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This HBS Program May Be The Best Way To Prep For Your MBA

She’s not sure where yet, but Lexi Whelan is on her way to an elite MBA program.

She’s got the CV. She’s got the grades and the GRE score. Crucially, she has the wherewithal to spend two years in a full-time residential program.

Even more crucially — she has the self-awareness to know how much an MBA will mean for her career.

But this could describe lots of people, and Whelan knows it. Which is why this year she got something extra to make her case — something that potential business school applicants increasingly see as an essential advantage in preparing for life in graduate management education, especially if they don’t have an undergraduate degree in business or a lot of relevant experience. Whelan is a graduate of Harvard Business School Online’s Credential of Readiness (CORe) program, a 10- to 17-week bootcamp of interactive learning, problem-solving, and decision-making skills development taught by HBS professors.

Every year since its launch in 2014, CORe has given thousands of MBA prospects like (and unlike) Whelan a head start on their intensive MBA journey. And like the MOOCs run by HBS, MIT, Stanford, and others, there is no admissions gatekeeper. To date, 70,000 students have completed an HBS Online program and nearly 28,000 have taken CORe; at any given time, between all available courses, HBS Online supports between 5,000 and 8,000 students in hundreds of countries around the globe. Nearly a third of the latest entering class of Harvard MBAs completed the program.

FATHER KNOWS BEST 

Lexi Whelan. Courtesy photo

Most discovered Harvard’s CORe through research or positive word of mouth, or through the recommendation of an adviser. Probably very few found out about it the way Lexi Whelan did: from her dad.

“My father is an HBS alum, and so throughout my life I’ve heard about how much it impacted his life for the better,” says Whelan, who currently works as a strategy director for a West Coast advertising agency, one of several leadership roles she’s earned since graduating in 2013 from Southern Methodist University. “I’ve been thinking about MBAs for a very long time. But I really wanted to take the due diligence and the time to really consider: Why go? Because it’s a huge investment in your time and your money and you want to go in with a plan.

“I had heard about CORe in 2014 through my father initially. He was like, ‘Hey there’s this new program. It seems really interesting. I know that you’re feeling like you want to learn some of these things. Why don’t you check it out?’ So that was actually a couple years ago, I think when it was still a little fresh, and it was actually still called HBX. And so I took the time, and I don’t think I was really ready for it at that point in my life.”

Whelan had studied psychology, anthropology, and sociology at SMU, but soon after graduation moved into marketing, working for Summit Series, a company that organizes conferences for young entrepreneurs and activists. Very quickly she discovered there were “a lot of gaps in my knowledge.” By the time she began work as a strategist for a big advertising firm a couple of years later, she was looking for ways to fill in those gaps.

“The further I got into what I’ve been doing, I’ve been able to be exposed to the way businesses operate,” she tells Poets&Quants. “And I just really got this hunger to understand what this was. So for me, I took the CORe program as sort of a way to arm myself with some of that knowledge now.”

‘THE INSIDE STORY’: PRACTICALITY IS BAKED IN

CORe has come to be seen as more than a complement to the school’s existing programs for those who have been accepted to HBS, which was one of its original purposes. Now, for many, it serves as a “pre-MBA” program that promises foundational knowledge for those who have not yet applied to B-school. Many, like Lexi Whelan, view it as the best possible preparation for the MBA classroom — any MBA classroom. “While our MBA program is focused on educating outstanding people with business experience who are looking to develop themselves as leaders, and our Executive Education programs are designed to further strengthen the capabilities of established leaders, CORe is designed to provide basic business fundamentals to segments of the population we’ve never directly addressed before: undergraduates, graduate students in non-business fields, and people who have just begun their first jobs in business but want a better foundation so they can thrive earlier in their career,” says HBS Professor Youngme Moon, former chair of the MBA program and a candidate to replace outgoing Nihtin Nohria as HBS’ dean. Some have even spoken of CORe, which immerses students in a series of multimedia case studies, as better preparation than the Graduate Management Admission Test — or even a possible future corollary to the GMAT and the GRE.

Launched in June 2014 as one of the first major initiatives of HBX (since renamed Harvard Business School Online), CORe’s mission from the start included a mandate to prep students for the rigors of an MBA, says Patrick Mullane, executive director of Harvard Business School Online who joined the program in November 2015, about a year and a half into its existence. Essentially, Mullane says, the program’s founders baked in the central goal of using the new platform to create content useful to HBS’ MBA program — and by extension, all MBA programs.

“The inside story is that when the school decided to do something online and it was trying to find the path forward, there was a decision made — which in retrospect I think was a great one — that look, if we’re going to do this, let’s at least make something we know we can use ourselves in the MBA program,” Mullane tells Poets&Quants. “And so there was always this idea that CORe could be used as our pre-matriculation primer for people who needed the help.

“We saw the more costly and cumbersome ways of doing it and took a pass. In fact, I went to the MBA program here back in 1997 and ’99, when I was in the military and had limited business experience. I was required to take some courses to get up to speed and they required me to come to a bootcamp before classes started here on campus. And you get trained but you also get worn out.

“We don’t do that now. We do all that through CORe and it usually works well.”

THIS IS HBS, SO EXPECT CASES

Patrick Mullane. HBS photo

The program has three courses: Business Analytics, taught by Professor Jan Hammond; Economics for Managers, taught by Professor Bharat Anand; and Financial Accounting, led by Professor V.G. Narayanan. There are weekly quizzes; all lead up to one final exam taken by all participants. So far so standard. But it’s in the teaching methods that CORe really departs from the norms of online business education, employing videos, animations, and interactive learning tools — but no lectures — to deliver what the school touts as a “fun and active learning experience.” Participants, in fact, are promised a different activity “approximately every three minutes.”

CORe’s instruction, like that of Harvard Business School for the last hundred years or so, is case-based, with firsthand testimonials from executives and entrepreneurs about real-world problems requiring solutions. And this being an online program, HBS has a massive social learning platform connecting learners from more than 100 countries in a global network of “online discussions, shared insights, and peer feedback” to help suss out those thorny cases.

“Having gone to a Catholic university, I come back to Thomas Aquinas who said about faith that for those who have it no explanation is necessary, and for those who don’t, no explanation will suffice,” says Mullane, who attended Notre Dame University as an undergrad. “Well, you can look at the case method very similarly: If you’ve experienced it, you get it and you almost universally love it, and if you’ve never experienced it, it’s very difficult to explain it. It’s difficult to explain to somebody how you’d learn about certain topics through basically storytelling about a protagonist, right? So I do think that we, given that we made our platform and started creating content for it, that North Star was the case method, which was very helpful for us.

“We said, ‘Let’s make sure that whatever we do online still has this case-based learning.’ I think it does a really good job of helping people understand what it’s going to be like, to learn through the stories of protagonists. It’s one thing to say about our accounting course: You’re going to know enough about accounting to be dangerous. You’re not going to become a CPA, because that’s not the intent of it.”

CORe can be completed in as few as 10 weeks or as many as 17; typically there are nine starts per year, Mullane says, with one every one to two months. Four current intakes are taking applications: The next, for the shorter program, which involves 12-15 hours of study per week, is in January, with an application deadline of December 30. Two “Extended CORe” intakes in February and March have deadlines of January 27 and March 23, respectively; these programs generally involve eight to 10 hours of study per week. The cost for CORe and Extended CORe is the same: $2,250. However, the shorter program also can be taken for undergraduate credit in addition to certification, and that program costs $3,680.

KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW & WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Even as much of CORe is focused on those who already have been accepted to an MBA program, particularly HBS’ MBA, many like Lexi Whelan take it to enhance their own qualifications to be admitted to an elite school.

Whelan earned her CORe certification this year. She plans to apply to Harvard Business School, but also to Northwestern Kellogg, UC-Berkeley Haas, and UCLA Anderson in round two in January, or possibly round three. After CORe, she says, “I realized that I did have a really deep desire to continue to understand these concepts and learn about them, and really practice them in the long run.” The program, she is quick to add, offered short-term rewards, too: equipping her with concepts to practice and the knowledge to speak more confidently on some subjects in her current job working in brand strategy with San Francisco-based creative agency Mekanism.

“I’m hopefully self-aware enough to know what I don’t know, and to know what I need to know to get to where I want to go,” Whelan says. “And a lot of that is these business fundamentals. So for me, taking the CORe program actually really sparked my interest in wanting to pursue my MBA because I was enjoying the learning, the concepts, the teaching method, everything about it — and the fact that I was proving to myself that I am really interested in these topics and I want to learn more. It was actually a really helpful catalyst to continue that conversation of me wanting to pursue my MBA and giving it a lot of thought.”