What Does Harvard Business School Seek in Applicants?

What does Harvard Business School seek in applicants?

Harvard Business School is one of the most difficult business schools in the world to be accepted to. What is HBS looking for in their applicants besides great stats? Harvard lays out its criteria clearly, but presenting those qualities in your application can be challenging. Here are the things we stress when guiding our MBA clients to acceptance at Harvard Business School.

HBS Quality #1: Habit of Leadership

The Habit of Leadership doesn’t just refer to leadership in one project or in a single volunteer position; it is something that has become ingrained in you so that it becomes a character trait that you bring to your experiences. For something to be a habit, it must be:

  • Active: It is something you do, not something given to you (like a job title), or something you advance to (like a higher job title), or something you win (like a prize).
  • Automatic, a part of you: A habit can be innate or learned. You can be a “born leader,” or you can, by practice, learn the habit of leadership. Regardless of how it’s acquired, it’s now a reflexive, almost instinctive response to events around you.

Someone who has the habit of leadership shows it in all aspects of their life – in their family, with their friends, in school, in their community, and in their job. You see a chance to do something positive – to assume responsibility for an outcome – and you automatically start to reflect: “How can I make this happen? How can I help solve this problem?” Even if it’s “not your job,” you do what needs to be done.

The habit of leadership may sometimes appear hidden, since it is so much a part of a person’s nature. You may show your habit of leadership by guiding two parties in an argument to a solution, or by facilitating a compromise between oneself and another – in such cases, you may not overtly be showing your leadership skills, but rather helping others to feel like leaders themselves. At other times you may have to be very visible in defending an unpopular position, or convincing people to take a risk with you.

You need not only to possess that habit of leadership, but you need to express leadership in your application through stories and examples. Try to include it in your resume and interviews, and ask your recommenders to feature examples of your impact and influence in the letters they write for you.

HBS Quality #2: Analytical Aptitude and Appetite

Let’s take a look at each of the loaded terms in Analytical Aptitude and Appetite:

  • Analytical: This is one word that involves many things, including quantitative methods; different tools and processes, like decision trees and FMEA; and mental and intellectual objectivity, looking at the relationship between a whole and its parts and/or finding root causes.
  • Aptitude: This is your skills, whether instinctual or learned.
  • Appetite: This word has many different meanings – to enjoy, to savor, to yearn for, to hunger for – basically to have passion for an activity, cause, or intellectual pursuit.

Here are some questions that address your analytical aptitude and appetite.

  • Do you utilize objective analysis to interpret past events, to plan for future approaches, and to make decisions?
  • Do you value consequences verified by objective analysis, even when they don’t fit in with your preconceived notions or ideas?
  • Does your analytic mindset let you feel at ease with doubt?
  • Do you assist others in understanding and using analytic methods and thinking?
  • Do you have an effective use of language as an analytical tool? Are you the team member who can separate out the parts of the problem, explain them to your team, and have them understand each part’s importance?

How will HBS be able to see these qualities in your application?

  • Your analytic aptitude will come through in your transcripts, test scores, and resume. You should also feel free to highlight it in your essay, if it fits with your theme, and in your short answers.
  • Your appetite may come through on your resume, contingent on the kind of work you did. Encourage those writing your letters of recommendation to use stories or examples that show your analytical appetite.

HBS Quality #3: Engaged Community Citizenship

Engaged Community Citizenship is more than “volunteering” or listing “community service” somewhere on your application; it is a quality that you possess. Here is a breakdown of each element of this quality:

  • Engaged: You actively participate in the activity – with your heart, mind, and body. You participate in discussions because you care, not just to show that you are there. Your comments contribute to the discussion. You know how to listen and to communicate when you have something to say. You recognize that the organization, project, or person is the focus. It’s about them – not you.
  • Community: This includes every formal or informal group that you have a connection with. This includes your organization, team, or the business you work for. It can be your sports team or your social, religious, or political group. Your current school or alma mater could also be considered your community, as is your neighborhood, city, state, and country.
  • Citizenship: This includes a feeling of caring or ownership. This is what motivates you to engage with your community, and your actions reflect your caring. “Citizenship” means more than being an ethical and honest person. It implies commitment, caring, participation, and related to that habit of leadership, an assumption of responsibility.

You may use stories and examples of your engaged community citizenship in your Harvard Business School application essay. Your activity descriptions should also include anecdotes which show this quality, either directly or indirectly. Your letters of recommendation can illustrate this as well.

If lucky enough to be invited to interview at HBS, you should prepare anecdotes and examples for all three of these qualities. Remember that the HBS interviews are with interviewers who have thoroughly been through your application so you can’t just spit back what they’ve already read. Prepare additional examples to show that you fit at HBS and also be prepared to add to the examples and information provided in your application.

These tips will help you get started on your HBS application. For one-on-one guidance that will build on this foundation and get your application to the top of the “accepted” pile, check out Accepted’s MBA Admissions Consulting Services.


Accepted Admissions ConsultingCindy Tokumitsu, who has advised hundreds of successful applicants, helping them gain acceptance to top MBA and EMBA programs in her 15+ years with Accepted. She would love to help you too.