How To Apply To Harvard Business School

A case study discussion plays out in a Harvard Business School class

A case study discussion plays out in a Harvard Business School class


When applying to any top MBA program, you have to understand the key admissions themes that officers are looking for when they make decisions on candidates.  The basic admissions themes are:

  • professional potential (recruitability/hirability)
  • intellectual horsepower and curiosity
  • leadership
  • teamwork
  • maturity/discipline/focus
  • involvement (community and organizationally)
  • motivation

Those seven areas are going to be important at pretty much all b-schools, but they vary greatly in priority order and weight of impact depending on the school.  For example, at most programs, the ramifications of the financial meltdown several years ago (and the impact that had on recruiting for class that followed) has driven hirability into the top spot – virtually nothing is as important as showing the admissions committee that you have the potential to succeed professionally and land your desired job after graduation.  At HBS though, hirability is not the ruling theme.  In fact, it isn’t even one of the top three admissions themes – evidenced by the fact that Harvard still, after all these years, doesn’t ask a mandatory essay question about career goals (unless you count the tiny little career plans question in the app, that is).

At HBS, the admissions themes should be ordered as:

  1. Leadership
  2. Intellectual horsepower/curiosity
  3. Involvement
  4. Maturity
  5. Professional potential, teamwork, motivation

We lump the final three together to stress the relative lack of importance of each.  HBS is not focusing on those areas when evaluating candidates and those who apply to Harvard should be aware of that fact.  The first four themes, however, are of great importance.  Leadership is the buzzword at HBS.  The school prides itself on identifying, training, and producing great leaders and focuses most of its energies in the admissions process on ensuring that this tradition continues.  Intellectual capacity is also a huge consideration – perhaps to a greater extent than any other business school, which is in keeping with both a high average GPA and a teaching method that is more theoretical and rigorous in nature than most b-schools.  Involvement and maturity are also key elements at HBS, as much because of the emphasis on younger applicants as anything else.  The admissions committee must look to community and organizational involvement in the absence of more robust work experience and whenever you are admitting younger students, you have to take more care to ensure that those individuals are mature beyond their years.

Understanding how key admissions themes work at HBS will save you a lot of trouble when it comes time to apply, as you can focus on what really matters.  Just know that you won’t be able to borrow from your other applications, as the themes for virtually every other b-school differ greatly from those at Harvard.  HBS is truly unique in the current MBA landscape.


Okay, so now you live and breathe HBS, you know which admissions themes matter, and you know that you have at least an outside chance of being competitive.  Now what do you do?  It’s time to shift the focus away from Harvard and onto your own candidacy.  The only way you can maximize your chances of receiving an “admit letter” from HBS or any other business school is to build a platform through exhaustive and informed analysis.  Strengths relative to your friends, family members, and co-workers must check out against the competition (other elite applicants).  Weaknesses must be unearthed so they can be dealt with.  We won’t mince words here – this is the stage in the process at which you are most in need of an expert.  The most valuable step that an applicant can take when applying to HBS is to work with someone who can put themselves in the shoes of the HBS admissions officer who will eventually review your file.  Realignment is the most overlooked, yet most transformative part of any admissions consulting process.  This is, of course, where we come in.  We can make sure you dive deep into who you are to unearth interesting content and we can help you take a sure, confident path forward.

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