Category Archives: Harvard Advice

SBC Scoop: Crafting Credibility for a Family Business Applicant

Ahmed was the son of a self-made billionaire who owned a real estate empire in the Middle East. When Ahmed started thinking about business school he decided to work with Stacy Blackman Consulting because he …

Ahmed was the son of a self-made billionaire who owned a real estate empire in the Middle East. When Ahmed started thinking about business school he decided to work with Stacy Blackman Consulting because he saw his experience within the family business, largely working directly for family members, as his largest challenge in the application process.

In reality having work experience and goals that center around a family business can be a huge asset to an MBA application. After all, family business applicants are guaranteed to have a job after graduation, which minimizes any placement stress for the career services office! On a serious note, having a leadership role in your family business can be just as impressive as working for a stranger if you position your experience and recommenders correctly.

Ahmed had strong numbers with a 3.6 GPA from Cornell and a 720 GMAT that was balanced between quant and verbal. He had demonstrated leadership in college, specifically as the President of the International Student Program Board, with a mission to develop international cultural experiences for Cornell students. Ahmed had immediately returned to his family business upon graduation, and he had never worked for any other organization professionally.

We addressed his recommenders immediately upon starting our work together. Ahmed worked closely with his father, the CEO, yet we advised that an immediate family member would look biased if he wrote the recommendation.

Ahmed’s career path within his father’s real estate empire was impressive by any measure, and I was immediately excited to help craft his story when he recounted his work history. Ahmed started as part of the strategic acquisitions team and learned how to structure deals and operate within a challenging political environment to achieve the company’s business goals in commercial real estate. Ahmed had a vision for expanding the company into temporary housing and hotels to serve a growing expatriate worker population, and pitched the board an idea to develop their first apartment building. When his pitch was approved Ahmed moved from an analyst role to supervising construction, sales and operations of the apartment property. His building was an immediate success, after Ahmed’s team signed corporate relocation deals at a higher profit than the region’s average. Ahmed now wanted to return to school for his MBA with a long term goal to run the residential division of the family business and drive rapid growth. Ultimately Ahmed was positioned to take over the entire business from his father.

While Ahmed’s work history was impressive, he needed the confirmation of unbiased outside observers to give his work experience credibility. We had to delve into Ahmed’s work history within the firm to generate a list of possible recommenders who were not family members. After two brainstorming sessions we finalized the following list:

The firm’s head counsel ”“ he was not part of the family, but did report into Ahmed’s father
An independent business consultant who had worked with Ahmed on several acquisitions ”“ he was not a direct report of Ahmed’s father, but did have a vested interest in working with the company again
The banker who worked with Ahmed’s company to finance big deals ”“ again, not directly related to the company but invested in its success

We determined that these three professionals were the most unbiased of the possibilities, and had the added benefit of being unrelated to Ahmed. In the end he used the consultant and banker as references for Wharton, Chicago and Kellogg, and used all three recommendations for Harvard. For Stanford he asked the banker, consultant and a classmate who had worked with Ahmed as part of the International Student Program Board for a peer recommendation.

In addition to formulating a strong recommender strategy for Ahmed, we showcased his strong results for the business by quantifying the revenue his new division generated for the business. Luckily his numbers were impressive and the combination of strong leadership skills, business acumen, and independent recommendations earned Ahmed an admit to Harvard.

To read more SBC Case Studies, click HERE.

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Tuesday Tips – Harvard Business School (HBS) Essay Tips

The essay questions and deadlines for Harvard Business School’s class of 2014 are now posted online on the HBS admissions website along with the questions for recommenders. Set your strategy before you approach any set …

The essay questions and deadlines for Harvard Business School’s class of 2014 are now posted online on the HBS admissions website along with the questions for recommenders.

Set your strategy before you approach any set of MBA essays. This year Harvard has given applicants four required questions, requiring you to address specific aspects of your candidacy. A thorough self assessment of your strengths and weaknesses will be an asset as you approach this essay set. If you are working with a consultant, it’s a great idea to brainstorm about the best stories you have to demonstrate your key leadership, management, academic and personal qualities and that also fit the required essay prompts.

The limited word count for Harvard Business School essays forces applicants to be focused and concise. When you answer a question, think about a discrete example that can be efficiently described, leaving you room to discuss lessons learned.

Harvard Business School is interested in knowing how you work as a person, how you think, and what kind of leader you are. Community involvement and a broad international perspective are certainly valued, as you can see by the topics. Most importantly, specific and concise examples are the best way to demonstrate who you are. Without specifics, a claim to be a leader is empty.

1. Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)

This HBS classic remains largely unchanged from prior years. This is your opportunity to highlight your most impressive accomplishments, especially those that are very unique to your experience. When you think about topics for this question make sure you are pulling from all aspects of your life, not just work. If you have an impressive accomplishment in a volunteer or extracurricular activity, this is the ideal place to showcase both the accomplishment and your commitment to the activity.

While an incredibly impressive accomplishment may seem important to this question, it’s actually better to show the moments where you grew, changed or realized something crucial about yourself. If you were an Olympic gold medalist yet this objectively impressive accomplishment wasn’t meaningful in your life, it has far less impact in an MBA application. Even a seemingly humble accomplishment can be illuminated with your own reflection.

That being said, this is also an opportunity to “brag” about your own key achievements. Make sure you provide detailed information about your own individual contribution to the achievement to highlight your ability to lead and achieve through your direct efforts.

2. Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)

In past years HBS has required an essay about a mistake. While this essay is similar because it requires you to reflect upon your ability to learn from difficult circumstances, it also a mirror reflection of the “three accomplishments” essay.

As you think about the triumphs in your life in essay 1, essay 2 leads you to consider the difficulties. Setbacks can be either a result of your own actions or of circumstantial, however the most important aspect of a setback is how you were able to move past and overcome the situation. Leadership can be effectively formed through difficulty (often referred to as “crucibles”) and HBS is interested in your own personal reaction to setbacks. Are you someone who can effectively navigate disappointment? How do you react when challenged? Are you able to learn from experience?

Use most of the allotted space to describe your reaction to the setback rather than the background story. As you recount your setbacks it will be crucial to demonstrate what you have learned. Think about why you selected each experience and what change and growth resulted from the situation. This essay is your opportunity to demonstrate your maturity, flexibility and leadership qualities.

3. Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)

In past years Harvard has asked about your career vision. This new essay prompt allows much more latitude in your response, yet should be focused entirely on the overall “why MBA” question.

For all applicants career goals are a crucial reason to pursue a professional degree like an MBA, and it will be important to communicate what you hope to accomplish with the degree. While this question is not focused on your career vision, it may be a useful exercise to imagine the future career of your dreams. What will you need to do to achieve this goal? What will an MBA from Harvard add to your life to bring you closer to your dream career? Thinking about the deeper motivations for your career like helping others, being part of a transformation in your country or industry, or serving as a role model for underrepresented types of leaders can help you crystallize what you truly want and how an MBA fits.

Also consider exploring personal motivations for your MBA. Focusing only on professional advancement may not describe the full range of motivations for an MBA. For many applicants there are additional reasons to pursue an MBA that can range from networking opportunities to cross functional inspiration. It is certainly likely that you hope to learn from your classmates and professors, and that you plan to take advantage of clubs and extracurricular opportunities.

4. Answer a question you wish we’d asked. (400 words)

Entirely open ended questions can be a gift to an applicant, or can derail an otherwise strategic application.

While this question may look similar to the “optional essay” asked by many other business schools, do not be tempted to use this space to explain a low GPA or GMAT score. If you must discuss a significant weakness in this application there is a brief space in the online application for that information. This essay is your opportunity to leave a positive impression with the admissions committee and you should take full advantage of the 400 words available.

Before you select a topic for this question refer to your application strategy and list of strengths and weaknesses. Have you covered your key professional experiences? What have you demonstrated about leadership? If you have not addressed important extracurricular or volunteer activities or a story from your background that illuminates your interest in HBS and potential contribution to the class, this is the ideal space to provide that information.

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B-school Buzz: Interviews, Acceptance, Book Recs and More

This week, our B-school Buzz bloggers share some exciting news on their b-school applications and internship interview tips, among other updates.


This week, our B-school Buzz bloggers share some exciting news on their b-school applications and internship interview tips, among other updates.

Accepted! – If you’ve ever had the gratifying experience of learning that your b-school application has been accepted, then Ellipsing My Way… To Business School’s post about hearing from the Cornell Johnson School of Management will take you right back to that magical (and overwhelming) moment. He writes, “I didn’t know what to do or say. To be honest I barely remember what was said…  ‘Congratulations this…  deposit that…’  All I could do is keep saying ‘Thank you… Thank you…. Thank you….’  I do remember saying ‘I’m sorry I don’t even know what to say other than thank you…’” Way to go, Ellipsing!

Interview invites – Mako at Random Wok had good news to share this week as well: He’s been invited to another interview, this time with the Wharton School. This was especially great to read, given that Mako was dealing with a rejection from Harvard Business School last week. Once again, he writes with emotional candor about his application process so far, and ends the post on a positive note: “I’ve been invited to interview at more than half the schools I applied to, and reaching this milestone is a good feeling.”

Internship interviews – Meanwhile, Praz at Columbia MBA Class of 2012 reminded us that the interviews don’t end once you’re accepted to a program. He shared his preparation strategies for on-campus internship interviews, explaining how he readied himself for both the technical and behavioral/fit parts of his interviews. The result? “For the summer I’ll be here in NYC at American Express as a finance manager intern,” he writes. Nicely done!

A couple of other posts worth checking out this weekMilitary to Business shares some research he conducted to find out how many military personnel have made their way to Harvard Business School, and the GMAT Prep blog highly recommends the book The Leader Who Had No Title by Robin Sharma, commenting, “I like the way Robin Sharma makes success look so easy and achievable…. Consistent simple steps followed daily lead you to success.” Sounds like a book worth checking out.

Posted in BSchool Buzz, Cornell Advice, Harvard Advice, UPenn Wharton Advice | Tagged , , ,

B-Schools Affected by Budget Deficits, Too

Though the labor protests in Wisconsin have focused our nation’s attention on state budget woes, many other organizations have been adversely affected by budget shortcomings, including top business schools.

Though the labor protests in Wisconsin have focused our nation’s attention on state budget woes, many other organizations have been adversely affected by budget shortcomings, including top business schools.

In the article “Business Schools Get Lean,” BusinessWeek‘s Francesca Di Meglio reported that many b-schools have been forced to reduce spending, due to decreased endowments and state cuts to higher education in the wake of the recent recession. Avoiding layoffs has been a priority for most schools, but could not always be avoided. Here are a few of the cutting-back strategies employed by the b-schools featured in the article:

Tuck School of Business – Reorganized existing tasks, such as centralizing the school’s recycling system, which saved labor hours. Also reduced travel in favor of technologies such as videoconferencing.

Chicago Booth School of Business – While Booth didn’t lay off existing faculty, the school held off on filling openings and has reduced its temporary and contract workers. Like Tuck, Booth has also cut its travel budget and implemented a policy requiring approval from the dean’s office for travel.

Wharton School of Business – One round of layoffs in executive education department. Renegotiated contracts with vendors and cut down on travel and entertainment expenses.

Harvard Business School – Turned off heating and cooling systems during non-business hours. According to Meghan Duggan, assistant director of sustainability and energy management at HBS, this simple action resulted in six-figure savings.

Program cuts aren’t the only concern for potential b-school students. As businesses also struggle with their budgets, many of them are cutting back on tuition assistance programs, another BusinessWeek article reports. In “Tuition Benefits Drying Up,” Erin Zlomek writes, “In 2010, 56 percent of employers offered graduate school assistance, down from 69 percent in 2003, according to annual benefits data collected by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).”

Posted in Chicago Booth Advice, Dartmouth Tuck Advice, General, Harvard Advice, UPenn Wharton Advice | Tagged , , , ,

MBA Advice From Harvard Business School, Wharton Business School and Tuck School of Business

Whether you’re diving into the application process full-throttle, or just starting to test the waters, good advice is always welcome. Today’s tips come courtesy of the Career Insider blog at Bucknell University, which posted a …

Whether you’re diving into the application process full-throttle, or just starting to test the waters, good advice is always welcome. Today’s tips come courtesy of the Career Insider blog at Bucknell University, which posted a comprehensive entry yesterday with pointers on the MBA application process supplied by panelists representing Harvard Business School, Wharton Business School and Tuck School of Business.

Here are some edited excerpts of the advice culled by Bucknell’s Jamie Leacock ’11; click on the link above for the original entry, which also covers selecting recommenders, taking the GMAT, the admissions process and what a typical schedule looks like during an MBA program.

What are MBA graduate programs looking for?

One myth surrounding the MBA admissions process is that applicants are accepted based on their credentials (e.g., what undergraduate school they attended, an internship they completed). However, schools are not looking for what you have done; they are looking for why you have done it and how well you did it!

The panelists urge prospective students to be able to explain the choices they made and why they excelled. Talking about the quality of your experience and why it was right for you is a surefire way to exude individuality. The best job is not what you think schools are looking for; it is what you are passionate about.

What qualities do admissions officers look for in an applicant?

When reviewing applications, the panel asserts that admissions officers are thinking about the long-term ”“ what kind of alumni are you going to be?

One panelist who has worked at Bucknell, Tuck Business School, and Wharton says he seeks the following when making decisions: applicant’s integrity, their risk-taking ability, their leadership as expressed in the context of their own life, and (his highest weighted criteria) their initiative.

One way to demonstrate these characteristics during an interview is by using the mirror technique. When asked to tell about a leadership experience, after answering, re-frame the question and ask the interviewer about opportunities for leadership at that school. Utilizing these tips can certainly be beneficial to your application process.

Should I re-apply if I don’t get in the first time?

One panelist said 10% of Wharton Business School applicants were re-applying. He advises re-applicants to be very careful not to look like the main goal is to get into that particular school. At schools where the application can be re-activated, he was very impressed when applicants started over, treating the re-application process as a blank state instead of reusing old essays. It can be a good idea to paint a new self-portrait of yourself based on the new experiences you gained during the past year.

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Tuesday Tips – Harvard Business School Essay Questions

The essay questions for Harvard Business School’s class of 2013 are now posted online along with the questions for recommenders. Harvard Business School has remained fairly consistent this year. Most of the standard Harvard Business …

The essay questions for Harvard Business School’s class of 2013 are now posted online along with the questions for recommenders.

Harvard Business School has remained fairly consistent this year. Most of the standard Harvard Business School questions are repeated, with a few new choices for the final two essays. Whereas last year’s questions asked about a difficult decision or writing a cover letter, you are asked about a frustration and how you would introduce yourself to your classmates this in this set of essay questions.

Set your strategy before you approach any set of MBA essays. For Harvard Business School, this is especially important because you have a choice of several questions to illustrate your candidacy. If you are working with a consultant, it’s a great idea to brainstorm about the best stories you have to demonstrate your important leadership, management, academic and personal qualities.

Harvard Business School is interested in knowing how you work as a person, how you think, and what kind of leader you are. Community involvement and a broad international perspective are certainly valued, as you can see by the topics. Most importantly, specific and concise examples are the best way to demonstrate who you are. Without specifics, a claim to be a leader is empty. Also make sure to answer the question completely, but do not add extra information if it is not relevant. For example, Harvard Business School’s career vision essay does not ask you why you need to go to Harvard Business School to accomplish your vision. No need to add information that is not requested unless it ties in cleanly with the overall essay.

The limited word count for Harvard Business School essays forces applicants to be focused and concise. When you answer a question, think about a discrete example that can be efficiently described, leaving you room to discuss lessons learned. When choosing Harvard Business School topics, start with the two required questions and then work through the topics for the remaining two questions by referring back to your application strategy and the attributes and experiences you want to highlight.

Essay 1 (required ”“ 600 word limit): What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?

This is a great question to highlight a few important areas of your life, and the accomplishments should draw from your well-rounded life rather than just work. Try approaching this question from the “why do you view them as such?” and then working back to the accomplishment. While an incredibly impressive accomplishment is exciting, it’s most important to show the moments where you grew, changed or realized something crucial about yourself. If you were an Olympic gold medalist and didn’t explain why this accomplishment was meaningful, the question was not fully answered. Even a seemingly humble accomplishment can be illuminated with your own reflection. That being said, this is also an opportunity to share your own key achievements. Make sure you provide detailed information about your contribution to the achievement to highlight your ability to lead and achieve through your direct efforts.

Essay 2 (required ”“ 400 word limit): What have you learned from a mistake?

Don’t be afraid to admit you make mistakes because the key part of this question is describing what you learned. The mistake itself is less important, though choosing a real mistake that is honest in nature (not morally ambiguous) is preferable. When thinking about a mistake you might discuss, refer back to your strategic plan and the key information you want to communicate to the admissions committee. Is there a learning that has impacted your life or carried a thread through your character, goals or accomplishments?

Essays 3 and 4: Choose two of the four following questions (400 word limit each)

1. What would you like the Harvard Business School Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?

If you are younger applicant or had a particularly strong academic experience, this may be a smart choice for one of the two remaining essays. When choosing a topic, think about an academic experience that may have shaped your future career plans, or solidified a personal passion. If you studied a topic in college that relates closely to your long-term goals it may be a great way to discuss your plans in a different light than the career vision essay would allow. Make sure your focus is academic in nature, this question specifically asks about your academic experience while in undergrad, not sports or social activities.

2. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?

It is telling that Harvard Business School does not require an answer to this question. While Harvard Business School is less focused on hearing about your goals and aspirations for a career after business school than other programs, this is a great essay to discuss what your dreams are. If you are a non-traditional or career changing applicant this would be a good choice as one of your optional essays, as you will be able to lay out your vision for a career if it is less than obvious from your prior experience. Pay close attention to the “career vision” part of the question ”“ this indicates a long term passion in the career realm, not a goal to become a McKinsey consultant right after graduation. Also do not neglect the discussion of why this career vision is meaningful to you. This could include past experiences, your background, or personal history.

3. Tell us about a time in your professional experience when you were frustrated or disappointed.

Similar to the mistake essay, this is an opportunity to show how you handle challenging situations. Everyone faces frustrations and challenges at work, it is how you decide to react that creates learning and growth. Revealing your emotions and thought process in this essay will provide a window into how you process difficult experiences and emerge from them with a new direction.

When brainstorming for this essay think first about what you learned from the situation, and then work backwards to describe the circumstances and the initial frustration, that will help you see the whole situation from a more optimistic viewpoint.

4. When you join the Harvard Business School Class of 2013, how will you introduce yourself to your new classmates?

This is a great essay in which to demonstrate a personal side to your application. Think about the aspects of your life that will be of interest to your peers. Interesting hobbies, international travel, your cooking skills or wine knowledge are all great topics to use to show how you will fit in with the class of 2013.
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