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What Makes Harvard Business School Different?

Someone on Quora asked: What can you learn at Harvard Business School, Wharton, or any other top-5 business school that you can’t learn anywhere else?

I answered this question and it received more upvotes than any other question I’ve answered,
so I’m going to put it here for everyone to see.  It was true when I was there, and still true now.

(HBS grad) I’m going to answer for Harvard Business School: and that is, the case method.

There is nothing like sitting in a room with 89 other peers who are so smart and so diverse and so interesting — all giving their opinion on how to solve the problem at hand. The case method about finding the ultimate crowdsourced solution with the smartest people on the planet.

The case method puts you in the shoes of the protagonist of the case, where you have the problem and you need the answer. How do you do it? What skills do you need? With a class of experts, by the end of the session you will be amazed at how much you learned that you never even imagined was part of the problem.  One of the things that HBS promises is the opportunity for you to get from your classmates (and from the entire
community) a way of looking a a situation that you had never considered before.

That’s the pedagogy.  The school uses it for almost every class that is in a classroom, so after 2 years of cases, you should be able to articulate solutions to problems that you never thought you could solve.  It gives you confidence to speak when you don’t have perfect answers, and it gives you the social skills to figure out how to participate in an incredibly high-level conversation.

Other schools use the case method here and there, and UVA Darden does have predominantly case studies, but Harvard’s faculty and the quality of students from every walk of life and every place on earth, just enhance the power of the HBS teaching method.

What the Best Business Schools Look for in MBA Applicants

MBA admissions

Barbara Coward

A guest post from Barbara Coward, a top education industry analyst, and founder of Enrollment Strategies, an advisory service to businses schools.

If you are applying to a “top” business school, you’re far from alone. The full-time MBA programs recently ranked in the top 10 by U.S. News & World Report received 54,694 applications last year. The acceptance rate for these schools topped at 23.6 percent, and the lowest acceptance rate was even more daunting. Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, for example, accepted only six percent of full-time MBA applicants in fall 2016.

It’s no wonder there is so much anxiety and stress involved in the admissions process. Despite all the resources available for prospective students on business school websites, blogs, and social media pages, the selection criteria can still seem quite murky.

So what do business schools really look for in MBA applicants? If you are applying to the best business schools worldwide, there are three key things to keep in mind.

  1. Academic Ability

While an MBA is viewed in most workplace cultures as a career passport, it is first and foremost an academic degree. The importance of the academic nature of the program is underscored, for example, in the U.S. News and World Report ranking methodology. All surveyed business schools are required to have AACSB Accreditation, and business schools must meet strict quality standards for student learning to earn accreditation. As a result, prospective students applying to AACSB-accredited schools need to provide evidence of academic ability.

A school will determine your academic potential primarily through your GPA. However, the GMAT is also a key factor in the selection process and provides an opportunity to strengthen your application. You can’t go back in time to improve your GPA, but you can demonstrate your academic ability through the exam and retake the GMAT every 16 days.

Yet there can be extenuating circumstances for applicants whose numbers fall below what some business schools look for, and admissions officers often take those situations into consideration. For example, I’ve evaluated applications from candidates all over the world who have high test scores but an underwhelming undergraduate transcript because of an illness in the family or a serious personal challenge.

In fact, admissions officers often become quasi-detectives as they dig through application materials searching for proof of potential. The more evidence an applicant can provide, the stronger the application will be. 

  1. Leadership, Team, and Communication Skills

Although they’re known as “soft skills,” these characteristics are considered hardcore in the application evaluation process. After all, business schools are developing a talent pool for employers and need to develop skills that companies demand, which today extend beyond technical expertise. In fact, the top two reasons companies hire MBAs are to build a leadership pipeline (62 percent) and to support company growth (53 percent), according a new survey of corporate recruiters by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC)®.

Business schools look for evidence of emerging leadership skills, which include integrity, humility, and a global mindset, among numerous other attributes referenced on Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business website.

One that’s near the bottom of the list, but certainly not the least important, is team skills. Employers across all industries rank the ability to work in and build strong teams as one of the top five performance traits for recruiting and hiring business school talent, as indicated in the same GMAC survey.

Communication skills are just as critical. Among the employers surveyed by Bloomberg Businessweek in recent years, strong communication skills were the most frequently mentioned attribute for an MBA graduate. This ability is even more important in our age of digital communications. Students need to be able to communicate effectively (clearly, concisely, compellingly) across digital platforms such as email and video conference platforms, especially considering the rapid growth of remote workers and the fact that more companies are focusing on virtual recruitment. Business schools are adjusting their admission requirements accordingly. Georgetown McDonough’s School of Business, for example, recently introduced a one-minute video to evaluate how candidates will look in front of corporate recruiters as well as how they will contribute in class.

If employers are seeking these skills post-graduation, you can bet that business schools are seeking them pre-admission. Therefore, admissions officers will be searching for evidence of soft skills in MBA application materials, typically through a resume, letters of recommendations, essays—and now video.

  1. Clarity of Goals and Contribution

The question is easy, but the answer is deceptively difficult: why are you considering an MBA? Business schools want to know more than your desire to advance your career or change industries. That’s a given. They want to understand your personal story. They need to see that you are ready and prepared. They seek a picture of your vision for the future. Admissions officers at the best business schools look for evidence of maturity, self-awareness, and an alignment of expectations that are based on a concrete definition.

Also, admissions officers need to understand how you will contribute to their MBA program. The Wharton School’s Adam Grant, one of the world’s 25 most influential management thinkers, says that people tend to have one of three “styles” of interaction. There are takers, who are always trying to serve themselves; matchers, who are always trying to get equal benefit for themselves and others; and givers, who are always trying to help people.

The most successful leaders, he argues, are givers.

The challenge for prospective MBA students, however, is that they are understandably in the taker mindset during the application process. How will the program get me a great job in consulting? How will the school increase my salary? How will the career services team introduce me to my dream company?

Successful MBA applicants are those who frame their candidacy in the giver mindset. How will I enrich learning in the classroom? How will an MBA enable me to contribute to my community? How will this business school help me improve society at large?

There is an endless list of attributes that the best business schools seek in MBA applicants, starting with adaptability, ambition, and an analytical mind.

That’s just at the beginning of the alphabet, although there is one more “A-list” word that business schools look for in applicants. Authenticity.

 

“Sometimes we get asked questions from prospective students about, ‘How do I stand out? How do I make myself more appealing to the admissions committee?’” said a member of the admissions team at Columbia Business School. “The truth is all the applicant can do is be themselves.”

Or as Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

More on MBA admissions strategies:

Resilience as a Leadership Trait in MBA Admissions 

How to Convey Authentic Leadership in MBA Applications

 

 

The Growth Mindset and the MBA Leadership Essays

MBA leadershipI am not a very good athlete, so you can imagine everyone’s surprise when I decided to pick up a new sport. I decided to learn to row – not in a traditional rowboat, but in a long skinny shell with two 10-foot oars. It isn’t that hard, except you’ve got to do a few things right or you end up in the water.

But to really enjoy it, at least for me, I had to accept the fact that I was a novice.  And that meant not expecting myself to get it perfect from the very beginning.  As I found myself cursing my inability to square my blades, I realized that my mind was not allowing me to enjoy what should be a serene, zen-like experience.

Mindset
I was guilty of what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls the “fixed” mindset instead of the more constructive “growth” mindset.  Dweck is an authority on things like brain science and learning. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” she describes the growth mindset as a far superior method for transforming effort into success.  The growth mindset allows you to focus on self-development, self-motivation, and responsibility for results.  A growth mindset keeps you from saying, “I’m a natural-born loser,” and instead saying, “I need to work harder at this.”  In a growth mindset, people are not afraid to make an error, look silly, or show a deficiency.

The growth mindset represents a key leadership characteristic.  It’s no surprise that since 2015, Kellogg’s MBA program has this preface to one of the application questions: Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg? 

Dweck’s decades of research are particularly relevant for people aiming for business school.  The growth mindset resonates on a strategic level, considering the personal leadership attributes sought by admissions officers of most business schools. It also resonates on a tactical level, in studying for the GMAT or GRE.

 

The Strategic: Leading
Business schools seek out people with attributes that will make them leaders who will change the world for the better. They are looking for people who don’t give up and see hurdles as a challenge. They want people who can learn from others to improve themselves and their environment.  I worked with one student, now on his way to Wharton, who appeared on the surface to be an all-or-nothing high achiever. At first, he looked like the “typical MBA,” never a good sign. But later, in his application and interview, he mentioned something both disarming and revealing: he never learned to swim. So as an adult, he decided to jump in.  When discussing his recent lessons in swimming, he said “It is never too late for a fervent beginner.” That’s the growth mindset.

The Tactical: Testing
Standardized tests demand a growth mindset. The computer-adapted tests, which give you harder questions if you answer right and easier questions if you score wrong, can send the fixed-mindset student into a failure spiral that will ruin any chances of a decent score.  The growth mindset, however, allows the student to work toward mastery. To put the time and the effort into learning the material and the process.   The growth mindset allows the student to embrace the possibility that skills can be learned (they can), and that sustained effort (and a good coach) leads to accomplishment.  The person with a growth mindset loves to conquer a challenge, while the person with the fixed mindset demands perfection right away.

There may have been a time when business schools were looking only for people with natural-born talent.  But as the world has changed and management science has evolved, MBA  programs want growth-mindset types in their classes. They want people who are willing to try new things, and are prepared to not be perfect the first time out.  They want people who think of themselves as works in progress.

And that’s why learning a new sport (or skill, or technique, or trick) isn’t so bad. I know I was clumsy and got it all wrong with my first attempt at rowing. But no harm done.  I’ll just keep trying until I get it right.

Whenever that may be.

Why It Helps Your Application to Visit Schools in the Spring

I’ve always told students to visit schools in the springtime. Now that it’s almost April, and schools will end classes in May, it’s time to remind prospective students it’s entirely worth the trip.

If you can schedule a visit before classes are over, while the sun is shining, and when students know what’s what, you’ll get a much better idea of the school’s DNA.

Here are five reasons to get yourself on a plane sooner, rather than waiting until summer or fall.

1. THE WEATHER

Admit it, life is more pleasant for visitors in the spring than in the dead of winter.  OK, Stanford and Berkeley are lovely most of the year, but the rest of the country? Not so much fun.  Says one Booth second-year student, “For Chicago, the spring weather is a huge plus. The winter just makes everyone miserable.”

2. CLASS IS IN SESSION

One of the best ways to understand an MBA program is to go when class is in session. You’ll feel a completely different vibe when a campus is filled with purposeful students. You want to sit in on a class, see what it’s all about, and get a feel for what it would be like to be a student yourself.  And if you’ve never seen the case-study method in action, you don’t know what you’re missing.

You’ve got about a month left of classes for most MBA programs – for example, the last day of classes for MIT Sloan is May 14.  HBS is a little earlier, and exams begin at the beginning of May. Stanford GSB and Kellogg, which are on the quarter system, run a little longer; last day of classes for Stanford is June 6, for Kellogg is June 2.

Students visiting one-year programs like INSEAD or programs like Columbia Business School need not worry; prospective students can see the school in action year-round.  “With classes taking place over the summer, the J-term also offers prospective students an opportunity to sit in for a class and really experience what it would be like to be a Columbia Business School student,” says Amanda Carlson, assistant dean of MBA admissions at Columbia.” It’s these types of experiences that seem to have the greatest impact on prospective students.”

3. CURRENT STUDENTS KNOW WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT 

In addition to class visits, you want to talk with real students to discern the realities of campus life.  First year students are usually in a state of shock during fall term – they’re overwhelmed with courses, activities, recruiting, and FOMO, or fear of missing out.   Second year students have figured out the lay of the land, but can be stressed by recruiting, which swings into full gear during autumn.

Spring is a different story.  Jodi Innerfield, Michigan’s Ross School of Business recent graduate notes, “visiting schools in the spring gave me the opportunity to speak with first years as they reflected on year 1, and MBA2’s as they ventured off to their full-time jobs. In the spring, we’re all reflecting on our experiences and enjoying the nice weather, so it’s a good time to get our perspective and see campus.”

Christine Sneva, senior director of enrollment and student services at Cornell Tech, agrees:  “Spring is actually an ideal time because as someone who’s scoping out a program’s value proposition, prospective students should be talking to folks at the end of their program. You’ll get a raw, real-time perspective that will most likely stay with you throughout your search.”

4. LESS PRESSURE

Since most MBA admissions deadlines begin in September or October, things can get pretty rushed for applicants in the fall.  Assuming the student has taken the GMAT or GRE, there’s the application to navigate, recommenders to organize, and goals to figure out, all while continuing to excel in a full-time job.  Amy Mitson, senior associate director of admissions at the Tuck School of Business suggests that, “Spring is a great time to take an advanced look at a program with no pressure. You are still months away from the start of the fall application season. Relax and take it all in! This will also give you something to reflect on when writing your application in the fall.”

5. LONGER LEAD TIME

In addition to reducing pressure, early visits allow a prospective student a chance to reflect on their experiences as they figure out the whole question of fit (see How To Know If Your Target Schools Fit You). The visit will help you figure out where to apply and why.  You’ll be able to go beyond rankings or brand reputation as you think about what the school offers you, and importantly, what you offer the school.  A spring visit allows you to use the summer to really think through your argument for why the MBA and why a particular school.

Not everyone can visit every target school, but it helps prospective students understand the MBA program’s culture, and it never hurts to make the effort, if possible. Says Tuck’s Mitson, “Nothing beats the first-hand perspective and showing your sincere interest like a visit to campus.”

Using LinkedIn to Research Business Schools

MBA linkedin

Everybody does it. The minute they see the name of someone they want to know more about, they rush to LinkedIn. It’s the world’s database, and so very useful.  So useful, in fact, that to position yourself for business school or your next career step, you need to be LinkedIn savvy.

You need LinkedIn for two reasons – first, you can (and should) manage your own public profile, because you can bet that a LinkedIn profile comes up first if someone Googles you.  Second, you can (and should) use it to do deep research on schools, career paths, and life choices.

Here are five tips for using LinkedIn like a pro:

1. Make Sure Your Profile is Up-to-Date

People will look for you, that’s a fact. LinkedIn, with 500 million users, is the professional networking site.  It’s so expected that you will have a complete profile that at least one MBA program, the MIT Sloan School of Management, requests your LinkedIn URL on its application in addition to your resume.

Tip: Add your picture.  According to LinkedIn, you are 21 times more likely to be viewed if you include a photo. Professional-looking photos leave a more positive impression.

2. Just Click on a School in Someone’s Profile

LinkedIn is an enormous database, and most of it is free. You can get tremendous amount of critical information without even reaching out.  Think Wharton is only for finance? Click on “Wharton” on any grad’s educational profile, and you’ll see an array of information. You can plug in graduation year, say 2015 and check out where that class landed by region, by industry, and by company. Check out how many—and who–ended up in marketing or business development or product management.  Think you want to work in Asia, but not sure that Columbia Business School is the right school for you? You can find scores of recent grads in China, Singapore, and Korea.

3.  Identify Target Career Paths

Advanced search can be your new best friend.  Perhaps after your MBA, you want to work in business development or product management for a company like online game-maker Riot Games.  How have others walked that path? Type “Riot Games” in the company box, MBA in the school keywords, and see what others have done to get to that point.  You might find that the pre-MBA experiences vary from engineering to Peace Corps volunteer.  Encouraging, isn’t it? You might also find that most have brand management experience prior to before working at the computer game company.  Such intelligence will make you a smarter planner, and later, a more effective job seeker.

4. Use the “Follow” Tab for Companies and Schools

Don’t let this feature fool you. It’s not just for companies, but you can also follow a school. If I look up “Tuck School of Business” for example, I can see 89 people in my network – either a current student or a faculty/staff member, and a current Tuck student who went to my undergraduate school.  You’ll also get notified when any member of your network adds that school (or company) to their profile.

And Away You Go!

Like many web tools, LinkedIn offers great value if you know how to use it.  Keep your profile up to date, use the unbelievable resources in the LinkedIn database, and then, go out and make connections for your professional and educational benefit.  It’s a great way to make social media work for you.