An Incoming Harvard MBA Candidate Describes How To Design A Winning Application

Looking for advice on drafting a winning application to Harvard or another elite school? Look no further.

May 30th, 2018 was Decision Day — the day when I would know my fate.

Two weeks earlier, I had interviewed for Harvard Business School via its 2+2 deferred admissions program. Now, as a friend and I boarded a flight from Paris to London, I checked my phone for news of a decision.

It was 5:40 p.m. local time. Decisions were scheduled to be released at noon in Boston, which meant 6 p.m. where I was located. With no news as I boarded the plane, and with no Wi-Fi on the aircraft, I had to wait until I landed to either celebrate or be met with disappointment.

No matter the outcome, I knew that I would eventually end up at Harvard Business School. If I got the unfortunate news that I did not receive admission, I would devise a plan to reapply after a few years of work experience. HBS was my dream institution.

I was going to get in.

When my friend and I landed, we took a train to the hotel and I tried connecting to the Wi-Fi. I saw a voicemail pop up from a random phone number, but I could not open it for some strange reason. After trying to connect to the application portal for a few minutes, I saw my decision — “Dear Abdi: Congratulations and welcome!”

At this point, I felt a mixture of happiness and relief; it was surreal. I went on to read the rest of the acceptance letter and hugged my friend.

I was ecstatic to tell my family when I arrived back home. It was one of the best weeks of my life.

A screen shot of the acceptance message Abdi Sherif received from Harvard Business School in 2018.


It still feels surreal two years later as I prepare to start my journey at Harvard Business School. When I re-read my official admissions letter, I’m still struck with a combination of happiness and relief.

The happiness may seem obvious to everyone, but the relief is something only a select few will understand well. Anyone who has gone through the MBA application process knows how grueling it can be. A massive amount of time and energy goes into test preparation and essay writing.

My personal journey to HBS started early in my sophomore year at Carnegie Mellon University. After more than two years of working on my own application and helping others craft winning applications to the MBA programs of their choice, I developed a playbook for designing a successful MBA app. Here is my five-point approach, inspired by my career in product management:

  1. Treat your desired MBA program as your customer and your application as the product you are developing for your intended customer. Do you understand your MBA program’s needs? Most will have a What We Are Looking For page, where they list the attributes of their desired candidates. Have you read your MBA program’s mission? What is their goal? What is your unique value proposition and how do you differentiate from other competitive candidates? How do you plan to leverage specific resources at your MBA institution, and how do you intend to provide value to the world after graduation? These are all questions you should think about in your period of introspection before you put pen to paper.
  2. Aggregate profile data of successful applicants at your desired MBA programs. Poets&Quants is the best resource for this task, but you can conduct research on other platforms for additional insights. After gathering profile data, you should display convergent thinking and group similar profiles under personas that generalize a group of profiles. When you create persona profiles, you start to discern patterns in your data. Find the persona that seems most similar to you and reach out to those people for conversations. LinkedIn is a great tool. Most people are willing to share their advice. Moreover, these connections may turn more fruitful and you may form a relationship with a mentor or classmate before business school that can guide you on your journey if you are successful with your application.
  3. Display divergent thinking and ask yourself: “What really sets me apart from those with similar profiles?” What is your unique value proposition? What is your unique story? Once you have figured that out, it will be your main selling point in your application. You want to make sure everything in your application is centered around that idea. Consistency is key — make sure your recommenders are in sync with the theme you are trying to communicate.
  4. Prioritize your strengths and evaluate your weaknesses. Try to mitigate your weaknesses well in advance of your application and take action to show growth. For example, if you did not take many quantitative courses at your undergraduate institution, you may want to take a few quantitative classes at another institution before applying, to show that you can handle the rigor of MBA classes in such areas as finance. Also, you will need to do well on the quantitative section of the GMAT or GRE. The top MBA programs receive thousands of applications from very competitive candidates around the world, so you will want to make sure that every aspect of your application is strong. The admissions committee may turn a blind eye to one weak area if the rest of your application is stellar, but you are pushing it if more than one aspect of your application is subpar.
  5. Likeability. Coachability. Honesty. People do business with who they like. MBA programs are training future leaders of tomorrow. When it comes to the interview, are you who you say you are? These are important things to consider when applying to any MBA program. Make sure to display thoughtfulness and an executive presence in all of your communications with the admissions committee. Every interaction is an opportunity to make an impression, so effective communication is of utmost importance.

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