Category Archives: Business School Application

Now you are admitted. What should you do?

Being admitted to HBS, you may now be flooded with congratulatory emails from the admission office, colleagues, friends and family. Through these contacts and conversations, the realization hits – you are going to HBS! Happy, happy and happy!

Although you still have five months until you actually start your life at HBS, time flies while you are sifting through the copious quantities of pre-matriculation paperwork. Before you leave for Boston, what should you do? How should you spend your remaining time?

My advice -

1. Be humble

Regardless of how you think or feel, people around you may view you in a different light. You are not an applicant any more. You are already an HBS MBA candidate. As you know, people have a certain image of HBS students (and MBA students in general) and it’s not always positive.

Although it is certainly not your intention, people may perceive your behavior as haughty and despicable. It’s not your fault, but people do have pre-conceived perceptions. At HBS, you are repeatedly taught how to increase your self-awareness and avoid misleading behavior as a leader.

Your application process would not be successful without the support of the people around you. Appreciate that support and do not assume an air of superiority. Your every action shapes a public image of a Harvard MBA. Don’t be arrogant. Be humble.

2. Set your goals

After starting your life at HBS, you will become incredibly busy. I promise. HBS intentionally throws tremendous opportunities at you – recruiting events, social events, big name conferences, club activities, leadership activities, etc. – and you have to carefully weigh each of these demands on your time. You cannot do everything.

If you start this hectic life without setting (and following) goals, you will be torn in multiple directions and lose control. To avoid this, I strongly recommend that you set specific and quantitative goals for the two years. Do this prior to arrival at HBS. “Develop a strong network with my section mates” is not sufficient. The goals should be like “Acquire three potential CFOs for my company who have management experience of more than five years in the healthcare industry”.

When you set well-defined goals, you will be able to prioritize the opportunities showered upon you enabling you to decide which to take and which to discard. Depending on the goals, your time allocation at HBS will be totally different. It can be diverse, but the typical four are similar to the following:

Time Allocation

3. Don’t study

You may be worried about your lack of experience in technical subjects, such as accounting, finance, and economics. But, don’t study! HBS provides a great pre-MBA program and you can study 20 hours a day once the first semester starts. Rather than waste your time on studying, spend this precious time for traveling, drinking, and networking!


Dear HBS applicants

Yesterday the HBS admission board released its decision on the second round of applications. Meanwhile, I have been receiving a multitude of email from this year’s applicants scattered all over the world. The bulk was from admitted students who shared with me their defining moments and their excitement. As well, I also received a few from rejected applicants informing me of the sad news and their aspiration to other opportunities.

Here is my message to HBS applicants, both admitted and rejected:

To those admitted:

Congratulations! Your herculean effort on the application process – GMAT, essays, and interviews- have paid off! You can now relax, stop worrying about test scores, forget about checking other applicants’ status on MBA forums, and best of all – no more anxiously awaiting email from the admission board.

Being admitted to HBS not only speaks to your intellect, but also demonstrates your potential to be a leader who makes a difference in the world – literally! The coming two years will be incredibly interesting, exciting, challenging and tough. It will be one of the most transitional experiences in your life.

You did a great job. Enjoy this moment before a wave of paperwork in the pre-admission process floods you!


To those rejected:

If you are applying to multiple schools, put HBS out of your mind for the time being and focus on your secondary choices. You don’t have to be admitted by multiple schools, no one can attend more than one school, correct?  There are a plethora of outstanding business schools that offer different ‘cultures’ – no school fits everyone. Also, of course, no one fits every school. You just need to find the best-fit school for you and your aspirations.

If you desperately want to study at HBS and are not looking at any other schools, I strongly recommend that you re-apply next year. The acceptance rate on reapplication to HBS is not as low as people generally believe. It’s tougher than the first shot, but I personally know successful re-applicants. You may need to improve your test scores and/or change your strategy, but it’s worth trying.

Harvard Business School

Decision day always has a major impact on an applicants’ life regardless of the result. Although it is actually almost fifteen months ago, it seems like yesterday that I received the decision that has set me on the path I now travel.

How competitive is to get into HBS?

The HBS MBA admission process is currently in the middle of round 2. Applicants have finished submitting applications, and are now awaiting interview invitations from the admissions office. A painful and anxiety-ridden time. The only consolation is that HBS is very transparent with its application process, disclosing the dates they release interview invitations; January 29th and February 5th this year.

Do you know the acceptance rate to the HBS MBA program? HBS discloses this data on its annual report.

Acceptance Rate

The acceptance rate has remained steady at 11-13% over the past five years. Not high, but not too low either. More than one in 10 applicants are admitted every year. Does that factoid give you a feeling of relief?

However, the competition looks totally different when you consider other factors: business background, age, nationality, etc. The most prominent one is nationality. The number of applications to the MBA program is generally affected by short-term macroeconomic trends, but is also affected by the long-term momentum of applicants’ countries.

Thirty years ago, in the heyday of the Japanese economy, the number of Japanese applicants increased dramatically. As a result, even though the overall acceptance rate was stable, the percentage of successful Japanese applicants decreased significantly. Although the number of admitted Japanese students increased, the increase in the number of applicants far exceeded it, making for brutal competition.

Now, we see the same thing occurring with rapidly developing countries – specifically China and India.


There are forty-five Indian and sixteen Chinese students in RC. The number of students from these two countries is increasing year by year. It is said that, however, there were 1,000+ applications from India and 500+ applications from China in 2013. That means, the acceptance rate for students from these countries was between 3-5%, much lower than the overall MBA program.

The key takeaway from these facts is, “Be careful. Average is just average. You may be on a different plane”.

Don't believe average

We are still skewed to consulting and finance

Traditionally, many business schools have been dominated by consultants and investment bankers, and HBS is no exception. According to HBS’s official report on students’ pre-MBA industries (class of 2015), 31% are from financial services (including investment banking and VC/PE) and 19% are from consulting. This means non-consultant or non-bankers account for only half of the class size.

These numbers grow when we look at the proportion of students who have experience in consulting or banking, because many students, whose pre-MBA industries were not strictly considered consulting or banking were actually employed by consulting firms or investment banks but are listed by their latest industry.

Based on my section’s profile, I calculated the proportion of students who have experience in consulting or finance.

Class Profile

As can be seen, approximately 70% of my section is dominated by consultants, bankers, or old soldiers in these fields. While this only represents one section, I feel it accurately represents the entire class. After the financial crisis, HBS is still skewed to consultants and bankers.

These facts have two implications:

One is that it’s difficult for consultants and bankers (both applicants and students) to differentiate themselves just because they have consulting/banking experience. They have sophisticated PPT/Excel skills, setback experiences and great achievements in difficult projects, but the majority of their classmates have similar experience. If you are a consultant or a banker in the application process, many of your self-perceived strengths may not unique. In the classroom many classmates raise their hands when you raise your hand. You need to differentiate your strengths apart from your work experience in order to stand out from the crowd.

The second implication is that non-consulting/banking students have great value in their study group, section and other communities at HBS. For the majority of students, their thoughts and experiences are always new and worth listening to. They bring creative ideas to the communities, and their insights deepen discussions among consulting/banking students which tend to be stereotypical. If you are an applicant and have a background other than consulting/banking, you should be proud of it and make the maximum use of your work experience.

HBS is always refining its admission strategy, and I hope the number of students from non-traditional industries continues to grow.

What is “Post-Interview-Reflection”?

Some applicants recently asked me about the “post-interview-reflection” process in the HBS MBA application. Since this is a new process, it may worth sharing my thoughts. As a disclaimer, the following thoughts are my own opinion and not HBS’s.


The post-interview-reflection was introduced in 2012 (for the class of 2015) and requires applicants to write a letter after their interview process (therefore, it’s relevant only to applicants who are invited to the interview process). The admission office is implementing the process this year, as well, saying, “We liked it”.

However, this process may be a little confusing to some applicants since it doesn’t specify the length or format. What we know from the website is:

  • It’s not intended to be another formal essay
  • You should think of it as an email you might write to a colleague or supervisor after a meeting
  • The deadline is within 24 hours of the conclusion of your interview
  • They will be relatively generous regarding typos and grammatical errors
  • If there is any indication that it was produced BEFORE the interview, it will raise a flag

So, how would you deal with this? What do you write? And why? Here is my opinion.



This is a business school and you are required to write an email to your colleague or supervisor after a meeting. In an actual business situation, after your meeting, why would you do this?

One reason is to confirm what was discussed in the meeting. As you know, a meeting can often result in misunderstanding and ambiguity among the participants. What you wanted to convey might not be understood by the participants as you had intended. The participants might not have clearly understood what you said in the meeting. Time constraints may have made it difficult for you to deliver your full message. In such cases, your email will be effective to supplement the message you wanted to deliver in the meeting.

The other reason is to share the meeting with others who didn’t participate. The participants may need to sum up the discussion and report to their colleagues or supervisors. If they have a concise, clear and comprehensive memo of the meeting, it will be useful to deliver your message to them. In this case, of course, “they” are the other admission officers.


In most cases, it will be the first time you meet with your interviewer. Therefore, the first item should be, of course, a thank you message. But make it concise.

Next should be a summary of your interview. What did you talk about, what did you want to add, and how did you feel when the interviewer asked the question and you answered. I recommend that you make a short caption on each topic to make it easier for the admission officers to skim it.

As a closing, you may address your key messages again. Depending on the Q&A you had in your interview, the content can vary: your aspiration to HBS, your overall impression of the interview, etc. But still, you should try to make it concise. Since it’s similar to a business letter, it should be to the point and straight forward. HBS doesn’t like long, flattering, flowery essays. In my case, I wrote a 2-page, 800 word letter.

Thank you letter

Again, this is just my opinion and there is no one right answer. However, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this post-interview-reflection process. While they are reducing the number of essay questions, they added this process and decided to continue it this year. It must have significant meaning.

Business school application: Interview

Last year, I was surprised to see so many applicants blew their chance of admission at the last stage of the application process. If you get an interview invitation from HBS, you have to remember that your chance of admission is still lower than fifty-fifty.

Business People Sitting Nervously

There is no one best way to prepare for the interview.  It totally depends on your style and the school you are applying to. The HBS interview is arguably one of the most difficult schools to prepare for. Unlike some other schools, it is very difficult to anticipate the questions HBS’ AdCom may ask (schools such as Stanford and MIT Sloan are known for their “behavioral question” style).  Some of the features of HBS’ interview are:

    • It is conducted by an AdCom member
    • It finishes in exactly 30 minutes
    • Your interviewer reviews all your application material before the interview

It is difficult to provide general advice on HBS’ interview because the questions can vary depending on your background. However, from last year’s experience, I would say these are the four most important tips all applicants should remember:

    1. You must be able to explain every single detail on your application information (except for recommendation letters)
    2. Your answer must always be concise and straightforward (remember that there are only 15-18 questions in the 30 minutes)
    3. You must prepare for multidimensional follow-up questions for each of your answers (why? how? What else?)
    4. You should look professional

I actually spent considerable time preparing for the interview. I made a long list of expected questions, recorded each question on a voice recorder, and randomly played them back in order to practice by myself.  I also had several mock interviews just before the actual interview.

It is just 30 minutes. But the 30 minutes can change your life. Let’s practice!

Business school application: Recommendation letters

Recommendation letters are as important as essays. The role of recommendation letters, when paired with essays, is to give your application some depth. Recommendation letters need to highlight your key messages from viewpoints other than your essays.

Therefore, it is important to discuss your application strategy with your referees before they start writing, in order to attain uniformity in the key messages you want to deliver. Although you shouldn’t “ghost-write” for your referees, it is important to maintain consistency between your essays and recommendation letters. If you “ghost-write” the letters, it will be obvious.

Outstanding Evaluation

Also, there are various opinions as to whom you should choose as your referees. Here is my opinion:

  • Your referee MUST be a person who knows you well
  • You SHOULD try to find a referee who knows the school you are applying to well (e.g. alumni)
  • Your referee MUST NOT be a big name or a person in a high position who doesn’t know you well

Just like your essays, your recommendation letters also need to deliver your qualities with specific examples, facts and logic. Long flowery words cannot help you but rather will cast doubts on the relationship you have with your referee. In my case, my three referees on the HBS application were:

    1. A senior partner at BCG. She is an HBS alumna and has known me for three years
    2. A vice president at Morgan Stanley. He is an HBS alumnus and has known me for six years
    3. A member of the board of directors at my family business. He has known me since I was born (non-MBA)


Anyway, you should remember the MBA application process requires a comprehensive strategy, and that recommendation letters are one of the components you should use to deliver your key messages to the AdCom. They are not a formality – they are important.

Business school application: Essays

It goes without saying that essays are the most important components in the application process. Applicants cannot spend too much time on them.

Before you start writing, ensure you spend sufficient time on the groundwork. You should have a clear and concise idea of your application strategy. This process should take the following steps:


1. Carefully consider who the MBA Admission Committee (AdCom) is looking for

The essay is a form of communication. The most common mistake is to push your own agenda without an understanding of the attributes the AdCom is looking for. You can get an appreciation of the AdCom’s thoughts from various sources, such as the school website, info sessions, MBA admission experts’ comments, etc. After assimilating the information, you should create a short list of questions the AdCom may ask through the entire application process.

2. Shape the key messages you want to deliver

Once you understand what they want to know, then you can start formulating what you should say. The essay is also a form of marketing. You need to differentiate yourself from thousands of brilliant applicants; some who have founded their own companies, and some who have led hundreds of subordinates on the battlefields in Iraq.  You need to shape the key messages you want to deliver to the AdCom. Each message should be backed by specific examples, facts and logic.

3. Allocate your key messages to each component

Essays are not the only place you can deliver your key messages to AdCom. Your resume, recommendation letters and interview also play the same role in the application process. You need to think about where you want to deliver each message. In other words, you shouldn’t include all the key messages in your essays. It dilutes the message and your essays become fuzzy. The MBA application process requires a comprehensive strategy. Before starting to write your essay, you need to consider all the components of the process.


These steps will produce your essay and application strategy. Just for your reference, below is the worksheet I developed before I started writing HBS essays. The format may take various shapes, but the important thing is to spend enough time on this groundwork before plunging into the writing endeavor.

Sample worksheet for essay writing

Once you organize your strategy, then start writing!


Business school application: GMAT

There is actually very little to say regarding GMAT. It’s not a big deal. The higher the score the better, of course, but applicants shouldn’t be too nervous about their test scores.


According to the HBS class of 2015 class profile, the GMAT score ranges from 580 to 780. This means that a low GMAT score doesn’t necessarily mean there is no chance of admission. At the same time, a high GMAT score doesn’t secure an admission.

Also, it is very difficult to differentiate your application with your GMAT score. To do so, you would need a score of 770 or higher Therefore, once you feel you have an adequate score, my advice is to concentrate on your essays and interview preparations, rather than on a marginal improvement on your GMAT score.

What is an “adequate score”? I would say 690 (I personally know a number of people admitted to HBS with this score).

My GMAT score was 710, which was lower than the admitted students’ average (720). But I stopped the GMAT journey at this point, and shifted my resources to essays and interviews, which were far more important factors in the application process. Again, don’t be so nervous.

Good luck!

Business school application: Campus visit

“Should I visit campus?”

I have been asked this question several times by applicants and the answer is, “Yes, definitely.”


The weight of a campus visit varies depending on the school. For example, HBS clearly states that visiting campus has absolutely no impact on how an application is assessed. On the other hand, other schools, such as Columbia and Tuck tend to place value on an applicants’ campus visit.

However, I highly recommend that applicants visit campus in order to:


Draw on the experience of current students

When I visited the schools I applied to, with no exception, all current students accepted my offer of a visit. They kindly set up a lunch with their classmates, and answered every question I asked.

Such an opportunity was helpful because they had been through the admission process just a year or two ago. As a result they know what it takes to get through the application process and earn a place in the next year’s class. As well, they are eager to transfer this knowledge and experience to the next generation. After reflecting on my campus visit experience, I revised my essays and they became far better than the earlier drafts.


Enrich your interview response

HBS doesn’t care about your campus visit record. This is true. However, the experience of your campus visit definitely enriches your responses in the interview process.  My interview is a good example. When I was interviewed, the interviewer asked me what I thought about HBS’ case method. I answered:

…so, I think the case method is the best way to hone my decision making skills. By the way, I visited the Strategic Marketing class. I can’t forget that experience. The class was much more dynamic and energetic than any actual company’s board meeting I have ever attended. I was also astonished to see the students’ decisiveness and insights. When the professor threw out the next question, I almost raised my hand…

Without the campus visit experience, the response would have been superficial. Because I had seen the inside of the case study method, I could respond in a very real manner.


Of course, a campus visit is not always feasible (especially for international students), but it is highly recommended as long as it’s affordable. In my case, I visited all schools I applied to.

Spangler Garden

If you want to visit HBS, don’t hesitate to send me an email.