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.) HBS also receives more full-time MBA applications than any other business school. Standing out is important, but the process of doing so in a way that leads to an interview requires knowledge of Harvard’s core values, culture, and the community the Board seeks to select and sustain.
Register now for an exclusive HBS Admissions Masterclass on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 at 12 ET, hosted by Poets&Quants and featuring Karla and the Fortuna Admissions team. Participation is free but spaces are limited so register to save your space.
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, few things are as rewarding as helping aspiring HBS students shape their bold ambitions while making the best possible case for their candidacy before a VERY choosy Admissions Board.
I tell my clients first to stop thinking about the letters HBS and replace them with CAL. These are the pillars of admission. Beyond an ability to demonstrate meaningful Community engagement, an Appetite and Aptitude for distinguished success, and of course, a habit of Leadership, the process requires deep self-reflection and self-awareness. While, on some level, this may seem simple in theory, simple does not mean easy. In practice, admitted students exhibit evidence of success across many areas in life as well as the ability to communicate this success in a way that shows humility, passion, and potential for impact.
HBS recently announced its deadlines (round 1 coming up on Sept. 7, 2022), and a noteworthy change is that its singular essay question now has a word limit. This is great news because applicants no longer have to waste time wondering how much of their lives and experiences to share when answering the question, “What more would you like us to know?”
Here are three essential things every aspiring HBS candidate should know before applying – starting with what Harvard is looking for – along with critical mistakes to avoid. Read on for my top tips on applying to HBS and join our HBS Admissions Masterclass on June 15 for a deeper dive (register at the link above).
WHAT HBS IS LOOKING FOR: 3 KEY TIPS
- 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. Specifically, how are you different from others in your sector, role, and potential to succeed? Past performance is a great indicator of future potential, so the admissions personnel are going to be on the hunt for evidence of your impact, reasons for you passion, and a sense of the kind of difference YOU hope to make in the world. Given the hyper-competitive applicant pool, your exceptionalism should be a given.
They do not want the “brochure-like” applicants who have always excelled at everything, never facing setbacks, or having to overcome hurdles. It’s not interesting to read about someone who is simply detailing every accomplishment and presenting their experiences as though everything has always gone their way. They want raw and real; and they want to know, beyond a baseline of credentials: what obstacles have you faced in life? What’s driving all the accomplishments on the resume and the activities listed in the extracurricular section of the application? Where is all of this leading you? And why should this interest them?
Everyone knows there is value in articulating a specific, tactical vision, but this is so much more compelling when backed up by a history of achieving ambitions. Anyone can have a dream. Why should they believe in your ability to succeed in the pursuit of your goals? They look at applicants as an investment in the future of the school and seek “low risk, high reward” individuals whenever possible. It is essential that applicants show what they are capable of when committed to making something happen.
- Don’t brand yourself.
How can you show the admissions committee that you are the real deal? Avoid the temptation to “brand” yourself as this automatically dilutes your authenticity. As soon as I hear applicants ask me about strategies for “building their MBA brand” I stop them. I do not know anyone excited about meeting a brand. You are not a product or a business. You are a person. Be real, be human, and don’t let your insecurities convince you to only reveal the glossy highlights. Reflecting on my time at HBS, the moment I felt like someone was trying to feed me a prepped and prepared a pitch, whether in writing or an interview, they lost authenticity and thus favor.
I would look for applicants with the courage to lead with: 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, your own life experience (not someone else’s) is key. Most applicants are afraid to talk about missteps or (gasp) failures. However, the most successful people on the planet have a long list of failures and refer often to them as some of their greatest teachers. Overcoming obstacles is part of life, and your ability to do so with tenacity, resilience, and grit will help you stand out.
Besides, when competing for a spot amongst the storied legends that have roamed the halls at HBS over the years, it is virtually impossible to compete on accomplishments alone – HBS has seen it all. They want to understand what is driving you fundamentally, not just at work but in the life you envision for yourself. They want to understand why the general management degree is the right move for you now, along with specific evidence that you can make it happen. It’s simple – not easy, but simple.
- Make the most of your HBS essay (and its new 900-word limit).
One of the most critical elements of your application is writing the HBS essay because it’s where you bring “color” to your candidacy. Whatever you do, do not bore the reader to tears with the “resume to prose” essay. Restating what they already know is not really answering the question “what MORE do you want us to know?” 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.
As mentioned, HBS is keeping its singular essay, “What more would you like to share…” but with the new a 900-word limit – discipline is key. Pay attention to the question and the essence of what is being asked of you. Staying authentic while being pithy and succinct will distinguish you. Keep in mind: by the time they get to your essay, you have already shared a lot of information about your career, education, and work experiences. Do not spend your essay rehashing the “knowns” but rather the “unknowns,” such as the driving forces behind it all or the decisions you faced in the process gaining your valuable experience.
So, don’t be boring. Don’t be formulaic. Be real. Share your story in straightforward English (if you find yourself referencing a Thesaurus in your writing, stop). Of course, there are boundaries around the truth (storytelling is as much about what you omit as what you reveal), but you can be more personal than you might expect. 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. (For a deeper dive on how to write a standout HBS essay, view my related blog.)
3 MISTAKES TO AVOID IN YOUR HBS APPLICATION
- 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 was previously accepted and trying to fit a mold that isn’t yours. This will fail. The reality is that success at HBS comes in many forms, and there is no one perfect profile. The HBS case method only works because it draws on diversity in the classroom – different experiences, perspectives, and ideas. That’s the magic in the secret sauce. The more you are NOT like the person they just admitted, the better. Trying to project one will only undermine your ability to convey a narrative that’s genuine, confident, and distinctive.
- Come from a place of confidence.
It’s understandable to feel intimidated but it is critical to know that HBS is a place that rewards 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. Instead, let your recommenders brag about you. Focus on your motivations and experience that demonstrate your potential. They also do not reward reverence. If you find yourself writing an essay about why HBS is great, you have gone in the completely wrong direction. HBS knows its model and process works – they need not be educated on themselves but rather why YOU would make a great addition to an already extraordinary community.
- 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 path you aren’t passionate about or don’t really want – that will only come back to haunt you. 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 start the process of consuming the abundance of cutting-edge knowledge and best-in-class resources to 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 and your “keys to the kingdom.”
Register now for a live HBS Admissions Masterclass on Wednesday, June 15, at 12 ET, featuring Karla and the Fortuna Admissions team and hosted by Poets&Quants. This 50-minute strategy session is free, but spaces are limited so register to save your space.
For everything you need to know about applying to HBS, view our related article: How to Get Into Harvard Business School.
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.