The first time I told each of my family and friends that I was considering applying for a Master in Business Administration (“MBA”) at Harvard Business School (“HBS”), I received a flurry of questions about what had made me decide to apply, followed swiftly by an excited “How amazing would it be if you got in!”
But as I wondered whether I wanted to seriously pursue an MBA, I thought wistfully about the acceptance rate at HBS, which hovered around 10% (for Class of 2021) and that almost everyone who applies is remarkably qualified.
It seemed like a long shot.
I had read many articles about aspiring students who seemed perfect on paper, but had not been accepted. A quick google search throws up a surprisingly high number of articles about people who have been rejected from HBS, some without an invitation to interview, who appeared to be destined to succeed. These individuals often seemed to have an exceedingly high GMAT score, years of work experience at a great company (which they had probably also co-founded) and an Olympic world record, while being fluent in five different languages and making the time to save a dozen cats from trees all over south-east Asia.
My chances didn’t look too great, but in the fall of 2018, I decided to give it a shot.
What could be the worst possible outcome, I thought, I knew that I might not get in, but I would have known I had given it my best and then I could go back to figuring out what I wanted to do with my life instead of business school.
As business school was something I had been thinking about on-and-off for a few years, I had taken my GMAT in January of 2018. I had scored a 760, which put me in the range of scores of students that HBS accepts (590–800) and above the median score of accepted students (730). However, the GMAT was only a part of the application.
The HBS application consisted of a personal essay, two recommendations from people who knew me well (and ideally had nice things to say), academic transcripts, the GMAT (or GRE) and a resume.
I knew that the piece of the application that would take the longest time would be my personal essay — the question HBS asked was deliberately broad to allow the applicant (I think) freedom to be as creative and personal as they chose, and as a British person, I simply didn’t do personal.
I started preparing my application at the end of September 2018. By that time I had already missed the first round deadline, which is in early September, and HBS had announced that there would only be two chances to apply for the Class of 2021, as they were removing round three from the application cycle. This meant that I had to apply by first week of January 2019 for my application to be considered for matriculation (a fancy word for enrollment in school) in August 2019.
It took me four drafts and innumerable small tweaks to finalise my essay — I spoke about my personal struggles and my desire to contribute to society post graduation and make an impact in the time I had on this earth. I made the essay deeply personal. It was uncomfortable to evaluate my life in as much depth for potential material when I was brainstorming ideas, but it was also the first time I had taken the time to sit down and ponder what had brought me to this point.
Even now, after countless people have contacted me to ask me what they should write about, I tell them that I can’t help them with the story: only they know what makes them them.
The most useful tool I used to refine my story was feedback from HBS alumni. I didn’t have any close friends or family who had gone to HBS, so I reached out to old colleagues, friends of friends and those I had met at admission events to ask for their time and their feedback. I owe a large amount of my success in the application process to these individuals, who selflessly gave their time and shared their insights with me.
By the time my essay was on its fourth draft, I was still a little undecided about whether I wanted to apply. It was almost mid-November and I had planned to travel for three weeks in south-east Asia (to save those cats! — see reference above) over December.
In the last week of November, I decided to take the step that would make it impossible for me to change my mind about applying: I decided to ask my Managing Director at work to be one of my recommenders. Soon afterwards, I asked one of my other seniors to be my second recommender. Now that I had committed to asking people to essentially sacrifice time over their Christmas holidays to write my recommendation, I knew I could not back out.
Although the end seemed in sight, I knew I still had to dust off my resume, which I had last updated in 2015. The Comic Sans MS font and pink border just didn’t seem like it would go down well, so I cleaned up the formatting and adding in all the biggest transactions I had been involved with.
The first week of December passed by in a blur and soon I was in Laos, taking the slow boat down the Mekong river, without any mobile reception or internet connection. I spent the holiday partly enjoying the exotic culture and scalding heat, but mostly fretting over whether my recommenders would complete their tasks in time and whether my personal essay was really personal and insightful enough — was I managed to convey who I really was and would an admissions tutor at HBS read it and think “this is the girl we want to accept”? Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time for the latter and enough WiFi accessibility to check on the former, so I continued to restlessly await my return to WiFi-land before executing my plan of action.
I got back to the UK on 30 December, which gave me three days to refine my essay and resume, chase my recommenders, and hit submit on the application portal. HBS had already sending me emails to remind me of the upcoming deadline.
I had a carefully thought out plan for the next three days, but it was foiled when I spent the day I arrived and New Year’s Eve recovering from jetlag and minor stitches from an injury. On New Year’s Day I threw away my perfect plan and focused on gathering all my materials. My recommenders had both come through and submitted my recommendations online — I would never know what they said in their review, but I can safely assume it did not scare HBS enough to reject me.
On 2nd January 2019 at 5.55pm, I submitted my application. Immediately, I received an email from HBS titled simply “Success! Your HBS application has been submitted.” and the wait began.
The moment I submitted my application seems a lifetime ago, now, although it has been merely a year. I consider that moment to be the day my HBS story began, but perhaps it had had actually started years before that, when I had jokingly wondered, ‘what if’ without ever imagining I would be writing this from my (relatively comfy) dorm room in the midst of a Boston January snowstorm.
Reach out via my website at www.ashatanwar.com if you would like application advice.
Disclaimer: all views are my own — this is not a ‘how-to’ guide to applying to HBS, just a story of my journey.