Harvard University Business School (HBS) Guide

May 10, 2016

Overview of Harvard University MBA Program

Harvard Business School (HBS) – the business school at Harvard University – has been enjoying a steady growth of popularity among Indonesians since the emergence of several high profile tech startups, such as GO-JEK and Traveloka that were founded by Indonesians that went to HBS.

In this guide I’ll be talking about several things that differentiate Harvard University’s MBA program from that of other top tier business schools. Read on to see if Harvard University is the right business school for you.

Harvard Business School Class Profile

A school’s class profile is a way to gauge your acceptance chances at a high level.

Average Class Size 900 students
Average Age 27
Average length of work exp. 3.5 years
GMAT 730 (Median), 700 – 760 (Mid 80%)
Average GPA 3.66

Source: http://www.hbs.edu/mba/admissions/class-profile/Pages/default.aspx

Harvard Business School students come from diverse backgrounds. Below is an overview of the industry sectors that students worked at prior to entering HBS, ranked from most popular:

Venture Capital / Private Equity (VCPE) 18%
Consulting 16%
High Tech / Communications 14%
Financial Services 11%

Source: http://www.hbs.edu/mba/admissions/class-profile/Pages/default.aspx


Post MBA Career Opportunities

Data from HBS’ latest employment report shows that most of their graduates (24%) work in management consulting after graduation, especially at top tier firms such as MBB (McKinsey, BCG, and Bain & Co.) This stems from the old tradition where those firms usually only hire MBAs exclusively from HBS. Michael Porter, who came up with the Porter’s 5 Forces industry analysis framework as an alternative to the SWOT analysis that are both used widely in the management consulting industry, is also a professor at Harvard University.

Technology comes second with roughly 20% of HBS class of 2016 going into this industry after graduation. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that 20% of their graduates are starting their own tech startups since tech here encompasses the whole industry including well-established tech companies such as Google and Facebook.

That said, based on data I’ve gathered, about 550 Harvard Business School graduates (~12%) that become entrepreneurs and start their own companies either during school or right after graduation, which to clarify are not limited to just tech startups. This figure proves that HBS is a hotbed for entrepreneurship and not just a school for corporate ladder climbers.

Venture Capital and Private Equity is the third largest sector that Harvard Business School students go into post graduation at about 15%. That figure includes those going into the industry for the first time and also those going back to the industry. The split between both is not known but most likely those with VCPE background prior to enrolling at HBS accounts for most of them. This hypothesis stems from the fact that VCPE is the hardest industry to break into given the limited number of available jobs at ~1000 from top to bottom. As a comparison, that figure is more or less the number of players in the Premier League and La Liga – the top 2 professional football leagues in the world. VCPE also prefers to hire MBAs with prior background or at least those with blue bulge bracket investment banking or top tier management consulting experience. The 18% figure of incoming HBS students coming from the VCPE industry also hints that the industry are primarily targeting them for recruits. HBS’ prominence in the VC industry also contributes to the university being an entrepreneurship powerhouse as it’s easier for aspiring entrepreneurs to find a reputable venture capital firm to fund their startup. Ferry Unardi for example met the Samwer brothers, who through their venture firm Rocket Internet would eventually fund his startup Traveloka, when he was pursuing his MBA at Harvard University.


Applying to HBS

So how do I apply to HBS, you might ask. While there are many aspects to a top tier MBA, I’m just going to touch on two here; the essay and the interview.

You can find the HBS essay questions here. One thing that I feel is very important for you to address in your essay is your strengths and weaknesses given the self-introductory nature of the essay. Talk about some of your defining strengths and some of your weaknesses including what you have up to this point to address them.

One thing to avoid is trying to reuse essays you have written for your applications to other MBA programs. The admission committee at HBS is very experienced in detecting this so it’s best you don’t even attempt to do this at all. It’s also worth noting that although the essay prompt doesn’t give you a word limit, you should keep it concise. A good rule of thumb is no more than 750 words.

If and when you are invited for an interview, a member of the admission committee will conduct it. This is your chance to address other aspects of your application. Expect your interviewer to probe you on topics such as why MBA, why HBS, and what are your short-term and long-term goals. I recommend preparing in advance concise and structured answers that present you in the best possible light.


What Harvard Business School Looks For in MBA Candidates

All business schools in general look for the same types of qualities in MBA candidates. It seems however that Harvard Business School emphasizes the following three traits more than other schools do. Those are leadership quality, maturity beyond age, and intellectual capability.

Harvard’s “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world” motto shows that it takes leadership quality in its candidates very seriously. Therefore it’s crucial that you demonstrate this trait can throughout your application in your CV, essays, and your interview. Take Nadiem Makarim, Harvard Business School Class of 2011 and Founder & CEO of GO-JEK, for example. In addition to working as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company, he was among one of the consultants at McKinsey who initiated the Young Leaders for Indonesia (YLI) program. This shows a strong leadership quality outside of work. To this day, Nadiem credited YLI as one of the reasons he got admitted to HBS.

The class profiles at Harvard Business School the last couple of years show that the age of their incoming class is slightly younger than that of other business schools. What that essentially means is Harvard emphasizes MBA candidates’ potential over experience more than other top tier business schools. A strong indicator for potential is display of maturity beyond one’s age. I believe the most natural way to demonstrate this is to have your supervisors highlight this trait in their LoRs (Letter of Recommendation).

A quick look at the average GPA of the incoming class reveals that Harvard Business School places a great deal of importance in an applicant’s academic aptitude. In a way this is somewhat related to HBS’ preference on younger applicants who have less work experience. To compensate for that, the admissions committee will be looking at an applicant’s undergraduate academic performance to assess your intellectual capital and potential.

The average class size at Harvard Business School is 900. Thus, it goes without saying that you should be comfortable interacting socially in a large group setting that is both multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. HBS’ signature case method is another reason for you to be comfortable interacting in a large group as the case method involves a lot of active discussion among the students where it’s not seldom either the professor or your classmates will challenge the merits of your analysis and opinions on the case. Business school professors also tend to target the quieter students when “cold calling” (random forced participation). So there’s just no way around in-class participation.



In conclusion, one should not apply to the MBA program at Harvard University just because of its prestige, reputation, and ranking. Doing so would do very little to differentiate yourself among an extremely strong and competitive applicant pool. Instead, cultivate solid reasons as to why you belong in Harvard Business School and make sure to demonstrate that throughout your application.

You should also research the school well before applying. This guide can only tell so much. Reach out and talk to the Indonesian alumni, attend the Harvard Business School information session, research the faculty members, and if possible, visit the school. Since you will be foregoing significant opportunity costs by leaving your work to spend the next two years of your life pursuing your MBA, it’s very important that you assess how well you would fit in the environment. In-depth school research will also help your admissions chances tremendously, especially during the interview.

All this might seem daunting and discourage you from applying to this highly competitive (11% acceptance rate globally) MBA program at Harvard University. If you’re serious about applying to Harvard Business School however, then you need to make sure your application is as strong as possible. Using the services of a qualified MBA consulting firm is thus something to consider. They have the ability to address all of the aforementioned application aspects and can be the difference between getting accepted or not.

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