Archive | Harvard Business School

A Reminder: Answer the Question

People always ask: How do I make myself stand out in an MBA application?  I have three words of advice: Answer the questions.  Advice so simple it barely seems worth mentioning.

At a recent school panel, a Yale School of Management admissions officer underscored just how much she and her colleagues pay attention to those answers. That’s because business schools craft their essay questions deliberately. They really do care. To put it in modern business jargon, a rep from UVA’s Darden School of Business encouraged audience members to “take ownership” of each school’s questions.  She’s right. Let them be a chance for earnest self-reflection; let them guide you through a process that not only gets you into business school, and leaves you with a deeper self-understanding regardless of the end result.

A lofty goal, and it’s a little too easy to get cynical, so try not to.  It never gets old.  That’s because the questions are deceptively simple and designed to get you to answer the question behind the question.  You are given a prompt, for example, “Why do you want an MBA”? That’s pretty straightforward, so answer it.  You want to be as unambiguous as you can. I want to be an entrepreneur, or I want to change the way health care is delivered around the world, or I want to use private equity to support clean tech investments. There are as many answers are there are people applying, because your answer will be unique to you. But you have to do one thing: answer clearly, and preferably, answer up front. And don’t forget to answer the questions behind the question: why you?  Or, more precisely, what is it about you that puts the very special you at your computer writing an application to business school right here, right now.

No matter how you answer whatever they ask, you can still be humble and compelling in your answer. Say, for example, you want to offer as one of your reasons that you will add to the classroom debate. Support the statement, just as you would in a business problem or a pitch for angel investor money. You might add to the debate because you were raised speaking three languages, or because you were one of 12 children, or because you are passionate about number theory. Whatever you decide to write about is up to you. But you have to frame your response so it answers the question, and support that response.

Finally, just a little admonishment from another one of the panelists at the outreach program last week. Resist the urge to force answers to one school’s essay questions into answers to another school’s questions.  The message to your evaluators is that you don’t care enough about the school or are too lazy to take the time to write a genuine, unique response.  I absolutely positively know for sure that you are not lazy, so be forewarned.

That’s all. Just remember that the writers of those questions write them that way because they wanted them answered. And remember, it’s no different from a business assignment. You’d answer your boss’ question, wouldn’t you?

The Best MBA Resume Advice Ever

resume typewriter smallYou can find countless articles on general resumes all over the web, but very little on the perfect MBA resume. I did write about it,

walking through a template I’ve crafted after working with Stanford GSB first year students. But my colleague Candy LaBalle, who runs mbaSpain, came out with an outstanding article this morning. She has given me permission to reprint the article here — and I guarantee you will find it specific and helpful.

It originally appeared on Magoosh‘s website, but in my version, I’ve highlighted the parts that deserve mention

Six Steps to a Stellar MBA Resume

If you are applying to an MBA this year, you’ve probably noticed that top b-schools are not asking for many essays. Tuck requires two, Booth asks for a presentation only and Harvard has made its one essay optional. This reduced application content makes your MBA Application Resume more valuable than ever. In fact, HBS and Columbia even allow resumes that go beyond the “one-page” standard.

But, whether you prepare one or two pages, you need to follow some guidelines. Beyond using action verbs, avoiding “I” and having standard fonts no smaller than 10-point, to make your MBA Application Resume truly stellar, follow these six tips:

1: Focus on YOU

If your resume reads like a job description then it is not about you—it is about your job. Instead of focusing on tasks, highlight your achievements, and include details on team size, cultural exposure and quantifiable results.

  • Participate in M&A transactions
  • Advise clients on business strategy


  • Led teams of up to three, on four M&A deals in the energy, telecom and retail sectors, valued up to $5bn
  • Created a cost-analysis model for Chile’s largest telecom identifying 12% in savings; presented model directly to client senior managers

2: Skip the jargon

Adcoms are looking for leadership potential, collaborative mindset and interpersonal skills. Even if you are an aeronautical engineer, focus on your MBA qualities.

  • Coordinated advanced ABC testing to reduce drag on the XYZ series fuselage.


  • Led six engineers from three countries to improve performance on our best-selling plane by 21%.

3: Go beyond your daily tasks

Do you handle recruiting for your firm at your old university? Did you create a new work process that improves team efficiency? Do you organize birthday dinners, basketball games or other activities that encourage socializing outside of the office? These show initiative, impact and interpersonal skills and should be included.

  • Created company soccer team, recruiting players from various departments; team now competes weekly against other company teams

4: Show progression

If you were the only one out of 1,000 applicants to get the position, or you moved from a six-month internship to full-time employment in just 3 months, then say it!

  • Hired as Associate in September 2013 and fast-tracked to Senior Associate 13 months later (average promotion time is 18 months)

5: Highlight leadership

Leadership goes beyond supervising people. If you do lead a group, definitely include that on your resume, but if you don’t, highlight other examples of leadership: managing a project, coordinating client teams, mentoring interns.

  • Created my department’s first online “data warehouse,” reducing research time for projects
  • Trained 14 senior clients to use a new CRM, resulting in higher sales team efficiency

6: Don’t forget the fun stuff

If you play viola, were regional champion in judo, run 10Ks or enjoy juggling, include it!  Hobbies help you stand out from the crowd as well as show commitment, passion and leadership.

  • Founded a dining club that now has 42 members; organize monthly dinners at gourmet restaurants for up to 15
  • Began waterskiing as a child, advanced to national competitions in university, currently teach waterskiing to children
  • Travel constantly, have visited 46 countries on six continents, traveled from Europe to Asia by land only, created a travel blog


Tired of my advice? Great MBA admissions tips from someone who made it to HBS

Quora question about Harvard Business SchoolEvery so often I see a piece from a student that actually helps prospective candidates and is not filled with in-jokes or self-congratulations.  So, if you been searching around on the internet for advice on the application process, here’s are some down to earth tips from someone who does not advise prospective applicants for a living.

I found these Harvard MBA admissions tips on Quora, in answer to the question, “How Do I Get Into Harvard Business School?” There you will find your typical answers from admissions consultants, but in the midst of all the “I know more than you” bravado, there’s a brilliant, honest answer from a guy named Talal Khan, who is a member of the Harvard Business School class of 2016. I am unashamedly reposting it here.

My favorite parts of the must-dos?  Taking notes on your own story and working on your unique selling proposition. Favorite don’t? Have self-doubt.  It’s a lovely sentiment and true.

How do I get into Harvard Business School?

by Talal Khan, Harvard Business School, class of 2016

I have started this year, and thought of adding my experience to the conversation. This will be helpful to folks planning to apply sometime soon:

Things I’d do again:
A- Start research early: I started doing my online research (reading forums, connecting with people, getting profile reviews) a year before I actually ended up applying. In my case, this all started with random doodling on the web, and the thought that I might apply to Bschool next year. But to potential candidates reading this, I’d say start your research well ahead of time, as it’ll help you present a stronger case (better GMAT, stronger story – reviewed by more people) Oh and that’s the external research. You’d also have to spend time thinking about your own life (highlights/lowlights/decision points). This helps immensely with points B-F below. For me what worked was, that I took pen and paper (not laptop, so no social media distraction) and started jotting down any and all moments that I was proud of. I listed even the most basic achievements. When I picked up that paper a week later, it helped me see my own story in a new light. (Connect the dots looking backward, Steve Jobs reference)

B- Talk to (lots of, different) people: This is where (A) really helps. You should try getting advice from multiple people, from diverse backgrounds (geography, industry, school, function etc). Since you’d be talking to successful (i.e. busy) people – they’ll need time to get back to you. Not all people you engage will respond back. But if you request enough people for help, more than a reasonable number will respond (source: my experience only). In my case, I found that each of these conversations added a lot of color and nuance to my perspective on Bschools and applications (on issues ranging from how much work experience is sufficient, to which schools to apply to, to what a particular school defines as fit etc).

C- Engage with admission consultants:  Their years of experience helped me immensely in aiming high enough (for context: I was initially planning to apply to schools ranked between 20-30). This happened as they were able to succinctly point out my unique strengths (vis-a-vis the competitive pool that they’re so well aware of, given their experience). Highly recommended for international applicants.

D- Prepare your elevator pitch: Have a 3 line summary describing your candidacy. Since this is about summarising the best parts of your application, it will take time and thought to prepare this. But having a concise summary immensely helps people whom you’re asking for help with profile reviews etc, and in turn improves the response rate you get. As for what to include, I like to think of it as highlights from
i) where you come from (personal history, gmat/gpa etc)
ii) where you stand (current work profile, title)
iii) where you want to go (future goals- industry/function)

E- Follow Stanford GSB’s advice on recommendation letters: Nuggets of gold! To quote from the site,

…when I read a really great recommendation the person jumps off the page and they really come alive. I feel like I know them; I know the good, the bad, the warts; if I walked into a room, I could almost pick out this person.

F- Work on my USP: When advising me on essays, a senior asked me what differentiates me from everyone else? While this may sound cliched, it is an important question that needs a lot of thought. Another way to think about it (borrowing from principles of branding) what is the one unique trait that you’d like to be remembered for? Another spin: If the adcom member were asked about you 5 days after they read your app, what would you want them to say? ‘Oh XYZZ! the person who ………?’ For the adcom member to recall the …. part, there has to be one unique, remarkable trait displayed consistently throughout your app (resume/essay/reco letter)

G- Pray: Helps immensely in coping with pressure and sustaining morale. Definitely one of the most important things that kept me going till the end!

Things I wouldn’t do:

A- Miss the basics: submit application on last day, try paying through a card that wasn’t working for some reason

B- Become complacent: After my HBS interview went fine, I prepared little for my Booth interview. That led to some awkward pauses during the interview, and could’ve ended up costing me the Booth offer. For example, I went blank for a few seconds when my interviewer asked me, ‘So that’s about it from my end. Do you have any questions for me regarding Booth or life in Chicago?’

C- Take practice exam after practice exam: When I got lower scores than I was aiming for, I’d start taking exam after practice exam. Without drilling down to exactly which areas I was struggling with (topic, question type). I wasted precious time because of this approach, not improving my skill deficiency, and getting frustrated because of it.

D- Study GMAT without a practice partner: Again, this would have helped me save time and stay motivated. But I relied primarily on online material and a Kaplan book for help.

E- Have self doubt: This is that gnawing feeling inside you, saying ‘But I’m not good enough for this..’ This is all those times when you tried extremely hard and failed miserably, in plain public view. Pangs are sharpest as you draw nearer to hitting Submit. How does one respond to this? On a rational level, remind yourself of all the people you’ve talked to, all the thought you’ve put into this and that post all those weeks of discussion/thought, You decided that this was the best option (and it was never meant to be risk-free) On an emotional level, think of the inverse situations – where you had major doubts about your ability to do well, but you went ahead and aced whatever it was you were doing. That arts class. That debating competition. That heroic on sports day. That eternally-un-impressable boss. And add to that, testimony from countless successful candidates, saying that they’ve all felt something similar, at many points, in the application process. So have faith and take the leap!


Reposted from Quora with minor edits for clarity. To find the original, click here, but please skip the other answers, and go straight to Talal Khan’s, which is listed at about #8. I don’t know how they rank the other posts, honestly. 

Harvard Business School’s really good essay question

hbs-clientI love the way HBS presents information about the application process. They are the gold standard for transparency and trying to have conversations with students.  And personally, I think they get it.

So, here’s the essay question for HBS for the class entering 2016:

It’s the first day of class at HBS. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your “section.” This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this shared experience will be lasting.

We suggest you view this video before beginning to write.
Note: Should you enroll at HBS, there will be an opportunity for you to share this with them.

And here’s Dee Leopold’s (assuming it’s Dee who is writing all of these easy-to-read posts) explanation:

Yes, it’s “new”…but most of you are embarking on this business school application journey for the first time too!

Why do we like it?

• It’s just about as straightforward and practical as we can make it.   It gives you a chance to tell your story however you choose. Imagine simply saying it out loud. This is what we mean when we’ve been encouraging you to use your own “voice” when approaching this part of the application.  We have no pre-conceived ideas of what “good” looks like. We look forward to lots of variance.

• It’s useful. You will actually be introducing yourself to classmates at HBS.

Why did we drop the “optional” option?

• We were trying to signal that the essay wasn’t The Most Important Element of the application so we thought saying “optional” might accomplish that. But, this season, every applicant submitted a response. We get it. You want to tell us things.

Tell us again what the essay is for?

• For you: an opportunity to pause and reflect. Business school is a big experience –  it’s exciting, it’s an unknown,it’s a beginning, it’s an investment in your future. Stopping to reflect and gather your thoughts in writing is a useful exercise. That’s not just our opinion –  it’s what we hear from students all the time.

• For us: a chance to get to know you beyond the elements of the application that feel fixed and stationary. Can also be a starting point for interview conversations.

The link to the HBS webpage with all this great stuff is:

Leadership and the MBA Application

Guess what.  Six months from now we will be at the beginning of October. Shocking, isn’t it, that those of you who are thinking of applying to business school in the first round have only six months to figure it all out. You’ve got a lot of tactical moves ahead of you, like the GMAT and visiting potential schools while they are still in session (I recommend spring; everyone is happier), and impressing your recommenders with your leadership skills.

How Admissions Officers View Leadership

Your biggest goal in the MBA admissions process is to demonstrate leadership. Business schools may have leadership classes, workshops, or what Stanford calls “Leadership Labs,” but the schools are not working with blank slates. Admissions committees want to see candidates with great leadership potential. This potential can be demonstrated through a record of traditional leadership activities, such as president of your undergraduate student body or manager of your unit at work. Or just a team leader on a visible project. But then there’s another kind of leadership, and its a lot more nuanced than just a title on a resume.

“Leadership encompasses much more than managing people,” wrote Rosemaria Martinelli, former director of Admissions at the University Of Chicago Booth School of Business in a blog post.  Business schools now equate leadership with influence, or the ability to motivate others toward a shared goal. Stanford Graduate School of Business’ recommendation form includes a “Leadership Behavior Grid” with traits such as initiative, influence and collaboration, developing others, and trustworthiness. Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business defines leadership as “the ability to
inspire others to strive and enable them to accomplish great things.”

Leadership can mean anything from running a classroom to being the idea person in your work team, from standing up for an unpopular position to organizing a clothing drive. In a nutshell, leadership is about finding the passion inside you and acting on it.

The Essence of Leadership

Business schools are actively searching for students with high emotional intelligence. In a seminal 1998 Harvard Business Review article, “What Makes a Leader,” Daniel Goleman attempted to answer the question with specific attributes of effective leaders. Goleman, who popularized the concept of emotional intelligence with his book of the same name, wrote in the HBR article, “It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant….They do matter, but mainly as ‘threshold capabilities.’ But…emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership.”

Goleman’s model of emotional intelligence has dramatically improved the global discussion of leadership. In his research of nearly 200 large, global companies, Goleman found that

while the qualities traditionally associated with leadership – such as intelligence, toughness, determination, and vision – are required for success, they are insufficient. Truly effective leaders are also distinguished by a high degree of emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.

I’ll be writing more about these five components in the coming weeks. Indeed, these traits are a little touchy-feely.  But then, so is business school admissions.