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

HBS image


Harvard Business School Online’s CORe program has its detractors. On a recent comment thread on Reddit, a graduate of the program offered a comprehensive list of pros and cons, saying that while CORe has high production values, terrific cases and insights, and a format that “keeps you on your toes,” it lacks depth — “the takeaways can be done with about 30% of the content and time that goes into it” — and enough oversight to thwart online cheating.

“The answers are all online pretty much,” making it “easy to find the answers to the questions, making it also easy for people all around the world to fool the system into getting honors or high honors, at least on the online portion,” Reddit user theseguysiswear posted in August, adding that “The level at which this is taught does NOT go far beyond a great high school course in the same subject taught by an excellent teacher.” The user concludes:

“Honestly, if you are an aspiring MBA student, which I am not, I am an aspiring entrepreneur who’s doing a masters in science/engineering, I would say don’t do it. It’s hard to find a justification for this level of learning at that price and effort required.”

Dawna Clarke does not agree. The executive director of admissions
 at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business says she has spoken with hundreds of students who took the program and heard only “overwhelmingly positive things,” particularly about how Harvard makes the content accessible to those with less of a business background, and less business acumen.

“I believe it is intended for non-business majors to gain exposure to basic business skills,” Clarke tells Poets&Quants. “I love that Harvard Business School has made this program available to the masses. I think that reflects well on HBS, which made a significant investment in the technology to launch this program. I’m impressed with their willingness to provide an elite brand certification to the masses for a very reasonable price. The cost of HBS Online is about the same as a Manhattan Prep class. I’d rather see an applicant take HBS Online due to its relevance to a first-year MBA curriculum.”


Dawna Clarke, Courtesy photo

Clarke, too, learned about Harvard’s CORe through a family member. Her son, Josh, had majored in environmental economics at Middlebury College and his first job after graduation was in private equity for BlackRock, the New York-based investment management company. “He felt some additional business background would be helpful in his position as an analyst and as he researched options, he found out about HBX CORe and applied for it. He loved it.”

Over the past five years, as HBX became HBS Online, Clarke began to encounter applicants to Darden who had taken the CORe program, first a few, eventually hundreds. “I’ve only heard great things about it.” She also saw elements of the program herself while participating in a webinar with HBS Online’s faculty and staff. “They did a lot of research about how to keep online learners engaged,” she says. “What I recall was that they change the delivery method every 3-4 minutes, so you might see a faculty member lecture for a few minutes, then see a chart, followed by a video, etc. I was very impressed with its high production quality and the relevance of the courses that are taught to preparing for an MBA program.”

Clarke says she sees many benefits to MBA applicants who take CORe. It’s a great way to get exposure to quantitative courses or business classes for those who haven’t had it. It’s also a great way for applicants to provide alternative evidence that they are prepared for business school.

But she also sees HBS Online’s CORe as a way to buttress an application for someone who doesn’t test well. “Some otherwise stellar applicants don’t excel with regard to their performance on standardized tests,” Clarke says. “For applicants who have given the GMAT or GRE their best try and aren’t happy with their score, completion of HBS Online is a great alternative to demonstrate one’s capabilities. It’s extremely well-respected.”

It’s also a signal of real commitment, she adds. “It’s a great sign of one’s motivation. My understanding of HBS Online is that it’s an estimated 150-hour commitment. For prospective students who are already juggling significant responsibilities and hours at work, I interpret the completion of HBS Online as an incredible sign of one’s motivation, as it’s a huge commitment.”


Justin Morant. Courtesy photo

For Justin Morant, HBS Online was an easy commitment to make. He signed up for it after being accepted to Harvard’s MBA program, which he began this fall.

Morant graduated from Cornell University in 2014 as an American studies major, then worked at Mastercard for five years, most recently in the firm’s London office. Having already committed to apply to HBS — and only HBS; he didn’t have a safety school — Morant learned about the CORe program a few months before. He would have taken it before applying but “unfortunately, timing did not align for me to take it at that time.” Once he got admitted to HBS, however, it was a different story. “It was highly recommended that I take the courses given my liberal arts background and limited exposure to such topics. Once I started taking the courses, I loved them. I even took the finance for managers one after completing CORe on my own thanks to the company I worked for.”

Does he feel the course prepared him well, now that he is in the thick of his first year at HBS?

“Given my liberal arts background, I did feel that CORe would serve as a ‘pre-MBA’ course before HBS by helping me to improve my quantitative skills,” Morant tells P&Q. “While it fulfilled that goal, it also pushed my thinking about business problems and questions more broadly. I found myself asking questions in meetings at work or analyzing article writeups about a company in a way that I hadn’t done before.

“In my first semester here at HBS, I do feel like both CORe and the finance course I took prepared me, given my background.”

Morant cites the deadlines as having a particular impact. Time management became essential, something that is definitely also a major part of his life at HBS.

“The time commitment was a serious one,” he says. “I was working full-time and taking the courses. On average, I spent between 15 and 20 hours per week on the course over the 10 weeks. The time involves going through the module videos, some potential cold-call pop-ups on concepts, providing your perspective on a topic, reviewing notes, and the weekly quizzes. While it may seem like a lot of work — which it was — I think the method in which it’s taught makes the content far more engaging. Having practitioners share real-life examples throughout the modules, in addition to the way professors taught the content, made it very interesting to understand and get through.”


There are other pre-MBA programs out there, through Coursera, EdX, and GMAC, as well as programs at HBS’ peer schools at Stanford and MIT, that cater to admitted MBA students, prospective students, or both. Online, such outlets as MBA IQ and MBA Math offer self-study options, while Training the Street and Wall Street Prep offers to teach the kind of finance analytics skills that are in high demand among the quant set. Those who have the mobility can attend boot camps through the MBA JumpStart Diversity Forums, the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, and Forté Foundation’s summer conferences. And of course, Poets&Quants organizes an annual pre-MBA networking event in New York City to give incoming students a head start on their internship and full-time job searches.

But for Dawna Clarke’s money, Harvard’s CORe beats them all for preparing students for the real challenges — and unique atmosphere of competition and teamwork — of a top school’s MBA program.

“I tell applicants that HBS Online is a great way to prepare for business school and it can be helpful in the admissions process as alternative evidence that you can thrive academically in an MBA program,” Clarke says.

Connect with Harvard Business School’s Online CORe Program

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.