, HBS advises that you “pursue them with an uncommon purpose or persistence.”
The HBS application gives space to talk about 3 activities in detail. But if you don’t have 3, that’s okay. Don’t make one up. It’s also okay to list extracurriculars from college.
3. A recommendation from my CEO or and HBS alum will be more impressive than one from my direct manager.
This depends. Great recommendations include specific details that highlight your analytical and management skills, as well as the impact you have had on your team and organization. You should choose recommenders who know you well, have worked closely with you, and are enthusiastic about your MBA plans. A letter from your direct supervisor that can provide specific examples or anecdotes about your work quality and ability to build strong professional relationship with the team and/or clients carries more weight than a generic letter of praise from your CEO or an Alum. HBS wants to get to know you, and they are known not to kowtow to the pressure of alumni in their final decisions.
Who Actually Gets Harvard to Love them Back?
If you’re worried that a Harvard MBA is way out of your league, you’re not alone. There’s plenty of competition for sure.
Every year, roughly 9,000 admirers profess their love for Harvard Business School, hoping to land one of the roughly 900 spots. In 2020, HBS’s acceptance rate was 11.5%, which is a smidge higher than in previous years. Here’s some stats for the incoming class of 2022:
Incoming Class of 2022
Average Work Experience
730 (42V, 48Q)
Median GRE Verbal
Median GRE Quantitative
78% of the class chose to report the GMAT, while 22% chose the GRE.
It should come as no surprise that HBS loves ivy league pedigrees. According to this 2011 Poets & Quants article, the top undergraduate feeder schools to the full-time Harvard MBA program appear to be ivy league and prestigious universities. For the Class of 2013, Poets & Quants scoured Facebook and counted 49 students who got their undergraduate from Stanford, 45 from the University of Pennsylvania, 37 from Yale, 27 from Columbia, and 26 from Princeton. It also estimated around 15 West Point Military graduates in the HBS Class of 2013 as well. But fear not, that means that the vast majority of the class lacks such prestigious universities in their education profile.
If you want an honest and transparent read on how all your statistics stack up against Harvard and other business schools, give MBAmo a shot. With a little bit of data, our MBA odds calculating robot at Career Protocol will give you a 20+ page readout on your profile, including analysis of how your grades and scores compare with successful past applicants to your favorite schools.
But your statistics aren’t the deal maker for your candidacy. We’ve got a long history of helping business leaders overcome weak statistics to get into even the likes Harvard Business School’s elite MBA program.
These past clients defeated the odds through their unique and compelling personal stories in their essays and despite weak grades or scores managed to get the Harvard MBA to love them back:
GPA/ Ivy League?
Career X Factor?
330 GRE (163V, 167Q)
311 GRE (154V, 157Q)
324 GRE (165V, 159Q)
334 GRE (168V, 166Q)
We’ve just taken a smattering of clients from the past two years here to show the range of high and low scorers, rock star and run-of-the-mill strong candidates. The point is that if you think that only bullet-proof executives with rockstar management and leadership skills and sky-high statistics get into Harvard University for their MBA, you’re wrong.
What wins the day isn’t statistics. It’s heart, purpose, and a drive to make a difference in the world. In fact, this is the letter you’ll get if you manage to get Harvard University to love you back.
That means that your primary work in your application process is to show Harvard Business School your character, your values, your heart, and your commitment to serving others through your career.
It also means that you shouldn’t let a weak undergraduate performance or a low test score hold you back from applying to Harvard if it’s your dream two-year program for your MBA. Go for it and do your best. The worst they can say as no, and at least you won’t be left wondering what would have happened if you’d tried.
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How to Tackle the Amazing Harvard MBA Essay
“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?”
This essay prompt is an intimidating for many applicants because “what more…to know” is a hard question to answer if you haven’t even touched the other parts of the Harvard MBA application. It also seems nebulous and vague. We believe nothing could be further from the truth: it’s an incredibly specific question that requires laser focus on your part.
It’s about values
The Harvard MBA Admissions Board reviews your application as a whole, so your essay should add new information or provide further context and thoughtful reflection on choices you’ve made in different areas of your life that highlights your character and values in light of HBS’s mission statement (leaders who make a difference in the world) and the three evaluation criteria (habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship).
It's about epic storytelling
Essentially, when you’re putting together a successful Harvard MBA essay, the most valuable thing you can do is tell an Epic Story.
An Epic Story is a narrative that takes the reader—any reader, adcom members included! —on a journey through a series of key events. Epic Stories situate the reader in space and time and establish a crucial emotional connection between writer (you!) and reader. Emotional connection is king when it comes to MBA applications. It’s how you stand out from the pack.
It’s not about having the most page-turning life events under your belt. It’s about being human and sharing that essential, inspiring, loveable humanness with your reader in the most effective way possible.
In order to tell an Epic Story, you need to determine the pivotal anecdotes it’s comprised of. If your Epic Life Story is a constellation, think of your key stories as the individual star points.
Find your epic story
To get find your anecdotes, do the exercises in this article about how to find out if you are HBS material. From the experiences you jotted down in those exercises, what were some of the hardest or more important choices you had to make? Those would likely be the most compelling stories to explore in your essay because choice reveals a lot about your character and values, which is ultimately what the Harvard MBA Admissions Board is seeking to understand from the essay.
Of course, writing an essay focused on your choices requires deep introspection and discovery. Why focus on choice? Because choice equals voice. You want your voice to shine in your essay.
Once you narrow down your list of possible stories, you’ll want to storyboard or outline what you want to say and choose an opener. For detailed advice on how to do that, check out Angela’s webinar “How to Tackle the HBS Essay” on Career Protocol’s YouTube Channel. Also check out our dedicated treatment of the Harvard essay-writing process in “How to Write the HBS MBA Application Essay”.
Avoid modelling your essay based on someone else’s essay
If you want to read a bunch of essays written by past successful admits, The Harbus, the independent student-run newspaper, published an essay guide in 2020 featuring 22 successful HBS MBA essays. You can get a digital copy for around $65.
One caveat when reading other people’s essays: your story is not theirs. In our professional opinion, some of those candidates got into Harvard in spite of their essay, not because of it. So, resist the temptation to copy. Also don’t infer that what they did in those essays is right. If you choose to read them, see if you can discern what choices other applicants wrote about and what those choices revealed about them in context of the HBS mission, values, and three evaluation criteria.
If you want a partner for this amazing road, talk to us about working together 1:1 to tell your most inspiring story for your Harvard Business school Application. It’s what we love to do, which is why our clients love working with us so much.
Don’t fall into these pitfalls
Once you have a solid first draft, double check that you’ve managed to avoid some common HBS MBA essay pitfalls:
- Don’t simply rehash your resume
Your essay is meant to fill in what your stats, resume, and recommenders cannot—ultimately your character, values, and voice. Your essay should be additive. If your essay merely walks the adcom readers through a list of academic and professional achievements in paragraph form without reflecting on the choices you made or your growth from those experiences, then your essay merely brushes the surface of who you are and you will likely get dinged.
- Use sound judgment regarding the length of your essay
Just because there is no word limit doesn’t mean the Harvard MBA admissions committee will enjoy reading 6,000 words of your unpublished autobiography. The appropriate length of an essay varies according to the story you’re telling. Many other MBA Admissions Consultants recommend 700-1200 words. In our experience, it takes much more to tell the truly epic stories our clients have to tell. Some stories may very well require 2,000 words or more to fully encapsulate your character and values.
Use your best judgement! Because your judgment is another thing HBS admissions committee is implicitly evaluating in your essay. Writing a mini novel or including way-too-much-information could indicate that you’re not adept at gauging what’s appropriate for the situation and that you’ll have a hard time reining in your comments in classroom discussions about business principles.
- Don’t write about or like someone else
This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised. If you’re talking about something you did as part of a team, take ownership of your decisions and role. Avoid the pronoun “we.” Likewise, don’t spend 400 words explaining your parents’ story, or that of a family member or mentor. Mentions of inspiring figures in your life are OK, but the protagonist of the story has to be you!
Also, if you read your essay and it sounds like it could have been written by anyone in your candidate demographic, then you didn’t include enough personal detail and are running away from any degree of vulnerability that a personal essay requires to make an emotional connection with your reader.
Don’t let anyone edit out your voice. Be careful of MBA admissions consultants, alumni, and well-meaning friends and family who try to edit your prose and make it sound perfect instead of like you!
- Don’t write about why you love Harvard and the case method approach
The Harvard adcom isn’t that interested in your fawning over their two-year program. The essay should focus on you. If mentioning your goals and how Harvard fits in is part of your best story, fine. But don’t make the essay about Harvard. And don’t miss this opportunity to show them who you really are!
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The Harvard MBA Interview is Everything, Here’s How to Shine
If you made it this far in the HBS MBA application process, congrats! Take a moment to smile and take it in. Then dance like this:
Dancing and smiling will also help shake off the pre-interview jitters and get you back in the present moment. You’ll definitely want to be in the present moment for your Harvard MBA interview. Spontaneity, close listening, and the Friendship Mindset are your key tools at this stage of the application process.
One of the worst things you can do for your HBS interview is over-prepare by scripting and memorizing your answer to every possible answer you think the interviewer might ask. Canned responses in the interview will surely get you dinged. Plus, you will never be able to anticipate all their questions. There are just too many possibilities. And pleeeeeeease stay off the forums on this one. They will terrorize you and give you the wrong impression about what goes on in that Harvard interview.
The point of the interview is to suss out that you are who you say you are in your essays and resume, evaluate your communication skills, and test how well you can think on your feet. Your interview is the only place in your application where the Harvard Admissions Board can observe your analytical thinking and communication skills in action and on the spot. Your interview performance helps them assess how engaging you might be the Harvard classroom with its infamous case-method approach.
Listening is 50% of your success in this interview because you need to respond directly to the exact question being asked in your interview. Failure to answer the question or giving a round-about indirect response will make it hard for you to establish a strong connection with the interviewer. The key to your HBS interview is engagement.
Check out my advice about listening from my improv training on our YouTube Channel:
At Career Protocol, our best advice for being engaging in your HBS interview is to adopt the friendship mindset. When you get into the interview room, your interviewer will have already read your entire application and done some background research into you. So, they will have a good sense of your past accomplishments and your career goals and will use the interview as an opportunity to fill in any gaps in their understanding or to clarify anything that came across unclear in your application. Their goal is to really get to know you, so treat them like a friend.
By friend, we don’t mean that you should use slang or make sarcastic jokes. We mean that instead of focusing on getting the answers right, looking smart, seeming cool, or being the ideal candidate, focus on making a genuine human connection. Your only job in this conversation is to help your friend get to know you and your experiences a little better. If you aim to create a valuable relationship with your interviewer by being your authentic self, you’ll reveal your personality, genuineness, and vulnerabilities. In this way, it’s so much easier to engage the interviewer than to “impress” them. Again, to engage (not impress) is the key to a successful Harvard MBA interview.
For more tips on MBA interviews, please check out “How to Ace Your MBA Admissions Interview with the Friendship Mindset” and our MBA Monday video, “How to Prep for Your MBA Interview” on YouTube. And, of course, the ultimate guide to everything interviews and a must-have handy on your book shelf is Interview Hero.
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Don’t Forget to Have the Last Word! Your Post Interview Reflection
After you crush the HBS MBA interview, you will have 24 hours to submit through the online application system a post-interview reflection, which is unique to the Harvard MBA admissions process.
Basically, like everything else with Harvard, just answer the question directly, simply, and concisely. How well did they get to know you? Give them some insight into your own experience and end the admissions conversation on your own terms.
To obtain samples of actual post-interview reflections by students admitted to the Harvard MBA, check out The Harbus’ Admission & Interview Guide.
Tips from our Successful Clients
Don’t just take our word for it! See what some of our successful client admits have to say about tackling the Harvard MBA application:
- “Be honest! Show the school your capacity for self-reflection, give a thoughtful appraisal of your past actions/mistakes.”
- “I think for HBS I always considered it a long shot so I wasn't afraid to present what I felt my true story was. There isn't a prompt so that can be intimidating and really I think it's more of an opportunity to reflect on what the most important part of your story is. Of course there is some level of ‘crafting’ that goes into all of the essays, but I think for HBS I was super focused on what is the message that I want to be super clear. I wanted to be honest and true to myself because I knew otherwise I'd always look back and think ‘wait what if I had just told the story I wanted them to know all along?’”
- “After you have a few drafts under your belt, take a break on your application for a few days. When you come back, reread your essay while asking yourself ‘does this cut to the core of who I really am?’ Share your essay with your family and close friends with the same question. If you don't get a resounding yes from all parties, go back to the drawing board.”
- “Fully understand the difference between being confident & being arrogant, in both essays and the interview.”
- “Be authentic! It is really easy to be caught in the trap of saying what you think is important or focusing on what may be perceived as ‘most impressive,’ but from what I have seen, admissions committees are so good at sniffing out inauthentic essays that it may end up backfiring!”
- “DON'T SUBMIT SOMETHING THAT FEELS FORCED OR FAKE. I wrote an entire draft of my HBS essay and spent two weeks trying to edit it into something I believed reflected who I really am, and at the end of it I decided to start over. Don't be afraid to start over. Yes, its daunting, but it's probably more daunting to submit something that isn't an accurate reflection of who you are…only to find out you got rejected.”
- “AVOID THE BLOGS AND FORUMS AT ALL COST. Use your consultant as your sounding board. The blogs do nothing but get into your head. I didn't indulge in the forums until after I submitted my application (and then only sparingly) and I truly think it saved my sanity.”
- “Don't get too attached to one school. Most people who have an opportunity to visit HBS and sit in on a class end up falling in love with it, and for good reason. But if you set your mind on HBS but then decide to apply to other schools, chances are you're not considering those applications with the same degree of seriousness and you won't be putting your heart into the essays. The truth is that HBS is extremely competitive, and if you go into it thinking ‘HBS or bust’ you're setting yourself up for a reasonable degree of disappointment and might be missing out on some other amazing opportunities.”
Career Protocol’s Guide to Discovery for the HBS Essay
Career Protocol’s How to Write the Harvard MBA Essay
Career Protocol’s How to Tackle the HBS Essay (Video)
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