So you want to go to Harvard Business School?


I can certainly understand your ambition. We have always put HBS at the top of our top school ranking for several reasons, a most important one that HBS produces results: top executives in any field, for profit or not-for-profit organizations.

Over the years (since we began gathering statistics), Interface has helped 55 clients gain admission to HBS:

Number of Interface clients admitted to top schools:

Wharton —164

Kellogg —148

Chicago (Booth) —147

Michigan (Ross) —133

Columbia —95

Cornell (Johnson) —89

MIT (Sloan) —72

HBS —55

Stanford (GSB) —40

Most of these clients were Japanese or from other countries in East or Southeast Asia.

Some of these clients are now among the most successful new-generation leaders in Japan, on TV or reported regularly in the news of the “Nikkei” or “Wall St. Journal.”

What underscores the quality most distinguishing them? What did they have in common?

It was not merely because they were sponsored by their companies, had the highest test scores, or grade point averages. Indeed we have helped clients with low GPAs or GMAT scores gain admissions to their dream schools.

The most important quality our clients had was strong leadership potential. A passionate ambition to make an impact in the world and contribute to society. That may sound hackneyed but it summarizes their most important distinction.

And the secret to our training services is to eschew “template consulting” and to draw out the unique strength of each client, to develop their leadership not just for successful MBA applications but for success in the game of life.

It is may be about unmasking a hidden talent. It may be about helping a client overcome an application weakness.

In all cases, it is about developing the leadership potential of our clients in the critical area of communication. I have never worked for, observed, or known of a leader who could not communicate effectively—as impactful messaging is the prerequisite to build consensus and a coalition of the willing.

It is also about helping our clients develop the other qualities of their leadership though an intensive professional coaching experience. Our clients regularly feedback that their consulting at Interface taught them much more than how to succeed in getting into a top MBA program.

It prepared them for the MBA experience itself and for the leadership capability they desire in their careers and in the community.

Big changes are taking place in the applications process of leading MBA schools: experiential interviewing formats, as in the case of Wharton’s group interview or Harvard Business School’s Post-interview reflection essay.

Many schools have reduced the number of their essays and maximum word limitations for each. These schools include Wharton, Columbia, Michigan (Ross), NYU (Stern) and of course, HBS. Other MBA schools will follow this path.

The principal force driving the reduction is that admissions committees are exhausted reading thousands of overwritten, over-dramatized, impersonal and stereotypical applicant essays.

HBS Classroom

“You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores, and what your recommenders have to say about you.

What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?

Use your judgment as to how much to tell us. We don’t have a ‘right answer’ or ‘correct length’ in mind. We review all the elements of your written application to decide who moves forward to the interview stage.”

Harvard Business School sets the pace for the first new ground rule—Less (quantity) is more.

HBS has just one essay, said to be ‘optional’:

1.The ‘optional’ essay is not optional.

For the entering class of ’13, Harvard received ~9,000 applications, interviewed ~1,800 applicants, made offers to ~1000, and will matriculate ~900 of those.

Only 5 of those accepted were Japanese. It’s obvious that unless you are married to the Dean’s daughter you had better submit HBS’s ‘optional’ essay.

2.Copying and pasting a stale essay is death.

Most applicants applying to HBS also apply to Stanford and Wharton.

Among the worst mistakes you can make is to submit the Stanford essay “What matters most important to you and why?” to Harvard. The adcom will smell it a million miles away. Ding!

3.Make it personal.

Were we to caption essay components with the pronouns ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘who’, applicants too often bore admissions with essays that exaggerate the ‘what’, give less emphasis to the ‘why’—the thinking behind a decision point —and ignore the ‘who’, the personality.

HBS adcom will see as much as they need of the ‘what’ in other parts of your application. Your résumé should already capture the best of your achievements.

Consider an essay theme that shows them who you are and how you got there in a poignant, personal essay.

Our clients admitted to leading MBA programs have written moving essays that ‘leap’ off the page. You want to join this group.

4.This is a time to be creative.

Stay away from regurgitating achievement-type essays, telling admissions why you want to go to HBS, or making patently flimsy excuses about why your GPA or GMAT is low. It won’t work.

Spend your time and energy crafting a creative essay on a theme not apparent elsewhere.

5.Be concise.

If you can’t communicate in a concise manner, HBS admissions will conclude that you won’t communicate concisely in the Harvard classroom. It takes little to imagine their verdict. Ding! A concisely composed 300-400 word essay gives you plenty of room to articulate your thoughts.

HBS writes that it does not have a “correct length in mind” but I would avoid like the Bubonic Plague an essay exceeding 1,000 words and strive for much less. Target to make your HBS essay fit on one page.

All the best,

Warren J. Devalier
©2013 Warren J. Devalier