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

Harvard Business School. File photo


I frequently receive messages from candidates all over the world who seek guidance on crafting a winning MBA application to the institution of their dreams. I run a nonprofit, Easy Entry Group, aimed at providing educational and informational equity to minorities and marginalized communities in the hopes of increasing their access to opportunity. We work in three key areas: Undergraduate Admissions, Internship and Full-Time Job Search, and MBA Admissions.

During my conversations with these candidates, many questions arise repeatedly. Here are some frequently asked questions I receive, with my answers below:

Q: What is the minimum Graduate Management Admission Test score I need to receive admission into a top MBA program?

A: While there is no minimum GMAT score that will secure you admission into a top MBA program, a very low score may severely undermine your chances of getting accepted. Admissions committees take a holistic view of MBA applications, and the GMAT is only one data point. However, a low score may signal that you won’t be able to handle the academic rigor of an MBA program.

Based on the candidates I have worked with, most students who score between 680-750 on the GMAT receive an acceptance from one of their top-choice MBA programs. However, I have also worked with successful applicants who have scored less than 600 on the GMAT and less than 310 on the Graduate Record Exam.

Q: Should I take the GMAT or GRE?

A: I hate to give the standard consulting answer here, but it depends. About 90% of MBA programs will accept GRE scores, but you should look at the application requirements section of your target school’s website to determine whether you have a choice between the two examinations. While you should have a clear intention on why an MBA is the best investment for you in the next two years, if you are applying for multiple types of degrees — such as in a joint-degree program — it might be wise to take the GRE. You might also want to take the GRE if you struggle with the quantitative section of the GMAT, as the GRE is composed of comparatively easier quantitative questions.

Lastly, the GRE may serve better for those who find both exams extremely difficult. Students who take the GRE are able to change their answers to questions within a section, but once you submit an answer to a question on the GMAT, there is no going back. Your answer is locked. In addition, since many MBA programs have only started recently accepting the GRE in lieu of the GMAT, less data on competitive GRE scores is available.

Q: What are the standards for international students? Is it harder for an international student to receive an acceptance at a top MBA program?

A: My advice here is to focus on what you can control. You cannot control whether you are an international or domestic candidate. In addition, there are no quotas for domestic candidates at the top MBA programs. Like I mentioned before, MBA programs will share what they are looking for in prospective candidates. Look at those characteristics very diligently and be purposeful in the experiences you undertake. For example, if an MBA program is looking for consistent leadership, make sure you understand its definition of leadership and exhibit those values habitually.

Q: What are some tips for writing an effective essay?

A: You want the admissions committee to say, “We have to take this candidate!” To achieve this strong exclamation, convey the characteristics that the MBA program is looking for in their candidates, through a story that portrays a consistent theme that is unique to your passion. Stories are memorable, and the admissions committee goes through thousands of applications of high-achieving individuals every year. You need to stand out from other competitive candidates and there is no better way to do that than a story.

Q: Is it safe for international students to come to the United States to pursue their education during the coronavirus pandemic? What is the value of a virtual MBA?

A: Many MBA programs are opening campuses to students but holding virtual classes. Follow the safety guidelines set forth by your institution and the state in which your institution resides. Thanks to the present state of technology, members of your community can still connect in many ways. While nothing beats in-person communication, platforms like Zoom provide adequate alternatives. MBA programs have had the chance to experiment with a virtual format with their students in the spring, and they are bringing their experience to the classroom in the fall. In addition, many MBA programs are incorporating new initiatives to the academic and social experience.

Lastly, learning how to manage in a crisis is invaluable — and there is no better way to acquire this skill set than to engage with thought leaders who have conducted a plethora of research on the topic.


When I received admission into Harvard Business School, it was one of the greatest moments of my life. I strongly believe an MBA degree can be a catalyst for you to make a difference in the world and connect with lifelong friends who will be doing the same.

I hope my advice is helpful on your journey to gain acceptance into the MBA program of your dreams. I wish you the best of luck.

Abdi Sherif has written about his experience applying to Harvard at Medium: My Harvard Business School Acceptance Story. He invites those with questions about the application process to reach out and follow him and Easy Entry Group on both LinkedIn and Instagram (@kingsherif10, @easyentrygroup). Gaining entry into the school or role of your dreams should not be hard, it should be Easy! If you are a minority and looking to gain admission into a top MBA program, sign up for a consultation on our website. Our team is looking forward to working with you. And if you would like to support our mission, please consider donating here. We appreciate your generous contributions.

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