Harvard is a place where the Masters of the Universe pulse through the campus with a regularity that never gets old. It is a place for bold ambitions, brilliant ideas, and a passion that drives the faculty, staff, and of course students; it’s a place where it almost feels as though the only limitation is imagination. That’s powerful. (And, of course, the stuff of legend.)
As a former Associate Director at HBS leading PhD admissions and supporting the MBA Interview Board, my love of Harvard comes from firsthand experience. And as an expert coach for Fortuna Admissions, I delight in supporting passionate doers with bold ambitions for making the best possible case for their candidacy. Doing so requires both profound self-awareness and a nuanced understanding of what distinguishes the Harvard MBA. So let’s talk strategy.
In my recent video conversation with Poets&Quants Editor-in-Chief John A. Byrne, we zeroed in on the three essential things every aspiring HBS candidate should know before applying – starting with what Harvard is looking for – along with deathly mistakes to avoid. Read on for my top tips on applying to HBS and view our full video strategy session or all the detail.
WHAT HBS IS LOOKING FOR: 3 KEY TIPS
1. Exceptionalism is a given, so show your difference.
What is HBS looking for? This is easily the most common question I receive about applying to HBS, and I’ll get straight to the point: HBS is looking for difference. They want to see evidence of impact, passion beyond the core measures of engaged community citizenship, appetite with aptitude, and leadership. Given the hyper-competitive applicant pool, your exceptionalism should be a given.
They do not want the “brochure-like” applicants who have simply sailed through life, for whom everything has gone their way. They want raw and real; and they want to know, beyond a baseline of credentials, what you can do to make a difference in the world. Not google-eyed aspirations, but a specific, tactical vision backed up by compelling reasons to believe this is not just who you are but what you are driving for and why.
2. Don’t brand yourself.
How can you show the admissions committee that you are really motivated? I review applicants through the lens of: Openness, Vulnerability, and Authenticity. Honesty is a profoundly powerful tool, and unfortunately, one that most applicants are afraid to lead within the process. However, this is precisely why telling your story in a way that zeroes in on your unique, competitive assets, is key. Most applicants do not. Thus, my advice is to avoid, at all costs, the temptation to brand yourself (which can veer into disingenuous self-projection). As soon as I hear applicants ask me about “building their MBA brand” I stop them. I do not know anyone excited about meeting a brand. You are not a business. Be real, be human, and don’t let your thoughtful preparation tip into an over-polished pitch. Reflecting on my time at HBS, as soon as I felt like someone was trying to feed me a prepped and prepared a pitch, whether in writing or in the interview, they lost authenticity and thus favor.
Frankly, honesty and vulnerability are the hardest things for many candidates to bring to the application. It’s not only more appealing, but it’s also necessary for success in the process. A rigorous set of reflections is required to get the HBS Admissions Committee’s attention. As alluded in tip one, it is hard, if not impossible to compete on accomplishments – HBS has seen it all. They want to understand what is driving you fundamentally, not just at work but in the life you are envisioning for yourself. They want to understand why the general management degree is the right move for you now, along with specific evidence from you that when passionate about something, you can make it happen. It’s simple – not easy, but simple.
3. Make the most of your HBS essay.
One of the most critical elements of your application is writing the HBS essay because it’s where you stand to bring this difference and uniqueness to life. Do not add color to your resume through the “resume to prose” essay; the model for success is often more focused on where you have been, where you are now, and where you are headed. This should be addressed through the multiple channels in the application, not just the essay, in a way that ensures your overall narrative is greater than the sum of each individual part.
While we don’t yet know if HBS is will change their essay, “What more would you like to share…” pay attention to the question and the essence of what is being asked of you. The word MORE is key. By the time they get to your essay, they will already know a lot about your career, education, and work experiences. Do not spend your essay rehashing what they already know or expanding further on what you did at your job and assume that will suffice to make it through the selection process. With a handful of exceptions, that’s almost always boring – your reader may not have any context for what your job is like, they want to know what YOU are like.
So, don’t be boring. Don’t be formulaic. Be real. How? A great place to start is to home in on the challenges that have been faced and overcome – that is always more interesting. Tell a story, in straightforward English (if you find yourself referencing a Thesaurus in your writing, stop). What is true is almost always more compelling. Of course, you should focus on what is relevant without rehashing what appears elsewhere in your narrative. Remember, this isn’t an essay writing contest. This is a search for authenticity and the truth. Being in admissions is part detective work, part psychology, part matchmaking – remember your materials are read by other humans, and you must find a way to connect with your reader to get traction.
MISTAKES TO AVOID IN YOUR HBS APPLICATION
4. Don’t try to fit the perfect profile.
One of the biggest mistakes – and most common – is trying to style yourself in the image of a friend or colleague who got in or imagining that applying that person’s approach will work for you. Know this: there is no perfect profile, and trying to project one will only undermine your ability to convey a narrative that’s genuine, confident, and distinctive. The HBS section of 90 only works when comprised of individuals from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.
5. Come from a place of confidence.
It’s understandable to feel intimidated but it is critical to know that HBS is a place of confidence over fear. Start with believing admission is possible, but only if the approach is unique and yours. This is scary for people. I often hear, “is it OK to say this?” To which I often reply, “it’s okay if it’s true, real, and relevant.” Also, remember there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. This is where your sincere reflection allows you to transmit authenticity over bluster.
6. Check in that you’re truly motivated by your highest aspirations.
Ultimately, the biggest mistake is committing yourself to a goal you don’t really want to pursue. You put that in writing on the app, and you will be asked about it. The worst situation I face is when candidates hire me for HBS interview prep and they say, “well this is what I said I wanted to do, but…” And if you have committed yourself to a pathway you aren’t passionate about or don’t really want – that’s a huge mistake that goes beyond your HBS application. I am not an acting coach, nor do I want to be. None of my clients have won an Oscar for their ability to, in essence, lie, and I’m totally fine with that.
What’s true for you is also true for HBS: its uniqueness is its power, which fuels its all-around excellence. It has an energy that is palpable – one that pulses through the campus in a way that is contagious. You join the MBA and you truly believe you can (as many do) make a profound difference in the world.
So, if you’re still convinced HBS is your destiny and you’re determined to make your case for acceptance, I’ll say it again: the truth is the most consistent way to connect. Why? It’s powerful. It hits you. And, it’s uniquely yours. So, own your truth – the good and the bad – and you will inevitably stand out. Embrace your differences because those differences are your power.
Register now for a free, live webinar featuring Karla and the Fortuna Admissions team, hosted by Poets&Quants, this Tuesday, April 20 at 12 noon ET: MBA Admissions Masterclasses: Round 1 Strategy.
Karla Cohen is an expert coach at admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Associate Director at Harvard Business School. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.