P&Q Editor John A. Byrne Answers Reader Questions About The MBA

Harvard Business School


Does HBS look at pre-MBA founders favorably?

This is a question that frequently comes up between me and Sandy Kreisberg, a highly prominent MBA admissions consultant who does a column for us assessing the odds of MBA applicants to their dream schools. Sandy generally says no. I often disagree with him.

He generally thinks that admission officials are risk adverse and want evidence that an applicant has already been tested by going through a highly selective process of selection at the undergraduate level and then at one or two companies before applying for an elite MBA program. If you start your own company, there is no screen or filter to weed out the weak and make sure only the best people get through. So if you go the entrepreneurial route, the big question for a business school is what did you really accomplish? If you had venture backing, that helps a great deal.

I don’t disagree with this logic. But I think that more business schools are open to startup founders largely because entrepreneurship has become so popular at business schools and it is often encouraged by the schools which have put significant resources in this area of study. Obviously, the fact that you did a manufacturing business, rather than an app or something more frivolous, will count for something. The fact that you built the business to a stage where it could be sold is also worth bragging about in your essays and interviews.

But you really need to explain all this in our application—and if you had outside investors of any consequence that really does help. If you’re not familiar with Sandy’s Handicapping series on our site, you should check it out. It’s fun, entertaining reading but it’s also pretty much on the mark when it comes to assessing the candidacies of various applicants, including entrepreneurs:

Handicapping Your Elite MBA Odds


Is it worthwhile to do an MBA in Harvard?

If you are lucky enough to get into Harvard Business School, it’s pretty much a complete no-brainer to go. An MBA from Harvard is the quintessential business credential. I think it is safe to say it can open more doors to professional opportunities than any other experience.

Truth is, person to person, you will have a hard time meeting and interacting with people in your life who are as smart, ambitious, likable, and interesting than you will at the Harvard Business School. Never mind the incredibly supportive network that you will enter and benefit from until your death.

I noticed that another responder here cautioned you on the basis of student debt. That is total bull. HBS gives out $34 million in scholarship aid every single year to little more than only 900 students. No school is more generous than HBS. The result is that the average debt of an HBS graduate is far below many other peer schools.

Even if you have to go heavily into hock, the experience you will have is worth every penny. And generally the payback on your investment will occur in anywhere from only three to four years.

Not all that long ago, we got our hands on the results of a private survey of HBS alumni. It’s a fascinating look at what happens to the graduates of the world’s most prestigious business school 25 years after they earned their degrees. The reunion survey is an amazing profile of a class, a rich mosaic with both substantive and frivolous facts on everything from love, sex, money, disappointment and triumph. Check it out.

Love, Sex & Money: A Revealing Class Portrait of The Lives of Harvard MBAs


How can one get a full scholarship to Harvard Business School?

It’s not clear how many MBA students at HBS get full scholarships to the school. Harvard does not disclose this information. It does however, report that roughly half of its full-time MBA students receive fellowship support and that the average grant is nearly $33,000.

There’s only one real way to get scholarship support at HBS and that is by demonstrating need. So if you are coming from a well-paying job, forget it. It’s highly unlikely you’ll get much support, if any at all. You need to have a near empty bank account and have worked at a place that paid below what most students make pre-MBA.

In any case, what HBS is shelling out is expected to increase substantially over the next few years. Here is what we have written about scholarship support at HBS:

Harvard Boosts MBA Support To $33 Million


Can I get into Harvard Business School after finishing an undergraduate of economics in Harvard?

No. You would really have to be an amazing exception to get into HBS without full-time work experience. It has actually occurred in the past, but mostly in the earlier days of HBS. That is why Harvard has the 2+2 program to allow undergraduate seniors to apply to HBS for deferred admission. So I would recommend that you apply through the 2+2 program. Details here:

HBS 2+2: A No-Risk Way To Get Into Harvard Business School?


What is the “cold call” at Harvard Business School?

Cold calls are popular in all MBA programs but they are a core part of the culture at Harvard Business School. Essentially, a cold call is when a professor calls on a student in his or her class to give an answer to a question. The student doesn’t expect the call and if he or she turns it down it probably means the student was unprepared for the class and will get marked down. At HBS, 50% of the grade is based on class participation.

At HBS, most cold calls evolve around case studies which examine a business challenge or issue at a specific company. So a prof might start a class with a cold call to someone asking, what are the essential issues in case X. If you pass, it means you didn’t read and analyze the case you were assigned. Not a very good way to do well in class or impress your classmates.

And to put a little fun in this answer, I should let you know that the MBA student newspaper at Harvard often names the most attractive bachelors and bachelorettes and some of the most attractive are deemed “cold call kings.” So people who nail it when called on are often thought to be among the most attractive students on campus—not merely the best prepared or smartest (see below)!

The Sexy Foxes & Cold Call Kings Of HBS


Is it possible for an international student from a low income family to study MBA at Harvard with all cost of attendance covered by scholarships?

Absolutely. Harvard Business School has more scholarship money available every year fro MBA students than any other business school in the world: $33 million. To put that number in perspective, it means that HBS has more money to discount its tuition than most business schools have in their entire budgets! The school gives out free rides to people who really need it. In fact, there are no ‘merit’ scholarships at HBS. They are all ‘need-based’ fellowships.

Harvard Business School continues to pour more and more cash into MBA scholarships, increasing the average fellowship grant to MBA students by 3.8% last year to a record $32,919. That unprecedented level of financial support translated into 55.9% of the annual tuition of $58,878 last year. Even so, it was slightly under the average fellowship at Stanford Graduate School of Business which is now spending $35,343 per student.

Only five years ago, Harvard spent $26 million on MBA fellowships and the average annual grant was just $26,745, some $6,200 less than last year (see table below). Approximately half of the school’s MBA students currently receive fellowships.

By the way, we’ve done extensive coverage of MBA scholarships and have found that the Top 25 business schools alone hand out some $232.7 million a year in scholarships. Check out our entire series on MBA scholarships which also tells you how to swing the odds in your favor:

MBA Scholarships At Top Business Schools