No, But Seriously. What’s Harvard Business School Truly, Actually, Really Like?

What do you really know about Harvard Business School?

How much do you think you know about Harvard Business School? Hollywood gives us one impression: 1920s-style-perfectly-coifed-oil-slicked-hair, elbow-patched-tweed-jacket-pipe-smoking white guys who laugh amongst themselves at people who don’t own yachts.

Then there’s the school brochure version, which insists on a different impression: “Look at how ethnically diverse we are! Hey guess what, we care about improving the world, and not just about money!” And of course there’s the general word-on-the-street impression, which goes something like this: “HBS? They’re all cut-throat, sharky, power-hungry mercenary egos who end up on Wall Street and suck the earth dry!”

So, which is most accurate? We were curious to get some authentic insights, so we went straight to the source: our badass team of MBA admissions consultants. We grabbed a bunch of HBS grads, tossed ‘em in a cold, drab room with a naked light bulb swinging from the ceiling, and grilled ‘em for hours.

Which is to say … we asked them to tell us about Harvard Business School and they obliged. What we wanted most was honesty — grimy, rosy, or somewhere in between. So we allowed our guys to offer insights anonymously in order to provide truths without reservation. Below, you’ll find unvarnished insights about HBS from the people who know it best. As you’ll find, not all answers (or experiences) are in perfect alignment, but that’s kinda the whole point.

Question #1: Let’s start easy. What were the PEOPLE like? It’s like our parents always taught us: if you don’t have anything nasty/judgmental/dismissive to say, don’t say anything at all! Every program has saints, as well as d-bags. What are Harvard’s like?

“The people were MUCH nicer than I thought. I almost didn’t go to Harvard because I feared people would be too cut throat and I wouldn’t fit in. Nowadays, not only are some of my best friends HBSers but I am married to one. […] It’s important to point out that the HBS grading system does not encourage competition. 75-80% of the class gets the same grade (2), 5-10% get 1s and 10-15% get 3s. Basically, everyone receives the same grades, engendering a non-competitive spirit.”

“Far more impressive and ‘good’ than you might imagine — I was really blown away by how friendly, open and generally cool the people in my section and the school were. I was impressed by the ability of HBS to weed out the overly arrogant, unstable, sociopathic and painfully neurotic — 99% of the people I met were memorable for something beyond their career. It flakes apart a bit in the second year and becomes more of a self-selecting social scene, but for the most part, it was a very fun and collaborative place. I’ll put it this way — I would gladly have a beer with 98% of my classmates.”

“I think the school is less competitive than I would expect since 90% of the class won’t be graduating with ‘honors,’ so most of us are not competing with each other. However, some people could be very judgmental due to the constant need to seem ‘cool,’ having an ‘awesome’ life and being successful, so the overall environment could be a bit overwhelming.”

Question #2 (Two-Parter):

(2a) First, quickly describe the Cold Call experience.

“Honestly, I have never been cold called because I am a fairly vocal person and professors tend to cold call those who haven’t said much … but basically, cold call is the first answer in every class where the professor calls on one student to describe the key features of the case-of-the-day.”

“The cold call is a 5-8 minute exercise where the professor puts one student in the role of the case protagonist and has her ‘open the case’ (what are the key facts, what decision would she make and why, etc.). This happens while the rest of the class settles in and finishes their morning coffee.”

(2b) Now, tell us what you hated or loved about it?

Here’s what I hated about it:

“On the very few occasions when someone isn’t prepared, it is REALLY hard to watch. It’s a public shaming in front of an audience of 90 people who will be a huge part of your network in the future.”

“By second year you don’t even really think about it. It gets a little rote. Sometimes people showboat or try to get through it on a case they haven’t read which can be a little painful, but for the most part there wasn’t really anything I hated about it.”

Here’s what I loved about it:

“[1] It established a norm from day 1 around coming to class prepared (or… at least having read the case). HBS isn’t a competitive place, but people take class/learning seriously and discussions were better because most people had done the reading and tried to refrain from BSing when they hadn’t. [2] It built camaraderie – sometimes it went well, sometimes it’s a train wreck and sometimes it’s hilarious (some of the best classroom quotes and section jokes came out of cold calls), but everyone goes through it and it’s always an interesting way to start class (even the boring cases). [3] It really does train you to respond when you’re put on the spot (and professionally I have been on more than one occasion) – by your second year, you don’t even really think about it.”

Question #3: What assumption did you have about Harvard going in that was wildly, wildly OFF?

“That I wasn’t good enough to be there and was going to have to study really hard to keep up. Honestly, HBS is a LOT less demanding than strategy consulting. I dedicated fewer than 40 hours per week to school and ended up doing quite well.“

“I had pretty low expectations for the people — I was positive they would be competitive, networky finance/consulting career ladder focused (and I went anyway, not sure what that says about me). What actually happened? The people blew me away — they were introspective about what they wanted to do and how they wanted to contribute and about what kind of people they wanted to be, and usually not in a self-indulgent way.”

Question #4: Naturally, you know MBAs from other programs. Anything about THEIR experience you’re kinda jealous of?

“Wharton has a leadership development trip before classes start which sounds AMAZING. My friends went to Antarctica and said it was an unforgettable experience.”

“You can feel slightly short-changed in the first year or two [after B-school] by the case method, but I think it pays off tremendously later. Also, places like New York or the Bay Area have a touch better exposure to their captive industries than Boston/Cambridge, but it’s a minor point.”

“Due to the case study method, HBS can be a very stressful experience for some people. I am jealous of a more laid back MBA program. Also, at HBS we spend too much time on campus and far away from downtown restaurants, markets, and stores.”

“Many programs, including Wharton, got Fridays off from class!  That was not a thing at HBS.”

Question #5: Okay, someone gives you a magic wand with which to identify a major FLAW with Harvard Business School, and suggest a smart fix to it, right here right now. Go.

“HBS didn’t prepare me to face sexism and racism in the workplace. We have an amazing leadership class where we discuss several leadership challenges but never this aspect. I would include a few classes on that. Also, HBS doesn’t teach you the basics of finance, marketing, etc. It really assumes you have previous knowledge. There is an analytics course and a TA available for help, but my friends who had no business background really struggled.”

“I still think the case method isn’t the best way to learn finance or accounting for ‘newbies’ – I look back now at cases that had brilliant lessons that I understand now but didn’t quite ‘get’ back when I was a student. Also, making negotiations an elective is cheating students. Finally, I would perhaps revamp some aspects of the career services group – while it’s world class in some respects, I don’t think they do enough to pragmatically prepare career switchers for interviews and job skills. We learn to be leaders 10 years after graduation, but can be deficient as ‘grinders’ Year 1 post-graduation.”

“Second year course selection, total pain in the neck — didn’t really understand the system until someone told me it was identical to Fantasy Sports drafts. I have no doubt this is the proven, most efficient way to do it, but I would add more sections for Negotiations and some of the other popular classes. I’d also probably make the first year sections 60 people instead of 90. 90 is perhaps too big a number.”

Question #6:  If you could travel back and VISIT yourself on Day 1 of business school at Harvard, what advice would you give the younger, fuller-haired, slimmer-hipped you?   What would you say to help you get even MORE out of the experience, or something that might have led to a different/better outcome?

“I would have told myself to choose classes and extracurricular activities that would help me achieve future goals. Having fun and learning about new things was a HUGE part of the MBA experience for me since I was a business major in college, had experience in strategy consulting, and was sponsored and had an offer post-MBA. So instead of choosing classes and activities that would help me in the future, I chose the ones that I thought were the most FUN. I definitely enjoyed it a lot but I wasn’t prepared for the professional decisions I was about to face.”

“Just a bit more incremental work can get you “honors” — don’t be afraid to hit the books slightly harder and ask the professors questions rather than just get by with a 2. Go on all those weekend trips and retreats with people you don’t know as well. Also, this is a great time to learn and get connections into an industry you like — go outside of the ‘functional’ focus and use this once-in-a-lifetime experience to get exposure to the industries you want to work in 10 years from now. If you don’t know, start thinking about it.”

“Don’t worry if you are the last person to get a summer job, go to Peru over spring break. And here’s a corollary: do what you want to do, don’t do what you don’t want to do. And last but not least: The dating pool gets larger when you leave business school. Trust me.”

“Take risks. Don’t worry too much about other people’s opinions and don’t do things just because the ‘herd’ is doing it.”

“Get to know your professors even more since it’s hard to meet as many brilliant minds once you get out of school.”

Question #7: What was your coolest memory/lesson from OUTSIDE the classroom and squarely OUTSIDE anything “business” or “business-school”-related?

“I travelled a TON while at HBS and the treks organized by students are some of the best trips of my life. Meeting a former head of the Mossad (Israeli intelligence agency), visiting a Toyota factory in Japan, meeting a group of amazing relief workers in Tanzania and visiting a school in a remote village in India are some of my most memorable non-business experiences.”

“The clubs and activities outside of business school are incredible — as is living in the city of Boston for two years. Enjoy them, and pursue them as much as possible.”

“What comes to mind are actually the things that I’ve gotten to do after HBS as a result of the friends I made there, just by visiting them in their day-to-day jobs in their new worlds … like go on surgical rounds at a New Zealand hospital. If you’re mildly athletically inclined, the Charles River will turn you into a runner. I signed up for the HBS Student Association 5K one year and realized halfway through that it was actually a 5 mile race, decided that running the Boston Half with my roommates would be great and am now 11 states into a goal of running a half marathon in every state.”

Well that’s a wrap. Here are our takeaways:

  1. Disappointingly, few folks at Harvard seem to row on the Charles while wearing tweed jackets and berating “the help” — that Hollywood archetype seems to ring false. Better for “life,” worse for comedy.
  2. Interestingly, most seemed to respect and benefit from the cold-call/case method. Seems to prepare people for a very particular real-life skill of being well-researched and being able to articulate thoughtfully on a topic, on your feet.
  3. Students also seemed nicer and less mercenary than we might have expected based again on that Hollywood/rumor-mill thing. Again, the gossip girls in us secretly wanted a completely cartoonish reality for no reason other than “it would have been more fun that way.” Alas, folks seem frustratingly normal and cool. Harvard Business School 1, TMZ 0.

Truly, we were a little crestfallen about how normal the responses were. We were hoping for scandalous insights, but the fact that there weren’t any (after some arm-twisting) may be the biggest takeaway of them all. Maybe HBS is as great as everyone thinks, but ultimately … normal. On the one hand, it’s pretty obvious that just about every individual at HBS is at or near the top — worldwide — with respect to intellectual curiosity, ambition, talent, etc. But on the other hand, having caught the vapor off these responses, and having recently polled other MBAs from other top business schools, it also seems true that Harvard doesn’t have a monopoly on finding and cultivating talent.

Stay tuned for our follow-up article on how other folks from other top MBA programs answer these exact same questions, and see for yourself if there’s something unique about Harvard grads, or not. Spoiler Alert: there don’t appear to be any ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ parties at any top business school.

Jon Frank is the co-founder and CEO of Admissionado, a premier admissions consulting firm. After graduating from Harvard Business School, Jon spent some time fulfilling the post-MBA goals he wrote about in his apps and worked in real estate development. Not too long into that, he realized that he’d much rather team up with his best friend to help people around the world change their lives. And so Admissionado was born. Since 2007, the Admissionado team has reviewed over 30,000 applications and sent students to top programs in the U.S. and around the world. After (proudly) hitting that milestone, Jon’s next goal for 2017 is to eat as many bowls of mac and cheese. Game on.