How to get into Harvard Business School

BY Sydney LakeApril 28, 2021, 03:00 am
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY Getty Images

So you’re thinking about applying to earn your MBA. And not just any MBA—but a degree from Harvard Business School, consistently ranked as one of the country’s elite programs.

Your application checklist is primed with a high GPA, top GMAT test scores, and professional experience to match. But each year, thousands of Harvard hopefuls don’t make the cut. The time, effort, and thought it takes to prove to Harvard that you’ve earned that coveted spot is just as rigorous as its two-year, full-time MBA program.

What sets the application process apart is its “introspective” nature, HBS officials, students, alumni, and MBA experts agree. Harvard doesn’t want to hear about how great it is, but how you, as an MBA candidate, can make it even better. 

In 2020, Harvard received 9,304 applications for its full-time MBA program and extended admission to 859 candidates (that’s a nitpicky 9% acceptance rate). What’s the secret to competing among the world’s future business leaders? 

“It’s more of an art than it is a science,” says Shaifali Aggarwal, an HBS graduate who is the founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions consulting firm.

Consider why you want the degree

The HBS process requires applicants to be forward-thinking. Consider not only why you’re looking to earn your MBA, but also what you’re going to do with it once you have it.

“If you know you want to go to HBS, you need to know what you will do at HBS,” says John Okemah, who was admitted in 2020. 

Harvard employs the case study method, using scenarios from real business leaders. Students debate approaches for protagonists to take in a variety of situations and challenges across multiple industries. Students tackle a whopping 500 cases during their two years at Harvard.

“As an admissions team, we’re thinking about the pedagogy and who’s going to lean into that kind of environment,” says Chad Losee, managing director of HBS MBA admissions. Cold-calling and fast-paced debates are an essential component of an HBS education. Consider whether that’s an environment where you would sink or swim.

“It can be easy to fall into the trap of applying to Harvard solely based on the name recognition,” says Ayo Ekhator, another member of HBS’s MBA class of 2023. “But I think the most successful process is had by those who take the time to both research what Harvard offers on an academic, social, and professional level and to next understand how that fits with the applicant’s goals.”

Can test scores and GPA carry my application?

Students admitted to Harvard Business School in 2020 on average had a 3.7 undergrad GPA, 4.7 years of work experience, and a 730 median GMAT score. While these numbers can indicate success, they don’t guarantee admission. HBS students come from engineering, economics, social sciences, business/commerce, and math and physical science backgrounds, with no one undergrad program representing a majority of admitted students.

Focus on your letters of recommendation, essay, interview, and post-interview reflection. These will differentiate your candidacy.

“We’re not doing anything in an algorithmic way,” HBS admissions director Losee says. “We also see our application process as a two-way street. Those who are applying to HBS want to learn more about the school as they go through the process. And we want to learn more about the applicants.”

The best recommenders

Accompanying your application are two letters of recommendation, which should illustrate HBS pillars: a habit of leadership (stepping up for yourself and others), analytical aptitude and appetite (strong academic performance), and engaged community citizenship (what you’re giving back as your success grows). Someone who’s been close enough to your work to provide constructive feedback makes the best recommender, Losee says. 

Although a good recommender could be an HBS alum, it’s more important to have someone who knows you well to speak on your behalf. 

“Don’t undervalue how important selecting the right composition of recommendation writers is,” says Tess Michaels, HBS class of 2020 and founder and CEO of Stride Funding, a platform that offers income share agreements, an alternative to traditional student loans. Having multiple letters of recommendation from one job is “less interesting to HBS than them getting to see different dimensions of you,” she adds.

Recommenders should articulate how you’ve shown leadership in an academic, professional, or extracurricular setting—or a mix of these, says Michaels, who applied under HBS’s 2+2 Program during her time in undergrad at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The deferred program requires two years of work experience followed by two years in the regular HBS MBA Program. Its application process is identical to the traditional HBS; it’s just under a different timeline.

Tell your story

Admissions officers don’t ask, “Why Harvard?” 

Harvard (not so simply) asks, “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?”

This isn’t something you can respond to quickly or in one sitting, Harvard students, officials, and MBA experts agree. It takes time to reflect on your past and plan your future—and to illustrate it through a well-crafted story.

“While HBS is of course looking for certain qualities, it’s really in the context of your own experiences, your perspectives, your values,” MBA consultant Aggarwal says. “It’s really important to tell your story.” And HBS values people who are not purely bookish, she adds.

“So much of what I wrote about was the power of learning by doing, which had helped me propel my career,” HBS alum Michaels says of the essay.

Critical points to hit in your essay: Why now is the right time to pursue your MBA, what your goals are, what you’re hoping to get from the program to get you where you want to be, and (in a non-generic way) why you want to earn your MBA.

Life can be very busy and fast-paced for those applying to an MBA program. Take a cue from Ferris Bueller: It’s important during the essay process to stop, take a step back, and look within to tell your story through your essay instead of approaching it as a longer version of your résumé.

“That reflection, I think, can really help you hit the ground running when you get to business school, and it can help us get to know you and what you would bring to HBS,” Losee says.

The hot seat

HBS typically invites one in five applicants to an on-campus interview, Losee says, and of those interviewees, about half are eventually admitted. 

Unlike other programs, only HBS admissions board members conduct interviews. And believe it or not, these officials likely spend more time preparing than you. 

Your interviewer will know your application to a T. They’ll know the classes you took your freshman year of college, where you had your first internship, in which clubs you were involved—and even where you went to high school. They know your story from your essay. 

To nail the interview is to know yourself and to justify your decisions.

“A lot of the prep was asking myself all these ‘why’ questions that I hadn’t really considered before,” Okemah says. These questions included why he worked for the company he did after graduating from Williams College and why he left that company to go to another one. Looking at his decisions from a high level and forming responses for an admissions officer made it “really tough,” he says.

Googling HBS interview questions won’t be very helpful, as every interview is tailored to the applicant. To prepare for the hot seat, memorize your application and practice explaining your “whys.”

“That’s about you and not about what was asked to someone else who submitted a different application,” Losee says.

Reflecting on your interview

Within 24 hours of the interview, applicants must submit a follow-up letter—the last piece of the puzzle.

The post-interview reflection takes the traditional thank-you note a step further and allows applicants to have the last word, Losee says. Applicants can expand on topics addressed during their interview and bridge any gaps in their application. It’s also another opportunity for HBS to understand how applicants synthesize conversations, says Aggarwal, who counsels prospects for top MBA programs.

There’s no prescription for the structure or length of the letter, but it should be concise and reflective. It’s not something that you can prepare for since no two HBS interviews are alike.

“It’s not meant to be intimidating or prescriptive,” Losee says. “It’s not something to be overthought or overwrought.”

An investment in yourself

Any MBA program is a huge investment—of both your time and money. The decision to apply could take months or years. 

Before and during the application process, do your research, speak with current students and professors, listen to information sessions and webinars, and spend time on campus. Think beyond the two years you’ll spend at HBS. Investigate industries you’re interested in pursuing and connect with HBS alum to hear their stories. 

“HBS is such an interesting process because there’s so many people every single year who have such fantastic backgrounds who are rejected,” Aggarwal says. “We can never really know exactly why. But that’s why it’s really important to just not let a decision from HBS to derail you in any way.”