5 Tips for Harvard Business School Applicants

HBS application tipsHarvard Business School is famously difficult to get into, but don’t let low acceptance rates keep you from applying if this is truly your dream MBA program. In a recent post to the school’s MBA Voices Blog, six recent or soon-to-be graduates offer their advice for future applicants eager to learn all they can about the HBS admissions process.

Tip 1: Be your authentic self

“Be honest and genuine. I spent time reflecting on what really motivates me and what is most important to me. It may sound straight-forward, but I think it’s really important to have clear direction on what you want to do and how the HBS experience will help you get there. Then make sure that your application really shows your personality and conveys this message of who you are and where you want to go.” Stephanie Marr, MBA 2016

We say: The admissions committee wants to get to know you as a person beyond the resume—don’t write anything just because it seems like something an admissions committee would want to hear.

The trick to fleshing out your human side in the application is to take just a couple of experiences, activities, or themes and expand upon them in a much more detailed and nuanced way. Don’t shy away from your true interests; illustrate how they have helped shape the incredibly dynamic and fascinating person that you are.

Tip 2: Pick your recommenders carefully

“Select recommenders who know you well enough to tell a story that covers your accomplishments and the obstacles you overcame to achieve them. I chose recommenders who had seen me take on responsibility, struggle at times, and adapt to reach my goals. I think this matters much more than having recommenders with a particular job title or connection with HBS.” Sam Travers, MBA 2016

We say: When considering potential references, ask yourself whether the person has worked closely with you, thinks favorably of you, and will put in the time to write a thoughtful, detailed endorsement of your candidacy. If you can’t answer yes to these three requirements, move on until you find the person who fits the bill perfectly. Your chances of admission to the school of your dreams may well depend on it.

Tip 3: Learn more about the generous financial aid options HBS offers

“Trying to figure out how you’re going to afford your Harvard MBA can feel very scary – I definitely remember the sticker shock I felt when I read the expected student budget for the first time. Luckily, there are a lot of ways for you to get support as you decide how you want to finance your time at HBS. Many students, myself included, aren’t able to pay for business school out of their savings and instead utilize a combination of financial aid, scholarships, and loans to get themselves through the program. 

HBS has an incredible need-based financial aid program; over $36 million dollars is awarded to students each year. The administration firmly believes that funding should not be a barrier for anyone to attend business school and they ensure that no student is required to take on too much debt. HBS wants everyone who is admitted to be able to come and therefore the aid is awarded solely based on financial need. Nearly 50% of the class receives HBS Fellowships with the majority of Fellowships in the $30,000-$50,000 range per year.

The average starting salary at graduation is $135,000. Most alums are able to pay back loans in considerably less time than the terms provided. HBS also offers a variety loan forgiveness programs available at graduation for those students plan to pursue a career path in a less lucrative field—for example, there are financing options for graduates heading into social enterprise or pursuing entrepreneurial ventures.” Leslie Moser, MBA 2015

We say: People will tell you that you will find the money you need to go, but we know that thinking about all those zeros can get overwhelming and intimidating. Just know that most students use multiple sources; it’s never too soon to start researching your options; don’t underestimate your costs; and rest assured that schools want you to find funding and will do everything they possibly can to help accepted applicants.

Tip 4: Keep in mind HBS is reapplicant-friendly 

I had been dinged from HBS once and wondered if it was worth applying a second time.  Although uncertain of whether or not I’d be accepted to the program, I wanted to give it another shot.  Fortunately, and likely due to some divine intervention, I was accepted to the program.  I was absolutely elated when I received the good news.” Ryan Hansen, MBA 2017

We say: Many people in b-school right now were dinged the first time they applied. Reapplying shows you are serious about your interest in the MBA program. Make sure your letters of recommendation and your GMAT or GRE scores are rock-solid, and don’t recycle essays from the first time around.

Use the additional essay question to explain what’s changed in your situation to make you a stronger candidate this time around. Make sure to address both professional and personal advancements, but show that you are realistic and self-aware. Revealing your humanity in the form of quirks, weaknesses and flaws can often help the admissions committee to like you.

Tip 5: Don’t self-select out

“When you’re lifting your finger to hit the submit button, or when you’re walking into your interview, stop thinking about your imperfections and deficiencies. In fact, stop thinking about yourself as an individual. Rather, think of yourself as a piece of something bigger – your potential HBS class. What you do have to offer? What characteristics you bring to the table that will make your section that much better? I bet there are several things about you that no one else can claim, and that’s the good stuff. Tell admissions about them.” Peter Nolan, MBA 2017

“To those thinking about applying to HBS, I encourage you to go for it. Don’t let your own self-doubt sabotage what could be one of the best experiences of your life.”   Terrance Rogers (MBA 2017)

We say: It’s hard not to feel intimidated when you read the admitted student profiles at many of the elite MBA programs, which might include Olympians, successful entrepreneurs, decorated military officers and candidates with outstanding public service experience. However, don’t get psyched out of applying just because you can’t list anything similarly noteworthy on your application.

To stand out in the eyes of the admissions committee, you just need to provide hard proof that you made a difference. Remember, it’s not about the scale of your achievements – rather, it’s the fact that you left indelible footprints.

Image credit: Flickr user Chris Han (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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