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Applying to Harvard Business School (HBS) – a daunting thought indeed, and justifiably so. After all, we are talking about one of the most prestigious Business Schools in the world, one that is more than a century old. The prospect of applying to a United States University that boasts of a meagre 10-12% acceptance rate, and one that has churned out a colossal number of Presidents, Politicians, Leaders and Corporate Stars, would understandably be an intimidating thought. However, is the competitive admissions policy, huge applicant pool, and the meagre number of applicants who get in, reason enough to shelve the idea? Certainly not! If someone (anyone at all) can get in, why can’t you? They’re human, with their own human frailties and challenges, and so are you. Moreover, always remember that if something is worth achieving, it will (in all probability) not be a cakewalk.

So, if you are one of those vying for that academic journey to Boston, and that coveted seat in Harvard Business School, here are a few tips to help you make the most of your efforts, and leave you with no regrets, whatsoever.

Please know that this “list” is not in any order of priority. What may be an “eye-opening tip” for you, maybe “common sense” for another applicant? So, go ahead, dive into your innermost thoughts, dreams and ambitions, fathom the deepest recesses of your heart and mind, get to know yourself once again (maybe for the first time ever!), and give it your best shot!

  1. Understand what Harvard Business School is looking for

    As obvious as this may sound, this is the first step, even before you embark on your mission of shortlisting HBS as one of your intended B-School destinations.

    1. The spirit (and evidence) of leadership

      What does the word “leadership” mean to you? Is it a ‘title’ that was endowed upon you by your undergraduate college? Or by the management of your organization? Or is leadership an ‘attitude’?

      Show that you can navigate crisis even without being in one of the higher echelons. You do not necessarily have to be a designated “team leader” to resolve a domain-specific glitch in a project or an interpersonal issue within the team. Stepping up even as a junior team member, sharing an innovative idea, and exercising good people skills will give you the credibility of a future leader. HBS is looking for the ‘impact’ you have created in your surroundings, as this is what augurs well for your potential to create a similar (or greater) impact on the real world of business.

    2. Grey matter, besides all-around excellence

      A rigorous, fast-paced and challenging academic environment like that of Harvard Business School certainly seeks academic stalwarts who can match up with the best of the best, and sustain the competition not only during these 02 years but for life. While this necessitates unmatched academic excellence, the application is viewed holistically. Everything, from your classroom performance, technical acumen, quantitative skills, GRE / GMAT scores, and the curiosity to go beyond your laid-out curriculum to learn more than the bare minimum requirements, to extra-curricular participation and leadership positions held, is critical. After all, being a fast-learner within precincts of the classroom should not thwart your decision-making abilities on your Chair in that coveted corner room office.

    3. Excellent communication skills (written as well as verbal)

      For an MBA experience that is so heavily focused on case studies, field work, and symbiotic peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, being able to participate in and lead meaningful well-directed discussions and debates and receptivity to varying perspectives, is key. So, go ahead and talk about those impromptu extempore speeches you gave, or those papers (technical or non-technical) that you wrote, or that peer mentoring that you volunteered for, or that dwindling client relationship you managed to resurrect (maybe even made it better than before) because it was a critical client for your company and a huge revenue generator.

    4. Not run of the mill types

      Remember that, even if you possess all the above qualities, you are still competing amongst a league of thousands of fellow applicants who are equally accomplished, perhaps even more so in some way or the other. Talking about strong extra-curricular involvement and community service experience, you do not necessarily have to have climbed Mount Everest, or launched an NGO in your city (although such facts certainly would not hurt), learn to express how it makes you stand out amidst a crowd – something that makes the Admissions Committee reader sit up and read your story with interest. In other words, besides having an accomplishment to talk about per se, you should be able to communicate how it has helped you grow and thus, makes you ‘different’.

    5. Team leaders who are also culturally sensitive

      The importance of being a team player cannot be overstated. However, in today’s dynamic business landscape, fraught by ever-changing and even ambiguous requirements, it is not always possible to have a ‘blueprint’ or well-designed teams with stipulated and delegated responsibilities. ‘Tasks’ (during experiential learning activities at B-School as well as those during real-world professional lives) may have been laid out in the beginning but may change at a slightly later stage. Therefore, as an effective team player, you must be able to demonstrate the ability to navigate through ambiguity, evolve your work strategies, and adapt to changing requirements. It also calls for team players who can reach out to others to ask questions, and also reach out to share their own learnings.

    6. Responsible engagement with the community

      HBS has been at the forefront of creating social value. A 5-hour weekly visit to an NGO, for a month or two during your summer vacations, invested for the sake of adding that extra bullet point in your CV, doesn’t help. Needless to say, Harvard Business School is smarter than that; no brownie points for guessing.

      How have you put in your heart, mind and soul into your community service activities? What innovative ideas (if any) have you put forth on the table? How have your ideas/efforts made an impact? Or, even if these have been someone else’s ideas, how well have you shown the spirit of camaraderie to implement them? Think about all these questions honestly.

  2. Write winning essays

    1. Do not write them in a hurry

      Most successful applicants take weeks, even months to write their essays. Write, think, re-visit your thoughts and ideas, re-write, repeat. Get it reviewed by another set of (very) critical eyes. A different perspective always helps, be it in spotting a grammatical or structural error, in perceiving an (inadvertent) show of arrogance, or catching a meaty idea that can be further elaborated upon.

    2. Humility is a virtue

      But do not take it too far. Understand the fine line between humility and arrogance. Strike a balance. You are competing with some of the best brains in the world. Get out of your cocoon and tell them who you are.

  3. Demonstrate your potential for evolution and growth

    Professionally as well as personally Promotions are a good start. More importantly, also share if these promotions have come to you earlier than is the norm in the context of your organization. Have you taken on greater responsibilities in your own domain (vertical growth) or have you also grown horizontally (moving beyond your area of expertise and learnt something cross-functionally)? While this shows your potential for growth and learning faster than the average employee pool, it also earns you the credibility of being a potential leader – someone who can push through his job description and put his head to the grindstone, if and when needed.

    Besides ‘professional growth’, personal growth is an equally important indicator of where you are, and where you are poised to go in life and business. Has life thrown a curved ball at you? What was this experience a litmus test of? How did you navigate your way through the challenge? How did it help you grow?

    Remember that you may not have the leeway to talk about all these things in the essays itself. While writing your essays, it is advisable to adhere to the question prompt in a crisp manner. For this reason, request your recommenders to substantiate their “praises” of you with a real-life context that they have had an opportunity to witness, first-hand.

  4. Apply Early

    Ideally apply within 2-3 years of gaining full-time work experience. This is the age when you’re still mentally agile enough to meet rigorous and challenging academic demands. For the same reason, take the GMAT early enough, while you are still in that “exam-oriented frame of mind’. Anyways, a GMAT score is valid for 5 years. So, no hurries and worries there.

    Moreover, a couple of years of work experience would have grilled you enough to let you test your standing in the waters of leadership. Real-life leadership experience would ensure a smoother transition into your post-MBA careers, as compared to that which is “taught” during MBA.

    The advice to apply early has a few exceptions, such as Army officers. They are a breed of people who have amassed leadership and organizational ability of a totally different kind, and in an entirely different environment. Their job constraints may not have allowed them to leave service before a minimum of 5 years, sometimes even longer.

  5. Are you and Harvard Business School a good match for each other

    While it is important for you to be a good match for HBS (as that is what will differentiate you from fellow applicants), it is equally important for HBS to be a match for you too. If you fit into the academic/intellectual scheme of things, but are a social misfit at HBS, there is not much you would be able to draw out from your overall experience at the B-School.

    A word of caution here! Do not be tempted to deluge your admission essay with numbers, such as HBS’ top ranking amongst the world’s most prestigious B-Schools (are you trying to tell the Harvard Admissions committee something that they know better than anyone else?). For the same reason, avoid simply “listing out” core and elective courses that may align with your academic needs and future goals. All this is visible on the website, easily accessible to anyone who can find their way around with the help of Google. Instead, try to get some insider info that is specific to HBS (applies to all B-school essays, by the way). This can be done by connecting with alumni via LinkedIn or mailing current students seeking info specific to your intended specialization.

  6. Last, but not the least, show how you can contribute to the campus while being a student at HBS and also beyond, as an alumnus.

All said and done, even if the worst happens, do not lose heart. Just like a 97% in High School is not a license to a happy and successful life ahead, Harvard Business School is not the only Institution that ensures a ticket to happiness. It is certainly not about your potential for success in the long term, or about your credibility as a future leader’; it is more about being a fit with the Business School – intellectually as well as socially. There are other extremely good Business Schools and MBA programs, the world over, which hold the potential to ensure your career touches the Moon, and beyond. More than a ‘buffing’ of your CV, a good Business education is about making the most of the experiential learning opportunities that your B-School experience has to offer. The hard work and investment, in terms of time and effort, would be worth it.

All the best for the next most important milestone of your life.

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