Earlier this week Harvard Business School’s Dee Leopold authored a blog post titled “Some General Thoughts Which You May or May Not Like.” While nothing in this post is particularly controversial or crushing (or even new), whenever an admissions officer speaks, applicants usually pay attention. Most of Leopold’s advice boils down to “Do your homework on HBS, don’t try to full us, and assume that we want you to do what the application instructions say.”
Leopold wrote (taken from the HBS blog; bolding is ours):
- Try to resist the urge to make “standing out” your primary goal in the admissions process. If you have made traditional choices all along (college, extra-curriculars, major field of study, jobs), own it. You’ll look silly if you try to portray yourself as a rogue daredevil. There are plenty of people at HBS who come from traditional backgrounds.
- Do your homework about the case method. It’s our signature pedagogy and it is nothing like traditional academia. Watch Inside the Case Method on our website and ask yourself if you find this method of learning intriguing and exciting. If it’s not for you, choose another school now vs. later.
- When choosing recommenders, determine whether or not they can answer the question we pose: what piece of constructive advice have you given to the candidate? If they can’t answer, they probably don’t know you well enough to write a helpful recommendation.
- Realize that we’re serious when we say that our challenge is “selection” vs. “evaluation.” Our promise to our faculty and to every student is to deliver the most diverse class – on multiple dimensions – as we possibly can. I’ve never heard an HBS student say: “I wish there were more students just like me in my section.” Selection can look mysterious to the outside world because not all of the elements of diversity can be captured in metrics. Some, like leadership style, are subtle and communicated more obliquely.
- Stay curious. It’s so easy to stay “heads down” during the application process and become so introspective that you lose sight of the larger world. Keep reading. Keep listening. We’re looking for people who can dig into a case about a company they have never heard of, in an industry they don’t think they care about – and be 100% engaged.
Some applicants have complained that the above is just more abstract advice, and that this doesn’t bring them any closer to knowing what Harvard Business School wants. If you find that to be the case, then ignore the post… it wasn’t meant to confuse you! But rest assured that no business school benefits from intentionally obfuscating the process. They want to make it as easy and stress-free as the process can be, knowing that this is an inherently tough process and will inevitably cause some sleepless nights for all involved.
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Last week Harvard Business School released its admissions essays and deadlines for the 2012-2013 application season. What’s new? This year’s HBS application includes fewer essays… Just two required ones this year, although you will now have to do a fast-turnaround essay AFTER your admissions interview!
Here are Harvard’s essays for the Class of 2015, followed by our comments in italics:
HBS Application Essays
- Tell us about something you did well. (400 words)
It looks like MBA admissions essays are going on a diet this year. Two years ago, this question asked, “What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?” and last year it asked, “Tell us about three of your accomplishments.” Now, HBS is basically saying (in our own words), “Cut the bull. What’s the one thing you want us to remember about your brief career to date?” Notice how we said that: “your BRIEF CAREER”… Remember that you’re still young, and the HBS admissions committee knows this. You may not have already led a department of dozens or structured multi-million dollar deals… That’s perfectly fine. Also, we put the emphasis on CAREER since this example will ideally come from your work experience. This is not mandatory, but, all things being equal, we would urge you to go with your professional example. In previous years, you had the ability to pick three stories that highlighted different aspects of your profile: leadership, teamwork, maturity, analytical abilities, etc. Now, you need to be choosier. Of course, one story can (and even should) convey more than one of these attributes, but avoid the temptation to cram too much into this story. Focus on something you truly did well, explain why it was a challenge, show what you did, and then don’t be afraid to brag a bit about your results.
- Tell us about something you wish you had done better. (400 words)
Another example of HBS slimming down its essays. Last year this essay prompt was, “Tell us three setbacks you have faced.” There is an interesting change here… While last year’s question was often referred to as a “failure question,” one could (and many did) interpret “setback” to mean something that an applicant had to overcome, but wasn’t necessarily his fault. As an example, a setback could be a college athlete who suffered a horrible knee injury, and had to work his way back to being able to play sports again. But, now HBS asks more explicitly about “something you wish you had done better”… In other words, we’re really talking about failures this year. In either case, your mission is to show introspection (What did you learn?) and a motivation for self-improvement (How did you use what you learned to better yourself and avoid that mistake again?). A great work-related story can be powerful here, but remember to look for experiences in all aspects of your life. Your richest story may very well come from outside your job.
- Joint degree applicants: How do you expect the joint degree experience to benefit you on both a professional and a personal level? (400 words)
This question carries over unchanged from last year, and so our advice remains the same. Applicants to joint degree programs often have a hard time articulating why exactly they need multiple degrees. Harvard wants to see that you “get” what the joint degree (no matter what combination it is) will do for you, particularly when it comes to how it will help you reach your career goals. Interesting that HBS also includes the “and a personal level” part… We normally see applicants fall short on the “professional level” side of the story, since they can’t explain why a joint degree is necessary for their career goals. On the personal side, our advice is avoid going overboard with high-minded language. You really do need to nail the professional side of the story, first and foremost. Think of that as the “bones” of this essay, and your personal values and goals as the “flesh.”
Interestingly, while it’s not an essay that you will submit with the above ones, there is actually one more written piece you will submit after you interview with HBS, if you make it that far. Harvard calls it the “Post-Interview Reflection,” and it gives you a chance to include anything you wish you had been able to mention in the interview, and to reframe anything that you discussed but have since thought about a bit more. You will submit this piece within 24 hours of your interview. While many of these changes are framed as Harvard’s way of making the application process less stressful for applicants overall, this deadline is pretty tight! (And note that this essay is not optional… it’s required.)
This is understandable, since HBS needs to keep moving on your application, but we partly wonder if this is also an attempt on Harvard’s part to try to minimize the amount of coaching an applicant can receive before submitting this essay. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in the coming admissions season!
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Not surprisingly, we get more questions about Harvard Business School than about any other MBA program. At such a highly visible school, it’s hard for changes to go unnoticed, but there have indeed been a lot of changes at Harvard recently. Among them are:
An evolution beyond the case method
What was sacrosanct at Harvard for generations was that 100% of courses were taught using the case study method. As many predicted when Dean Nitin Nohria arrived in Summer 2010, the curriculum is undergoing change. Starting with the class matriculating in Fall 2011, students will now have “field method” experiences as a counterpart to the case-based teaching. The first change to the curriculum is a year-long first-year course called FIELD, for Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development. FIELD features small-group opportunities for students to put what they learn into practice. The Class of 2012 will also see a reduction in the number of case-based courses and the introduction of new labs, similar to what schools like MIT have offered for some time.
A slight increase in average age of admitted students
Harvard has traditionally been very open to younger candidates, and has not been as fixated on years of work experience as some other schools. This preference for younger candidates may have reversed with the class starting at HBS in Fall 2011. Over a quarter of those accepted in this class graduated from college in 2007, which means that they have a solid four years of work experience before beginning their MBA. Harvard didn’t accept a single student straight from college this year into the full-time MBA program, either. It is highly unlikely that the pendulum will swing too far in the other direction — Harvard is almost certainly going to continue accepting high-potential early-career students. However, those with a few more years of work experience should also be encouraged by this trend.
An effort to broaden the professional pool beyond consulting and finance candidates
While consultants, investment bankers, and private equity analysts will undoubtedly make up the majority of classes of students entering Harvard for years to come, during this past year, these standard business school types weren’t welcomed as warmly as they typically have been. Harvard was more selective in choosing among these cohorts, and some very well-qualified candidates did not get offered a spot. This is likely due to Dean Nohria’s concern regarding the bad rap that business schools have gotten in the press and their perceived responsibility in contributing to the economic
More women in the classroom
As a direct result of one of Dean Nohria’s new initiatives, 39% of the Class of 2014 are women. Harvard now rivals Wharton in this area. Harvard is also working to increase the numbers of women on the faculty and is sponsoring academic research on women in business.
A “normalization” of the HBS 2+2 program admissions
Coinciding with the increase in overall age of Harvard’s students, the Admissions Board also made an adjustment to the HBS 2+2 program. There are fewer special rules and policies surrounding an application to 2+2, and instead, it looks more like a formal channel for Harvard to attract qualified students earlier in their lives. College juniors and seniors can apply through 2+2 in a series of application rounds that work just like the standard MBA application rounds do, except that they’re staggered on an offset schedule from the main cycle, and the essay questions are slightly different. The HBS 2+2 program is at least as competitive, if not more so, as standard Harvard’s standard MBA program.
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Harvard Business School recently released its application essays and deadlines for the 2011-2012 admissions season. Note that these are for Harvard’s traditional MBA program; we covered the HBS 2+2 Program application last month. (The two applications have become very similar to one another.)
Here are the new essays and deadlines, followed by our comments in italics:
Harvard Business School Application Deadlines
Round 1: October 3, 2011
Round 2: January 10, 2012
Round 3: April 10, 2012
These deadlines are very similar to last year’s deadlines. Harvard’s Round 1 deadline crept back by two days and its Round 2 deadline crept forward by a day. The Round 3 deadline moved the most: It comes ten days later than it did last year. Most importantly, note that applying in Round 1 means that you’ll hear from Harvard no later than December 19, 2011. That will give you at least a couple of weeks before most other schools’ Round 2 deadlines, in case you decide to wait to hear from HBS before pulling the trigger on a few additional applications.
Harvard Business School Application Essays
- Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)
For years this question asked, “What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?” but Harvard has simplified the question, just as it did on the application for the HBS 2+2 Program. While the wording is different, though, the heart of the question is unchanged: They don’t explicitly ask for your “most substantial” accomplishments anymore, but of course you still need to come up with three impressive stories. Remember that we’re talking about HBS here, so at least one (preferably at least two) of your examples should highlight leadership. However, don’t overlook stories that also demonstrate other traits that admissions officers look for, including teamwork, innovation, and maturity. Regardless of the question’s phrasing, remember that the “why” in your story is even more important than the “what,” so be sure to spell out why these accomplishments are so critical to describing you as an emerging business leader. Also, ideally you will be able to draw upon multiple types of experiences — not only on the job, but also from your community involvement, your hobbies, and even, in some cases, your personal life.
- Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)
This question is also new this year. Harvard used to ask you to describe what you have learned from a mistake, but now this question has evolved to complement the “three accomplishments” question. Whether you call them mistakes, failures, or setbacks, these examples all share a common thread: They serve to show how you have grown in your relatively short professional career. The word “setbacks,” specifically, is interesting since it gives you the opportunity to talk about challenges you faced that weren’t necessarily of your own doing. For example, getting laid off when your company goes out of business represents a setback, but not a mistake. So, now you have more options here. In some respects describing three setbacks in 600 words is even harder than discussing three accomplishments, since the most important part of any “setback” essay is showing what you learned and how you grew as a result. Still, your mission will be to show introspection (What did you learn?) and a motivation for self-improvement (How did you use what you learned to better yourself and avoid that mistake again?). Having one or two good work-related stories will be important, but remember to look for experiences in all aspects of your life. Your best, most valuable “setback” story may very well come from outside your job.
- Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)
This question is also new, although we would argue that it’s an evolution of an old HBS application question that asked, “What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?” The key difference now is that, while that old question was very forward-looking, this new question will best be answered with a blend of discussion about your past and your intended future career path. Both are necessary ingredients for a credible, compelling essay here. For instance, you could write, “I want to get an MBA so that I can launch a global non-profit organization to wipe out illiteracy,” but if philanthropy and an interest in education don’t show up anywhere else in your background, this may seem like nothing more than a bunch of hot air. Also, although there’s no more talk of “career vision,” it’s important to show that you’re realistic about what an MBA can do for you. Earning an MBA is just one piece (albeit an important one) of your career puzzle, and you want to show the admissions committee that you understand where it fits in the grand scheme of things.
- Answer a question you wish we’d asked. (400 words)
Another new question this year, and we really like this one. Questions like this may seem intimidating at first, but strong applicants will find them very valuable since they can serve one of two purposes: They can serve as a “catch-all” where you can cover important themes that you haven’t yet covered in another essay, or they can help you tell an interesting story that will stick in admissions officers’ minds. An example of the former is dedicating this essay to telling a story that doesn’t strictly qualify as an accomplishment but still demonstrates an important trait, such as teamwork or maturity. An example of the latter is discussing a unique hobby that you enjoy, one that would never come up in your application otherwise. Of course, they key is to tie that back to your overall story — saying, “I like to swim in the ocean” isn’t very effective if you can’t explain why it matters to you — but you can use this essay too pique admissions officers’ interest. If you manage to land an interview with Harvard, imagine how great it would be to hear the interviewer ask, “You do a lot of ocean swimming? That’s interesting! Tell me more.”
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Last week the the Harvard Business School admissions committee released its application essays for the HBS 2+2 Program for next year. Today we’ll take a look at the program’s application deadlines and essays for students applying to the Class of 2016.
Note that there is a big change in deadlines since last year: There are now four deadlines, vs. one single summer deadline for the program. Even though the window in which you can apply is now more wide open, note that the program is still designed with current college juniors in mind. (HBS phrases it as anyone who will “be graduating from your college or university between October 1, 2011 and September 30, 2012,” which mostly applies to those who are just wrapping up their junior year in college.)
HBS 2+2 Program Admissions Deadlines
Summer Round: July 6, 2011
Round 1: October, 2011
Round 2: January, 2012
Round 3: March, 2012
Right now, only the Summer Round has a specific date attached to it, although that will likely change soon. Also, be aware that applying by the July deadline (which used to be the only 2+2 deadline) means you will notified by September, which gives you plenty of time to make plans in your senior year. You can apply as late as March of your senior year, but that will probably mean finding out your status no sooner than when you graduate. Many students may not be comfortable with this arrangement. We recommend getting your application in by the July or October deadlines to give yourself enough time to plan things out on the back end.
HBS 2+2 Program Admissions Essays
- Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)
This question used to ask, “What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?” which was exactly the same question that was on the traditional HBS application. Although they’ve rephrased it (probably to try to sound a little less stuffy and intimidating to 20-year-old college kids), the meat of the question remains the same: They don’t explicitly ask for your “most substantial” accomplishments, but of course you’re not going to want to tell them three mundane stories. While you are obviously younger than the typical HBS applicant, the school still expects to see several separate, concrete examples of how you made a positive impact on the organization, community, or people around you. Having a hard time coming up with many? That may be the first sign that you’re not yet ready to apply to Harvard Business School. If that’s the case, don’t despair… You just may want to consider the more traditional route of working for several years before applying to business school.
- Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)
Okay, fair enough. First they ask for three accomplishments, and now they want to hear about three “setbacks” (which is sort of admissions speak for “failures,” although these don’t need to be spectacular disasters). Last year, the question “What have you learned from a mistake?” which was also taken directly from the two-year Harvard MBA program’s application. In some ways we’re a little surprised that they’re asking for three, since the most important part of a “failure” essay is showing what you learned and how you grew as a result, and 600 words doesn’t give you a lot of space in which to tell three such stories (and do it well). Still, your mission will be to show introspection (What did you learn?) and a motivation for self-improvement (How did you use what you learned to better yourself and avoid that mistake again?). While you won’t have the same experiences as a twenty-five-year-old applicant to draw upon here, look for experiences in all aspects of your life where you learned a valuable lesson. There’s a good chance that your richest story will come from outside of your academics. However, academic stories are indeed okay. The admissions committee knows you’re young and don’t yet have much professional experience.
- Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)
Believe it or not, while this might question seem like a must, HBS never asked this in its 2+2 Program application until now. While you’re still young, your answer to this may have as much to do with your past as your future. You may have some ambitious plans, but those will be meaningless unless they fit within the context of your background. For instance, you could write, “I want to get an MBA so that I can launch a global non-profit organization to wipe out illiteracy,” but if philanthropy and an interest in education don’t show up anywhere else in your background, this may seem like nothing more than a bunch of hot air. Also, be sure to demonstrate that you’re mature and realistic as far as what an MBA can do for you. Graduating from HBS in a few years won’t immediately launch you into the world of private equity stardom… There are a lot of other things you will need to do to get there, and you want to show admissions officers that you understand this. Talking to current MBA students and recent business school grads can help you a great deal here.
- What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience? (400 words)
This question carries over from last year. Being that you probably don’t yet have any full-time work experience, the admissions office needs to dig a little deeper into your undergraduate experience to learn more about you. Don’t simply rehash your transcript here! Why did you choose your major in college? What motivated you to choose certain course? Were there any instances when you really pushed yourself out of your comfort zone? Focus on just one or two themes here, ideally showing how you have grown academically over the past three years. HBS wants to transform you from young raw ingredients into a polished, finished product. Showing glimpses of such a transformation in the first three years of college can help the Harvard admissions office picture you thriving at HBS.
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Harvard Business School needs no introduction. No top business school attracts more applications (and enrolls more students) than Harvard. Still, we find that a surprising number if applicants don’t know enough about the school beyond its top-shelf name.
Before you apply to Harvard Business School, get acquainted with these four things that make it unique among top MBA programs:
HBS adopted Harvard Law School’s dialogue-oriented case method of teaching in 1924 to help students begin thinking like executives, and today, almost all HBS classes are taught using the case method. HBS created this teaching method to foster a dynamic learning environment that hews closer to real life activity than the typical academic assignments. From a skill standpoint, the case method gives Harvard grads increased capacity, perspective, and confidence for dealing with real business situations. HBS produces the majority of the cases they — and other schools — teach: The HBS faculty produces more than 80% of the case studies sold throughout the world. And, in line with Dean Nitin Nohria’s emphasis on this as the “global century,” at least 50% of the cases cover international companies and themes. The case method is central to Harvard Business School academics, and is discussed more extensively in the Academics section of this Annual Report.
Believe it or not, HBS’s international presence may be underrated. With research centers and offices in cities as diverse as Hong Kong, Tokyo, Mumbai, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Paris, and, as of Spring 2010, Shanghai, Harvard Business School truly has a global footprint. With the Class of 2010, 34% of the school’s MBA students were from outside the United States, representing 73 different countries, and half the cases produced annually by the HBS faculty deal with international business issues. “Global impact” is a popular buzzword in business school circles these days, but few schools can rival HBS in this area of management education, and the emphasis is expected to only increase with the advent of Dean Nohria and his international network.
Original Faculty Research
HBS is also a nerve center of academic research, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage to students. As with any other program — be it undergraduate, law, or medicine — there is a tradeoff when faculty spend a great deal of their time researching and publishing, as that means fewer hours are left for instruction and meeting with students. Of course, it also means that the curriculum is cutting-edge and relevant. HBS addresses the downside by limiting formal teaching responsibilities to as little as one semester-long class per year, ensuring that faculty can balance their workload between research and instruction without compromising either. HBS has a self-funded research budget of $70 million and annually produces over 30 books and more than 300 academic papers authored or co-authored by the school’s faculty.
Sections and Learning Teams
Like many graduate business programs, HBS makes a large class smaller and more manageable through the use of sections. Each Harvard Business School class features ten sections of about 90 students each — which means that 90 is the number of students in each course of the Required Curriculum (since a student goes through all the core courses together with his section). During orientation, new students are assigned to six- or seven-person learning teams composed of individuals from different sections and intentionally diverse backgrounds with whom they will work throughout their entire first year. These teams collaborate on graded projects in certain first-year courses, but they primarily serve as a resource for students to confer on cases.
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Earlier this week Harvard Business School announced its application deadlines and admissions essays for the 2010-2011 season. Here they are, taken from Harvard’s site. Our comments are in italics:
Harvard Business School Admissions Deadlines
Round 1: October 1, 2010
Round 2: January 11, 2011
Round 3: March 31, 2011
This year’s Round 1 deadline is exactly the same as last year’s. We wonder if a top school will soon move its deadline into September? Round 2’s deadline is about one week earlier than last year’s, meaning applicants will have a bit less breathing room after the holidays pass this year. Harvard’s Round 3 deadline is also about one week earlier than last year’s R3 deadline.
Harvard Business School Admissions Essays
- What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600 words)
(HBS has used this same question for a while now. It’s a great opportunity for you to spell out three main themes that you want to emphasize in your application. This being HBS, at least one of your examples should highlight leadership, but don’t discount stories that also demonstrate other traits that admissions officers look for, including teamwork, innovation, and maturity. Remember, the “why” in your story is even more important than the “what,” so be sure to spell out why these accomplishments are so critical to describing you as an emerging leader. Also, ideally you can draw upon multiple types of experiences — not only on the job, but also from your community involvement, your hobbies, and even, in some cases, your personal life.)
- What have you learned from a mistake? (400 words)
(This question is also a repeat. An okay essay will answer the question and describe what you have learned, but a great one will then discuss how you put that lesson to work in a later experience. This allows you to move away from this essay being purely hypothetical to discussing another achievement in your young career.)
- Please respond to two of the following (400 words each):
- What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?
- What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?
- Tell us about a time in your professional experience when you were frustrated or disappointed.
- When you join the HBS Class of 2013, how will you introduce yourself to your new classmates?
(The first two questions are repeats, but the other two are new. The first one has “Optional essay for applicants with problematic undergraduate transcripts” written all over it. Only use it if you’re in this situation. The second one is not too different from other school’s “Why MBA?” and “Short-term/long-term career goals” questions. This is a perfectly fine question to choose, but avoid speaking in over broad generalities or in grandiose terms — e.g., “I want to solve the world’s energy crisis.” — that will make admissions officers’ eyes roll. The third question is an interesting because, on the surface, it doesn’t seem very different from the “What have you learned from a mistake?” question. Answer this one only if you can do what we describe for that other question: Don’t only describe a time when you were disappointed, but also discuss what you learned from it and how you put that lesson to work. The last question essentially replaces last year’s “Write a cover letter for the admissions committee” question, and we like it the slightly less formal slant that this version takes. What do you think are your most memorable experiences or attributes? How do you want to be known by your classmates? For this one, we recommend trying for a less formal slant. Make it friendly, written in the first person, and maybe even a little humorous.)
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