How to Get Into Harvard Business School
Lessons Learned From Our Admissions Experts
“How can I get into Harvard Business School?” That’s the first question that the majority of our prospective clients ask. Our SBC consultants have guided more HBS admits than any other program, in large part because the demand for the Harvard MBA is so high in our client pool.
The 2020-2021 cycle has been the most competitive admissions season in over a decade. MBA demand has surged for a variety of reasons. First, there are the enticing salary reports among recent graduates. Secondly, the economic slowdown has prompted many professionals to think about heading back to school.
Then there’s renewed optimism from international students sparked by the Biden administration’s predicted MBA-friendly policies. And finally, deferrals granted by top MBA programs due to the pandemic have contributed to this season’s unprecedented demand.
We have several former HBS Admissions Officers on our SBC consulting team, so we decided to gather HBS admit data across our client pool to define themes and strategies that can help future MBA applicants.
As you’ve no doubt read on the HBS website, their preferred framework for assessing MBA applicants is three-pronged. They seek candidates with these characteristics:
- Habits of Leadership
- Analytical Aptitude & Appetite
- Community Citizenship
Thus, we present these lessons to you on how to execute on this 3-prong framework in the MBA application, based on our review of the profiles of hundreds of successful HBS admits.
How to Get Into Harvard Business School: Show Habits of Leadership
“Leadership can look a lot of different ways,” notes SBC consultant Andrea, who served on the HBS Admissions Board for five years. For instance, "Capital L" leadership is one form. These are the people in positions of authority professionally—those whose roles convey they are leading the parade.
But we also see HBS admits who are "small-L" leaders. Irrespective of their actual job titles, these professionals are strategic, innovative, and proactive. The small L leaders step up when needed and thrive when times are hard. Plus, they demonstrate leadership traits over time, and can show that track record to HBS throughout their application.
Capital L leadership may include examples such as fraternity president, Eagle Scout, student council president, varsity soccer team captain, etc.
Small L examples include: starting a recycling program in your dorm or starting a community garden in your community to source local produce. Maybe you served as an effective role model and mentor in your firm or developed a new way to approach building a financial model at your bank. In a nutshell, Andrea says, "You saw a need, and you filled that need.”
To get into Harvard Business School, leadership examples must shine throughout the entire HBS application. That includes your short responses on work experience entries; your list of extracurricular involvement and awards; your resume; and, of course, the essay.
“Leadership is demonstrated not only in the roles and titles held, elections won, etc.. but also in how you interact with others and ways in which you’ve made an impact alone or with others, “ shares Andrea.
Show Analytical Aptitude & Appetite
“Academic, analytical and quantitative prowess is crucial, as HBS Adcom will look at the applicant’s GPA and test score. HBS AdCom will also comb through transcripts and consider the skills the applicant exercised and built in his or her work experiences,” Andrea reveals.
For reference, we've assembled a sampling of test scores for SBC client admits from this season. GRE scores ranged between a 630 converted to an 800 perfect test score. GPAs ranged from 3.4 to 3.9. GMAT scores ranged between 690 and 770.
The school pedigree of HBS admits varies considerably. Here are some of the undergraduate colleges and universities attended by our SBC client pool of HBS admits.
|Duke University||Vanderbilt University|
|Princeton University||UC Santa Barbara|
|University of Sao Paolo||Williams College|
|Cornell University||Wesleyan University|
|University of Virginia||University of Texas Arlington|
|University of Warwick (UK)||University of Pennsylvania|
|University of Minnesota||Brown University|
|Waseda (Japan)||Harvard University|
|UC Berkeley||Yale University|
|Boston University||Dartmouth College|
When it comes to undergraduate majors, Harvard Business School is not looking solely for candidates with a business background. HBS welcomes applicants with humanities and STEM degrees, too. So, even if your college classes weren't quant-heavy, there are other ways to demonstrate you can handle the intellectual rigor of the program.
“Strong work experience can compensate for lack of quant classes in college," Andrea notes. "In addition to the stated criteria, intellectual curiosity and horsepower are buried in there. This can come across as dorky, but to HBS, dorky is good!”
Andrea continues, “Research projects, thesis projects, reading and interests you develop on your own all qualify under horsepower. One’s quest to satiate his/her intellectual curiosity needs to shine through for the HBS application. This comes across in extracurriculars, awards, on the resume, and certainly in the HBS essay.”
Examples of ‘dorky-is-good’ across our SBC client pool include:
- discussing research projects your pursued that weren’t required
- taking on TA positions
- working in a lab and writing a paper with a professor
- opting to do original research for a thesis
- developing a new curriculum with a faculty member
“This can be on display throughout the application. But the essay is a great place to really get a sense that a candidate thinks about the issues deeply and is on a quest to satisfy intellectual curiosity,” Andrea explains.
Show Engaged Community Citizenship
“Personal qualities encompass ethics, morals, values, judgment, and ego,” Andrea notes. That is a significant element should you advance to the in-person interview.
She simplifies this as: “How you will play in the sandbox that is the HBS classroom.”
Andrea also says that citizenship is less about what you say and more about the overall tone of how you say it: how you generally come across in the application.
HBS doesn’t want egotistical or arrogant types in the program, and the reading of the application is the first place they have their antenna up looking for it.
For example, take the applicant who is from a common demographic (investment banker), comes from Darien, Connecticut, who studied at an elite undergrad and has traveled the world. That applicant must be very careful with the tone of his application and essay. HBS Adcom is going to be looking out for arrogance based on privileged life circumstances and choices.
“Talking in a braggy manner and discussing an over-the-top lifestyle would take the applicant out of the running. Instead, I recommend trying to present an unexpected application that shows real depth around how he makes a positive impact in the communities in which he’s spent time," Andrea says.
It takes a lot to rise to the top of the oversubscribed populations. Therefore, if you are in an overpopulated pool, you have to do things that set you apart from that herd.
How to Get Into Harvard Business School: Applying the framework to the HBS essay
The essay really is make-or-break for HBS, Andrea reveals. So many applications have acceptable credentials up to that point of the application. But it’s the essay that sets the overall application apart and earns it the interview.
“Go deep. Get personal. Make sure the reader feels genuineness and authenticity. Make them get goosebumps while they are reading,” Andrea suggests. “At the end of the essay, the reader should feel so moved they want to meet you immediately. They can’t wait to get to know you better, hear more of the story, ask you specific questions to learn more, be inspired, etc.”
The HBS essay cannot just be a story of successes and accomplishments, Andrea cautions. “It has to leverage some creative theme or thread that is big and deep and acts as a mechanism to pull the story together. Open with that theme, then bring it to life with experiences and then end on that theme—come full circle.”
SBC is the only MBA admissions firm with a complete panel of former MBA admissions officers, including Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB. If you’d like to speak with one of our Principals about your candidacy, please request a free analysis here.