Harvard Business School MBA: Do You Have What It Takes?
Updated: Jun 16
Last year, 3 out of 5 clients that applied to Harvard Business School’s full-time MBA program received offers. In this report, we analyze what successful applicants had (and what others didn’t) to give you a glimpse of what it takes to get into Harvard Business School.
At SWC, we’ll always give you the honest truth about your profile. We’re not here to waste your time. We’ll only recommend schools where you actually have a chance (even if it’s small!). So when we started working with these clients, we felt that 5 of them had a chance at HBS, Stanford GSB and Wharton. Why did we think so?
All 5 had a few characteristics in common: First, strong/outstanding undergraduate academic records and impressive professional careers with promotions. They had 4-6 years of work experience at matriculation, around the HBS average. All had solid recommenders, who were well managed, so we’re confident that their letters of recommendation were glowing (although we can’t know for sure). Finally, since all 5 clients worked with me and my team of consultants, we can safely assume there were no silly mistakes distorting the results. So why did 3 get admitted, and 2 did not?
In this blog post, we’ll contrast the differences between the 5 applicants, and how this may have impacted whether they received an admit from HBS.
Applicant 1: Tech Inventor
This applicant had work experience at two well-known tech (read: FAANG) companies. And his responsibilities there were not run-of-the-mill: He made a tangible impact on certain industry-defining products that you probably use on a daily basis. While he didn’t have too much in the way of interpersonal leadership (managed a few interns), his leadership in terms of creating new products and changing the way people think of his industry was exceptional.
Tech Inventor’s academics were outstanding; he had a 8/10 GPA from a well known non-US university in a quant-heavy subject with a few scholarships. These were important because they also contributed to his narrative: escaping a deprived neighborhood through hard work and education, and now using his skills to give back to that neighborhood and others like it. In other words, he oozed leadership in his professional goals, which translated into an offer from HBS.
The biggest challenge for Tech Inventor was narrowing down his post-MBA goals. Given his stellar professional achievements, he had lots of options. At first, these options included staying in his current industry, and the generic “I might go to MBB” (which we’ll discuss later in this piece). But after discussing his options at length, we decided that Entrepreneurship would align most closely with his professional achievements to date.
Clearly it worked, because Tech Inventor also received a scholarship to HBS. Besides HBS, Tech Inventor also got admitted to Wharton.
So, if you’re an engineer or product manager in tech, the first lesson is to emphasize the impact of your product to distinguish yourself from the large (and growing) pool of tech applicants. The second lesson is to choose post-MBA goals where you will maximize this impact even further.
Applicant 2: Promoted Banker
Applicant 2 had impressive work experience at a leading investment bank. He worked on some meaningful deals that you’ve probably heard of, which he used in his HBS essay. But where his work stood out was in that he got promoted faster than most. Fast promotions are a meaningful differentiator for a finance applicant to HBS, because most banking applicants have had fairly standard promotion schedules. These rapid promotions led to Promoted Banker having earlier-than-usual leadership experience over a relatively large team. Then, he changed the way his team worked, showing impressive interpersonal leadership.
In terms of extracurriculars, his were outstanding. Most investment bankers work 80+ hours per week and lack meaningful extracurricular experience. In contrast, Promoted Banker's extracurricular activities were incredibly impactful and fed into his narrative: to apply his finance skills to social impact investing, specifically in the area of his extracurricular activities.
This was the biggest challenge of Promoted Banker’s application: connecting together his extracurriculars and professional experience. In the end, we found this connection by exploring his family tree and connecting his ancestry to the cause he most cared about.
Besides HBS, Promoted Banker also got admitted to MIT Sloan.
The lesson for finance applicants is to understand that most MBA applicants from your industry don’t have many extracurriculars, lack managerial experience, and have followed a standard promotion schedule. If you’re stronger than average in any of these areas, emphasize it.
Applicant 3: Ambitious Consultant
We all know HBS is competitive, whatever industry you work in. But for consultants, HBS is positively cut-throat. In industries like tech and investment banking, an MBA isn’t a necessity. However, every ambitious consultant salivates about HBS. It’s ironic, because HBS puts fewer graduates into consulting than other schools (only 26% of 2022 graduates vs. 40% at Kellogg, for example). So, our ambitious consultant faced a daunting challenge.
Her professional progression was outstanding, and was in a company that could be considered an MBA “feeder” because staff are required to have a graduate degree to progress. This gave the added advantage that her recommenders were familiar with the process and knew how to write a powerful letter of recommendation.
On the other hand, her GMAT score was “only” 730, in line with the HBS average but lower than the 740 score of our two successful Round 1 applicants. Anecdotally, we know that consultants that are successful getting into HBS tend to have a GMAT score above the class average.
The majority of our work with Ambitious Consultant focused on differentiating her consulting profile. We drew on a highly personal story from her upbringing that showed her emotional maturity, and contrasted this with her leadership style in the office.
But it wasn’t enough – she was unsuccessful in her HBS application. Ambitious Consultant got an admit from Chicago Booth with a scholarship.
If you’re a consulting applicant, the key lesson is not to compare your GMAT to the class average. To set yourself up for success, your GMAT (and ideally undergrad GPA) should be above the class average.
Applicant 4: Socially Impactful
In the world of social impact, our socially impactful client had one of the best resumes out there. A mix of “big brand” impact consulting experience with a small, early stage startup that’s developing a game-changing technology. Of all of the clients we worked with, her academic experience during undergrad was probably the most impressive: a 4.0/4.0 GPA from an Ivy League school in a “hard” subject. This offset her fairly average GRE score of 329 (which converts to around 720 GMAT).
Socially Impactful had a background in journalism and her own unique writing style. She also had very clear reasons for wanting to pursue social entrepreneurship. These factors meant that our time together was less focused on editing, and more focused on providing reassurance that her work was “professional enough” and identifying gaps in the flow of her essays. For HBS, whose essay is up to 900 words, that flow is what clients often struggle with most – how to connect 900 words of stories together? As usual, we followed the “tell the story of your life through a particular lens” that works so well for HBS.
The other differentiating factor of this client’s application is the degree of vulnerability shown in the essays. While all the profiles analyzed here demonstrated vulnerability in their essays, this applicant’s stories were truly gut-wrenching.
Socially Impactful also received an offer from Wharton.
The lesson for other social impact applicants is to focus on a particular cause that’s important to you, and explain this in gruesome detail. You need to be more passionate (and effective) about tackling your cause than the other social impact applicants. Strong academics and test scores are nice-to-have, but less essential for you.
To learn how to write impactful essays for HBS using example essays based on real essays written by successful applicants, check out MBAconsultant.com.
Applicant 5: Hot Shot Trader
Applicant 5 had the highest GMAT score of any HBS applicant we worked with this year (770). This was necessary to be a serious applicant, because his undergrad academics were not stellar - a 3.6/4.0 GPA from a Tier 2 university. But of the Finance applicants we worked with last year, Hot Shot Trader’s finance career was among the most “glamorous” - a trading role at a top investment bank in a US finance hub.
But where Hot Shot Trader really differentiated himself from the swathes of other finance applicants was using his personal hobby to explain his unusual career goals. We also spent considerable time figuring out how the leadership positions he had held in his extracurricular had influenced his leadership style.
Figuring out the leadership style was crucial because, like many traders, Hot Shot Trader hadn’t received much leadership responsibility in his work. Trading floor environments tend to be very flat, and traders rarely receive managerial responsibility until late in their career. Ultimately, it was probably this lack of professional leadership that let him down.
Hot Shot Trader isn’t too sad - he secured an offer to Wharton.
The lesson for Finance (and especially Trading) applicants, is to get as much leadership responsibility as possible in your extracurriculars, because you’re likely to have less workplace leadership responsibility than your peers.
Now that we’ve discussed each applicant’s story individually, let’s identify some of the factors that differentiated our successful applicants from the unsuccessful ones:
Unique stories: The first factor that all three successful applicants shared was a profile so unique that I had never seen one like it before. I meet hundreds of applicants per year, so if a profile is unique for me, it probably will be for the school as well. On the other hand, the two applicants who didn’t receive offers were a consultant and an investment banker, two of the most over-represented and competitive fields.
No profile gaps: Lots of ambitious applicants apply to HBS with glaring gaps in their profile. For example, dramatically poor undergraduate grades, or while being unemployed. While we often hear about these “miracle stories” in the press, the vast majority of successful HBS admits, including the 3 discussed here, have complete profiles.
Combining professional and extracurriculars: All of our successful applicants found a believable and genuine way to combine their professional skills with their extracurricular passions to change society. To do good in the world. To lead.
Leadership responsibilities: All three of the successful applicants had recent and meaningful managerial responsibility in their work that they highlighted in their resume. On the other hand, both unsuccessful applicants work in industries where managerial responsibilities tend to come later, so they lacked that leadership experience and had not compensated for it in extracurriculars.
Found this analysis helpful? If you tick the boxes and are still wondering whether you’ve got what it takes to get admitted to HBS, get in touch for a profile evaluation.
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