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11 Myths About Getting Into Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School. Courtesy photo

Harvard Business School recently hosted a virtual event called “Busting HBS Myths: A Candid Conversation,” hosted by Chad Losee, a 2013 HBS MBA and the school’s managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid; and Cyril Straughn-Turner, a second-year HBS student and chief admissions ambassador.

Together, they busted 11 myths about what it’s like to apply — and attend — Harvard Business School.

MYTH 1: IT’S IMPOSSIBLE FOR MOST PEOPLE TO GET IN

Losee grew up in a 5,000-person town in Utah. Following high school graduation, he went to a state university. When it was time to apply to graduate school, he says, HBS seemed out of reach. Like many prospective students, he experienced imposter syndrome — doubting one’s abilities and feeling like a fraud.

Like Losee, Straughn-Turner also felt imposter syndrome when applying to HBS. Although he got his undergraduate degree from Stanford University, he was intimidated by the long and rich history of Harvard. “It’s daunting to consider going to a reputable school like HBS. I felt timid as I began the application process, and I wondered how I’d match up when other applicants seemed so impressive,” he says.

To both of their surprise, they were each accepted to HBS — Losee in 2011, and Straughn-Turner in 2020. Straughn-Turner says that once he got into the program, he realized the importance of remembering that each person — no matter what their academic, professional, and personal backgrounds — has a valuable contribution to bring.

“If any of you are experiencing imposter syndrome and counting yourself out of HBS, I would encourage you to count yourself in and shoot your shot,” Losee says.

MYTH 2: APPLICANTS ARE SCREENED BY A MACHINE

Harvard Business School’s Chad Lossee

There’s a common misconception that a big, reputable school like HBS uses a machine to screen applicants. But according to Losee, this isn’t the case. “We have no algorithmic cut offs, minimum scores, or anything else that screens applicants. Each application is read by two real humans on the admissions board who strive to do their very best to get to know you and build a diverse and interesting class of students,” he says.

Once the application is reviewed, the next step is an interview led by an admission board member. Losee says that the interviewer will read the candidate’s application a number of times to prepare for an engaging conversation. “You really feel like the admissions process is a personal process,” says Straughn-Turner. “It doesn’t feel like a machine because there are several independent people involved. The people you’re talking to have gone through your application in a lot of detail.”

Once the interview has been conducted, there is an opportunity for the candidate to reflect on the interview experience; each person has 24 hours following their interview to submit a written reflection through the online application system. That information is then put into the candidate’s application file. Finally, the application, interview, and reflection are used to determine whether or not a candidate will be accepted into the program.

MYTH 3: THERE IS A TYPICAL HBS PROFILE THAT THE SCHOOL LOOKS FOR

Contrary to popular belief, Losee says there’s no one profile that HBS is looking for. Rather, the school seeks a diversity of perspectives so that it can fulfill its mission of educating leaders who will make a difference in the world. “We don’t think we can create these leaders without having a diversity of voices in class,” he says. “We want to get to know you, your voice, and the unique perspective that you’d bring to your class, section, and community — both as a student and as a future alum of the program.”

In the most recent MBA class, there are 300 different universities represented, as well as hundreds of companies and many lived experiences and backgrounds. Straughn-Turner says that he’s been impressed with his class’ diverse representation, and how issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion are not only spoken about in class, but also in class material. “These are issues that we’re seeing business leaders constantly face in today’s society. There’s no better place to practice tackling these problems than in a safe environment like HBS,” he says.

Since the primary method of instruction at HBS is the case study method, it relies heavily on discussions with people who have different points of view. This method differs from a lecture-based approach in the way that students do most of the talking. “Diversity helps to approach complicated business issues,” says Straughn-Turner. “There aren’t any easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers in business; there’s a lot of nuance and different ways to approach any question or problem that comes up. People who have different experiences see the same set of facts differently, and they can help you learn how to think through these problems in a way that differs from how you would.”

HBS is aware and proactive about addressing the inequities in education, according to Losee. He says that the school is working hard to do outreach to different groups of people to ensure that they understand how HBS could benefit their careers. Plus, they’re working to remove financial barriers that inhibit people from applying through generous financial aid programs, need-based scholarships, and waiving the application fee for those experiencing financial hardship.

Harvard Business School from above

MYTH 4: TEST SCORES MAKE OR BREAK YOUR APPLICATION

According to Losee, there’s no minimum test score required for admission. “The two people who are reading your application are looking at your test scores in the context of everything else that you’ve shared with us, such as your background, work history, essay, and transcripts,” says Losee. “Your test score is neither something we admit or deny off of. It’s simply one data point among others that help us to understand if you’re ready for a program that’s going to ask a lot of you.”

Losee adds that their most recent MBA class has a wide range of test scores. Plus, the school is agnostic when it comes to students submitting their GRE or GMAT score — one isn’t preferred over the other. “Take the test that you feel the most comfortable with,” Losee advises.

MYTH 5: YOUR GPA MATTERS — A LOT

Cyril Straughn-Turner

Many prospective students are also concerned about their GPA. “Like your test scores, your GPA is simply one data point that we use alongside everything else to understand your readiness for an engaging and rigorous program,” says Losee.

Losee says that the admissions board aims to understand the context behind someone’s GPA; in many cases, hardship has affected people’s grades in certain semesters of their undergraduate degrees. Prospective students can share context about their grades in the Additional Information section of their application.

Losee encourages students to not worry about their GPA and instead focus on the stronger parts of their application. “Your GPA is in the past; there’s nothing you can do about it,” he says. “Just know that overall, your GPA is looked at in the context of everything else as we do a holistic review of your application. ”

MYTH 6: THE HBS ENVIRONMENT IS EXTREMELY COMPETITIVE

There’s a common myth that HBS has an extremely competitive atmosphere. Straughn-Turner says that he believed this until he started at HBS; he was pleasantly surprised by his experience. “No doubt, there are incredible, impressive people at this school. But it’s one of the safest, most supportive communities I’ve ever existed in,” he explains.

Since HBS is taught in a Socratic manner, students learn from each other as opposed to fighting for the right answer. Straughn-Turner says that this helps to create a community-driven learning environment rather than a competitive one. “Everything is designed to create a team-oriented atmosphere,” says Straughn-Turner. “Everyone wants everyone to succeed.”

Losee recounts being shocked at how down to earth his classmates were; he was able to develop relationships with people who had different and shared interests to form a deep sense of community. He was also anticipating everyone competing for the same jobs when it came to applying for internships. “My experience was the opposite. I had many people make introductions between me and alumni about work that I was interested in exploring. I found that the community was very selfless,” he says.

Straughn-Turner adds that breaking the class into sections helps to create a more intimate community. “This means that you get a fun, family-like element that exists in your day-to-day life with people you take the same classes with. You spend a lot of time getting to know your classmates outside of school, too,” he says.

There’s also a long-standing tradition in which HBS students share personal stories about their life and defining moments with their classmates. According to Losee, this also helps to make the class experience more supportive rather than competitive. “People taking the time to share things that were so personally important to them helped us form a supportive network where we understood where each other was coming from,” he says. “This transparency created trust within our section.”

MYTH 7: ONLY EXTROVERTS THRIVE AT HBS

Straughn-Turner and Losee both describe themselves as introverts. While many people think that the case study method requires everyone to speak up in front of large groups, Straughn-Turner says that that’s not the case. “Being vocal doesn’t have to be through words. It can be through your contribution to the HBS community,” he says.

Straughn-Turner adds that being an introvert isn’t an inhibiting factor at HBS, but rather something that compliments and rounds out the student environment. While he and Losee may not have been the most vocal in class, they were committed to strengthening the community in their own, unique ways. He says that like he and Losee, many other students are introverts, too. “The vast majority of the student body is committed to paying it forward and helping to make HBS a stronger community — whether that’s by instilling a sense of safety for people of all different backgrounds, or just making sure that incoming students have an opportunity to learn and have the resources they need to feel comfortable applying” he says.

Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2018.

MYTH 8: THE FACULTY IS UNAPPROACHABLE

Since HBS professors are extremely accomplished, many students expect them to be unapproachable outside of the classroom. However, Straughn-Turner says that this isn’t the case. Rather, faculty devote a ton of time to getting to know students. “They love being around students,” he says. “Last year, when we were doing a lot of things virtually, they hosted virtual lunches and outdoor tea sessions.”

He adds that the HBS professors help students progress in their unique interests. For example, he’s interested in the intersection of real estate and social impact, so he connected with a professor who is an expert in the future of cities. “There weren’t any classes I could have taken with him last year given the structure of the first-year curriculum. But I went to his office hours every other Tuesday where I could talk to him,” he says.

As Straughn-Turner enters his second year, he’ll be doing an independent study project on the future of cities this year with the help of this professor and one of his classmates. “Here, you find like minded people who you can do really cool things with, especially in your second year where you have more flexibility with your schedule,” he says.

MYTH 9: RECOMMENDATION LETTERS MUST BE FROM YOUR SUPERVISOR & AN HBS ALUM

Many prospective students think that they’re chances of getting into HBS will decrease if they don’t get a recommendation letter from their supervisor and an HBS alumni. But Losee assures students that it doesn’t matter what the title is of their recommenders. “What’s most important is that the recommender has seen you in a professional work context so they can comment on your outstanding skills and what areas you’re still working to develop,” he explains.

If asking a supervisor for a recommendation letter will in any way inhibit opportunities for promotions or cause negative consequences, Losee advises prospective students to ask other people within the student’s company, instead. There’s also the opportunity to provide context in the Additional Information section about why the candidate chose this specific person as a recommender.

“For a number of applicants, it can be uncomfortable asking their current supervisor for a recommendation,” adds Straughn-Turner. “There’s no typical path. Both of my recommenders saw me in different phases of my life and in different contexts. This whole process is about rounding out who you are as a person so that admissions can see all those different data points to get a full picture of who you are.”

HBS also takes into account the fact that some recommenders don’t have much experience writing letters of recommendation. “We’re conscious of industries where there are fewer applicants, or people who are not as comfortable with English,” says Losee. “We take all of that context into account. We’re trying to get to know you, and having the perspective from someone who’s worked closely with you can be helpful in our evaluation process.”

MYTH 10: THE INTERVIEW IS DIFFICULT TO PREPARE FOR

The HBS interview is different from other interviews; according to Losee and Straughn-Turner, there are no stock, resume-based questions asked, nor are any problem-solving exercises involved. Rather, the interview is more so a conversation, with questions that are custom to each person. “This interview is all about you,” says Losee. “You have nothing to be nervous about or study.”

Prior to the interview, the interviewer acquaints themselves with the student’s application, essay, and work history. “If we aren’t as familiar with the student’s company, we’ll research it so that we can go beyond scratching the surface,” says Losee. “We want to know what perspective they’ll bring to an HBS class, that they’d be able to explain things in a way that would translate well to a classroom, and that they’ve invested in others and will do the same for the HBS community.”

Straughn-Turner says that his HBS interview was one of the best interviews he’s ever experienced. “It felt very personal, and I was pleasantly surprised by all the different facets of my life that we explored. My interviewer first walked through the more academic and professional parts of my life and then let me speak about my interests and goals, and how I can see myself using what I learn at HBS. It just felt like a natural conversation,” he says.

MYTH 11: A MINIMAL ROI

While business school is expensive and requires sacrifice, Losee and Straughn-Turner stress how valuable the experience is — personally and professionally.

Losee says that in order to maximize the ROI from HBS, prospective students should have a long term focus. “There are upfront costs to investing in yourself at graduate school. You’re taking time off of work and you have to fork out the cost of the program. But the value of an HBS MBA is going to carry on over the next 30-40 years of your career,” he explains.

Straughn-Turner says that two things in particular make the expense worth it: the network and the ability to integrate the knowledge into your career for years to come. “Not only are you building relationships with fellow peers who are going to be future business leaders, but you’re also building relationships with alumni who were in your shoes not too long ago,” he says. “Plus, applying what you’re learning to your life and career helps you to continue to develop and grow.”

When it comes to calculating the ROI of HBS, Losee has some advice. “Don’t do the ROI calculations on the job you would get right after an MBA program,” he says. “Rather, think about the different slope that you’ll be on 10 years or 20 years from now. There are going to be opportunities that this degree will open that may not have opened if you just stay on the path that you’re on, as good as that path may be.”

Despite the cost of the program and the effort it takes to get into HBS, Losee closed the virtual event by providing a few words of encouragement. “As humans, we have this mentality to count ourselves out before we count ourselves in,” he says. “It can be difficult to get into a place like HBS, but you’re guaranteed to not get in if you don’t apply.”

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