Stop applying to Harvard Business School. Read that again: stop applying to Harvard Business School. As the most applied-to business school in the world, HBS received nearly 10,000 applications for the class of 2016, admitting 12% of applicants, with a remarkable 89% yield. With an applicant pool that could annex a small midwestern town, HBS could easily add a section to its incoming class and still maintain its perch atop, or near the top, of most business school rankings.
With each of the nearly 10,000 hopefuls convinced they are perfect for Harvard Business School, why wouldn’t HBS welcome more of these future titans with open arms? Maybe the admissions committee at HBS knows something applicants don’t — and it does — that being qualified on paper isn’t enough. Many, and dare we say most, applicants fail to realize this and apply to HBS for the wrong reasons. These applicants, academically and professionally stellar, aren’t being turned down because of who they are, but because of what Harvard Business School is. Their professed “fit” for HBS is based more on their attraction to the school’s veneer rather than its substance.
There is no doubt that HBS, with its massive endowment, and alumni list that stretches from Sheryl Sandberg to George W. Bush, is a premier destination for business school education. But applying to business school isn’t like being The Bachelorette — if you’re wooing all M7 schools, are you really a fit for all of them?
For example, HBS is fundamentally different than Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and your motivations for attending either should be specifically articulated to each school’s strengths and weaknesses. The Case Study learning method is part of HBS’ fabric. It’s highly analytical and requires continuous preparation for in-class discussion. Does this play to your strengths? Can you lead a discussion with your study group? More than that, is this how you learn best, or would you be better served attending an MBA program with a more hands-on, practical approach to learning business fundamentals?
Beyond ranking and average GMAT score, what do you really know about each school you’re applying to? Do you know what clubs and activities current students join? Do you know how involved the career services office is? Do you know what the employment forecast is for graduates? Look behind the curtain of shiny brochures and websites, and check out student and applicant blogs and forums. Visit campus and hang out with students and sit in on a class whenever possible. By the time you apply, you should know the school as well as an enrolled student. More than that, your essays and interview preparation should allow you to answer the “why our school” with much beyond the platitudes surrounding a strong alumni network and academic rigor.
Applying indiscriminately to all the elite business programs ends up being much like proposing marriage to triplets — they are similar in many ways but aren’t interchangeable. More than that, they don’t like being treated as such. Consider your motivations for each school you’re applying to, and look for a strong and specific desire to attend. Go beyond “it’s a prestigious program” or “ it’s HBS, I have to apply”. Neither are good reasons, even if you’re academically qualified.
So, stop blindly applying to Harvard Business School, and start applying to business school with purpose. If HBS makes sense for you, great, but you may find out that after honest soul-searching, you have a far better match elsewhere.
At the end of every admission cycle, HBS rejects thousands of bright, hard-working, and qualified applicants for myriad reasons, but ones who make it to Aldrich Hall have made an exceptional case for fit — how they’re right for HBS and how HBS is right for them.
Think we’re wrong? Tell us why.
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