Category Archives: HBS

Some Straight Talk from the HBS Admissions Team

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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Harvard Business School Essays for 2012-2013

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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HBS Admissions Essays and Deadlines for 2011-2012

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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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HBS 2+2 Program Essays and Deadlines for 2011-2012

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Application Essays and Deadlines for 2010-2011

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):
    1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?
    2. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?
    3. Tell us about a time in your professional experience when you were frustrated or disappointed.
    4. 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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New Dean at Harvard Business School

Last week Harvard Business School announced that Nitin Nohria, the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at HBS, will become the School’s 10th dean, replacing current Dean Jay Light on July 1, 2010. Nohria, currently the co-chair of the school’s Leadership Initiative, gained notoriety last year when he co-authored a Harvard Business Review article that ultimately led to the creation of the MBA Oath. His reputation for being willing to ask tough questions about ethics and the social of managers that makes him an attractive choice to lead HBS in the aftermath of the financial markets meltdown and the ensuing hit to the MBA’s reputation.

Nohria has been at HBS for the past 22 years, joining the faculty as an assistant professor in 1988 after earning his PhD at MIT Sloan, with an emphasis in behavioral sciences. He earned tenure in 1997, and was named to the Chapman Professorship in 1999. Most recently he has served as the Harvard’s senior associate dean for faculty development and chair of its organizational behavior unit.

In a statement accepting the role, Nohria gave a hint as to what his priorities will be at HBS’s new dean:

I feel a profound sense of responsibility for continuing Harvard Business School’s proud legacy of groundbreaking ideas and transformational educational experiences. With business education at an inflection point, we must strive to equip future leaders with the competence and character to address emerging global business and social challenges. As we enter our second century, I look forward to working with the School’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni to forge a vision for Harvard Business School that will enable it to remain a beacon for business education for the next 100 years.

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Harvard Business School Wants More Undergrad Applicants

For a while we have been telling applicants that the earlier in the careers they apply to Harvard Business School, the better. While the mean number of years of work experience for students entering top business schools is still around five, Harvard has made a point of encouraging applicants to apply with fewer than three years of experience. In fact, nearly half of the Class of 2011‘s 937 students has no more than three years of full-time work experience.

As if being an “old” applicant (i.e., someone with five or more years of work experience) doesn’t seem tough enough these days, now comes word that HBS is encouraging college seniors to apply in Round 3. As Dee Leopold wrote on the HBS Admissions Blog last week:

If you are a college senior who wants to go to HBS – but not right away – then applying in Round 3 could be a smart choice.

Why?

  1. The positive outcome is going to be “deferred admission” — a guaranteed spot in the class of 2014 with the stipulation that you work for two years before matriculation.
  2. No target or cap on the number of deferred admit spots we will offer. Last year 43 college seniors were offered deferred admission.
  3. No downside: If you aren’t admitted, apply again in a couple of years — lots of denied college seniors are successful in the future.
  4. The application fee is only $100.
  5. GMAT/GRE scores are good for 5 years – why not take the test in college while you are still in test-taking mode?

Applying to HBS or any other top MBA program in Round 3 can be daunting enough on its own, but this doesn’t help. However, this is great news if you’re a college senior who missed the boat on the HBS 2+2 Program before your senior year.

If you are still in college or are a fresh-out-of-college applicant, this is one more reason to think about applying to Harvard Business School sooner rather than later, provided that you’re truly ready. This means that you have a competitive GMAT score, already have some recommendation writers lined up, and have some good experiences to draw upon to demonstrate your leadership abilities and your maturity. If you already have these things in your profile, or are at least close, then Harvard’s signal is clear: They would rather that you apply now, rather than a few years from now.

For more advice crafting a successful HBS application, take a look at Veritas Prep’s HBS Annual Report, one of 15 completely free guides to the world’s top business schools, available here. For more updates on HBS and other top business schools, subscribe to this blog and follow us on Twitter!