SBC Consultant Dawn Shares Her HBS Insights

by Stacy Blackman Consulting, Jul 31, 2023

Every year, SBC admissions consultants hear many of the same misconceptions, fears, and questions about Harvard Business School. SBC consultant Dawn, a Harvard MBA, stopped by the B-Schooled podcast to share her HBS insights with host and fellow HBS alum Erika.

Dawns been with SBC since 2011 and has a wealth of advice on what HBS looks for in applicants and what can send an application straight to the reject pile. Here are some key takeaways from their conversation that Harvard MBA hopefuls should consider.

Pedigree is No Guarantee

One of Dawns former clients had a 730 GMAT and graduated Summa Cum Laude from an Ivy League university. On top of that, he worked at a renowned global firm and had loads of volunteer leadership. She asked him why he wanted to work with an admissions consultant, given his impressive background. His answer encapsulated what we always stress.

He said, and I quote, I know many people from Ivy League universities who have better backgrounds and stats than I do who did not get into HBS. I want to know my strengths, but I also want to know all my gaps and weaknesses. I want to know everything I can do to improve to create the best background and application possible for HBS, Dawn shared.

Intellectual vitality and emotional IQ make an excellent foundation for a candidates approach to the HBS application process.

In the past, we have encountered clients who believed they didnt need to show any volunteer work in their HBS application because their father was an alum or was a big donor to the school. People like me dont have to do any volunteer work and we can still get in, one applicant boasted.

If someone comes into this process assuming theyre a slam dunk for HBS, thats an instant red flag. Sure enough, that particular applicant eventually felt the sting of the ding from the HBS AdCom.

Applicants should understand that HBS wants leaders who deliver high-impact results. Having volunteer leadership in your background is very attractive to the admissions committee. Theres a section of the application that asks about volunteering. So, if HBS mentions it, its because they do value these experiences.

Why Stats Matter

Harvard Business School is famous for its case method of instruction, which originated more than a century ago. For the uninitiated, students are presented with an actual business case and must place themselves in the role of the decision-maker as they study the situation and identify the problem(s). The next step is to perform the necessary analysisexamining the causes and considering alternative courses of action to develop recommendations.

The case method requires students to think very quickly on the spot, Dawn explains. Its important to illustrate through stats, background and experiences that you have the intellectual vitality needed for the case method.

HBS also values analytical skills, both quantitative and qualitative. For quantitative, they look at whether the candidate can analyze numbers, even if a person works in a non-quantitative field.

For example, if a candidate works in marketing, understanding units sold or how a products revenue increases or decreases with specific advertising methods allows the professionals to make more informed decisions.

Equally as important are qualitative analytical skills, Dawn adds. This relates to the ability to assess a problem and come up with optimal solutions.

Harvard Business School admits have a 3.7 GPA average and a 730 GMAT score. This doesnt mean you wont get in if your scores are lower. Likewise, higher scores dont mean youll definitely get in.

The GPA and GMAT score are a way for HBS admissions to assess the candidates intellectual curiosity, says Dawn. It does not mean that it always correlates, but its one area that they evaluate.

Know the Program

A common mistake we see year after year is applicants targeting Harvard Business School based on brand recognition alone. We cant overemphasize how crucial it is to make sure the case method learning approach is right for you. (Spoiler alert: it isnt for everyone.)

Its HBSs philosophy that you cannot continuously improve if you dont understand your strengths versus weaknesses. This MBA program prefers people who are open to improving not only their hard leadership skills but also their EQemotional intelligence.

Personality types who resist criticism will be uncomfortable in an HBS classroom. In many classes, there will be people who disagree with you and point out things that you could have done better. This is part of the HBS case method process, Dawn explains. If this is something that you may not like as much, then you may want to take a step back about how you feel about the HBS program.

More introverted applicants wonder whether they must take part in case method discussions. Can they get by focusing only on the written tests and spreadsheets?

Students are evaluated on their verbal participation, Dawn confirms. Its common for HBS professors to cold call on students who arent raising their hands. The bottom line there is just youre not going to do well at HBS if you cant or dont want to take part in class in the case discussions several times per week if not every day.

As an HBS applicant, you must ensure youre up for the challenge and find a way to communicate that in your materials, she adds. Ensuring that in your application you relay that you can communicate effectively and respectfully when challenged is something to keep in mind.

Advice for Years-Away Applicants

Are you a couple of years out from applying? Thinking about the HBS application as early as possible helps you optimize your chances, says Dawn. The MBA application process has two phases: candidacy and execution. If you can strengthen your candidacy in advance, you have much better materials to work with once you begin executing the application.

HBS evaluates both your background and experiences as well as the application, she notes. If you wait until the year of applying to assess your candidacy, you have no time to meaningfully improve your odds. But if you start working ahead of the deadlines to improve your background, then you are in a much better position.

Well leave you today with these final words of wisdom from Dawn, hoping they inspire you to live the life you imagine.

How you view yourself and the world truly influences every decision you make and whether or not you optimize an opportunity.

Challenges will ariseand when this journey seems so tiring and you feel that you may not achieve this goal, I hope this thought keeps you going: There is something that you will do better than anyone else. If you remember that, then authenticity is an infinite source of energy.


Did you know SBC offers a Plan Ahead Package for those who are more than 13 months out from submitting applications? Contact us to learn how to boost your profile today for future admissions success. Stacy Blackman Consulting is the only MBA admissions firm with a complete panel of former Admissions Officers from every M7 program and the elite European MBA programs. If you are looking for guidance on your MBA application, we can help with hourly and comprehensive consulting services. Contact us to learn more.