How To Apply To Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School across the Charles River

Harvard Business School across the Charles River


A 10-Step Guide To Winning A Seat In An HBS Class


In the admissions consulting business, we love to ask the question, “Where are you applying?”  And applicants appear to equally enjoy giving an answer that starts with “HBS, of course.”  HBS, of course. The first rule of applying to Harvard Business School is to understand that everyone applies to Harvard Business School. Applying to HBS isn’t a novel exercise, but rather the first box on a checklist for virtually every candidate pursuing an MBA from an elite program.

So what does this mean you shouldn’t apply to HBS? Of course not. But it does mean two critical things:

  1. Your interest in HBS must rise above “it’s HBS”
  2. You absolutely must do everything right

To the latter point, doing things “right” includes not just what you do, but what you don’t do.  It’s about handling your business with total confidence, self-possession, assuredness, and mastery. It’s about stepping into a world of ambiguity and not breaking even a hint of a sweat. Harvard has so much talent to choose from that it’s almost an impossible task to sort it out, so one thing they have done is introduced some stress and then watched to see who handles it. Basically, you don’t have to be perfect when you apply to Harvard, but you have to be perfectly composed. You have to own who you are, know when and where your personal expectations took shape, understand the path you are on, and – above all else – know how to put one foot in front of the other without doubting yourself along the way.

Quite honestly, if you are a legit candidate at HBS and have dreams of going there, this is a place to invest some resources and hire someone who can coach you through the process. You will not only submit a better app and stay closer to that ideal of perfection, but you will also grow and evolve as a person – that’s just the kind of app process it is. Nothing builds character more than navigating ambiguity and coming out the other side. For those who can’t afford services, we have created this 10-step approach to applying to HBS that can at least help you set the right path. Indeed, the following guide will help keep you on the straight and narrow as you undertake the nerve-racking task of applying to the world’s most famous business school.


The first step, as indicated above, is to lock in a reason for applying to HBS that goes beyond the school’s name, rank, and prestige. Simply being one of the best applicants who wants to go to one of the best schools is not a good enough reason. Instead, really think through why you want to go to Harvard. What does the school offer that makes it a good fit for you?  There are dozens of things that make HBS unique, starting with the entire teaching model (case method, highly theoretical). Latch on to some of them so that Harvard starts to become a visualized place rather than just a brand name.

Hint: If you are applying to both HBS and Stanford GSB, you need to read this paragraph five extra times and then ask yourself: why? Harvard and Stanford share almost nothing in common except a prestigious perch atop the rankings. And, as you just read, that is no reason to apply to a b-school (except in extreme cases). It certainly isn’t a reason that will resonate. We are constantly advising clients to pick one or the other when it comes to HBS and Stanford. Being forced to choose one will hone the school search and application message for every other school.

Finally, understand that just because HBS does not ask you “Why Harvard?” within the written application, it does not mean you get a free pass. HBS features an application that is more open-ended and introspective than most and is designed to find out more about you than about external factors such as career path or interest in the program. That said, “Why Harvard?” may still determine your fate … in the interview. That is the stage where you have to showcase true fit, program knowledge, and everything we are encouraging above.

Authors: Paul Lanzillotti is founder and principal and Adam Hoff is principal of the Amerasia Consulting Group, a boutique MBA admissions consulting firm.

  • sandeep singh

    Whats a low GPA for an applicant from India where CGPA is based on a scale of 10.

  • Linda07

    Thanks so much for your time!

  • JohnAByrne

    You’re aiming awfully high with H/S/W. You might want to add a couple of other schools in the mix. Go the first round with your 690. You have a shot.

  • Linda07

    I am a Tanzanian woman and went to a top liberal arts school (Think Middleburry, Carleton, etc…). Does that count as top tier?With R1 deadlines approaching so soon, retaking the GMAT would mean waiting for R2. Is that a wise choice to make? Also I mixed up my breakdown, Quant was 48 and V was 37.

  • JohnAByrne

    Generally, yes. But if you are in an over-represented pool, it’s best to retake the GMAT and try for a slightly higher Q score. Also your GPA will count more if you did your undergraduate degree at a top-tier college or university and it will count less if you didn’t.

  • Linda07

    Thanks so much for the article. My question is regarding the opposite. Can a high GPA in a double major in Math and Econ (3.93) offset a lowish GMAT (690, 48V, 37Q)? Startup founder applying to H/S/W with a background on Wall Street and solid leadership activities and international press and tv coverage for the startup.

  • JohnAByrne

    A 780 definitely offsets your low GPA, especially in a STEM program. But you need to make sure there are no other problems with your application, your interview or your recommendations.

  • MBAaspirant

    Say you were to have a gpa in the 3.25 range from a STEM program, but have a 780 on the GMAT. Does the high GMAT score offset the lower GPA, or does that ding the application immediately?

  • melayuMBA

    hey, if this helps, I applied to HBS THREE TIMES and finally got in as part of Class 2017. Just show progress in your application! and good luck!

  • Aspiring MBA

    If I was to change my last name, I would change it to Paulson 🙂

  • HBS Re-Applicant

    Hello everyone, I hope some current HBS students, alumni, or even administrators on this website can help me with my questions about re-applying to HBS.

    Long story short, I applied for the 2+2 program couple of years ago with a weak GMAT and poor vision of my career prospects after the MBA. I wrote about working in or starting my own non-for-profit in the country that I am from in Europe. Unsurprisingly, I got rejected with no interview.

    Now, I am working at one of the Big 4 in Philly and have been ranked in the top of all my peers (1st rank) for all 3 years, as well as being promoted ahead of everyone else. My base salary is $20,000 higher than those with whom I started. I retook GMAT and got a 760 compared to the 650 that I applied with. I held multiple important leadership positions in college my senior year, after I applied to HBS.

    I need to get my MBA to get into careers that are closed to me otherwise. I graduated from a small school, and was the only one landing a job at Big 4. I am thinking about careers in PE, Hedge Fund, I-Banking, or Consulting; where my hard work can earn me more money than in Big 4. How should I address this in my application, and will there be any potential issues if they open my 3 year old application with completely different career goals on it.

    Thank you guys and I hope someone can help me here.

  • Robert Hamilton

    I fully agree with the age comments previously posted. I got in at 31; for military people out there applying, completely disregard the age trends. HBS accepts about 50 military vets per year and their ages are normally 28-32.

  • AdamAACG

    I’m glad too. And you make a good point. I think next year when we update this, we will try make sure the guide is a little more supportive of the pursuit for an “older” applicant, while still noting the increased difficulty. We tried to soften it by putting “probably” in there, but you are right that the section finishes on a really defeating note. Thanks for your feedback.

  • AdamAACG

    Everything is so contextual. I usually worry with an HBS candidate if the GPA is below about 3.3. But there are so many factors that can shift that number up or down. Industry factors are often misunderstood. For example, if someone in PE has a 3.4, you might think that is too low and won’t stack up against “other private equity associates” – and perhaps that is true. But it might just as likely cut the other way, because a file reader might think, “oh wow, usually it takes a higher college GPA to get a job as a private equity associate … this person must be pretty interesting.” Every case is just so different.

  • GradStudent10

    It was a mix of Americans and internationals. Most of the Americans had military backgrounds, but not all.

  • AdamAACG

    I think the key is your trajectory. In my experience, candidates who got a “later start” in the work force (for any number of reasons, but you will often here things like military service, an LDS mission, etc. cited as an example) often still have the “look” of a younger candidate, which is to say cresting with a lot of momentum. You can also have a less traditional path, which can result in having a very strong, very forward-leaning profile even at 28, 29, 30, etc.

    It’s obviously not a hard-and-fast rule as there will always be exceptions. This is why we said you should “probably” move the search along if you are 29 at the time you are thinking of applying (which means probably 30 or 31 at matriculation). But the statistics are pretty clear on this and my own experiential evidence backs it up as well.

  • 29y/o

    Thanks a lot for your advice. I will definitelly apply at age 29.
    Where your older classmates mostly americans or from other countries?

  • Herodotus

    First thing – change your last name to Blankfein. That’ll help with the GMAT and the GPA.

  • GradStudent10

    Good article, but I am glad I did not read it before applying. I would have decided not to apply as I was 29 at the time and would have missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime. I had at least 10 sectionmates who were as old or older than me. If you meet the rest of the criteria, GPA, GMAT score, work experience… you should apply.

  • Guest

    Thank you Adam and Paul. Regarding the issue of initially screening out applicants by age, what do you reckon is the key to a successful application by an ‘old’ applicant at HBS?

  • Ruetwo

    what is a “low GPA” for HBS? can you tell us what is a good range for GPA as per job industry or ethnicity or other factors that are most important?