What It’s Really Like To Go To Harvard

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He describes himself as an American white male, with a prestige undergraduate degree. Let’s say it is from Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford. He racked up four years of work experience, in both industry and private equity, and then applied last year in round one to the big three: Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, and Wharton.

The result? He was dinged at Wharton without an interview. He got an interview at Stanford but as he puts it, “it went on to be awful due to both my lack of preparation and due to some issues on my interviewer’s end.” No offer. But after being shuffled into round two at HBS, he got his acceptance.

Now, slightly less than two months into his first year at Harvard, he is filing a dispatch from Boston for WallStreetOasis.com. It’s a telling dispatch from the front lines, worth reading for anyone wondering what it’s really like to go to Harvard Business School. And it’s a highly credible and tell-it-like-it-is report from a newbie on campus.

Among other things, the first-year MBA student relays some very good advice to would-be candidates: “The professor who heads the first year curriculum told us something that stuck in my head: ‘You weren’t selected because you’re the best at learning things (though we think you’re very good at that, too) but rather because we think you’re the best at teaching.’ So when you write your application, think about what you’ll teach people: is there something unique to your background (whether work experience or otherwise) that causes you to see the world – especially business world – differently? Do you have some special skill or interest that you could introduce to HBS? Do you have a way of pulling people together (whatever the style) that could be beneficial to have in a section?”

HBS shieldSo what’s Harvard Business School really like? Here’s the perspective of someone who calls himself “baburator” and is still unsure whether he will use his MBA to go into a hedge fund, private equity or venture capital, or simply do a startup after graduation:

“People / Social Life: I like ’em. I was worried that this’d be a place full of 28-year-olds trying to re-live the glory days of college, and it’s not been that. About 15% of people are aggressively social, another 50% are just generally nice people who like meeting new people and trying out new things, about 20% are social but also particularly nerdy (i.e. enjoy building droids and tech startups and hang out out with others that do the same), and the rest are people who do their own thing (you only see them in class). While there’s a lot of hanging out at the “usual” bars, a lot of the social scene takes the form of weekend trips nearby (we’ve not had any crazy trips yet). The fact that a lot of people are in a different life phase (married or on the marriage track) than in college plays a role in that mix.

“Dating scene’s not been top of mind for me since I’m in a relationship, but surprisingly, most people in my section are either married, engaged, or in serious relationships. I hear, though, that a lot of the weaker relationships fall apart within 4-5mo, so I’m sure that’ll up the drama factor in a few months. Also, those who aren’t married / on the marriage track seem pretty motivated to get on it, both because there’s the sense of “it’s my last chance to find a high quality guy/girl” and because so many others at HBS are farther down the track. That dynamic’s powerful enough that I’d bet good money it’ll make for some interesting times in the coming months…

“Obviously the gender ratio favors women here, but 40% female ain’t bad if you’re coming out of finance, and other grad programs (education, public health, etc.) have the opposite ratio.

“Sections: Something I’d under-weighted in my thinking about HBS is the “section” experience. This is your group of ~90 peers with whom you have every single first year class and with whom you spend the bulk of your social life. It’s one thing to realize this in theory, but it’s really hard to describe some of the more subtle but powerful effects of this dynamic. Sections provide a good education in soft skills basics: getting along with very different types of people (not all of whom will be your friends), developing a good “personal brand” (as much as I hate that phrase), and so on. But the other is that – since sections are communally run bodies – it’s an interesting exercise in learning about things like leadership, power, and influence.

“It’s been a pretty interesting petri dish so far, but I obviously don’t want to harp here for much longer since it’s still early innings in my section experience. I’d only pause to note that sections, so far, seem like an under-communicated learning vehicle.

“Case method: I very much came to HBS despite the case method and not because of it. I felt like schools serve students best when they lay out a framework to slice-and-dice through messy problems rather than let students wade their way through it, bullshit and all.

“Maybe it’s the koolaid at work, but I’m significantly more bullish now. The method requires a lot of ingredients for it to work – right students, right professors, right cases, right norms, etc. – but when it works, it works well. A couple of things I hadn’t appreciated much: (a) it’s a great way to organically get exposure to all sorts of industries and businesses since you dive into one business each class rather than talking about concepts in the abstract, (b) the absence of a clear cut math/modeling problem makes even the “hard” classes much more interesting since there’s not a clear line of attack at the problem and because context matters much more, and (c) thinking through “what should this business do” in the absence of full information 2-3x a day is a great education for an investor since it mimics real world judgment as decently as an academic setting can.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.