I Went to Harvard Business School Here Is What You Should Know

  • Shaifali Aggarwal is a Harvard Business School graduate and CEO of an MBA admissions consulting company.
  • She recommends starting on your applications 9 months in advance.
  • Aggarwal also says mock interviews and practicing aloud with family members is key to nailing the interview.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Shaifali Aggarwal, a Harvard Business School graduate, and founder and CEO of the boutique MBA admissions consulting company Ivy Groupe.

I took an economics class in high school and loved it. It led me to majoring in economics in college. Going to a top business school was a dream of mine, which was solidified while working in investment banking after college.

I was both anxious and excited as I was going through the MBA application process — but I also knew that if I didn’t get in, I could always reapply the following year, so that definitely helped ease the anxiety.  With that thought in mind, I actually started to enjoy the process.

Drawing on my personal experience and strategies to get into Harvard Business School, I work with candidates to help them maximize their chances of gaining admission to the top and most prestigious MBA programs. 

I’ve also helped clients get into all of the other top MBA programs, including the other M7 schools — Stanford, Wharton, MIT, Columbia, Kellogg, and Booth — as well as the top European programs, including London Business School and INSEAD.

Here are six things I would tell anyone who wants to get into HBS or another top MBA program:

1. Craft an authentic narrative and ask yourself “why” 

The most important factor with respect to being accepted to HBS, which is true for other top MBA programs as well, is being authentic. HBS and other top business schools want to assemble a diverse class of students who can deeply reflect on and share their experiences. Admissions committees want to understand the living person beyond the two-dimensional application.

To differentiate yourself, think about your experiences across multiple facets — personal, extracurricular, academic, and professional — and gain an understanding of what has shaped you, as well as your unique strengths and attributes. Then highlight those qualities through specific examples in your application. 

It helps to provide color and “connect the dots” in your story so that the admissions committee can understand the “why.” For example, in my own story when applying to HBS, I had a solid foundation in finance from having majored in economics in college and having worked in investment banking. So I drew upon that foundation to talk about my desire to make the move from the sell-side (investment banking) to the buy-side (investment management) post-MBA, first as an equity analyst and then ultimately as a portfolio manager.

When I applied to HBS, there was an essay question that asked about my post-MBA goals. That’s where I provided context on how my love of an economics class in high school had brought me to where I am today, and how it would get me to where I wanted to go in the future.

2. Have clear post-MBA goals 

Post-MBA goals that are vague or too broad can hurt your chances of admission. An example of a post-MBA goal that’s both too vague and too broad is: “I would like to start my own company after business school.”

In your application, you should be able to clearly state your short-term post-MBA goals, or what you see yourself doing for a few years after graduating from business school. You should also be able to explain your long-term post-MBA goals, or what you see yourself ultimately doing in your career.

These post-MBA goals should be specific and achievable. They should also be credible and build upon what you have done in the past.

For example, my post-MBA goal was to transition to the investment management industry from investment banking. I was part of the financial institutions group (FIG) in investment banking and supported coverage of investment managers, working on M&A transactions with a specific focus on investment management companies.

So my goal of transitioning to the investment management space post-MBA was specific, achievable, and credible. Not only did I have exposure to finance, but I also understood the investment management space well. 

Another example could be transitioning from being a software engineer at a technology company — the technical side — to working in a strategy role at a technology company post-MBA and eventually becoming chief strategy officer at that company — the business side. 

3. Make sure your recommenders have supervised you

I’ve seen an applicant in an oversubscribed demographic with weaker stats get accepted to HBS because of the extremely strong impact he’d demonstrated in the workplace, which he captured in not only his essays, but also his recommendation letters.

When considering who to ask for recommendations, it’s extremely important that your recommenders have supervised you in some capacity, have worked directly with you, and can comment on your work and qualities through the interaction they’ve had with you. In other words, they should know you well. 

The biggest mistake I see is candidates asking someone who is very senior, like the CEO of their company, to write a recommendation letter on their behalf even if that CEO hasn’t worked with them directly in any capacity. I’ve seen this strategy actually backfire. 

I also advise my clients to choose recommenders who’ll complement one another, so when viewed together, they provide a holistic picture of their qualities. 

4. Start the MBA application process early 

The MBA application process is a marathon and not a sprint. As a result, it’s very difficult to put together quality applications in a very short timeframe. 

HBS attracts so many highly qualified candidates each year that you really can’t take the application process lightly. As soon as I knew I wanted to apply to HBS, I took the initiative both in the workplace and in my extracurriculars to go the extra mile. I also took the GMAT as early as possible so that I could 100% focus on my application materials.  

I started working on my HBS application nine months before it was due so I’d have ample time to think through my narrative and how I wanted to present it through the essays. This gave me the opportunity to go through more than one draft of my materials so that when I hit the submit button, I knew I’d put my best foot forward — no regrets. 

Since there’s a lot of introspection required to craft your story, I’ve found that nine months is a great time frame without feeling stressed or rushed. I have clients who started working with me in January for the September deadlines. 

With respect to the application process, you should have a clear idea of what you’ve done and where you want to go. Think about your past experiences and your post-MBA goals — this will make the application process so much easier. Only after doing this would I then suggest actually delving into each of the application elements: working on your resume, essays, and the short answers for each application as well as guiding your recommenders.

5. During the interview phase, practice and practice and practice 

Don’t assume you can “wing it” during your interview. Every single day leading up to my interview, I practiced out loud either by myself or with a family member/friend to make sure that I was comfortable relaying my thoughts.

Go through your resume and application to determine where your interviewer may likely dig further. You should be speaking to students and alums to frame your response as to why an MBA from HBS is imperative for you.

Some areas where an interviewer could dig further include professional gaps in your employment history, understanding short employment stints if you’ve worked at a company for only a few months, how you’ve stepped up in your professional roles especially if you are a younger candidate, why you may have worked in different industries, learning more about an extracurricular activity if they’re not familiar with it, asking more about the company you’re working at if it isn’t as well-known such as a start-up, and your thoughts about major industry news or headlines.

HBS interviews are 30 minutes and are conducted by a member of the HBS admissions board. They’re typically 1:1 although sometimes there’s an observer in addition to the interviewer. Whether there’s an observer depends on capacity and logistics, so candidates shouldn’t read into the presence of an observer at their interview.

Keep in mind that the HBS interview is not “blind” — in other words, the admissions committee member interviewing you will have read your entire application and will have very pointed questions prepared to ask you.

Recently, my clients have been asked around 15 to 20 questions during their HBS interview. These questions can be about anything in your application. They can be behavioral questions, questions related to your industry and post-MBA goals, and even random questions to test your ability to think on your feet — to make sure that you’ll be comfortable with the case method at HBS, since one element of that teaching style is being cold called! I’ve had clients get asked questions like “Walk me through how you would explain a discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis to someone who doesn’t have a finance background” or “What about HBS gives you pause?”

Don’t try to control the interview agenda — that won’t come across well. Don’t come across as being perfectly rehearsed, as having self-awareness and being thoughtful can go a long way in the interview.

This interview is truly different from every other MBA interview because of the level of preparation that goes into each one on the part of the interviewer. They will thoroughly know your application. Most other MBA interviews are only based on a candidate’s resume and are often conducted by alums. 

6. Nail the post-interview reflection

HBS now also has a post-interview reflection due within 24 hours of the interview where candidates are given the opportunity to do just that — reflect upon the interview. So being able to impactfully convey your thoughts throughout the HBS interview process is critical.

After the interview, it’s helpful to write down the questions that you were asked during your interview as you prepare to answer the HBS post-interview prompt.

Last year, the question was “What was the highlight of your interview and why did this resonate with you? Is there anything else you would like to share now that you’ve had time to reflect on your interview?” Word guidance for the post-interview prompt is 300 to 450 words. 

Through this exercise, HBS is giving you the opportunity to end strong, so you shouldn’t take this step lightly. Think of it as a memo after a business meeting. You shouldn’t prepare your response prior to the interview, and your response shouldn’t be over-polished. 

Some questions to think about to nail your response are “What did you enjoy most about the interview and why?” “Could you have clarified any answers?” and “Are there any aspects of your candidacy that you’d like to share that weren’t discussed?” 

As you wrap up, be enthusiastic and leave HBS with a positive feeling about you.

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