“Pretend it’s the year 2013 and you are in charge of admissions for Harvard’s Business School. Let’s say we’re in the middle of the Great Depression II. What would your ideal candidate have to offer for you to grant him admission?
I say this as someone who would very much like to enroll in that year. At that point, I would be above the average admission age of 27 and above the average work experience of 4.5 years.
I gained by Bachelor’s at a prestigious university with honors, so I would also be above the average of 3.63 GPA.
What are the sort of things I can do in the next 3 years that will significantly increase my chances of getting accepted for a Harvard MBA?”
The Harvard MBA says:
First off, I hope we’re not in the Great Depression II in 2013. You think the past few years was bad? During the Great Depression, we had 25% unemployment!
The key to improving your chances of getting accepted are, as with any sales endeavor, to think like your “customer.”
When HBS accepts a student into the MBA program, it’s not signing up a customer. Rather, it is investing one of its precious 880 annual admissions slots in you. The school has plenty of money; it’s admissions slots are fixed, and therefore even more valuable.
If you think of yourself as an investment, you’ll develop much better insights into what makes you attractive. External markers like age, work experience, and GPA are symptoms, not causes. These characteristics are only useful inasmuch they help the school predict which MBA students will become successful alumni.
Different business schools take different approaches. HBS is focused on selecting leaders who make an impact. HBS could certainly afford to only accept students with a 3.9 GPA and above, but it chooses to value certain things more than raw college performance. More applicants achieve a perfect GMAT score each year than could possibly be admitted to HBS.
The best way to judge if someone is likely to be a leader who makes an impact is to examine whether or not he or she has made an impact prior to business school. The ideal candidate would combine the standard markers (work success, high college GPA and GMAT score) with clear indications of leadership potential and character. In theory, this could be achieved through successful entrepreneurship, but the reality is that most successful entrepreneurs can’t afford to go to business school–the opportunity cost is too high. I’m sure HBS would love to have Zuck as an alum, but I doubt he’s resigning as Facebook CEO to go to school (we’ll have to settle for Sheryl Sandberg ’95 instead).
In practice, therefore, the best way to prove your leadership potential is to start a new and impactful initiative at your company, or to found or turn around an organization that makes an impact. Launching a new business unit for your company, or starting a program that educates 100,000 underprivileged kids, for example.
The best way to do this, of course, is to leverage your existing passions and accomplishments. Seek out positions of leadership, and if they don’t exist, create them.
Most of the people in this world are passive; they may be intelligent and capable, but they only apply themselves to the opportunities that present themselves as neatly wrapped packages (“achievements”). You can distinguish yourself far more easily by *doing* than by *achieving*.
For example, one of my friends from business school was incredibly intelligent. He had the grades and test scores, and worked for McKinsey after his undergrad years. But what really set him apart was something he *did*. He was fascinated by finance, and sought out every opportunity to connect with folks within and outside McKinsey to learn about the topic. He did this so well that he ended up writing a book on capital theory with a McKinsey partner who needed a smart partner.
If you were an admissions officer, and you were presented with two candidates, both of whom went to good schools and worked for McKinsey, which would you rather choose–the conventional high achiever, or the guy who wrote a book and was considered one of the world’s leading experts in his field at the age of 24?
Achievement is attractive by unconventional. Doing something remarkable is the best way to get accepted.