We all know one way to get into Harvard Business School. It goes something like this: Graduate summa cum laude from an Ivy, get a job at an MBB consultancy or top I-bank, ace the GMAT, and write a masterful application supported by glowing recommendations from alumni executives. Even all that doesn’t guarantee admission to a place like Harvard, but it’ll get you pretty close. Call this path “the frontest of doors.”
We’d like to talk today about some of the other doors. The ones that may not be as obvious, but are just as legitimate, in that they all lead to the exact same place.
You see, a majority of people at HBS don’t fit the profile we just laid out. Harvard reports that only 42% of students came from either consulting, financial services, or venture capital/private equity, and even in that 42% there are plenty of people with lower GMAT scores, less prestigious undergraduate alma maters, and all manner of other blemishes. We know how the “perfect” traditional B-school applicant gets in (being perfect!), but how about the rest of us?
After reading literally thousands of Harvard Business School applications, it is clear to us that the key element to Harvard admissions (and elite MBA admissions generally) is: an ass-kickingly compelling story, not to be confused with a garden-variety good or solid story. Candidates who have an excellent narrative, a story that shows that their success is virtually preordained, have a decent shot at getting into Harvard even if they lack the “ideal” pedigree. Most commonly, their leadership potential resounds, and empowers them to overcome many (though not all) obstacles.
To prove our point, we’d like to share with you three real-life stories from the last two years. These candidates compelled the Harvard adcom to open the gates for them, even though, on paper, their chances seemed very low. We’ve changed names and identifying details to protect our client’s anonymity, but the numbers, backgrounds, and other details are exactly what Harvard saw.
Case Study #1: How to Get into Harvard with a 660 GMAT and Limited Quant Skills
HBS reports a 620-790 GMAT range with a 730 median. Many B-school candidates with scores in the mid-600s hear that and give up hope. That’s a fair instinct—anyone who tells you that XYZ strategy can guarantee admission to HBS is lying to you, and doubly so if you have a 650 GMAT. Life gets a lot harder for HBS applicants under the 700-point line. But “harder” does not mean “impossible,” especially if candidates have that special something else going for them.
Meet Arnold, age 26, from South Africa. He had a decent GPA from a top 20 UK university and lived in California working for a tech giant you would certainly recognize. Prior to that, he founded and led a startup in South Africa, which unfortunately failed after two years. While Arnold’s record at his current employer was strong, he faced stiff competition from his fellow employees, hundreds of whom were also knocking at Harvard’s door. To get in, Arnold would need to convince HBS to pick him over peers who had the same brand name on their resume but also scored much higher on the GMAT.
Arnold’s first thought, before talking to us, was to emphasize the quantitative aspects of his work. By showing that he encountered and worked with large data sets in the office, he could prove that his (lower) quant GMAT score was a fluke, or at least not the whole picture. There was only one problem with this plan: Arnold’s job was not actually very quantitative. He worked on marketing and partnership deals with companies in his home region (Sub-Saharan Africa), but his role on the deal team was to offer local insights and finesse the pitch, not execute the quant-heavy market research and modeling. By focusing on the (limited) quantitative responsibilities of his job, Arnold was relegating some of his most important achievements to short answers and letters of recommendation.
That narrative—“It’s not as bad as it looks, trust me”—felt like a miss. We encouraged Arnold instead to think like an aikido master: don’t avoid the problem; accept the blow and redirect the energy. “Sure, I won’t be the strongest quant guy in the class, but I have [X factor] that proves I am prepared to succeed just as impressively after graduation.”
In Arnold’s case, that special sauce was his proven ability to construct powerful marketing narratives that appealed to African businesses and customers. Through a few compelling examples, Arnold turned the focus onto his potential to lead Big Tech’s expansion in Africa, a role that would be far more important than the product management your typical quant-focused techie might handle post-MBA. We knew this approach would have a special appeal to Harvard, which is eager to build more connections in underrepresented sectors like African tech entrepreneurship. It rang true, and Arnold earned the HBS admit, despite long odds.
Obviously, most people with a 660 GMAT can’t build their case on close connections to South Africa’s entrepreneurial community. But in our experience, every candidate has some kind of unique advantage that might fit best with Harvard’s institutional goals… it’s just a matter of figuring out what it is, and casing it just right.
To get you started in that direction, consider the following questions: What unique life experiences have you had – not just in your career, but in your childhood, your education, your family, etc. – that have shaped the way you lead, or the way you view the world? What soft skills make you really stand out at work? If you could hit the “reset” button on your career right now and go pursue your dream goal, what would it be, and why would YOU be the best person to go after it? The aim is to prove that you have just as good a chance of achieving “donated a building to HBS” levels of success as comparable candidates with a higher GMAT score. If you can do that, then the below-average score won’t be as much of an ankle weight.
Case Study #2: How to Get into Harvard at Age 31, From the Sciences
In the real world, 31 is early middle age. At HBS, being 31 means you’re a geezer. The acceptance rate for 31-year-olds at HBS was about two percent in 2015 (the last year data was released), a handicap roughly similar to a sub-3.0 GPA. On the flip side, old folks often have a lot of stories to tell. If anyone should be able to overcome the disadvantages of age through a strong narrative, it should be a wizened 31-year-old.
Meet Phil, GPA 3.6, GMAT 770, hailing from China. Phil had an awesome job: R&D manager at a CPG giant, responsible for a line of tasty treats eaten by millions of people every year. On that basis alone, he stood out compared to the herd of consultants and financial analysts in Harvard’s pool! However, it would be very hard for Phil to quantify the impact of his team’s complex scientific work on the business. While bankers and consultants can often just report their direct revenue impact or the size of their key contracts and transactions, Phil had to convince the adcom that they should get excited about tweaking a recipe or subtle changes to the shape of a product.
One of Phil’s responsibilities was to improve internal business processes within the R&D team. This was the most “business-y” aspect of his work, involving the implementation of new project management systems and training programs. Phil was eager to write a lot of words on these tasks, but as an R&D manager, they were his secondary responsibilities. Phil’s day-to-day was managing scientists in the lab, helping them pursue creative projects that might be useful someday but did not necessarily have immediate applications. By focusing on the few efficiencies he brought to the team, Phil was missing the real magic of his job: its focus on pure innovation.
We recommended that Phil instead lean into his role as an innovation specialist. Because of Phil’s comparative seniority, he had a strong managerial track record in this area. While many of his fellow applicants “talked the talk” about innovation (say, as members of consulting teams), Phil had actually “walked the walk.” Creating a culture of genuine creativity is very hard, and Phil had succeeded—that was worth emphasizing. Phil was not a number-cruncher or a sale-closer, but he was an expert at taking very ambiguous and uncertain situations and translating them into elegant, simple solutions. That, we argued, was at the basis of any truly revolutionary business. We supported this idea with an exciting and fleshed-out business plan for a new style of innovation consultancy in China. Phil already had the “special sauce” necessary to execute on this idea—he just needed some business fundamentals so that he could handle the money side of his new business.
The key to this win was leveraging Phil’s extensive experience into a plan for post-MBA success. If you’re proposing to start a business after graduating from HBS, you better have a good, well-thought-out pitch that feels plausible and compelling to the adcom. That’s a tall order—a good pitch is hard to craft, especially before you’ve been to business school. But if you can pull it off, and make the adcom feel like they have a unicorn founder on their hands, they’ll overlook almost anything. HBS bought it, and we bet they’re happy with their decision.
You don’t have to have a super-cool idea for your start-up company to grab the AdCom’s attention in the way Phil did. You might see a big opportunity to transform a particular industry from within, such as by helping top fashion companies to shift to sustainable sourcing, or by helping big automakers to shift to electric vehicles. Or perhaps you have an idea for a new product line or service that you think a Fortune 100 company could launch. The key point is to show that you have done your homework, given the idea careful thought, and developed the skills you’ll need to make it happen.
Case Study #3: How to Get into Harvard Without Ever Applying for a Single Job
A huge part of the advantage MBB and I-Banking applicants have is the fact that they have essentially been “pre-screened” by the HR departments at those elite firms. Case interviews and up-or-out promotion systems mean that every applicant from Goldman Sachs or McKinsey has a baseline level of readiness for B-school that may or may not exist in applicants from other companies. The deep alumni connections between “traditional” HBS feeders and the adcom are also very valuable—top consulting and finance applicants almost always have a glowing alumni letter of recommendation in their file.
What if you had… none of that? What if your recommendation wasn’t even written by a manager, because you’ve never had one in your life?
Meet Tim, age 29, GPA 3.7, GMAT 730, from the U.S. After a premature death in the family, Tim ended up in charge of a family real estate development company at a very young age. On one hand, he had leadership experience that few 20-somethings could even dream of. On the other, he had almost no experience working for someone who wasn’t related to him. Tim had to convince the adcom that he had a chance of succeeding, even though he had gained his position through inheritance, without any prior demonstrated interest in the industry, and could offer few objective evaluators to testify to his merit. (His recommendations were from clients—better than subordinates, but still people who might plausibly owe him money or favors.)
It was hard to resist spending most of our time on Tim’s headline accomplishments. He had executed an impressive turnaround of the family’s core business, in the face of brutal legal challenges and a complex probate proceeding. Tim’s ability to actually IMPROVE the company while coping with these challenges said a lot about his persistence and strategic perspicacity. However, this turnaround was inward-facing, revolving around Tim’s ability to efficiently lead his subordinates in the family business. To counteract the adcom’s fear of nepotism, we needed to see Tim interacting with outsiders and equals.
We helped Tim pick a set of stories that showcased his deep personal passion for the real estate industry. They weren’t necessarily the biggest things Tim had done, but they proved that he was deeply invested in the business and had his own ideas for how to take his business to the next level. The company may have been foisted on Tim in unfortunate circumstances, but we showed that he had done his level best to learn as much as he could about the industry. We also emphasized times that Tim had tasked himself with difficult work or had to deal with a difficult counterparty. Our examples proved that Tim was not averse to challenge and perfectly capable of navigating around difficult or unmotivated people. He may not have had the traditional preparation for a budding real estate heir (a decade or so working on real estate projects at major finance firms), but he was working to replicate that experience while leading his company.
This case really underscores the degree to which B-school admissions are determined by potential future success over all other considerations. GMATs, GPAs, prestigious employers, stellar LORs, and a well-argued essay are all proxies that attempt to answer one fundamental question: If we accept this person, will they succeed in business and bring glory (and donations) back to alma mater? Tim’s advantage was that he already had a business that was succeeding. That got him in the door, even with exactly average stats, coming from a competitive demographic, and nearly useless LORs. But who cares: scoreboard.
The key question to ask yourself here is: What are the specific highlights about me or my experience that show that I have what it takes to be successful in the future? Maybe it’s more conventional signals like undergrad reputation, test scores, or employer prestige, or maybe it’s something non-traditional, as was the case with Tim. It’s critical that you identify those elements in your own profile and bring them to the forefront.
There Are 700+ Unique Ways to Get into HBS
The HBS class of 2022 contained 732 students, out of a pool of 9,000+ applicants. Probably a few dozen of those students matched exactly with the “stereotypical” HBS candidate—perfect scores, perfect GMAT, big-name employer, super impressive leadership accomplishments, LORs from cool alumni. The rest of those admitted students didn’t fit that mold, and yet they all managed to gain admission just like Arnold, Phil, and Tim—by telling stories that highlighted their strengths, and proving their potential for likely (read: inevitable) future success.
Alex is the Managing Director of Systems & Content at Admissionado, a top admissions consultancy. Since graduating from Columbia University in 2013, he has worked with hundreds of MBA applicants on thousands of essays, helping his students maximize their MBA potential. From his base in New York City, he has written a wide variety of education-related reports, case studies, and articles, many of which can be found on Admissionado’s website and Amazon store.