Getting the Most Out of Harvard B-School

Harvard Business School Baker Library - Ethan Baron photo

Harvard Business School Baker Library – Ethan Baron photo

Getting the Most Out of Harvard

For many, Harvard Business School is a destination, with an MBA being the credential that opens doors to dream jobs and influential sponsors.  For Marta Szczerba (’16), a Fulbright Scholar, Harvard is a journey – a defining experience with twists few could imagine. “I thought I was entering a holiday-like period where my school work would take me two hours a day, she confesses in a recent Harbus post. “Secondly, I thought I would never, ever work in investment management.”

Fast forward over a year and Szczerba is admittedly writing about her HBS experience from a venture capital firm in Palo Alto. So what happened? Life happened. Like anyone, she was exposed to new people, ideas, and experiences and adjusted her sights. Rahima Dosani, a classmate of Szczerba, followed a similar path. And she came away with a key takeaway: Don’t measure yourself against everyone else’s priorities.

“People come to HBS for dramatically different reasons,” Dosani writes in another Harbus post. “Some come to really buckle down and learn a new subject matter, some come to try their hand at entrepreneurship, some come to learn management and teamwork skills, some come to get a true break from their jobs, and some come to build a network. Do whatever it is you enjoy doing and let yourself fully engage in new experiences without cynicism. … Do what you need to do to make this time here meaningful for you.”

So what were the biggest lessons that aspiring HBS students should heed? For starters, Szczerba admits that she didn’t fully appreciate how rigorous the classes would be. “The academic schedule is packed. The discussion group starts every day at 8:00am…There are two to three 80 minute classes per day, finishing at 3pm.  I underestimated how attentive you need to be in class. You can be cold-called at the beginning or in the middle of the class, and if you haven’t read the case, you feel like you’re letting your section down. 50% of your grade will be based on participation, so being engaged and making relevant, thoughtful remarks is very important.”

And class time is just the tip of the iceberg academically, Szczerba adds. “It’s easy to underestimate the amount of work that needs to be put in to properly prepare two to three cases per day, each 10-60 pages in length. Not only do you have to read the case, but you also need to prepare answers for discussion group questions. In parallel, you will be working on your consulting project in an emerging market (as part of FIELD 2 in the first semester) or creating a micro business (as part of FIELD 3 in the second semester). The practical project work is almost certainly going to put you out of your comfort zone, adding to the intensity of the experience.”

For Dosani, the Harvard experience was about becoming less self-conscious and learning to speak up, knowing the real risk comes with your reservations. “No one remembers a comment for more than 2 minutes after you make it,” she explains. “Sometimes not even that long. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand and say what you are thinking, and don’t beat yourself up afterward…Put yourself out there with reckless abandon.”

On the plus side, Szczerba shares, HBS comes with 900 peers (and 90 people in your section). Beyond clubs, there are plenty of opportunities to socialize, including “dinner with professors, section get-togethers (e.g., murder mystery dinner or charity evening), society drinks, outdoor activities, recruitment events, or hearing impressive accomplished people (e.g., Chelsea Clinton, Peter Thiel) speak.”

That said, Dosani believes students gain the biggest return from focusing on “quality over quantity” in building relationships with peers. “You will always be able to reach out to ANYONE in your section and ask for anything, at any time down the road. You have that privilege just by sheer dint of being a part of your section. So don’t feel like you have to spend your time trying to get close to people that you know you won’t ever talk to after RC year is over. Find the two or three or four people that you really care about and invest in spending time with them. Ask yourself: “Who would I want to keep in touch with or take a trip with many years after graduation?” Those are the people you should spend most of your time with.”

At the same time, Dosani cautions against the temptation against trying to do everything. “FOMO is real, but you can manage it. Before doing anything, ask yourself: “Deep down, do I really want to do this / go to this event / attend this party? Would I rather be sleeping or going to the gym?” Listen to the answer. Then, when FOMO inevitably rears its ugly head, remind yourself that you are taking care of yourself instead of doing something you think you “should” be doing. It’s always a better choice.”

Finally, Dosani concludes, never forget that you belong at Harvard for a reason. “When you feel like you don’t fit in, can’t figure out FIN for the life of you, and don’t see things the same way as other people, just remember that’s the value you bring to the table. And other people are definitely feeling the same way—you’re not alone.”

To get a step-by-step walkthrough of HBS interview prep, click here. To get 10 tips on your HBS essay, click here.

DON’T MISS: Meet Harvard’s MBA Class of 2017

Sources: Harbus, Beat the GMAT (Courtesy of Harbus)

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