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 method for classroom teaching and students all over the globe study cases written by Harvard faculty.
The list of Harvard alumni includes some of the most influential people on the planet: Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Michael Bloomberg, billionaire former NYC mayor, Sal Khan, Founder and CEO of Khan Academy, and John Foley, Founder and CEO of Peloton. (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, with 930 eventually enrolling 930 students.
So how can you land a coveted spot on the course? 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, now called HBS Online, 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 low acceptance rate. What can candidates do to stand out from the crowd?
Strong candidates come from all different backgrounds and industries. What they have in common is a habit of leadership in past and current endeavours, analytical appetite and curiosity, and a penchant for contributing to the success of a community.
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. We are also looking at the impact you’ve had, the rigor of work experience, and your undergraduate transcripts, to name just a few of the other elements of the application.
Q. Why do applicants come to HBS over your closest competitors?
Despite the many answers we hear, it really comes down to four things. Harvard Business School is one of the world’s most well-known and respected MBA programs. That’s because we bring together a community of supportive individuals in dynamic, immersive learning environments with global perspectives and experiences to inspire true impact and effect lasting change.
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 sharpen 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. Given the fact that you were an HBS MBA, how does your experience as an applicant shape your role as managing director of admissions?
I feel lucky to know the HBS community from the perspective of a student and now as a staff member. I remember what it’s like to be an applicant. I know how demanding the process can be and we try very hard to keep the applicant’s perspective and experience in mind throughout the process.
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 and taking time out of work is an investment. Thanks to the generosity of our alumni, we had $43 million available for financial aid in FY20, so we are able to offer accepted students access to a large number of HBS 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. About 50% of our students receive need-based scholarships from HBS, which do not need to be paid back.
In addition, HBS has grants and loan repayment assistance available to students pursuing entrepreneurship or social enterprise. 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. The MBA interview can be a nerve-wracking experience. What is your advice for applicants for not screwing it up?
I remember being very nervous about my HBS interview. That’s normal. When we got into the conversation, however, I forgot about the nerves.
Now on the other side of the process, the interview is my favorite part of the admissions cycle because we get to meet you and learn from your background and experience. The interview is a conversation about you, so there are no brain teasers, mental math problems, “case questions,” or anything like that. Although we may reference the resume in the interview, we try to go much deeper.
We may dive into something you wrote in an essay, a short answer field (for example about their employment or post-MBA career goals), or something a recommender might have mentioned. Wherever we go with the interview, it is always a conversation in which we strive to understand your experience, abilities as a leader, and how you might thrive in and contribute to the HBS community.
One thing that is different in our interview process, is that we do not use students, faculty or alumni volunteers for our interviews. We prepare for each interview by reading the application in its entirety and doing any additional research prior to the interview as needed to understand the applicant’s background and experience.
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.
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.
This article was originally published in October 2016. It is regularly updated with the latest statistics and was last updated in July 2020.