When people think about the MBA degree, the very first school that springs to mind is Harvard Business School (HBS). HBS is synonymous with the degree and literally sets the pace for the industry. Everything it does instantly makes news–both good and bad. And Harvard’s new dean, Nitin Nohria, has immediately injected energy and enthusiasm in the school.
Since assuming leadership of HBS on July 1, 2010, Nohria has racked up accomplishments that would have taken some B-school deans a decade or more to achieve–they include crafting and communicating a new agenda for the school known as “the five i’s” for innovation, intellectual ambition, internationalization, inclusion, and integration; pushing through significant changes to the MBA program against concerns by some that he was moving too fast; and raising millions of dollars in donations, including a $50 million gift from India’s Tata Group and its philanthropic interests. All of these moves build on the formidable reputation and clout of the so-called “West Point of Capitalism,” a business school that, frankly, is a university unto itself, with 34 separate buildings on 40 acres of property along the Charles River.
Harvard’s case method curriculum is designed to prepare students for the challenges of leadership in the real world. Though case studies maintain their dominant role at Harvard, the school has introduced several major changes that mix up the traditional HBS formula for training leaders. In FIELD, the acronym for the rather awkward sounding Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development, MBA students engage in more experiential learning opportunities. For first-year students, FIELD 1 is a series of small group, interactive workshops in communications, voice and self-awareness. At the end of the spring term, FIELD Global Immersion sends student teams into global markets around the world for a full week, requiring them to develop a new product or service concept for global partner organizations. There’s also now a FIELD elective that had originally been required that provides seed capital to students to launch what HBS calls a micro-business.
These very ambitious changes–especially for an MBA program the size and scope of Harvard’s–build on what has long been an engaging and proactive learning environment, where students develop the knowledge, skills, and confidence to face a variety of difficult decisions they’ll encounter throughout their careers.
Students spend their first two terms completing the required curriculum with a “section” of 90 students to which they are assigned. This group of students takes all first-year classes together and forms an intellectual and social circle. During the second year, students choose up to five courses per semester to build their elective curriculum of choice. The new curriculum changes this up a bit, adding shorter courses into the course catalog.
As you might expect, the admissions standards at HBS are exceedingly high, with just 11% of applicants being admitted. That’s the second lowest acceptance rate after Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. The school named a new managing director of admissions in 2016, picking Chad Losee, a 2013 alum of the school who was working for Bain & Co. as a consultant. For now, no changes in the admissions process are yet evident but former HBS admissions chief Dee Leopold liked to change things up every year or so. So it’s likely that after getting one admissions season under his belt, Losee would do the same. HBS currently requires just one essay without a word limit, asking applicants to inform the school of any additional information not already contained in the application itself. In a typical year, Harvard interviews slightly more than 1,600 applicants, admitting slightly under 1,073 candidates to get a class of about 930. If you get an interview, you have a 50% to 60% chance of gaining an invite.
When it comes to MBA rankings, Harvard Business School is a champ. Since the debut of Poets&Quants’ ranking in 2010, HBS has claimed first place six out of seven times. Only in 2014 did Stanford narrowly edge out the school for the top ranking. As a result, HBS took first place in 2016 for the second consecutive year. The only notable change in the year was its first place rank from U.S. News which had placed HBS second to Stanford a year earlier. It’s virtually impossible for Harvard to be second to any school.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that HBS is first in every single ranking. In 2016, for example, Forbes–which rates schools solely on return on investment–had Stanford ahead of HBS, while The Economist–which is a global ranking that consistently produces head-scratching results, had Harvard Business School fourth. Make no mistake: Harvard is one of the very best two or three premier MBA players. If a business school ranking fails to give Harvard its due, it’s usually the result of quirky methodology and little else. There is no business school in the U.S.–and even in the world–that can genuinely lay claim to having a better MBA program than Harvard. With the largest endowment of any business school by far, the institution’s resources are vast and so is the quality of the school’s faculty, students, and alumni. And because Harvard has been at this for so many years, its MBAs are far ahead of any others in getting and occupying powerful and influential leadership positions in one industry after another. That’s why HBS always leads rankings of B-schools with the most CEOs at the world’s top corporations.
In fact, the biggest misconception that business school rankings propagate is that Harvard is just another school on the list and its rivals are close competitors. Harvard is in a class by itself.
If you’re an applicant and are fortunate enough to be accepted by Harvard, there are legitimate reasons to turn the school down: you want a smaller, more intimate experience; you prefer a less competitive school; you want more of a mix of lectures, case studies, and experiential learning; you want to live and work in a completely different part of the country; or another school has nailed a specialty discipline that makes it a no-brainer. But you’d be making a difficult call to say no to what is, without question, the best business school in the world.