Reading R1 Tea Leaves At Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School
Photo by John A. Byrne

Today was D-Day for round one MBA applicants at Harvard Business School who earned an interview with the HBS admissions staff. A little over half of the candidates who interviewed received an offer of admission, while most of the rest were turned down. A portion of those not accepted, of course, were given offers to join the school’s waitlist.

For those closely reading the tea leaves based on those decisions, there seems to be one conclusion: More traditional candidates from consulting, i-banking and private equity had a tougher time of it, particularly if they were white males.

“Consultants and PE types didn’t have the easy ticket even with great GMAT and undergraduate grades and decent leadership experience,” says Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions, who counseled nine candidates invited to interview. “Women are definitely doing better but you really have to be doing something that isn’t standard. People who work for real companies are doing better than consultants or investment bankers. Otherwise, you have to be off the charts to get noticed in some of these waves.”


Of her nine prospects, three women and one man gained offers of admission. One woman and one man were waitlisted, and three of the remaining men were dinged.  One of the men, says Massar, boasted “an absolutely gilt-edged undergraduate education, a strong GMAT, a job at the leading global investment banking firm and was now doing private equity.  Nobody here had headwinds on their GMATs. Of course, these are people who already got to the interview stage so they are already highly qualified. But it is still competitive. But your very traditional banker who goes into PE with good scores and brand names and a little leadership on the side is not guaranteed a spot right now.”

the MBA admission consultants at Stacy Blackman Consulting tend to agree. “I came to the conclusion that this was just an odd year for HBS,” says Esther Magna, principal MBA admissions consultant at Stacy Blackman. “Many consultants, including from McKinsey, chose to defer so there were fewer consultant slots available for next year’s cohort.” Another consultant noted that three of her Harvard dings, a pair of re-applicants with GMAT scores of 710 and 720 were turned down along with a first-time applicant to HBS with a 720. Yet all three were invited to interview at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

To a great degree, of course, admission decisions also reflect who is in the current MBA applicant pool. One Stacy Blackman counselor noticed  “a phenomenon I hadn’t encountered in such an overt way before — entire associate classes applying. So like four people from the same firm, same group, and often similar demographic backgrounds.” In trying to craft a diverse class, Harvard and any other business school will be more likely to deny admission to similar people from the same company.


Other consultants confirmed those tea leaves. “We did not see a lot of outright denies outside of the traditional pools,” says Judith Hodara, a co-founder of Fortuna Admissions. “We think that perhaps Harvard and Stanford may be hedging more than in other years for round 2 to see what comes in. Wharton will tell us more next week, but the prevailing sense is that of our non-finance types, we had more waitlisted and admits after-interview. Perhaps the schools, with a larger pool this year, and not necessarily interested in the round 3 go-round like last year, are keeping good prospects within arms reach.”

While Harvard Business School does not disclose applicant volume information until it enrolls its next class, admissions consultants expect this year to be among the most competitive ever. A surge in MBA applicants, due to the pandemic and the economic struggles it has caused, is expected to make getting an admit from an elite MBA program all the more elusive. That is especially true at Harvard more than any other school because it only has two application deadlines, the last of which was in January before the outbreak of COVID. As a result, HBS is one of the few schools not to have benefitted from a significant boost in applications last year. Instead, all the increased demand for Harvard’s MBA program is falling into this current admissions cycle. The school’s Round 2 and the final deadline is less than four weeks away on Jan. 5.

India’s leading MBA admissions consultant, Rajdeep Chimni, says his firm, Admissions Gateway, had R1 Harvard clients who went on to 22 interviews, 14 admits and five candidates who landed on the waitlist. “It’s a tough year with applications up,” he says. “We did see PE/VC struggle overall but five of our 14 admits were from PE/VC. Candidates with backgrounds in healthcare and developmental consulting did well. The number of waitlisted applicants are up so Harvard is perhaps unsure of what the R2 pool looks like. While we agree that its hard for people from the same company and background to get in in the same year, we had four people apply from a healthcare company in India and all four got in with a 5th deferred to this year.”

“Along with the increase in applicant volume, a higher percentage of our clients are not the ‘usual suspects’ of management consults, investment bankers, and people from PE firms,” notes Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange, another leading admissions firm.  “We still see a fair amount of clients with those backgrounds, but we’re seeing a wider breadth of industry backgrounds and functions within our client roster.  We’re seeing more clients with backgrounds in startups, tech, non-profits, the arts, etc., and coming from “non-traditional” industries such as hospitality, retail, entertainment, etc.  Given that these industries have been hit harder by the global pandemic, it makes sense we’re seeing more clients applying to business schools from these backgrounds.  It stands to reason that applicants from the more traditional backgrounds and industries applying to business schools this year make up a smaller percentage of the overall applicant pool.  So, fewer of them will be accepted if the business schools are reflecting this increased diversity of backgrounds and industries in the cohorts they are assembling for the next incoming class.”

Adds Magna of Stacy Blackman Consulting: “Dimensions of diversity was a key success factor for HBS admits for our round one client pool. Diversity with respect to citizenship, multinational exposure and/or under-served minorities were valued by HBS in round one. We’re seeing international experience playing an increasing role for HBS admissions. The range of industries was a priority too; we see a wider array of industries among our HBS admits inclusive of media, energy, tech, and education.


“Even among traditional applicants from finance or consulting, we had a strong placement rate to HBS when those applicants highlighted a compelling dimension or experience that showed appreciation for diversity, culture, and/or the global marketplace. In many cases, we are seeing that the typical feeder firms and/or brand name employers are not necessarily affording the ‘you-will-get-in-because-you-come-from-the-firm’ or ‘dealmaker’ leverage in the current HBS admissions process. Candidate identity, exposure, adaptability, and diversity overshadowed employer pedigree this season, so far.”

In R1 decisions among Menlo Coaching’s clients, founding partner David White says “the biggest development we saw was more dual admits compared to previous years, plus a handful where converting HBS WL status into offers would result in even more HBS/GSB cross-admits.  I will be curious to see whether both schools maintain their ~90% yields during this cycle.”

As disappointing as a rejection would be for a candidate who gained an interview, dings are a function of the entire admissions process. “If you interview ten people, you’ve got to reject four or five and only one of them is probably a screwup,” says Sandy Kreisberg, founder of “The rest are rejected for subtle reasons, reasons for which they would be embarrassed to articulate.  Make no mistake. If you are rejected after an interview, it was the interview that got you rejected. The interview is meant to reject people. They reject people who can’t speak English; they reject people who get lost during the interview which are quite a few, and they reject people who for various reasons they dislike.”









ike the male with a glamour unicorn company. He’s the right hand ear of this person.


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