Who’s Applying to HBS and Getting In?

As a consultant who has successfully advised countless students vying for admission to Harvard Business School, I’m often asked two questions: Who’s applying to Harvard Business School? And, who’s getting in?

HBS’s applicant pool is perhaps the most diverse of any graduate school in the world. Each fall and winter, approximately 10,000 extraordinarily talented young people – including professional athletes, military leaders, investment bankers, teachers, brand managers, and, of course, consultants – seek one of the coveted 900 seats.

Over the last five years, HBS’s acceptance rate has dropped from nearly 15% to just above 10%, and the makeup of the class has undergone a fundamental shift as the school welcomes an increasing number of “less traditional” applicants. The competition is fierce, and no one – not even superstars at Goldman, McKinsey, or Blackstone – are guaranteed admission. As my colleagues and I emphasize to our clients each year, those who win admissions differentiate themselves by humbly demonstrating their unique capacity to contribute to the school.

This year, the most successful applicants positioned themselves in at least one of the four following categories, while avoiding even a hint of entitlement:

Explorers – Given the rapid globalization of business, HBS is placing an even greater emphasis on admitting students with diverse and international perspectives. Over a third of the HBS class continues to hail from outside of the United States, and American applicants must also strive to demonstrate significant international exposure. Applicants with lengthy and robust work/volunteer experiences abroad have a tangible advantage in the application process (sorry, study abroad programs and frequent international vacations will not cut it). If you have not worked abroad, demonstrating success on diverse/international teams is a must.

Innovative Leaders – Harvard Business School views itself as not just a school of management but also (and more importantly) as an academy where the leaders of future generations come together to hone their skills and develop deep and lasting connections. Thus, demonstrating a record of innovative leadership is a must for applicants hoping to spend the next two years on this exceptional campus on the banks of the Charles. However, HBS is seeking more than leaders who can succeed when given responsibility by others. To maximize your chances of admission to HBS, you must demonstrate the ability to create, not just assume, leadership responsibilities – did you revolutionize campus discourse by founding the first GLBT group at your college? Did you conceive of and launch a non-profit that had a tangible impact on the lives of women in the developing world? If so, you have demonstrated the types of innovative leadership HBS most highly values.

Trailblazers – Applicants who have forged their own distinctive path – in business and in life – make ideal candidates for Harvard Business School. HBS students and alumni continually identify and pursue exciting, new opportunities; they’re always thinking outside the box. Those who get into HBS do not just show how they were the best at the job they were asked to do; instead, they show how they went above and beyond (professionally, personally, and academically) in order to create the world in which the aspire to live – not simply by attending fundraisers or making donations, but by having a much more tangible impact. What have you done to combat a disease that impacted your family, address a pressing social issue, or craft your own identity?

Bankers and Consultants who are More than Bankers and Consultants – No matter how successful you have been in banking, private equity, or management consulting, your career success alone will not earn you a space at HBS. We have successfully helped professionals from second- and third-tier firms win admission to HBS (even when many other applicants at the leading firms found themselves waitlisted or rejected), by insisting that our clients convey who they are as individuals and not simply as professionals. If you want to join the HBS class, you must go beyond the models and successful deals. You must demonstrate what makes you who you are. Have you walked the Inca Trail? Skied every Olympic downhill in North America? Started a successful band? Don’t forget to share that as it just may pique enough interest to help you get the interview at Dillon House.

You likely noticed that the GMAT is not mentioned anywhere in this article, and while it is definitely a factor in HBS admissions, your overall package is so much more important. Don’t make the mistake of believing that if you have an exceptional GMAT and GPA you’re guaranteed a space at HBS. While these quantitative measures certainly help in the admissions process, we have helped students get into HBS with GMAT scores in the 500s.

To get into HBS, your application package must portray you as a unique, passionate individual with a diverse set of experiences that sets you apart from the thousands of other applicants.

Shawn P. O’Connor is the Founder and CEO of Stratus Admissions Counseling, a New York-based test preparation and admissions counseling firm serving a global clientele of applicants to the world’s premier business schools. Mr. O’Connor is a graduate of Harvard Business School, where he was a Baker Scholar.


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