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How to Apply to Harvard Business School

A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS


By Paul Lanzillotti, Founder
The Los Angeles MBA Admissions Workshop

This document is part of the Los Angeles MBA Admissions Workshop series of primers on applying to America's best
business schools. The Los Angeles MBA Admissions Workshop (www.la-mba.org) is a seminar series that introduces

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attendees to the critical components of the MBA application process.

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Feel free to send this document to friends, colleagues and others readying for business school. We have placed a lot

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of sweat equity and expertise into creating these materials and we hope you gain relevant and necessary

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information from them. All we ask is that you do not redistribute this work as your own, in a modified form or
resell. Email us (HBS@la-mba.org) with any questions, comments or concerns.

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INTRODUCTION.

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In the admissions consulting business, we love to ask the question, "Where are you sh
applying?" And applicants appear to equally enjoy giving an answer that starts with "HBS,
of course." HBS, of course. The first rule of applying to Harvard Business School is to
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understand that everyone applies to Harvard Business School. Applying to HBS isn't a novel
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exercise, but rather the first box on a checklist for virtually every candidate pursuing an
MBA from an elite program.
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So what does this mean you shouldn't apply to HBS? Of course not. But it does mean two
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critical things:
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1. Your interest in HBS must rise above "it's HBS"


2. You absolutely must do everything right
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To the latter point, if you botch part of the process, you are dead on arrival. Harvard has too
much talent to choose from to deal with mistakes or misguided efforts. If you answer the
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accomplishments essay wrong, you're done. If you don't provide the right kinds of
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recommendation letters, you're done. If you make an error in your application, you're done.
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Basically, you have to be perfect when you apply to Harvard, because the school is looking
for perfect applicants. Don't waste Harvard’s time or yours by submitting something less
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than your best.

Don’t worry though, that is why we have created this 10-step approach to applying to HBS.
The following guide will help keep you on the straight and narrow as you undertake the
nerve-racking task of applying to the world's most famous business school.

How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright © 2010 by the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
The SCARA™ and ARA™ methodologies are trademarks of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
All content, methods and materials within are the exclusive property of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.

1
STEP ONE - CULTIVATE A REAL REASON.
The first step, as indicated above, is to lock in a reason for applying to HBS that goes beyond
the school's name, rank, and prestige. Simply being one of the best applicants who wants to
go to one of the best schools is not a good enough reason. Instead, really think through why
you want to go to Harvard. What does the school offer that makes it a good fit for you?
There are dozens of things that make HBS unique, starting with the entire teaching model
(case method, highly theoretical). Latch on to some of them so that Harvard starts to
become a visualized place rather than just a brand name.1

Hint: If you are applying to both HBS and Stanford GSB, you need to read this paragraph five

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extra times and then ask yourself: why? Harvard and Stanford share almost nothing in
common except a prestigious perch atop the rankings. And, as you just read, that is no

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reason to apply to a b-school. It certainly isn’t a reason that will resonate. We are
constantly advising our clients to pick one or the other when it comes to HBS and Stanford.

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Being forced to choose one will hone the school search and application message for every

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other school. 2

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STEP TWO – DO THE MATH.

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There is nothing worse than getting your heart set on a school, diving into the application,sh
and pouring everything you have into gaining admission ... only to realize you never really
had a chance in the first place. Some schools are just less tolerant of certain weaknesses
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and they look for specific strengths. At HBS, the biggest filter that will screen out an
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applicant is age. Most people know that HBS skews young, but few realize just how rigid
the school has become when it comes to age range. Over 60% of the Fall 2009 entering
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class was less than four years removed from their college graduation date at the time
classes started in September.3 If you are 29 years old and thinking of applying, you should
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probably just move the search along.


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Other red flags at HBS include some of the usual suspects – GPA and GMAT. What makes the
academic profile unique, however, is that Harvard tends to flip the two numbers in terms of
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its tolerance to absorb a low mark. Most elite MBA programs are least forgiving of a “low”
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GMAT score (anything below the 20th percentile and/or 20 points below the school’s
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1 If you don't believe this is important, consider our admissions consulting policy: we will not work with an HBS
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applicant who can't give us at least three reasons for applying to Harvard beyond the name, rank, and brand of
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the school. If we won't take your money to help you apply to HBS without something valid to anchor your
interest, do you think HBS will admit you without genuine, nuanced interest in the program?
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2 Given this viewpoint, you probably assume that there are no b-schools that are like both HBS and Stanford,
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right? Wrong. Yale SOM is strangely triangulated between the two programs. Yale shares the emphasis on
social enterprise and non-profit management that makes Stanford GSB so unique, while using a teaching method
(the “raw case method”) that more closely mirrors HBS than any other b-school (with the possible exception of
Tuck and Darden). Just thought we’d throw that in there.
3 Quick editorial note on HBS and age: it isn't just that Harvard is looking for young candidates, but that the

school is looking for exceptional talent. Rapid advancement on an aggressive timeline is the calculation that HBS
has seemed to settle on when making that determination. In other words, you don't get magic points for being
25. You get points for being 25 and arriving at the career position typically held by someone who is 28 or 29.
Harvard believes that early achievement is a great indicator of exceptional talent. So it's not enough to be
young; you have to be young and accomplished.

How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright © 2010 by the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
The SCARA™ and ARA™ methodologies are trademarks of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
All content, methods and materials within are the exclusive property of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.

2
average) when considering application components, while they might be more willing to
forgive a low GPA – especially if college is well in the rearview mirror and there is good
work experience to suggest maturity and discipline. HBS tends to be more tolerant of the
occasional low GMAT score and less tolerant of a wayward GPA. There are some practical
reasons for this that go beyond philosophy.

The reason HBS can sometimes roll the dice on a lower GMAT score has to do with the size
of the school. In short, HBS is a monster MBA program, with nine sections and over 900
students in each incoming class. With HBS 2+2 proving to be a success, there is talk that a
tenth section may be added in the near future. The place is swimming with MBA students.
Given the sheer size of the class, HBS can often “take a chance” on someone with a lower

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GMAT score, because it won’t impact the overall average as dramatically as it would at a

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smaller b-school. Consider the following two programs: HBS and Yale SOM (again).

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Yale SOM features a class of 180 students and an average GMAT of 718. HBS features a class

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of 900 and an average GMAT at 720. Clearly, both schools are used to bringing in an

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impressive group of test-takers. However, HBS simply has more room to roll the dice on a
few students who don’t fit that description. Imagine both schools are nine students away

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from filling their admit pools, imagine that every student they admit will enroll, and imagine

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they are both one point over their averages going into these final decisions. Both schools
have nine highly accomplished, highly personable, passionate, and otherwise deserving and
amazing students picked out – all with GPAs below the 660 mark that signals the bottom
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20th percentile. We’ll say that this group has an average score of 630. Here is how each
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school sees its GMAT average impacted by saying “yes” to these nine students:
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• HBS’ 721 becomes an average of 720 (technically, 720.1). In other words, right at
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the school’s 2010 average.


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• Yale SOM’s 719 becomes an average of 715 (technically, 714.6). In other word, a
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three-point drop from 2010 and enough damage to sink a few spot in the U.S. News
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rankings.
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Still think Harvard’s size doesn’t grant them the ability to take some risks? And that doesn’t
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even account for the massive advantage afforded by the difference in yield rates between
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the two schools. Again, not to get too “inside” here, but another reason that a school like
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Harvard can be more aggressive than a school like Yale in admitting “less qualified”
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students is that they can better project who is showing up. Uncertain yield makes it even
harder to stray from robust GMAT scores, because a school like Yale SOM only enrolls nine
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of every 20 students it admits.4 If Yale admits nine students with low GMAT scores and 11
with high scores and only the low students show up … the enrollment management
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committee is suddenly in serious trouble. HBS, on the other hand, knows that nine of every
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10 students are enrolling, so they can make easy projections with a very minor standard
deviation. If this sounds like boring, inside baseball admissions talk, just know that nothing
– nothing – is more important that understanding what goes in the minds of the human
beings who control this process. Your fate is in their hands. You simply must know what

4We cover this in greater detail in our “How to Apply to Yale SOM” guide, but the basic reasons for Yale’s low
yield rate are as follows: crappy building (about to become “amazing building”) and immature alumni base
(growing constantly). In other words, the yield rate at Yale SOM is about to soar in the coming years, making it
one hot stock to hold if you are an aspiring MBA student. (Especially when you factor in their recent hire of
former Booth dean Ted Snyder.]
How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright © 2010 by the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
The SCARA™ and ARA™ methodologies are trademarks of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
All content, methods and materials within are the exclusive property of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.

3
pressures they feel and what challenges they face in doing their jobs if you want to do your
job effectively.

As for GPA, there is also a very practical reason why HBS skews high and it isn’t just
because they want to protect their sparkling, law school-like 3.7 average (although that is
part of it, to be sure) and it has everything to do with the age issue discussed above. Given
that HBS is admitting a ton of students who are one, two, three, and four years removed
from their senior year of college, it makes sense that undergraduate grades remain more
relevant than at a business school focusing on applicants with five-to-seven years of work
experience. Put quite simply: college happened too recently and there has been less time
for a candidate to be transformed from underachiever to shooting star in the work force. If

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you flaked out in college and posted a mediocre GPA (especially in a mediocre major), HBS

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is not the place you want to apply.

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STEP THREE - IMMERSION.

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Once you ensure that you aren't going to be brutally screened out for a low GPA or for being

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too old, you want total immersion into the program and into figuring out what makes HBS

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go. You did some of this in step one, when you made sure you had at least a passing

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connection to the school, but now it is time to become an expert. Best-case scenario, you
take a trip to Boston and spend a few days roaming the campus, visiting classes, talking to
students, and hanging out in areas where people congregate. Worst case, you research the op
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hell out of the school. Read the website, read free guides, read blogs, read forums. Research
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clubs and organizations. Review the employment report. Learn the faculty and even the
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staff (five minutes of research into the Director of Career Services at any school can be the
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smartest five minutes you ever spent). You want HBS to seep into your pores so that when
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you apply, it's second nature. And by the time you interview? You will sound like a second-
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year student.
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STEP FOUR - KNOW EVERY WAY IN.


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Understand every angle at Harvard. If you are a college student, you should know that HBS
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2+2 is ideal for non-business majors who might be headed down another path but have the
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talent and background to lead. If you are a college senior with huge talent and potential and
the desire to one day attend HBS, you should apply round three with the hopes of gaining
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"deferred admission" for several years out (round three applicants applying this spring for
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the Class of 2012 are deferred to the Class of 2014 after gaining two years of work
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experience). If you have a strong background in business fundamentals but are much better
on the verbal portion of the GMAT, strongly consider the GRE, as HBS is one of the schools
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currently accepting either test and perhaps the only school taking the GRE experiment very
seriously. In short, you have to look under every rock and around every corner for your
chance to gain access to such an elite school. As mentioned above, the older you get and the
further you get from your college graduation date, the harder those opportunities are to
find, but that is all part of understanding the school.

STEP FIVE - SET THE TIMELINE.

How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright © 2010 by the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
The SCARA™ and ARA™ methodologies are trademarks of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
All content, methods and materials within are the exclusive property of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.

4
Obviously, your timeline for applying to HBS - or any business school - will be dictated
largely by the application deadlines. HBS has one of the earliest Round One deadlines
(October 1st) and one of the latest Round Three deadlines (April 8th). This is due in part to
the school's desire to take a good, long look at as many candidates as possible - something
that requires time when you have the largest MBA applicant pool in the world. The
deadlines also reflect the school's standing as the most famous business school in the world.
Unlike other programs, Harvard doesn't have to worry about being "too early" in round one,
as MBA candidates will set their watch to HBS and go from there. Likewise, HBS has the
luxury of waiting to close Round Three because they simply never need to hedge or build
much of a waitlist, given the school's lofty 89% yield.5 That number affords HBS such
amazing enrollment protection that the school can afford to keep the admissions season

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open as long as possible.

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That said, just because you can apply any time over a six-month period doesn't mean you

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should. There is a steep drop off from Round Two to Round Three (except for college

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seniors, who actually do better in Round Three for reasons described above) and applying

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during Round One has the oft-overlooked advantage of giving you visibility on your options
before you have to put down deposits at other schools. We have heard countless stories of

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applicants getting into other elite programs as Round Two applicants, only to face an

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enrollment decision at, say, Kellogg, before they even are notified about interview
possibilities from their Round Two HBS application. Granted, students can and likely will
pull their enrollment from Kellogg should Harvard come calling, but the deposit is non-
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refundable (so you are out the cash) and leaving another school high and dry often leaves a
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bad taste in your mouth.6
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For all the reasons stated above, it is ideal to aggressively target a Round One submission to
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HBS - ideally in mid-to-late September.


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The deadlines for HBS for 2009-2010 were:


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• Round One - October 1, 2009


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• Round Two - January 19, 2010


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• Round Three - April 8, 2010


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• HBS 2+2 - June 15, 2010


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STEP SIX – UNDERSTAND KEY HBS ADMISSIONS THEMES.


When applying to any top MBA program, you have to understand the key admissions
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themes that officers are looking for when they make decisions on candidates. The basic
admissions themes are:
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• professional potential (recruitability/hirability)

5 We assume most readers know what yield rate is, but you know what happens when you assume. Yield rate is
a simple calculation that determines the percentage of admitted students who enroll in the school. Yield is
incredibly easy to figure out once the dust settles, but often very hard to project. Harvard’s ability to bank
almost 90% every year is, to put it in technical terms, insane.
6 That said, just because it feels weird does not mean you shouldn't do it. Schools don't worry about dinging

candidates, as it is all part of the process. Well, students shouldn't worry about pulling an enrollment and
switching to another school, as that is equally part of the process.
How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright © 2010 by the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
The SCARA™ and ARA™ methodologies are trademarks of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
All content, methods and materials within are the exclusive property of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.

5
• intellectual horsepower and curiosity
• leadership
• teamwork
• maturity/discipline/focus
• involvement (community and organizationally)
• motivation

Those seven areas are going to be important at pretty much all b-schools, but they vary
greatly in priority order and weight of impact depending on the school. For example, at
most programs, the current economic climate has driven hirability into the top spot –
virtually nothing is as important as showing the admissions committee that you have the

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potential to succeed professionally and land your desired job after graduation. At HBS

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though, hirability is not the ruling theme. In fact, it isn’t even one of the top three

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admissions themes – evidenced by the fact that Harvard still doesn’t ask a mandatory essay
question about career goals.

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At HBS, the admissions themes should be ordered as:

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1. Leadership

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2. Intellectual horsepower/curiosity

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3. Involvement
4. Maturity
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5. Professional potential, teamwork, motivation
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We lump the final three together to stress the relative lack of importance of each. HBS is not
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focusing on those areas when evaluating candidates and those who apply to Harvard should
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be aware of that fact. The first four themes, however, are of great importance. Leadership
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is the buzzword at HBS. The school prides itself on identifying, training, and producing
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great leaders and focuses most of its energies in the admissions process on ensuring that
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this tradition continues. Intellectual capacity is also a huge consideration – perhaps to a


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greater extent than any other business school, which is in keeping with both a high average
GPA and a teaching method that is more theoretical and rigorous in nature than most b-
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schools. Involvement and maturity are also key elements at HBS, as much because of the
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emphasis on younger applicants as anything else. The admissions committee must look to
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community and organizational involvement in the absence of more robust work experience
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and whenever you are admitting younger students, you have to take more care to ensure
that those individuals are mature beyond their years.
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Understanding how key admissions themes work at HBS will save you a lot of trouble when
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it comes time to apply, as you can focus on what really matters. Just know that you won’t be
able to borrow from your other applications, as the themes for virtually every other b-
school differ greatly from those at Harvard. HBS is truly unique in the current MBA
landscape.

STEP SEVEN - REALIGNMENT.


Okay, so now you live and breathe HBS, you know which admissions themes matter, and
you know that you have at least an outside chance of being competitive. Now what do you

How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright © 2010 by the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
The SCARA™ and ARA™ methodologies are trademarks of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
All content, methods and materials within are the exclusive property of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.

6
do? It's time to shift the focus away from Harvard and onto your own candidacy. The only
way you can maximize your chances of receiving an "admit letter" from HBS or any other
business school is to build a platform through exhaustive and informed analysis. Strengths
relative to your friends, family members, and co-workers must check out against the
competition (other elite applicants). Weaknesses must be unearthed so they can be dealt
with. We won't mince words here - this is the stage in the process at which you are most in
need of an expert. The most valuable step that an applicant can take when applying to HBS
is to work with someone who can put themselves in the shoes of the HBS admissions officer
who will eventually review your file. Realignment is the most overlooked, yet most
transformative part of any admissions consulting process. (Note that if you have access to
someone who knows MBA admissions and has time to devote to your case, you likely don't

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need to pay for a consultant. This is rare, of course, which is why we have a waiting list.)

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STEP EIGHT – ESSAY COMPOSITION.

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This is the most patently important step in the entire process and it is easy to understand

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why candidates fixate immediately on essay writing when it comes time to apply to HBS (or

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anywhere else). However, if that eagerness and singular focus results in skipping over the

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previous seven steps in this guide, the best essays in the world won’t make a shred of

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difference. You must reach this step in the process armed with the insight, perspective, and
tools to succeed, or you are just wasting your time and money. That said, for the candidate
who has properly prepared, the essay stage can be conquered just like everything that op
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comes before it.
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Harvard’s essay set is notable for a few distinct reasons: first, it is one of the only top MBA
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programs to eschew the “career goals” essay as a required question; second, it features as
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many optional essays (2) as required essays; third, there are relatively few words to work
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with (1,800) in total; and fourth, there is arguably no other school known for one single
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essay more than HBS is for Essay #1. With those thoughts out of the way, let’s get into the
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HBS essays from the 2009-2010 admissions cycle:


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#1 - What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them
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as such? (600-word limit)


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This is the most famous of all essay questions – not just at HBS, but at any business school.
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The irony is that the question is actually relatively easy to answer, provided you have the
ammunition in your background. That is to say, there is a straightforward, template
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approach to this question … but that approach is only as powerful as the actual
accomplishments being presented. Of course, that all goes back to truly stress testing
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whether you are a competitive applicant at HBS. In order to fit the current Harvard
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admissions model – 25 years old with the career success of someone 29 – you surely have
more than three significant accomplishments to your credit.

We use very simple advice when counseling clients on this question, which is to look to the
Ross (Michigan) application for clarity and direction. Sound strange? It won’t once you see
Question #2 from the Ross application, which reads:

How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright © 2010 by the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
The SCARA™ and ARA™ methodologies are trademarks of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
All content, methods and materials within are the exclusive property of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.

7
Describe your most significant professional accomplishment. Elaborate on the
leadership skills you displayed, the actions you took and the impact you had on your
organization.

This is pretty much all an HBS applicant needs to know about how to answer HBS Essay
Question #1. Unpacking the Ross question provides the “rules” for the HBS question:

• Focus on professional accomplishments whenever possible7


• Make sure that leadership is clearly evident in each accomplishment
• Use the Los Angeles MBA’s SCARA8 model, as indicated by the request for “actions
taken”

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Focus on results in the form of organizational impact

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Knowing what to put in the response makes it very easy to simply identify the three best

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accomplishments and then write individual, 200-word essays about each. There is no need

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to bookend with an intro or a conclusion paragraph and you don’t even need slick

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transitional sentences to pull everything together. Just pick the right accomplishments and

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follow the Ross blueprint and you will be set. If it sounds too good to be true, just

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remember that you still need the underlying experiences and accomplishments in order to

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pull this off. It’s like being asked to prepare a steak dinner and then discovering a clear and
easy-to-follow recipe. Your job just got a lot easier, but the steak is ultimately only going to
be as good as the meat you are cooking. op
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#2 - What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit)
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HBS has stuck with this as a mandatory essay for the last several years, which makes sense
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in light of the youth movement that is currently underway. As mentioned in the section on
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HBS admissions themes, it is a reflexive step for the school to seek out maturity as a hedge
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against bringing in young, underprepared students. Clearly then, you should look at this
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question as an opportunity to showcase maturity by being very direct about the mistake in
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question and then detailing exactly how you learned from it.
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Generally speaking, the “failure essay” is the cousin of the “tell us about your biggest
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weakness” interview question. It is obviously one of those situations where you try to take
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a negative and spin it into a positive. However, just as that interview question can lead to
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ridiculous answers (“my biggest weakness is that I care too much”), so too can the failure
essay provoke flimsy “failures” followed up too quickly with underlying successes.
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The best way to handle any variation of the failure essay (here, the language is “a mistake”)
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is to present an authentic mistake that was born out of something either minor or a
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problem since corrected and that led to a true learning experience. The key thing a reader
wants to extract from this essay is that you can make mistakes and learn from them and be

7 If it is not possible to use three professional accomplishments, the best bet is to go in an entirely different
direction and use one professional, one personal, and one community accomplishment. This will give the feel of
an intentional, thematic approach and one that showcases your versatility and well-rounded nature.
8 Situation, Complication, Action, Results, Applicability (if possible, in this case).

How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright © 2010 by the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
The SCARA™ and ARA™ methodologies are trademarks of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
All content, methods and materials within are the exclusive property of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.

8
better the next time. It shows self-awareness, resilience, and a willingness to improve. All
good traits. And, of course, it indicates the proper level of maturity for an HBS student.9

#3 and #4 - Please respond to two of the following (400-word limit each):

• What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate
academic experience?
• Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.
• Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision.
• Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions
Board

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What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?

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Five options of varying difficulty and potential impact. Let’s take them in the order of our

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preference (meaning the ones we most commonly recommend that clients answer).

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#3b – Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.

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We like this best among HBS optional questions because it provides a direct opportunity to

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speak to community involvement, which is one of the quietly important themes at Harvard.
Given the professional emphasis on the first two mandatory questions, it makes sense to get
right into an opportunity to expand outside of work experience and into something op
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community-based.
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The key to answering this question effectively is to recognize that it belongs to the “making
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an impact” family tree, which means that you have to use the same rules as Essay #1 – show
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the leadership skills involved and highlight the results in the form of organizational impact.
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If you think HBS cares only about your engagement with a community, you are crazy. They
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want to see involvement, yes, but they want to see how you emerged as a leader and made a
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lasting impact in this new setting.


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For this essay, we recommend our SCARA approach with a quick setup and knock down
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when describing the situation in the opening paragraph.10


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#3a – What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your
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undergraduate academic experience?


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At first blush, you might imagine that this is a top choice for the same reason as 3b in that it
moves the essay answers out of the work experience realm and into college details
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(relevant at HBS for all the reasons discussed above). However, the real reason is that we
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think this question allows candidates to delve into their intellectual abilities, passions, and
goals. Again, the level of emphasis HBS places on intellect is unique among top MBA
programs and an applicant who doesn’t explore that topic anywhere in the application is
missing an opportunity.

9 For step-by-step instructions on writing a mistake/failure essay, see the L.A. MBA Common MBA Essay
Approaches Guide.
10 Again, for step-by-step instructions on how to write this essay, see our Essay Approaches Guide.

How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

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All content, methods and materials within are the exclusive property of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.

9
We encourage our clients to give the readers more information about their choices of
institution, their majors, and specific moments indicative of intellectual horsepower. We
also suggest transitioning the piece into intellectual goals and concluding with a fairly
impassioned argument for “why HBS” that hinges on the school’s teaching method. Not only
is the chance to showcase school fit relatively scarce throughout the HBS application, but to
go through all of the essays without mentioning the Case Method approach is a mistake. It
starts to feel like the elephant in the room.

To keep things very simple, we like to see Essay 3a structured like this:
• Intro – facts and key details
• Extraction – what those details mean, what you are passionate about

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• Goals – how that passion plays out going forward

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• Why HBS – how the case method approach allows for the above

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#3e – What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?

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In most cases, we encourage clients to shy away from question 3e, because HBS has made it

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fairly clear that – unlike pretty much every other business school – its not terribly

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concerned about career goals and prospects. The mere fact that this question is optional

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and even the fact that it is framed as career “vision” rather than “goals” tells you that the
admissions committee isn’t staying up at night worrying about the hirability of its class.
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On top of all that, there is another practical consideration that stems from the way other
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applications are structured. Because every other school is going to ask you to articulate
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your career goals, HBS is almost always going to assume that if you answer 3e, you are
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doing so for reasons of convenience and that what they are reading is just a watered-down
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career goals essay pulled from Columbia or Stanford or a dozen other MBA applications.
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#3c – Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision


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A relatively new essay question, which is why it rates below the career vision topic above.
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Its inclusion seems to stem from recent calls for more ethical training in MBA programs and
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may be a signaling device on the part of HBS (“hey, we are asking students about this stuff”)
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as much as anything else.


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If you do tackle this question, you still want to stick with actions and results (use SCARA),
but make sure to tie them all together with a key admissions theme, such as leadership or
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maturity.
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#3d – Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions
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Board

This gimmicky essay question closely resembles the long-running “cover letter” essay at
MIT Sloan, but we feel that 400 words is not nearly enough time to create an articulate and
well-written letter that still has substance to it. We advise clients and other applicants to
avoid this question.

STEP NINE – SECURE LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION


How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright © 2010 by the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
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10
In fairness, step nine will probably need to be started before step eight, as it often takes
longer to secure your letters of recommendation than it does to actually compose your
essay responses. However, we knew we were trying your patience as it was by putting the
essay section so far down in the document and we didn’t want to delay any longer. Make no
mistake though, you need to start working on your recommendation letters early in the
process.
All of the standard rules apply here (find the person who knows you best and can articulate
you as a candidate via the written word; ask them early and often; provide them with
information that aids in writing a great letter), but what makes HBS unique is that the
school asks for three letters (rather than two, which is standard) … and only two of them

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need to be professional. This is a clear indicator that you not only have permission to go get

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an academic letter of recommendation, but that you have a mandate to do so. If you are

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being realistic and checking the filters (per step two), you should only be a few years out of

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school when applying to HBS, so getting an academic letter should be feasible. Go to the

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professor who knows you best and can speak to either your intellectual horsepower or your

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leadership skills (or both, ideally).

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STEP 10 – TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE INTERVIEW.

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At the end of the day, our job (whether via this guide, or – on a more personal level – while
working with you as a client) is to help you go through the steps above in order to secure an op
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interview to HBS. If you have selected the school correctly, checked your candidacy against
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the filters, realigned your perspective, and then strategically articulated your story
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throughout the essays, you are very likely to receive an invitation to interview with Harvard
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Business School. Once you receive such an opportunity, you obviously need to make the
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most of it. We’re not breaking any new ground here, but it bears stating anyway: you can be
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the world’s greatest candidate on paper, but if you have a poor interview, you can throw
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your admit letter right out the window. Here are some suggestions that will help you take
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full advantage of this opportunity.


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Build Your Sales Pitch


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We’re not talking about a used car salesmen’s patter here, but rather an articulate, nuanced,
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and developed narrative about you. Your sales pitch can take on many layers and focus on a
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variety of angles, but will almost always pull from your key themes stated in the essays. You
want to avoid a disconnect between who you are on paper and what you are projecting in
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an interview setting. The night before your interview is no time for an epiphany. Even
more important than linking everything together is being comfortable with what you want
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to say. Look, there is no way to guarantee that you will be able to get your sales pitch
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perfectly articulated during the back-and-forth interview process, but at the very least, you
should have a “pitch” that you can give uninterrupted for anywhere from five minutes to an
hour, depending on circumstances. If someone asks you to “tell them about your plans for
an MBA,” you should be able to dazzle them for an hour. How? On to the next point …

Practice

Once you have a pitch, practice it. You will be tempted to fall back on past interviewing
experiences, be it for college, on-campus activities, or jobs, but this is a mistake. For
How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright © 2010 by the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
The SCARA™ and ARA™ methodologies are trademarks of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
All content, methods and materials within are the exclusive property of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.

11
starters, if you fit the HBS model, you will be a little younger and you may not have dozens
of successful interviews under your belt. Even if you did, however, you have to understand
that an MBA interview is a different setting. Yes, your past interview opportunities will help
you with body language, posture, pacing, non verbal cues, and the like, but they won’t help
you deliver a powerful, consistent, and articulate message about who you are as a
candidate. You need to practice to get it down pat. The best way to do it? Whenever
someone asks you why you are getting an MBA, lay the sales pitch on them. You will get the
practice you need and they will forever think twice about asking someone that question!

Research

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There is a ton of information out there about interviews at the top schools. Applicants tend

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to get a little giddy and are infinitely more friendly once they hit the interview stage of the

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process, so where there is little sharing of insight and info during the application phase,

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there is ample sharing that goes on during interviews. There are forums, message boards,

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and databases filled with interview experiences and questions. Read them, soak them up,

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and start identifying trends. With HBS, you can be sure to expect a very focused interview
that will often spend FAR more time talking about college than any other school (again, if

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you have been reading this guide, that makes sense). In fact, HBS has even been known to

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inquire about high school. Be prepared and know that this interview will go differently than
your other b-school interviews. Know also that HBS is known for having “hard” interviews
mixed in with “easy” interviews. This is unusual as well and while we don’t buy the
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common myth on his subject (that HBS is trying to keep people on their toes), we are willing
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to accept that the disparity in interviewers leads to a disparity in interview styles. In other
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words, alumni members don’t interview like admissions committee members and even
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within the alumni population there is a wide variety of styles.


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It isn’t just the questions you should research though – you also want to know the format.
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HBS uses both admissions committee members and alumni and will hold interviews on
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campus, at “hub” locations, or even over the phone. You should be ready for all formats.
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CONCLUSION
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It’s a brave new world out there. Over the past eight years, I have witnessed an ever
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increasing pool of qualified candidates who apply to the same top 10 MBA programs.
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Considering the fact that more and more applicants are taking the GMAT, and now the GRE,
the competitive applicant pool is turning into a shark tank of sorts. Meanwhile, HBS
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maintains the same number of fixed seats in its incoming MBA classes – a classic squeeze
play.
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If you are not a member of this competitive applicant group, as defined by the above steps,
then consider applying elsewhere. It is as simple as that. Of course there are always stories
of someone getting into HBS with a sub-500 GMAT score. However, while in the realm of
probability, it is not within the realm of probability - your efforts are best spent on other
applications.

If you are a member of this competitive applicant group, then you have passed the first
steps in the HBS application process detailed above. Don’t pat yourself on the back just yet.
You need to different yourself from the rest of the A-team and that is primarily done
How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright © 2010 by the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
The SCARA™ and ARA™ methodologies are trademarks of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
All content, methods and materials within are the exclusive property of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.

12
through your essays. Of course, this is the part where I recommend reaching out to a vetted
professional admissions consultant.11

If you are in the Los Angeles area, please make plans to attend the Los Angeles MBA
Admissions Workshop hosted by Paul Lanzillotti. We meet monthly at the UCLA Anderson
School of Management. Please visit www.la-mba.org for more information on an upcoming
workshop.

Finally, we would appreciate any constructive feedback on this document. Please email
Paul Lanzillotti at hbs@la-mba.org.

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About the Author

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Paul Lanzillotti (http://www.linkedin.com/a/paullanz) is founder of the Los Angeles MBA Admissions Workshop.
Paul has worked with hundreds of MBA applicants and GMAT students over the past eight years and has parlayed

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these experiences into the Los Angeles MBA Admissions Workshop. His goal in creating the Workshop was to create

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a relaxed environment where no MBA admissions topics were out of scope or off-limits.

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Formerly, Paul was the Vice President of Operations for the second largest GMAT prep and MBA admissions

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consulting company in the world. Prior to this, Paul was a management and IT consultant, and a manufacturing

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and quality engineer for a global Tier One automotive supplier. He has extensive operations, production,
supervisory and project management experiences within large corporate and entrepreneurial environments.

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Paul holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Kettering University in Flint,
Michigan. Currently, he guest lecturers for the UCLA Anderson School of Management’s Riordan Program. During
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his business school tenure, Paul also served as admissions interviewer for the UCLA Anderson admissions committee.
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11I have been an admissions consultant for the past eight years and I welcome the chance to speak with anyone
about their candidacy. However, having done this for a while, this is my word of caution - don’t believe in face-
value consulting “testimonials” or “acceptance rates” put forth by an MBA admissions consultant. This is too
important of a decision. If it wouldn’t pass a professional audit, then it’s not worth the pixel it populates on an
LCD. Get a list of their former clients who have been admitted to HBS and even others who were not accepted to
HBS. Call them and vet them with a short list of your own questions. If you cannot get a list from a particular
admissions consultant – move on. Don’t buy the “client confidentiality” tip – good admissions consultants have
what author Ken Blanchard calls “raving fans.”

How to Apply to Harvard Business School: A 10-step Guide for Applying to HBS, v201004

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright © 2010 by the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
The SCARA™ and ARA™ methodologies are trademarks of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.
All content, methods and materials within are the exclusive property of the Amerasia Consulting Group, LLC.

13