Education and Skills

10 traits Harvard looks for in ideal MBA candidates

Steven Benna
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Harvard Business School is ranked the No. 1 business school in the world.

For the class of 2014, 93% of graduates seeking employment received an offer, and those who accepted offers received a median base salary of $125,000, according to Harvard.

It’s clear that receiving an HBS education pays off, but the school doesn’t accept your everyday applicant.

What separates those admitted from the rest of the pack?

Stacy Blackman, founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting, helps clients earn admission to top MBA programs. She has an undergraduate degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.

Based on a decade of helping clients get into Harvard, her team has assembled a list of 10 qualities that will help you stand out to the admissions committee:

1. High-impact leadership

“Your past leadership achievements are the best gauge of your potential for realizing your future ambitions,” Blackman writes in her Harvard Interview Guide.

You need to provide hard proof that you made a difference. It’s not all about the scale of your achievements, Blackman writes, but rather “the fact that you left indelible footprints.”

2. Service

As with leadership, the committee is concerned with the connection between your achievements and how they reflect who you are. There are two reasons community service is important, Blackman writes:

  1. “It provides insights into your deeper interests and the causes that you care about.”
  2. “The admissions officers want to see evidence that you are the type of person who devotes energy to making a community stronger” because they may be inviting you into their community.

3. Solutions-oriented

“The central question in every HBS case is not ‘what do you think?’ but rather ‘what would you do?'” Blackman writes.

It’s all about results. Your thought processes and ability to analyze the situation at hand are important, but you have to take it further than that. The committee wants “evidence that you have applied your analysis, formulated an action plan, and most importantly, executed the plan.”

4. Passion

Passion is a useful tool for staying motivated and productive, whether it’s in school or business. But it goes much deeper than simply being passionate about what you are doing. You need to express your passion in a way that will inspire and project energy onto those you are working with, Blackman writes.

“It’s not just your footprints that interest HBS admissions,” she says. “They also want to see the footprints of those who are following you as you blaze a new trail in an area of passion.”

5. Case method compatibility

Case studies provide students with the chance to analyze and make decisions in a real-world simulation, and HBS is almost completely dedicated to using them, Blackman writes.

The qualities the admissions committee is looking for in candidates include intellectual curiosity, exceptional communication skills, a respect for the opinions of others, and the ability to teach as well as learn from peers, Blackman writes.

6. Self-awareness

While it’s important to demonstrate your achievements and abilities to the admissions committee, it’s equally as important to reflect what you’ve learned from each experience.

“Self-awareness isn’t a quality that you demonstrate by telling a story,” Blackman writes. “Rather, it has to do with how you tell the story and your ability to communicate what you learned.”

7. Vision

With a mission to “educate leaders to make a difference in the world,” HBS isn’t looking for candidates who simply want a résumé boost, Blackman writes. If you’re applying to Harvard, you have to “think big.”

8. Integrity

Integrity is more than being respectful. It’s more than any single attribute. Integrity is a combination of attributes, Blackman writes. She cites the following traits from Dr. Henry Cloud’s book “Integrity” that make up this value: creates trust, unafraid of reality, results-oriented, solves negative realities, causes growth, and finds meaning in life.

You’ll want to demonstrate how you responded in a difficult ethical situation to “provide evidence of honesty, forthrightness, and expertise in navigating ethical conundrums,” Blackman says.

9. Initiative

Harvard doesn’t want people who fit in; it wants people who stand out.

You need to demonstrate the desire and ability to spark up a new conversation or idea. Any situation in which you took charge voluntarily, rather than being assigned something, is worth discussing with the admissions committee, Blackman writes.

10. Maturity

“Maturity isn’t a matter of growing older,” Blackman writes. “It’s a matter of growing wiser.”

Rather than focusing on how long you’ve been doing something, demonstrate how you’ve grown — from your values to your view of the world.


This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Steven Benna writes for the strategy vertical at Business Insider.

 Image: Profile of students taking their seats for the diploma ceremony at Harvard University in Cambridge. REUTERS/Brian Snyder.

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