Applying to Harvard Business School

Leadership is unquestionably the most emphasized dimension at Harvard Business School (HBS). The school’s mission is to “develop outstanding business leaders who contribute to the well-being of society.” This mission, along with the school’s community standards, can be found posted in every classroom on campus. Candidates’ potential as leaders should therefore permeate every aspect of the HBS application. Leadership should be projected on multiple levels; professional experience, academic experience, extracurricular activities, hobbies, and community service can all be used to highlight leadership capabilities. Good examples demonstrate your ability to have positive influence over the actions of others. A focus on leadership should also play a role in describing your career goals. More than most schools, HBS will closely evaluate your career goals based on their level of impact on society. Finally, remember to describe your leadership style and how it has changed over time. The admissions committee is really interested in what you have learned along the way and will be impressed with reflections on your “leadership evolution.”

HBS is known as the quintessential general management program. In line with the mission of the school, students’ decision-making ability across multiple business disciplines is the constant focal point. Students do not formally specialize in a particular aspect of business, as they do at most schools, and take the first year required curriculum in sections of 80–90 students.

The section experience is one of the defining aspects of the HBS learning model, as each student is expected to take on the responsibility of teaching her classmates. Students constantly draw from their own background and experiences, creating a dynamic atmosphere that is supplemented by the faculty’s insights. To ensure that classrooms are filled with numerous perspectives, students’ backgrounds are extremely diverse in nature. It is not uncommon for most sections to contain, lawyers, teachers, investment bankers, doctors, consultants, brand managers, professional athletes, military officers, and entrepreneurs. The required curriculum in the first year is followed by an entirely elective curriculum in the second year. Students utilize this year to further hone their decision-making abilities in areas that they believe will be the most beneficial for their careers.

Applicants should be aware that their undergraduate school’s reputation will be factored into the selection process at HBS. The undergraduate schools that are most densely represented are Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford University. This, however, should definitely not be a deterrent to applicants from lesser known schools. Indeed, more than 150 undergraduate institutions are represented in a typical HBS class. Nonetheless, applicants who graduated from schools with less brand strength than most should make a concerted effort to highlight the strengths of their school and their accomplishments at the school. One way to do this is through the recommendation process.

HBS is one of the few business schools that doesn’t mind recommendations from former professors. While your recommendation approach should primarily focus on your professional experience, a recommendation that highlights your academic prowess can help augment your position as an applicant. The professor’s recommendation can add credibility to your school’s reputation, thereby granting credibility to your entire application. Should you go down this path, however, make sure that the professor is in a position to comment on your leadership capabilities and on your professional goals. If the professor isn’t that familiar with you and your story, then it’s best to seek a recommendation from a different source.

Being part of the HBS community is a life-long commitment. This is highlighted by the fact that the alumni network is often one of the first points that is raised when discussing HBS’s differentiating factors. It is therefore to your advantage to show ways in which you have been a champion for your alma mater. The admissions committee isn’t just concerned about what you will bring to the table during your time in the classroom, but also how you will remain involved with and support the school in the future.

Insider Information

The case study method is the lifeblood of the HBS learning model. This cannot be stressed enough. By graduation, students can expect to have conquered more than 500 cases in addition to textbooks, notes, and articles that provide conceptual depth to the case scenarios. Each case addresses a class topic and provides a “real-world” example on how the topic is applicable. New cases are constantly produced by professors and students will often receive a freshly written case hot off the press less than a week before discussing it. Second year students are even granted the opportunity to assist in the case writing process by participating in a field study. Producing cases has become such a core part of HBS that a majority of business schools purchase their case studies from it.

Displaying a grasp of the case method and how it is utilized at HBS is an excellent way to differentiate yourself from other applicants. You should emphasize your ability to engage in open discussions and your desire to learn based on real-world business applications. Both of these components are central to the way in which case studies are taught at HBS. Discussing your learning style and how you would benefit from case studies will also show your understanding of the learning model.

What Makes Harvard Business School Different?

The Harvard Business School admissions committee focuses on selecting leaders with character who will create value for society.
  • The Case Method. While HBS isn’t the only school to support the vast majority of its curriculum through case study teaching (Darden does, too), it was the first.
  • Focus on Leadership. The emphasis on grooming leaders is more pronounced at Harvard Business School than anywhere – so much so, that identifying leaders is the most important part of its admissions evaluation process.
  • A Younger Cohort. Despite recent upward trends, the average age at Harvard still runs younger than at some other top schools. The innovative approach to recruiting young talent, including the HBS 2+2 Program for college juniors and seniors, means that Harvard is able to attract and influence high-potential candidates early in their careers.
  • A Transformative Experience. The two years at Harvard Business School are about change: how is the world changing, and how will the students change to adapt? HBS incorporated many changes into its courses in real-time as the economy turned in 2008-09, and Harvard Business School continues to challenge its students on multiple dimensions, to develop skills and experience and form a new framework of thinking to take back out into the world with them upon graduation.

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