There’s probably three categories of folks who don’t get into Harvard Business school:
1. The qualified but not differentiated
2. The qualified who thought they were differentiated (ouch)
3. And perhaps the most frustrating category: The differentiated who didn’t leverage the app
People in Category 1 will likely land at a good school in the end, but it’s also likely to be a real blow to the self-esteem when they’re cut loose from Harvard in October. These folks usually have been successful compared to their peers in life, such as getting into a good college, following the path laid out for them by going to work at a brand-name firm after school, etc. They are the play-by-the-book types who assume that Harvard will be in range since they landed a 760 GMAT. But for Category 1 folks, no matter how hard they work on the essays for Harvard, they are not likely to be enough to tilt the scales in their favor. We try to gently offer this feedback to them from the Comprehensive Profile Review to the Essay Decimator process, and we also try not to be overly discouraging — because after all, it’s not up to EssaySnark to decide your fate. That’s only for the Harvard Admissions Board to decide. It would suck for an admissions consultant to be so discouraging on your chances that despite your own enthusiasm and motivation, you decide not to apply at all. Because if you really want to try for Harvard, you need to try for Harvard! Regret sucks. It would be awful if you skated straight into schools like MIT and Tuck and Kellogg and didn’t even put your hat into the ring for HBS. You’d have a hard time reconciling that, especially if you only opted out of HBS because some schmuck on the internet told you you’d be wasting your time.
Category 2 is a tough place to be. This is basically the same as the Category 1 folks, except that nobody has offered any input to help manage expectations, and/or the person has a higher opinion of his or herself than reality justifies. This is often the “HBS or Bust!” type who washes out in the end as a bust. The good news is that this person, although often a bit cocky, is still very qualified and very smart, and will inevitably land on their feet and end up in an amazing place in their career later on, building great success for themselves without the MBA. Because the MBA is really not necessary to get where you want to go, if you’re motivated and work hard. Right? Right. And, the other good news is that if this person has humility and self-awareness to know their limitations, and they are able to accept feedback, and do so early enough, and be flexible enough, that they are able to change course with the path that they are pursuing with their Harvard presentation, then it’s very possible that they can turn it around and make the essay do more for them. This often entails throwing away the essay that they thought was close to being “done” and starting over. And, even then, it does not always pan out. But we do often see candidates in Category 2 who actually are differentiated, based on how they change direction and showcase that differentiation much more effectively in the presentation that they deliver in the end. (Shameless Self-Promotion: The Harvard Essay Decimator will let you know if you’re in good shape with what you have, based on a full profile review in conjunction with essay critique, or if you need to go back to the drawing board and try again.)
Category 3 is the land of heartbreak. This is the candidate who really does have some interesting elements to the story, but they didn’t recognize the amount of work that’s needed to get that Harvard essay to say the things that they wanted to say. They are the ones who shy away from introspection, or who become victims of their own procrastination, and often they are those who simply listen to the wrong advisors for help. They put together a passable attempt at an application, but they’ve left all their money on the table and not maximized the opportunity that this Harvard essay truly is.
(As we’ve cautioned before: The essay isn’t as much a determining factor at Harvard, the way it can be at certain other schools. But the essay is a real opportunity and it can take a borderline-consideration candidate way over the edge and down the waterfall to an interview invitation when done well.)
Harvard has been changing its admissions strategy in recent years, so be careful who you are asking for advice on the “how to get in” front. There is no one cookie-cutter answer for Harvard the way there (sort of) is for some other schools. If the admissions consultant you’re using does not have a long track record of success, and a RECENT track record of success, with Harvard Business School, they may not be helping you maximize your own opportunity. Please be careful about who you leverage for advice. We’re not saying that we’re the only one wise enough to give valid input. We are saying that you’re going to have one chance and (for most of you) one chance only. You don’t want this to extend to a multi-year app cycle due to misunderstanding the stakes and underestimating the workeffort.
If we can help, you know how to get us on board!
UPDATE: We continued this discussion on “the Harvard type” here!
Here's what others have said about this:
Can you guys expand on the meaning of “qualified” and “differentiated” with some examples?
For instance, 730+ GMAT 3.6 GPA and an MBA story of IB → PE might be “qualified” but not “differentiated”
What are some other undifferentiated profiles that you feel some applications might mistake as differentiated?
It’s a really great question – and you sort of answered it yourself!
The “qualified” aspect comes down a lot to the elements you see reported on in a Class Profile — so, just like you referenced, a solid GMAT score, a good GPA, appropriate amount of work experience for the program being targeted.
That’s why schools like Harvard say that so many of their applicants are qualified — the applicants could all successfully complete the rigorous curriculum from that school and would be ready for the experience of learning the material and using it in future careers.
The “differentiated” part is truly a qualitative element and takes into account EVERYTHING about that person that’s shared on the app — and we can’t really boil it down to examples, because it’s all completely unique! That’s likely a non-satisfying answer, but it requires seeing at least a resume in order to be able to identify if it’s present in a person’s background. It has to do with the decisions made, opportunities pursued, how the person shows up. Or, it’s about obstacles overcome, demonstration of grit, “soft” qualities like ethics and values and having a backbone, or always doing the right thing no matter what.
The most common case of “qualified but not differentiated” is possibly slightly less common today, because of the changing international environment and how anti-foreigners the U.S. has appeared to become based on our government’s actions right now: The Indian applicant with the 720 GMAT and a ~7.5 from a middling to decent engineering school. This candidate may or may not understand the level of competition in the American schools (they probably do, because it’s all over the applicant forums now, and it’s been competitive for this pool for so long, that they’d be a little naive to be trying blind for HBS unless there’s something significant to showcase in the background that overcomes these not-stellar stats).
There are also a lot of military candidates who look the same on paper, who’ve had a harder time converting apps to admits at top schools in recent years.
Not sure if this helps, but you seem to be understanding it exactly right: The basic sketch of the profile might indicate that someone is totally in line with a school’s class because the averages line up to the class profile. But the individual’s profile isn’t doing enough to give high confidence that they have a shot.
It’s also not only about core stats: A PE candidate with a 770 or 780 might still not make a dent in the universe. High test scores alone aren’t it. They can help, but it’s about the whole package.
Did any of this offer an answer to what you are asking? It’s such an important piece to understand — hit us up with more to talk about if you have further questions about it!
Adding to clarify about the example of the Indian candidate:
The U.S. anti-immigration policies that the current government has enacted have really changed the ecosystem for applications to U.S. schools. There are a lot less international candidates trying now than even a few years ago. That’s what we meant by the reference of the “changing international environment.” The example 720/7.5 profile was SOOOOOOOOO common about five years ago that that person had a really tough time breaking in to ANY top school (not just H/S/W but schools like NYU or Duke). That’s not the situation today. It’s still tough for that candidate, but NOWHERE NEAR as tough as it was in the recent past. It’s a supply-and-demand thing in terms of quantities of similar profiles that the schools are getting.