Many have written about it from a general perspective. On our site, we’ve tried to answer the question from an Indian applicant’s viewpoint. Why single out Harvard Business School when we’ve already written a post on what top business schools look for in applications?
The simple answer is – because it is Harvard!
Harvard does not depend on MBA rankings for credibility. In fact, it’s the other way around. Any business school ranking that doesn’t have Harvard MBA among the top, loses its credibility.
Among the most popular articles on our website is this one about an Indian who got into Harvard Business School and rejected it.
However, the article didn’t get into the nitty gritties of what it takes to crack into HBS. That’s what we focus on in this blog post. Before moving on to the how-to part, let’s tackle some of the pre-application questions about HBS.
The short answer is – very hard. Here’s why.
Though technically Harvard University wasn’t the first to set up a business school (that distinction goes to Wharton), its century-long existence gave it a huge first mover advantage (to use the term loosely). Over the years, as a large number of universities followed suit, Harvard ensured that it stayed in the driver’s seat when it came to innovation and setting the bar for management education.
Armed with an endowment that’s among the biggest in the education sector, it can tap into resources that few other universities can. With its publication (HBS Publishing) and research ventures (Harvard Business Review) it has built a self-sustaining ecosystem that pulls and pushes ideas across academia and industry to stay relevant.
The HBS brand is super-strong not just in the education space, but in the industry as well – in almost all fields of specialisation. Harvard MBA students have gone on to achieve tremendous success in the industry as well as in the entrepreneurship space. That pretty much covers the entire spectrum of post MBA opportunities.
This means that the alumni network (one of the key takeaways of an MBA) is entrenched in the higher echelons of power in all business (and non-business streams like politics) fields that you may be remotely interested in.
All this attracts the best and the brightest MBA applicants from across the world hoping to bag a seat at their dream school.
So, yes, it’s pretty darn hard to get into Harvard Business School.
Which is probably why a lot of applicants want to know the answer to the next question.
Unlike the earlier question, this one can actually be answered with statistics published by Harvard.
The selectivity rate for the Harvard MBA is 12%.
For the class of 2016, HBS received 9,543 applications. Considering the yield of 89% (i.e. the percentage of admitted students who actually joined), 1,859 joined the program.
The statistics may vary from year to year, and if you look at the trend, it has become tougher to get into HBS over the years. That should give you a general idea about your chances of getting into the Harvard MBA.
But as with all statistics, be aware of what these numbers don’t tell you. If you blindly assume that your chances of getting into HBS are 12%, that would be incorrect.
There are many other factors at play that aren’t captured by these statistics. The big one being the self-filtering that happens in the applicant pool even before the application is submitted.
As a hypothetical example, there may be 1000 aspirants out there who are crazy about getting into Harvard. But only 100 may actually apply.
The remaining 900 may have reasons not to jump on to the bandwagon. Some may believe that their application fee would be better spent on other programs where the chances of getting accepted are better than Harvard. Others may believe they can wait for a year or two to strengthen their profile.
Out of those 100, 12 will get an offer. It’s a simplistic example to prove a point. Despite the selectivity numbers, your chances of entering Harvard are not 12%. They may be better, or (most likely) worse – depending on your overall profile (industry, nationality, GMAT score, leadership experience) and more importantly – your potential as perceived by the Harvard MBA Admissions team.
Alright, with the basic queries addressed, we’re ready to move on to the main one.
If you are applying this year, some of these suggestions (like being able to influence the undergrad GPA, industry/role) won’t be relevant. Pick what you think is useful and create your own Harvard application strategy.
This is an important step to understand ‘fit’ with HBS. While you may not find a specific ‘Why Harvard’ essay, Harvard Admission Officers will sniff out the pseudo-fans who have nothing more to justify the choice apart from Harvard being a top name.
With other business schools, if your other profile contours are favourable (e.g. a very high GMAT score) you just might get away by minor tweaks on your MBA application essays. Don’t even think about that strategy with Harvard, even if you are hard-pressed for time.
Spend plenty of time trying to get a handle on the ‘average Harvard student’ statistics. Even better if you can spend time searching for Indians who’ve attended Harvard (LinkedIn is a good source).
If you aren’t coming close to them, there may be a message for you – to re-focus your energies on other bschools and not be devastated when you hear back from the Harvard admissions team.
Try to visualise yourself as a Harvard student and what you’d be expected to go through in those 2 gruelling years.
For instance, consider the primary weapon in their academic arsenal – the Case Study. Read more about how Harvard Business School uses the case study method.
Also, be aware of the grading practices at HBS. It’s a bell-curve rating where you’ll be pitched opposite your peers. Class participation could influence half those grades.
So if you are an introvert, either you’ll come out majorly transformed (if you can adapt to the environment) or completely crushed.
After you’ve done the data collation, research and the visualisation, ask yourself – “Is it a pretty sight or scary?”
The world believes Harvard is a machine that churns out leaders who are highly technical as well. While HBS probably enjoys hearing that, the truth is an MBA degree can’t do what an undergrad degree like MS / B.E. / B.Tech can i.e. improve the technical skills of its students.
So, Harvard relies on a filter system that squeezes out the best technical brains in the applicant pool and trains them on business. If you notice, a large number of Harvard students have a technical / engineering undergraduate background.
From an Indian angle this means, many have an engineering degree (being an IIT graduate doesn’t hurt). And then adding some icing on the cake – think about all the leadership positions you held on campus. And then put a cherry on top of it – like a high GPA / CGPA or gold/silver medal.
Don’t be fooled by stories of low GMAT scorers (580) getting into Harvard. That generally does not happen with Indian applicants.
MBA Crystal Ball helped someone with a ‘500 something’ GMAT scorer get into a top ranking school in Europe with full scholarship. But here’s the catch. He wasn’t Indian and had a profile that was very unique.
Harvard’s median GMAT score is 730. The range of GMAT scores is 580 – 790.
With its huge batch size, HBS relies on Indians (and other high scoring demographic pools) with high scores to offset their decision of taking in low scorers.
Being a branding success story, HBS knows the value of how brands work. One in four students at Harvard has been a consultant at top management consulting firm (think – McKinsey, Bain, BCG).
What if it’s too late for that? What if you are not in the consulting industry?
You still have those 3 seats (out of 4) to compete for. But the primary rationale doesn’t change. Take any other field and find out the market leaders who are known for their stringent employee selection process.
Google in technology, Goldman Sachs in investment banking, Carlyle in private equity are good examples.
In certain industries, the milestones are pretty fixed. For example, if you join a consulting firm as an analyst immediately after your engineering degree (lucky you!), you’d be expected to move out for an MBA after a few years.
For other industries where this is not the norm, show your role progression and increasing quantum and complexity of the responsibilities you’ve handled.
Show the admissions officer that the Harvard application is not your first trial by fire.
Remember the earlier point about, HBS (like most other business schools) not being able to do much about churning out technical wizkids, seems like there’s not much that they can do about creating leaders magically in 2 years either (hmm, just like other bschools).
But the impression that Harvard graduates are highly-skilled leaders still sounds good. So, they extend the filtering to include those who are already leaders.
In that’s so, why would those who are technically savvy and also born leaders try so hard to attend Harvard? Because the doors that can open for them after graduation can be bigger, grander and more lucrative. Who wouldn’t want that?
Show them that you not only have the achievements of a leader but you can communicate as a leader too.
From the previous point on leaders having a better shot at a HBS seat, it may seem as if the folks with all those achievements might be close to retirement. From the statistics on the Harvard MBA admissions page, seems like that’s not true.
HBS students are actually younger than the students at the other Top 10 MBA colleges. The sweet-spot for applying is when you have around 3 years of experience after graduating. The more experience you have, the lesser the chances of getting in.
There may be exceptions to the rule, like MBA applicants from the army / military or you have a strong masters or doctoral degree that skewed your experience-to-age ratio.
If you are thinking, “All this is fine, but it can’t be an all-encompassing formula” then you are right. These tips are purely based on the typical profiles that you see getting into Harvard.
If you do a comprehensive analysis of Indian students (let us know where you found that data) or Chinese / African / American students for that matter who’ve attended Harvard Business School, you’ll find many who don’t have a top degree from IIT or any well-known college, who aren’t from consulting and who don’t have a high GMAT score.
Try to analyse what it was about those profiles that may have got them a seat at HBS.
After all has been said and done, keep in mind that Harvard isn’t the (only) good business school out there for you.
In fact, when it comes to ‘value’ there are other MBA programs that are better than Harvard.
In a few years, you may realise you were chasing it only because of the brand. MBA graduates of other programs are equally capable of changing the business world too.
–What to expect as a Harvard MBA student
– Post MBA career growth of Harvard Business School graduates
–16 things every Harvard Business School MBA student should know
–Harvard Business School interview questions and answer tips
–Harvard Advanced Management Program (AMP) Review
–Harvard MBA vs Stanford MBA vs Wharton MBA
–Q&A with Assistant Professor of Finance at Harvard Business School
–Harvard HBX CORe Indian Student’s Experience Blog
–Harvard online certificate courses are not just for MBA degree aspirants