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We originally wrote this in 2018 and we’re republishing here in 2019 to help you eager-beaver BSers who want a leg up on the quintessential of the quintessential-est schools.
Because anybody who first starts thinking they want to get an MBA is immediately going to be thinking about Harvard.
And why not?
Harvard is a world renowned brand.
EVERYBODY has heard of Harvard.
Even if you have only a vague notion of what an MBA is or why you might want one, you have still heard of Harvard Business School, and you probably wouldn’t mind going there.
An application to the MBA program at Harvard in many ways is going to look like an application to an MBA program anywhere.
They want a GMAT score, or a GRE is fine.
You’ll upload your resume and enter your work history.
They need an essay, and some letters of recommendation.
Pretty standard stuff.
However, that’s where the similarities end.
The approach that you take with your Harvard application should not necessarily be the same as what you might take with, say, Columbia.
Both these schools offer the MBA degree. Both have semi-similar profiles that show average GMAT and grades and they’re not terribly different from one to the next. You can expect that a high GMAT score will be beneficial to you in getting into Harvard, as it would be for Columbia, or Kellogg, or anywhere else.
If you want to get into Harvard, though, you can’t be just another cookie-cutter candidate.
The secret to getting into Harvard is to show how you’re different.
BUT!! There is risk here!!!
Being “different” for the sake of being different is not going to help you.
Wearing different-colored socks to your interview will not demonstrate that you’re unique.
All that will do is demonstrate that you want to stand out and attract attention. That might get people talking, but it’s not necessarily going to land you an offer at this school.
The most important thing to keep in mind with Harvard is that they are trying to construct a class.
That’s true at any school in the world, but Harvard gets first pick.
They’re like the Cleveland Browns but for opposite reasons.
(For any non-US-football-fans out there: The Cleveland Browns were the football team with the worst record in 2017, so they earn the privilege of picking their players from the college draft first in 2018.)
In the bschool market economy, since EV-ER-Y-BO-DY wants to go to Harvard, then Harvard has an abundance of riches. They can cherrypick the ones that they like most. They get first dibs. The best of the best.
Or, in this case, the most unique and differentiated who will fill out their class.
What this means is, if your profile is stereotypical — the Princeton grad who went to McKinsey and now wants to go for an MBA — then HBS will need to see superlative grades and an exceptional GMAT and particularly wonderful recs.
You need to be the best out of a crowded category of very good players.
What if you…
Work at Deloitte (not the most prestigious firm) and went to BC (Boston College; good but also not considered “the best”). You have a 3.6 GPA and a 730 GMAT.
When faced with the profile of the Princeton-McKinsey person, you may assume you have no chance at all. You’re obviously qualified but being qualified and being accepted are two different things.
Or, what if you…
Are an international applicant, like the Indian engineer, or you are coming from finance? Or applying from Singapore or Hong Kong or China?
For all of you, finding ways to stand out will be crucial. It’s not going to be only the basics of your profile. The adcom will need to know who you are — best revealed by what you have done — for you to have a true chance. This is where the advantages of an MBA admissions consultant can pay off. (A very good one, that is. A merely competent consultant is not necessarily going to add much value for Harvard.)
We saw some stat somewhere once that something like 90% of applicants to Harvard are qualified — meaning, they fit within the parameters of acceptance that the school has mapped out. Not sure if that’s saying that 80% of applicants fit within the class profile (the range of GMAT or GRE scores and college academics) or if it was against some internal measure of acceptability that the Admissions Board has.
Regardless, almost anyone applying shows evidence that they could succeed in the curriculum, and that they are capable of completing the program.
That is hardly enough to guarantee admission. It’s kind of like going with a competent admissions consultant. If you’re going for the gold and you’re going to pony up the dollars for help, then make sure you’re going with one that actually can add value in the game that you’re in.
If being qualified is not enough to get in to Harvard, what then does matter? What will tip the scales and convince the HBS adcom to want you?
There is not a specific profile or a specific collection of app stats that will ensure you get in. However, over the years, we have identified what we now call the “Harvard type.” It’s someone who is obviously a go-getter, an overachiever who’s done something interesting in life.
We cover it in many posts here on the blahg:
What is “the Harvard type”? is a good place to start.
We also discuss it at length in our MBA essay and application guide to Harvard Business School.
Heck, we have a whole category of posts here on the blahg on HBS and what they are looking for.
What we would boil all of this down to is one simple word:
The secret of getting into Harvard is that you have to show evidence of drive.
This fact is the main reason we’re able to with complete confidence predict people’s chances of interest from Harvard in our Comprehensive Profile Review. Through that service, you lay out the details of your background, your career, your school targets and core stats, and we go through it all and assess your chances to see if you are presenting enough evidence that will give Harvard reason to say yes. We are very very rarely off base with these and when we are it is only marginal misses. Usually we have BSers come back to us at the end of the season saying some variation of, “Wow, you were right! You said I wouldn’t get into X but that Y would admit me, and they did! That’s exactly how it went with my apps!”
For almost every single business school in the world, we are firmly convinced that getting help on the app is beneficial.
For Harvard? Yes also beneficial, very much so — but only to one certain extent.
The people that Harvard is likely to admit are very likely to get into Harvard anyway. Even without outside help.
Will outside help be useful? Sure, in giving an assist to the process. In making sure that you don’t step in it, and mess things up in an avoidable way. (See also: A Stanford applicant case study: Avoidable Mistakes)
But very often we see Harvard give interviews even for applicants whose essays truly sucked. Where they did not take advantage of what the essay could do.
But based on the other aspects of their profile — or more often, based on how they are coming from a less-crowded pool and so it was easier to stand out against the crowd — this person earned an invite to interview even in the face of a pisspoor job on the essay.
For whom then is getting help on the app the most helpful? In what situation would an MBA admissions consultant (an exceptional one, if you are serious about Harvard) add the most value?
Either for the applicant who is overwhelmed by the steps of applying, or who does not know where to start, or who lacks confidence in her own writing ability, and especially for someone who finds value in the ability to bounce ideas off of someone. Or all of the above. A very good admissions consultant can help that person create a very good essay for Harvard.
You do not “need” an admissions consultant to get in though.
We remain unmoved by any admissions consultant who brags about how many applicants they got into Harvard. It’s like a coach at the Olympics. The coach cannot take credit for the athlete’s success. Yes, a coach can be supremely helpful. But it’s not the coach who earned the medal. It’s the hard work and dedication and the willingness to persevere and the sacrifices made by the athlete that earned that person the spot on the podium.
When Harvard admits people, many times they would admit that person whether or not the essays were incredible. It’s because they are admitting the whole package; the entire set of facts. Not just granting a Best Essay award. That’s not always how it works elsewhere. Sometimes, an exceptionally mediocre applicant can put together an amazing set of essays that totally wins him or her the admit at another school. An incredible essay alone won’t do it for Harvard.
Of course, an MBA essay can keep you out of Harvard, too.
Very often, BSers make foolish mistakes in their essays. They say silly things. They focus on the wrong elements. They don’t maximize the opportunity at hand. For these people, a (highly qualified) admissions consultant can do wonders.
But the secret of getting into Harvard Business School does not come down to the essay. It’s the entirety of who you are and what you are presenting, and it’s at least as much about Harvard as it is about you.
That’s why when you’re rejected from Harvard, it’s not actually that big of a deal. So many incredible people are rejected each year that you cannot read anything into it.
Harvard is the one school that’s least served by the admissions consulting industry.
We’re not saying not to get help on your HBS MBA application. We do believe we can help you! We have dedicated services exactly for that.
But someone who is the Harvard Type is likely to get into Harvard anyway. Not because they paid the big bucks to a consultant to assist them.
It’s one reason we strongly recommend against reading other people’s essays in your quest for the HBS admit. Seeing what someone else said is not going to let your best essay come through — and frequently, an essay did NOTHING for an applicant’s chance of success. All you can extrapolate from reading a Harvard student’s essay is that the essay did not PREVENT them from getting in. You cannot know that the essay itself helped them at all.
ESPECIALLY not when the essay was written in a different admissions cycle for a different entering class in a different era of MBA admissions, such as we’re entering now.
Someone who got into the Harvard Class of 2009 was operating on a totally different playing field as an applicant, compared to someone who got in for the Class of 2019, and most definitely there are major differences from what the ’19 applicant faced compared to what the Class of 2021 will be facing this year. It’s a different school. It’s a different admissions landscape. Almost definitely it will be a different application for Harvard this year. You cannot make inferences from one person’s essay to your own.
The only constant that remains?
The Harvard Type.
It’s something that we recognize when we see it (the Comprehensive Profile Review being the best way for us to assess this). It does not come down to any static descriptor or a set of stats on a profile. It’s the sum total of who you are based on how you present yourself — in the resume, in the college experience, in your profession today. Yes, in the essay itself too, but that’s rarely the differentiator that it can be at other schools.
There are many ways to get your message across in your HBS MBA essay, and we’re not saying that the essay is inconsequential. The essay matters — for some candidates even more than others. But the adcom is going to overlook a subpar essay if the profile itself shows as differentiated against the pool of others with whom you’re competing.
If you’re wondering right now whether or not you’re the “Harvard type” then that’s a fair question. We can help you with some objective advice on whether you might be perceived that way today.
And what else you can do is work on being that even more in your day-to-day efforts at work.
Nobody can predict with certainty if you’re going to be accepted into Harvard. But stepping it up and doing all that you can to be a better person every single day is the best way to find out.
We wrote a whole book on how to get into Harvard Business School!!
You may also be interested in:
- More examples of the “Harvard type”
- How to add greater value at work (plus, Harvard secret)
- The Harvard secret we didn’t get to yesterday
- Which came first, the ambition or the advantage?
- Once more with feeling: SOME ADMISSIONS CONSULTANTS MAY HURT, NOT HELP