Harvard Business School is arguably home to the world’s most prestigious and best-known MBA program. (After all, it invented the degree more than a century ago.)
Harvard uses the famed case study method of classroom teaching and students all over the globe study cases written by Harvard faculty.
The list of Harvard alumni includes some of the most powerful people on the planet: Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Michael Bloomberg, billionaire former NYC mayor and Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric. (All told, 22 Harvard alums are running the world’s biggest corporations by market capitalization.)
The Harvard MBA is consistently ranked among the best globally by the Financial Times and places highly in other leading international league tables.
9,886 people applied to join the Harvard MBA class of 2020. Just 930 were successful, giving it an acceptance rate of 9.4%.
So how can you land a coveted spot on the course? Back in 2016, we asked Chad Losee (pictured), managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School, just that.
He was part of Harvard’s MBA Class of 2013. During his second year, Chad worked in Dean Nitin Nohria’s office on the launch of HBX, Harvard’s online learning venture. After graduating, he worked at Bain & Company for two years. He joined Harvard’s admissions office in May 2016.
Here’s what he told us:
Q. The Harvard MBA has a tricky acceptance rate. What can candidates do to stand out from the crowd?
What they have in common is a dedication to excellence, a history of leadership in past and current endeavours, analytical ability, a moral compass that points true north, and a penchant for contributing to the success of a community, which is what HBS is.
We want to get to know each applicant and to try to understand how s/he will contribute in our classrooms and in our community.
Most of all, we don’t want anyone to take themselves out of the process by not applying. I remember feeling like it was a long shot when I applied, but I’m so glad I took the shot!
Q. What’s the one common mistake you see that ruins HBS applications?
I don’t think there is “one common mistake”. The admissions process here is a kind of mosaic — we’re looking at a lot of pieces that come together to give us a complete picture of the applicant.
Be yourself, not someone you think we are looking for. And be aware that there is no formula, no cookbook for a successful application. What works well for one person may not work well for another. This is a very individualized process.
Q. What can an applicant do to offset a weaker GMAT score?
Again, the GMAT is just one piece of the mosaic, and we’re looking at all the pieces. Many applicants tend to focus too much on the GMAT (or GRE — we’re agnostic about which you take) because it provides a score, a batting average if you will. But when all is said and done, it’s just one of the pieces we’re considering.
Q. Why do applicants come to HBS over your closest competitors?
We have an extraordinary faculty, facilities, and student body in a residential community where everybody teaches, everybody learns. With incoming students divided up into 10 sections of 90, you get the benefits of a small intimate setting — with friendships in your section and beyond that which last a lifetime — with the benefits of a large school — many course offerings, expert faculty, and global connections.
But what was most important in my experience as a member of the MBA Class of 2013, was learning in the case method and the field method, which help students build sharp business instincts and develop as thoughtful leaders. HBS pays a great deal of attention to teaching, and that makes for an unparalleled learning experience.
Q. According to your résumé, you haven't worked in admissions but instead come from Bain & Co. What will your experience there bring to your role at HBS?
My years at Bain were a terrific experience, working with great people and clients on very interesting problems. That experience continued to hone my analytical skills, which are clearly put to good use in my current position, and it helped improve my ability to listen hard and work effectively in teams. Those are skills that transfer very nicely into my new role.
Q. Given the fact that you were an HBS MBA just three years ago, how will your experience as an applicant shape your role as managing director of admissions?
I know the school well, and I know what it’s like to be an applicant. I know how demanding the process can be, how important it is for us to be transparent. Just a few years ago, I was sitting where current applicants are sitting, so I can relate, I can understand, I can empathize.
Q. You’re also MD of Financial Aid. How important a determining factor is financial aid becoming for a candidate admitted to multiple top schools?
Going to a business school like this is an investment. Thanks to the generosity of our alumni, we have $35 million available for financial aid, so we are able to offer accepted students access to a large number of fellowships (what other schools call scholarships). Admission to HBS is need blind, which means the members of the admissions board don’t look at an applicant’s ability to pay, only at their ability to do the work and to contribute to the HBS community.
Once students are admitted, we look at their needs and work out a financial aid package accordingly.
Remember, too, that the average age of an incoming student is 27, so everyone has had some sort of work experience and is able to contribute some amount to the education they receive here. Over 50% of our students receive need-based fellowships from HBS, which do not need to be paid back.
In addition, HBS has, again thanks to our alumni, a wonderful amount of aid available to students pursuing entrepreneurship or social enterprise in the form of summer stipends (to cover MBA-level salaries) or loan forgiveness / grants upon graduation. Our goal is to enable students to make a difference in the world in roles for which they are particularly passionate and well suited.
Q. You’ve just had your Round One deadline for applications pass. How many applications do you reckon you have read (we're assuming it's a monstrous amount)? And how do you deal with the workload?
I’ve been traveling a lot during my initial days in office, talking to prospective applicants in Europe, China, and South America. Mexico is next on my itinerary. So my colleagues have cut me some slack on my reading load for Round 1. But at this point, I’ve read over 100 applications, with lots more to come as we complete Rounds 2 and 3 over the course of the year. I enjoy it very much, and I also realize the importance of my responsibility in selecting a class from a pool that’s filled with so much talent.
Q. You’ve just sent out invitations for the face-to-face interview. Given this can be a nerve-wracking experience, what is your advice for applicants for not screwing it up?
All the interviews are done by members of the admissions office, not students or alumni, and we do understand that any “job interview” can be stressful. But remember that we are trying to hear the applicants’ voices, to learn more about them, to delve into some interesting and impactful aspects of their lives, so it’s really an opportunity for applicants to tell us more about themselves, to tell us something we don’t already know from the application.
Our interviews are all individualized; we don’t go into them with any set list of questions. And we definitely don’t want the applicants to simply rephrase their résumés. We want to get much more out of the conversation than that.
Finally, remember as well that we give every interviewee the chance to have the last word via a post-interview reflection that’s due within 24 hours after the interview has taken place. I don’t know anyone who has come out of an interview totally satisfied. There’s always something we wish we had said but forgot to. That’s exactly what the reflection is for.
Q. If you had to put a percentage on it, having made it to the interview stage, how likely is it that an applicant will be admitted?
If you reach the interview stage, you have about a 50-to-60% chance of being admitted.
Q. Your predecessor Dee Leopold is credited with reducing the number of required essays and removing the word count. She once said the application process shouldn't be some kind of "essay-writing contest". What's your take on this? What value does the essay still provide?
My colleagues and I agree. This is not an essay writing contest. In days gone by, the interview program was nowhere near as extensive as it is today, so the Admissions Office had to depend quite a bit on a variety of essays to get to know the candidate. That is not the case today. The application, the recommendations, the essay, the interview — these are all the ingredients that make up the HBS admissions process, which aims, as I’ve said, to really get to know the candidate from a variety of angles and perspectives.
Q. What legacy do you hope to leave at HBS?
It’s much too early to even think about a legacy. But that’s not what I think about anyway. My work here has nothing to do with me personally. It’s all about the School and putting together a great class year after year.
This article was originally published in October 2016. It is regularly updated with the latest statistics and was last updated in March 2019.