We posed questions to admissions officials at Harvard Business School regarding the application process, what they look for in applicants and what sets their school apart. These are their responses:
1. What can applicants do to set themselves apart from their peers?
The mission of Harvard Business School is to educate leaders who will make a difference in the world. Accordingly, we try to assemble a class of talented leaders with different backgrounds and perspectives, but common qualities. Some of those qualities are intellectual curiosity, initiative, sense of purpose, energy, personal maturity, the ability to work with others in a community, and a moral compass that points true north.
2. What do you look for in the application essays? What do the essays tell you about a candidate?
Through the essays and the rest of the application (including the letters of recommendation), we are trying to get to know you as a person, so we want to hear your voice coming through loud and clear in the essays. At the same time, a candidate shouldn't go "over the top" to stand out, writing what he or she thinks we want to hear, or presenting a persona that has nothing to do with reality, or a list of accomplishments that stretch the imagination. This is not an essay-writing context, but, again, a way for us to get to know you.
3. How important is the applicant's GMAT score? How do you weight it against undergraduate GPA and work experience? Which of these carry the most weight? The least?
ALL of these are part of the mosaic of credentials that we are assessing in our admissions process. There is no rank order to them. There is no minimum score required on the GMAT or GRE. That said, in trying to assess quantitative ability, we are looking for strong numeracy—an ability as well as an eagerness to dig into the numbers to get them to tell a story. GMAT and GRE scores can be useful in confirming quantitative/analytical competence when viewed in conjunction with work experience and course work.
4. How much does prior work/internship experience weigh into your decision making? What's the typical or expected amount of work experience from an applicant?
We teach by the case method. A case is a slice of real business life—a narrative about real people in real organizations with real problems to address. We believe that this learning model relies on participants who bring a real world perspective to the class discussions in a school that prides itself on being close to practice rather than theory. Currently, the average age of our entering students is 26. But we're not looking for students who merely want to reminisce about how things were done when they were at Company X. In our classes, there is no right answer, no one way of responding to an issue. We want our students to think analytically and boldly about the ways a problem can be addressed. I'd also like to call prospective candidates' attention to a program we launched a few years ago called HBS 2+2. This innovative program is geared toward college students majoring in fields such as science or government who might not have thought about the many career options that a Harvard M.B.A. can lead to. These days, after all, business is just as likely to be conducted in a biotech lab as in an office. With 2+2, students apply at the end of their junior year in college and are offered a deferred admission in the fall of their senior year. After receiving their bachelor's degree, they spend two years working at a job approved and perhaps even facilitated by the HBS Admissions Office. After that, they are ready to begin their two-year HBS experience. Our goal at present is for 10 percent of our some 900 entering students to enter the School via the 2+2 Program.
5. What sets you apart from other schools? What can students gain from your school that they might not be able to find anywhere else?
We have extraordinary faculty members, with an enormous breadth and depth of expertise and a commitment to the highest quality of teaching. Our facilities are something to write home about as well—33 buildings (including one of the world's finest business libraries) on a 40-acre campus near the rest of Harvard University and the hustle and bustle of Boston. We are all part of a residential community80 percent of our students live on campuswhere everybody teaches, everybody learns both inside and outside the classroom. Our alumni network of more than 70,000 graduates around the globe is made up of men and women in positions of considerable responsibility in both the for-profit and non-for-profit sectors. This really is a very special place.
6. What do you look for in recommendation letters? How important is it that the letter's writer has worked regularly with the candidate in an office or school setting? Do you put much weight on letters from prominent public figures who may not know the applicant well?
We expect recommendations from people who really know you and what you've accomplished. That's what's important to us, not the title or the prestige of the person writing the recommendation. They should be willing to take the time to answer the questions we ask. A long list of adjectives won't do the trick. We want to hear about real episodes in your life that enable us to know more about you.
7. Can you give a brief description of the life cycle of an application? What's the timeline applicants should expect?
We have three application periods each year, which we call "rounds." Students can apply within only one round each academic year. Up-to-date information on the deadline and ensuing acceptance date for each round can be found in the M.B.A. Admissions Web site.
8. Which firms recruit heavily from your school? Which firms hire the highest percentage of your graduates?
We have hundreds of companies recruiting on campus. At the same time, many of our students often take a proactive initiative with companies that are of particular interest to them. And you can add student club activities and career "treks" to the mix. Our M.B.A. Career and Professional Development Office is very active and very successful in helping students find both summer internships and jobs upon their graduation.
9. What are some of the most common mistakes that applicants make that hurt their chances of being accepted?
As I've indicated, trying to be someone you're not is a common mistake. We conduct about 1,800 interviews a year—everyone we admit is interviewed, but not everyone we interview is admitted. These are meant to be conversations that show a candidate's curiosity, ability to think on his or her feet, interest in others, etc. It's a mistake, therefore, to regard them as an opportunity for a presentation or for covering a long list of talking points. We definitely don't want to hear a rehearsed response.
10. Can you describe the archetypal student for your school?
The common thread among our students is leadership talent and a desire to make a difference in the world. We believe that leadership manifests itself in many interesting variations: some leaders gravitate to hierarchical organizations with established reporting structures, some leaders are entrepreneurs—the people who love to start things and get them up and running, some leaders can inspire a divisive and fragmented small team to work together effectively, and some leaders are the ones who can be relied on to bring a nuanced and unexpected way of thinking to a problem— "thought leaders." All schools talk about the desirability of "diversity." At HBS, diversity is not a "photo opportunity," an interesting cover shot for the Web site. It is the bedrock of our learning model, the case method. In our classroom, students depend on listening to smart and engaged colleagues bring their backgrounds and perspectives to the "case." At the end of class, the most commonly overheard comment is, "I never thought of it that way."