Is it possible to be a little on the green side to get into Harvard Business School? Absolutely.
The stats clearly show that if you have less than two years of work experience, you are at a significant disadvantage in applying to Harvard’s prestige MBA program, or for that matter, the full-time MBA program at any highly selective business school.
The major reason for this is pretty straightforward: A critical part of the learning process in a quality MBA program comes from student interaction and class discussion. If you haven’t been in the work world all that much, you will have little to say and even less to add to a robust and engaging debate. That’s even more true at Harvard, a case study school where half of your grade depends on class participation. And by class participation, we don’t mean making comments in class. We mean contributing valuable insights.
WALKING ON WATER
“Students must have interesting experiences to share in classroom discussions,” explains David White of Menlo Coaching, a top MBA admissions consulting firm. “They must have enough experience and transferable skills to appeal to employers. And it’s easier to absorb the leadership lessons if you have some leadership experience yourself.”
So it’s hardly a surprise that a candidate pretty much has to walk on water to get into Harvard’s MBA program with just a year or two of post-undergraduate work experience.
These days, it’s a little hard to know exactly how daunting the stats are because the school does not reveal the range of ages of students admitted into its MBA program. The average age of an MBA applicant who is admitted to the Harvard Business School is 27, with 54 months of work experience. Averages, however, often disguise wide ranges in data and can easily distort a large or small set of numbers.
THE ODDS ARE SEVERELY STACKED AGAINST CANDIDATES WITH ONLY A YEAR OR TWO OF WORK EXPERIENCE
Yet, in the recent past HBS would routinely publish a “histogram” that showed rather clearly the range of work experience and likely ages of HBS admits. The chart broke down each entering class by their years from college graduation. The last time one of these charts was made public was back in 2015 for the Class of 2017 (see below). While there were slight shifts in age over the years for the readers of tea leaves at HBS, the numbers pretty much stayed the same. So it is a good bet that the Class of 2017 data provides a good portrait of how age impacts admissions today.
The bad news for applicants just a year or two removed from their undergraduate studies? The odds are severely against you. In Harvard’s Class of 2017, only one student had a year or less of post-undergraduate work experience (the HBS numbers are for years out of undergrad and not exactly years of work experience). That is one out of 935 incoming MBA students.
It wasn’t much better over the previous five years worth of HBS classes. In 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2012, successful applicants with just a year of post-undergrad work experience numbered four a year. In 2013, there were just three. That’s less than half a percent of the past six classes for which data is available
ONLY 41 OF 935 STUDENTS IN THE CLASS OF 2017 ENTERED HBS WITH TWO YEARS OF POST-UNDERGRAD EXPERIENCE
What about students with two years of post-undergrad work experience? It’s a wee bit better, but not very. In the Class of 2017, there were 41 students out of the 935, or 4.4%, who had just two years of work experience.
More notably, the trend is against younger candidates. The 41 students in the Class of 2017 represented the low mark over a six-year period. The largest group in this category graduated from HBS in 2013 with 113 students having entered the MBA program with about two years of post-undergrad work experience. That is nearly three times the number enrolled in the Class of 2017.
Who gets through this tight filter? The answer could be even more deflating for mainstream students who want to attend HBS after a year or two of working in the real world. “One explanation is that they did not do college in four straight years,but dropped out, worked for two years, and re-enrolled,” says Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com, who closely reads the tea leaves of HBS admissions.
HOW REALLY SMART KIDS MAY BE ABLE TO OFFSET THEIR LACK OF WORK EXPERIENCE AT HBS
“So if you are guessing work experience by graduation date, those two years do not show up. Another explanation is that some of these students are military who then went to college after their service. And finally another explanation is just some really smart kids.”
In fact, applying to HBS with only a year or two of work experience is not all that dissimilar to applying to the school as a college senior through the school’s 2+2 deferred admissions program which admits applicants who then must go on to get two years of work experience before showing up on campus (see 2+2: A No-Risk Way To Apply To HBS?). “You really work with what you got,” adds Kreisberg. “Of course the 2+2 kids will also have MORE experience by the time they matriculate, but the application is similar.”
How to shift those formidable odds in your favor? “For #1, the person would have to have incredible pre-MBA experiences in order to be equally interesting as someone with longer experience,” adds White. “For #2, it could help to be sponsored, which guarantees one good job offer. Otherwise, providing evidence that you’ll get a great job would help. Applicants are only doing themselves a disservice if they find a way to sneak in, but have work experience that’s out of sync with what their target employers want, since they might then get poor recruiting outcomes as their more experienced classmates take the best jobs. For #3, people who have other leadership experiences through extracurriculars, entrepreneurial ventures, student government would pass this filter.”
Your best bet of gaining an admit as a younger applicant? Apply to the 2+2 program where the competition is tough but the acceptance rate of 11% equals the school’s overall admit rate for candidates.