HBS: Everything You Need to Know About the Harvard MBA

Harvard Business School is arguably the best MBA in the world, but what if I want to learn about Harvard MBA culture, the Harvard MBA interview, how to answer the Harvard MBA essay question AND the Harvard MBA class profile ALL IN ONE PLACE?

We’ve got you covered. Over our many centuries of “producing MBA application content,” we’ve talked about Harvard Business School a lot, but people keep asking about it! That’s why we thought we should collect the best bits all in one place.

Harvard Business School videos:

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Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

I'm so happy to be here with you again to talk to you about Harvard Business School! Harvard is everyone's favorite MBA program. Harvard gets more applications than any other school. It's the one school that people can almost never say no to. They have the highest yield, one of the largest student classes, and one of the best reputations — the best reputation — worldwide for all MBA programs. So no one would blame you for wanting to get into Harvard. I'll give you a summary of your first year at Harvard. You're going to be sitting in the same chair in the same room with the same eighty-nine other people in your section, every day, with no change. The only thing that changes is that the professors will come in and out for the various classroom discussions that you're going to have that constitute your forced first-year curriculum over which you have no control and no choice. On top of that, the vast majority of your grades and the classroom model of learning at Harvard is the case method. Now, you’ve probably heard of the case method, but really think about what this means. You’re not going to be taught very much. The professor is not going to stand up at the front of the room and explain to you how economics and finance works. Instead, they’re going to give you a stack of information, expect you to process that on your own time, and then come to class ready to contribute in a vital and lively classroom discussion. That means you're going to need to have something to say. You need to have enough understanding of how business works that you can participate in such a fast-paced discussion. You need to be self-driven and be able to do a lot of work on your own time under ambiguous circumstances. And you need to be ready to fight to get your opinion heard in that room of ninety people, all of whom are ambitious and accomplished. So the bottom line is, the Harvard classroom experience is student-driven.

You Need To Show That You Can Keep Up

The majority of your learning will happen by observing what your classmates who've had different experiences from you have to say about a given business problem. So, what does that mean for you? That means that you also need to bring a valuable perspective that can teach your fellow classmates based on your own experiences. You are going to be one of just a few or maybe the only expert in your field in your ninety-person section that whole first year. So, if you’re coming from the automotive industry, you’re going to have to represent the automotive industry in case discussions that touch on any aspects that have to do with regulations, production, strategy, and finance in the automotive industry. You will be the person representing that knowledge base for all of your classmates and at most, there will be two or three or four other people who share that expertise. So that's a heavy burden to bear. If your classmates are going to get any inside information about your domain, it's going to have to come from you. So the school, the adcomm, is looking to understand if you're ready to represent your knowledge base, your authority, and your expertise at the level of a Harvard classroom. Be sure that your quantitative statistics are squared away. Ideally, your GPA, your GMAT or GRE score are strong. You might even consider taking extra classes. Hbx Core is a very good one to consider, but also look for subtler ways to demonstrate your analytical aptitude and appetite. Things like having your recommenders speak to quantitative and analytical work that you've done. Highlighting those types of projects on your resume. Making sure that the Harvard Admissions Committee has no reason to doubt that you are absolutely ready to get thrown into the lion's den and win on class participation, discussing business issues with the greats of your generation.

Answering The HBS Essay

This is a big moment. You're applying to Harvard and you're going to answer that behemoth of an essay question: What more do you want us to know as we consider your application to Harvard Business School? It's my absolute favorite question in the entire MBA universe for a lot of reasons, but there's only one thing that I really want to make sure that you know before you sit down and answer that question, and that is, the question is: What do you want us, Harvard, to know as we consider your application? What do you want us to know? The question is not: What do you think we want to hear as you apply to Harvard?  They're not asking you to read their minds, nor are they asking you to pander to them or flatter them or even impress them. They're actually genuinely just curious how you want them to know you. How you want to be known. So here it is: The mission of Harvard Business School is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. This is a really concrete mission that they have. They're not out to teach business. They're not out to help people make more money. They're out to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. So, if you're talking to a leader, I think the most important question you can ask that person is “What do you want me to know about you?”. I actually think this is the most important question in the entire application process. Harvard wants to know what it is that you want them to know. It's not the absence of a question, it's a very specific question. What is it that you want them to know about you? You're given free license to say whatever is meaningful, interesting, and important to you about yourself. Make sure that you have a good first line. So these are actually actual first lines from actual winning Harvard essays:

  • It’s summertime, I’m 11, and the cool thing to do is ride around town on bikes, eat ice-cream, and play tennis.
  • The proudest moment of my lacrosse career is also my most embarrassing one.
  • I didn’t do well in school as a kid.
  • I never got along with my father.
  • Like all great questions life poses, this question has forced me to reckon with some uncomfortable emotions.
  • When I sat down for the first meeting of the week…

What you'll notice about these is that they're very workmanlike, they're very direct. You just get right into the story. You just say what happened, say what was happening, sum it up, get right to it. Each one of these is interesting. It grabs you. It makes you want to keep going, and that's because each of these is using the rules of narrative to bring you into the story. There are some rules to how you think about your first sentence. It doesn't have to be flowery. It doesn't have to be an elaborate scene. It's almost certainly better if it's not dialog or a quotation, that can sometimes work, but it's really rare. So you just want to get right into the story and then just let the story carry you as you're writing it. This is my advice. They're not looking for a great writing — shocker. They don't care how well you can write prose. Use of adjectives, flowery prose isn't really appropriate here. They just want to see how you make a point, how you communicate. So for the most part, your essay should actually read more like you talk than how you might write. This is the juicy part right here. So I'm going to show you. This is a selection of recent clients who successfully gained admission to Harvard. You can just take a moment and take a look at this page.

I'm sure a million questions are already popping into your head. Here's the number of drafts that it took each of these people to arrive at the finished version. There's nothing better or worse about taking more or fewer drafts. It really depends on you and exactly how much time and space your story needs to really achieve its potential. For those of you who plan to go through this process on your own, really give yourself plenty of time to revisit your drafts and shape them as you go.

How Long Should The HBS Essay Be?

I think this next piece of information is going to shock you all. I'm really excited to see. I wish I could see all your faces when I reveal this. Okay, so these are — remember, all these people got in — these are the word count essays of past clients who applied and successfully got in to Harvard. If you read any advice about the Harvard essay, you're going to find almost everyone says 1,000 words tops, or 800 words tops, or 1,200 words tops, or something like that. Let me say a little more about this page. First of all, the people at the top, so the shortest versions, were actually earlier than the others. So these are all people answering the same question, “What more do you want us to know?”, and they've been asking that question almost nonstop for seven years now. They had one year where they switched to a different question that I'm not including that in here. This is just people answering that question and it's not everybody, even, in that window of time. This is just the last few years. But those shorter ones were earlier. So when I was, frankly, less experienced and thought I needed to get my clients down to a shorter essay. So there's two things that explain the shorter versions. Number one, I was less experienced and had less confidence in helping the client really discover their story. The other thing that most of the people at the top have in common — the first person is the exception — but the rest of the people that are in the sub 1,000 range, their essays were shorter because they had a much simpler and more straightforward story to tell. In fact, the people at the bottom of this page whose essays went up into the 2,000 range had the most amazing, fascinating, riveting stories I have ever come across. In fact, that 2,700-word essay felt like about 800 because it was so action-packed and interesting. So the take away for all of you on this page is that the story has its own cadence and its own pace. It takes place in its own time. The number of words that it has is completely irrelevant. You want to tell the story in the appropriate amount of space that allows you to fully show the admissions committee your best self.

What Kind Of Person Does Harvard Want?

I’m going to start by reading to you the email that you'll get if you're admitted to Harvard: The answer is yes. We see in you a leader who will make a difference in the world. This is the first secret of Harvard MBA missions, and it's unfortunately something that you really can't fake. They are looking for people who want to lead positive change in this world, full stop. That means that they're looking for people who are already seeking to make a difference in the in the communities that they're a part of. So if you're watching this while you're still in college or early in your career, the best thing you can do right now to make yourself a great candidate for Harvard is to care. Care. Care about the people around you, about the community that you're a part of, about the organizations that you're in. Seek to make a difference. Try to take initiative. Make things happen for others. Be a mentor, be a teacher, be a guide, be a leader of events. Be someone who is making good things happen all around you for everyone else. So one of the things I did to prepare for this session, which was so much fun, is I went through all of our clients' essays who successfully got into Harvard. So I spent the last forty-eight hours just rereading amazing Harvard essays, and one of the things that I can definitely say that most of our client essays have in common is that they are covering, in some way, this candidate's penchant for being an engaged citizen of the communities that they've been a part of. You need to show them that you're someone who is going to make them proud as an alum because of the values you already hold.

Ultimately it's not your essays that get you in. It's not your GMAT, it's not even your resume. It's who you are. It's who you are that gets you into business school and especially into Harvard. Their mission is to educate leaders who make a difference and who exhibit certain values. That's not about what you've achieved, it's about who you are. So your job is to show your best self in the application. Everyone has a unique and distinct story to tell and your job is to find yours!

Angela Guido

Angela Guido

Student of Human Nature| Founder and
Chief Education Officer of Career Protocol

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