Veteran to HBS MBA to McKinsey: In conversation with Zack Hoyt
Updated: Nov 20
Zack Hoyt spent the last 10 years building the “perfect resume”. You think we’re joking? Check this out:
He began his career as a Division Officer in the US Navy. Three tours later, he decided he’d rather stay on land, and was appointed Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) lead project manager. Zack went on to graduate in the top 10% of his MBA class (with Distinction) from Harvard Business School. He then converted his HBS MBA internship into a full-time consulting role with McKinsey in their Southern California office, primarily serving private equity clients. Now, he’s a senior SWC consultant, advising MBA applicants and business leaders alike on how to bring out their authentic story.
We sat down with Zack to discuss his MBA profile, ask him what was surprising about HBS, insider information about what differentiates an HBS MBA from others, and how management consulting and veteran applicants can improve their chances of being admitted to HBS.
Watch the full interview:
Here’s what Zack had to say:
Q. Applying to HBS
Let me separate my application profile into academics, work experience, extracurriculars, and my application essay. Combined, I believe these demonstrated that I was a well-rounded applicant with interesting, diverse stories:
Academics: I applied to HBS with an Economics major from Vanderbilt University and a 3.5 GPA (solid but not outstanding). My GRE was 329 (also close to HBS’s average).
Work experience: I was a military applicant, with several years of work experience at the Pentagon directly under the Chief of Naval Operations, which gave me an edge among other military candidates.
Extracurriculars: I volunteered with a veteran suicide prevention nonprofit in Washington DC.
Essay: In my HBS essay, I took the hyper vulnerable route focused on veteran suicide issues. During my first naval tour, one of my close friends took his own life, which left a deep impact on me and the other crew members on the ship. This experience spurred me to think about what our community can do to reduce the high rates of veteran suicide. My essay also focused on how this experience shaped me and my motivation to study at HBS - to drive action and positive impact in the world.
That’s why I advise applicants to create their HBS essay around a story that is authentically important to them. As an admissions consultant, there's only so much we can do about turning a story that's not really meaningful and make it sound meaningful. As we always say, authenticity is everything.
Q. The HBS Interview
In my experience, HBS wants the interview to feel like a conversation. Given that the interviewer is AdCom and there is a scribe off to the side who takes notes during the interview, it will of course feel intense. But if you walk out of it 35 minutes later feeling like you had a great conversation, that’s a good sign.
As the interviewer has full access to your resume and application, they can take the conversation in many different directions. It won’t be as straightforward as answering a stock question like “Tell me about a time when you experienced adversity”. That’s because HBS wants to break the pattern of applicants preparing canned responses to their interview questions. The goal of the interview is to understand the applicant holistically - standard questions don’t dig deep enough.
Based on my experience interviewing for HBS and from coaching clients through the interview as an admissions consultant, HBS tries to zoom in on a specific aspect of the applicant’s professional/personal experience or goals, and asks them to explain it further. They look to fill in the gaps or make connections between your experiences. For example, you may be asked why you made the transition from one job to the other. Did you have any issues with building rapport with your new team? Did you have any challenges with your manager?
When you answer, you need to be prepared to explore your point further. Your interviewer will pick up on some part of your response and dive deeper into it for the next line of questioning.
So, your interview will not follow a standard list of questions. It will be a free-flowing discussion that intends to really understand you as an MBA candidate. These are the 3 points on which you will be evaluated:
1. What motivates you?
2. How structured are your career decisions, and what criteria did you use to make these decisions?
3. How good of a communicator are you?
A major part of the HBS experience relies on you communicating your perspective to other students in the classroom. So they mirror the interview structure to how they expect the classroom discussion to go.
Q. What Surprised you about HBS?
Like many other applicants, I was excited about all the hype around HBS. When I got there, I found that it really did meet every expectation.
For me, the most formative part of the MBA experience was the cohort. I found that my section - the 90 people I’d spend the first year with - became particularly important over the course of the program. It gave me the chance to build deep relationships even while being part of a large class where meeting everyone wasn’t feasible.
Then, the class composition. Coming from a military background where frankly most people I interacted with were white, male Americans, I appreciated the diversity of my HBS cohort. Having approximately 40% of my class be international students helped broaden my perspective dramatically and break me out of my echo chamber of ideas and experiences.
However, if a multinational experience is what you’re looking for, you may want to consider European and UK business schools, where the proportion of non-Americans is far higher. For example, only 20-30% of the Oxford MBA class is composed of American candidates.
Q. What do HBS MBA candidates have in common?
What made my HBS MBA unique was the people. I noticed 2 common traits among my classmates that made them distinctly stand out as Harvard material:
I found that my class was full of smart people with compelling backgrounds. But that didn’t mean that all of them were extremely competitive, or that they had excellent grades.
In the grading system, the only grades students get are “1, 2, or 3”. The top 10% of the class got a 1, the middle 70-80% of the class scored a 2, and the rest of the class scored a 3. If a student had too many 3s, they could be put on academic probation. In my experience, no HBS student has ever been expelled for academic reasons.
At HBS, the focus is on the learning experience. At no point during the MBA was I asked about my grades. Each candidate focused on what they wanted to learn, rather than what could get them a good grade. Some of the more competitive students decided to actively pursue the Baker scholarship, a prestigious award given to the top 5% of the class.
Another common trait among my classmates was their genuine interest in learning from each other, not just from their professors. Many of them came from professional environments where they were in high-impact roles, which made their experience invaluable to each other.
Q. On Military Applicants
Harvard has a regular contingent of military applicants. Roughly 5% of the class comes from military backgrounds, or about 50 veterans per class.
When compared to applicants from other industries like investment banking or consulting, military applicants are a smaller bucket. Among veterans, the special operators like SEALs, Delta Force, and Army Rangers make up a quarter or less of military applicants, but have more specialized leadership experience. In contrast, the rest of the military applicants, like me, need to demonstrate a strong profile beyond their military experience.
So for me, it came down to what I did outside the Navy that rounded out my profile. I’d started a small artisan woodworking shop where I built dining room tables and classic craftsman furniture with Japanese joinery across the street from the Pentagon. It wasn’t just my military experience that got me admitted, but what I excelled at outside it.
Similarly, military applicants have to round out their profile with strong grades, impressive recommenders who can genuinely speak to their performance and how it’s distinct from other junior officers, and impactful work outside of the military.
Q. How can consultants stand out when applying for HBS?
After my MBA, I pivoted into management consulting at McKinsey. I transitioned to this role without a real idea of what industry or function I wanted to specialize in. So I worked on projects in different industries to narrow down the specializations I was interested in.
Here are my top tips for consulting applicants:
1. Research: demonstrate how you approach your experience in a structured way, rather than diving into any one engagement. Show how you completed a study in various industries to short list the ones you would like to build your career in. This shows that you have taken a planned, deliberate approach to your consulting experience.
2. Extracurriculars: It’s also helpful to show pursuits outside of consulting that round out your profile. But when you’re putting in 90 hour weeks as a consultant, it doesn’t leave much time for working in the community soup kitchen, for example. But if you can differentiate your profile by balancing the challenging demands of the consulting lifestyle with meaningful side pursuits, you have a higher chance of being admitted compared to other consulting applicants.
3. Brand value: Candidly speaking, not all consulting is equal. There is a pecking order of consulting firms - so if you worked for a smaller firm right out of undergrad in a role that didn’t have a high impact, it will not be given the same weight as having worked for an MBB firm. Having a good brand on your resume certainly helps. Similarly, the brand value of your undergrad university is also a key application factor. At Sam Weeks Consulting, what distinguished the two McKinsey applicants we worked with who got HBS interviews in R1 2023 was their highly ranked undergrad schools.
4. Test scores: Business schools tend to lean on consultants to bump up their class averages for the GMAT/GRE. So for consultants, the GMAT/GRE expectations are a few points higher than, for example, military applicants.
5. Vulnerability: It can be easy for consulting applicants to get sucked into their 90 hour weeks and not step back to think about what actually drives them. They are also highly discouraged from sharing details about their jobs and clients; being tight-lipped is an occupational hazard. So consulting applicants who can demonstrate vulnerability in their essays and motivations are more likely to be admitted.
Q. How does HBS differ from Wharton and Stanford?
Many MBA candidates who apply to HBS also apply to other M7 schools that share similar values and outcomes, like Wharton and Stanford. In my experience, applicants rarely get into all 3.
Harvard generally looks for candidates who can teach something to the other students. Being a subject expert, having a strong personality, or being a compelling communicator can be especially beneficial when applying to HBS. The heavy focus on the case study based teaching method means that students have to adopt and defend a perspective during classroom discussions, which need strong communicators and orators.
Wharton generally looks for applicants who display a strong command over hard skills. If you can demonstrate that you are a well-adjusted applicant who has both the leadership and the technical skills required for your career goals, this is the school for you.
Stanford tends to pick applicants that are strong interpersonal communicators and have excelled in a niche path that makes them stand out from other applicants. Stanford GSB graduates often go on to build incredible businesses and change the world in meaningful ways.
The quote that I heard is, “Harvard's strong at creating leaders that scale. Stanford's strong at creating one-on-one leaders”.
Q. How do you work with clients on HBS applications?
Over the years, I’ve developed a well-tested system for the applicants I work with.
First, I meet potential clients for a free initial call where I’ll learn about their overall profile, their target schools, and get a sense for whether their timeline is realistic. After that, we’ll share a consulting agreement and take payment.
Next, we’ll schedule our series or regular 1-to-1 Zoom video calls, and create a shared doc. Working on video calls lets you build a rapport with your consultant and is more effective for your application strategy. Building trust helps applicants open up and discuss their experiences honestly with me. It also helps me identify logical connections from other parts of the applicant’s background in a way that they might not have thought about. My outsider’s perspective can help derive a compelling narrative.
In our early calls, we’ll set out the application strategy. What are the schools on the applicant’s list? What is their profile? Are there any schools that particularly suit their experience or career goals?
Next, I perform a SCAR analysis. This is a framework we use to gather the applicant’s powerful personal and professional stories, and structure these in a way that is easily communicable in an interview or in an essay. We’ll gather these in our shared document, creating a repository that can then be used throughout the application process.
From the goals and SCAR analysis, we’ll draw a “golden thread”, as I like to call it, between what the applicant has done in the past, what they want to do in the future, and why their target school is the place for them to unlock this vision.
After these stories have been gathered and I have a deep understanding of the applicant as a candidate, we’ll map the stories to specific essay prompts. I then work with the applicant to go through an iterative process of editing their story for structure and content, and then spelling and grammar, and word limits.
While the essays are evolving, we’ll work on other aspects of the application, including the resume (which must be in the appropriate format), helping the applicant influence the creative process of their recommenders, and preparing for the interview.
In mock interviews, we recreate the interview environment through 4 mock interviews with different consultants from the SWC team for a more realistic feel. After the interview, applicants also get all the post application support they need - choosing the right school, scholarships, and any other decision-making that they need help with.
This comprehensive, collaborative approach has helped hundreds of SWC clients get into their dream business schools. Want to work with me, Sam, or our other expert consultants? Book a free 20 minute chat here.