Understanding a school’s core values and curriculum will put you on the right path to a) determining if its program is a good fit for you and vice versa b) determining if you meet the school’s baseline criteria if so, how you can c) work the written application to amplify your chances.
I HBS Core Values
HABIT OF LEADERSHIP
The key term here isn’t so much leadership as it is habit. You can show leadership through all the traditional routes: extracurricular activities, leading a team or spearheading initiatives at work, entrepreneurship, organizing community focused initiatives. HBS says they are looking for ‘evidence of your potential’ and the potential they are interested in is the potential to make leadership a habit. Nothing predicts future behavior like past behavior. So HBS wants to see more than one solid example of leadership in your past – it’s the guarantee that you won’t be dropping the ball once you’re in at HBS. While 99% of MBA candidates can lay claim to leadership experiences – it’s the quality (not necessarily the number) of leadership endeavors that make for a good application.
Generally speaking when a client first comes to me they tend to fall into one of two categories:
Leadership Galore: People who have a plethora of leadership experiences at every twist and turn in their resume. Note: many of these experiences are half-baked, low time commitment, one-off endeavors. The number one rule in brand management is consolidation to create brand salience and recall. The key with these candidates is to analyze which experiences most strongly compliment their story and goals and then work to really emphasize those and downplay or not mention the weaker ones.
Lack of Leadership: People who seemingly have no leadership experience or haven’t done anything since graduating college. 50% of these people actually have hidden gems of leadership either at work or in their personal life – the key to finding them is getting someone to probe the hell out of you – asking you questions that you wouldn’t have thought to ask yourself and helping you frame your own habit of leadership from a fresh angle.
Whatever category a candidate falls into at the beginning of his/her MBA application journey…by the end of it there needs to be a polished resume and story that has the reader thinking to himself ‘hey that was neat’.
ANALYTCIAL APTITIUDE AND APPETITIE
HBS is a ‘highly verbal’ environment – this is key. The HBS case method has its roots in the Socratic method. The Socratic method is a form of debate that questions precepts and in doing so, allows for the examination of alternative solutions or conclusions to a problem.
When HBS talks about ‘analytical aptitude’ they don’t mean being good with numbers (although that is important) – they mean being good at critically analyzing problems, framing them in different contexts and being able to verbalize that. Imagine someone responding to rapid fire questions with poise and intelligence and you start to get an idea.
Participating in the case method helps HBS students to improve their ability to clearly express complex ideas – but HBS also screens a priori for this ability during its notorious ‘sink or swim’ interview process. In a nutshell: HBS is looking for people who have the gift of gab. A candidate can have it all together on paper – but after 5 minutes on the phone it becomes apparent whether they’re naturally verbal or (much more frequently) in need of coaching.
ENGAGED COMMUNITY CITIZENSHIP
HBS doesn’t expect its students to merely attend class – instead, the school looks for students who have demonstrated (via past endeavors) that they have the DESIRE and requisite ENERGY to a) participate actively in the case method on a daily basis b) leverage their knowledge, experiences and network to facilitate other students’ learning in the classroom and outside it c) take an active role in organizing clubs and activities.
Now the truth once you’re in at HBS is that you (and every other MBA) will be accepting more leadership positions than you’ll actually be able to deal with (given your overwhelming class load, recruiting and other commitments). As this HBS student says, ‘about 90% of club leadership positions serve a very critical purpose: resume padding’. But this is another story altogether and not one that is exclusive to HBS.
II HBS Class Profile: Average age and years since completing college
HBS is one of the first schools most people consider applying to when they set out on the MBA application process. I regularly speak with applicants during free consultations who identify HBS as a top choice when constructing their portfolio of reach, target and safety schools. In determining whether you will apply to HBS, be aware that the school prefers younger applicants. The median age is 26-27 years old and the median number of years since graduating college is 4.
Harvard actually doesn’t use age as a guideline for class composition – they calculate the number of years since a candidate finished college. To figure out where you stand, calculate the number of years between when you would ENTER HBS in the Fall of your first year and the year in which you finished your higher education. Candidate X graduated in 2013 aged 24, he is 26 and applying to HBS in Round 1 of 2015. That means he’ll be 27 when he STARTS at HBS, so 27-24=3. Candidate X would be 3 years post college by HBS’s calculation. This method makes a lot of sense because (as I’ve written before) HBS, and other top schools, are looking for candidates who satisfy the needs of the employers who recruit at their school. By calculating the number of years since graduation HBS allows for people who start their higher education later in life (because of military service or a gap year) and for people who pursue a Masters degree directly after undergrad.
If we turn our attention to the graph below, it becomes very evident that there is a steep drop off point somewhere around 29 years of age or 7 years since finishing college. Only 10% of HBS MBA students are 29-30+ years old & completed college 7 years ago or more. Is that because HBS receives a disproportionately large number of applications from younger candidates – there are no public figures available to answer that question but using my own clients as a sample set of reference – I’d say the answer is no. So what that means is that the further you creep away from the median, the more difficult it is going to be to get a place at HBS. It is a sad story really because there have been older candidates I’ve known who at 30+ would be perfect for HBS…but from HBS’s point of view, these people would have been perfect 3 years ago. Another school that tends younger is Stanford. And a similar age distribution applies there. If you are an older applicant I’d suggest looking at schools with a slightly higher average age: Wharton, Sloan, Chicago, Kellogg and many others have an average of 5 years work experience and an average age of 28.