I have a confession: attending HBS wasn't a life-long dream for me. Choosing to attend business school required some hard decisions along the way, and real thought about what I wanted from my career and from the HBS experience. I was excited and honored by the opportunity to be here — but for those of you who are still struggling with the decision, it can be helpful to hear how others dealt with their concerns.
There were three major concerns I had about attending HBS:
1: The case method wouldn’t allow me to focus on my interests (and was unfamiliar!)
I received my undergraduate degree in engineering. The vast majority of the classes I took were technical and highly relevant to my anticipated career — or at least what I thought it would be! Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly second nature for me to express an opinion in a class where there was no “right” answer, or where class attendance was mandatory. Moreover, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to focus on parts of the curriculum that interested me.
Was the first year Required Curriculum (RC) always my cup of tea? Not always. There were classes that felt more or less interesting, and those that felt more or less difficult. But having now made it through both the first and second year, I have a few observations:
• The ability to apply seemingly-unrelated topics across classes becomes very valuable — you’re working to develop the skill of pattern-matching. Some of the most valuable comments were those where my classmates found patterns (comparing a situation in Finance to one in The Entrepreneurial Manager, for instance) that I would never have seen, but those links remain highly memorable.
• Though you can choose your courses and narrow your focus in the second year, HBS is intended to be a training ground for general managers and leaders, not functional specialists. I am convinced that, like all things in life, my career will take me unexpected places. Selecting a very specific type of training is tempting, but rests on a fallacy: that my career will be predictable.
2: The price tag isn’t a good financial decision
I’d never been in debt before attending HBS. I was lucky enough to attend undergrad fully funded, and the idea of taking on so much debt was not only overwhelming, but counter to the ideals that I was raised with (debt = bad). I entered HBS with no savings, and hadn't accepted the offer to return to my prior employer (who would have funded a significant portion of the cost of attendance). In other words, coming to HBS meant I had to acknowledge that I would be in debt. A lot of it.
Here’s how I got comfortable with the price tag on HBS:
• In short, financial aid helps…a lot more than I thought it would. Apply, even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for financial assistance.
• I realized that HBS is an investment, but the pay-off is likely to take longer than 5 years, even if the debt payments don’t.
• Ignore the big top-line number, and sit down to do the math on debt payments. Compare them to the salaries of alumni, and you’ll realize the math works.
3: The section experience would feel suffocating
There’s no denying it: 900 people is just…a lot. Coming from a large undergraduate environment, I knew that my ability to form smaller groups and close friendships within HBS would be critical, but worried that a random sampling (my section) wasn’t necessarily the ideal place for forming them. By the second half of my EC year, I’d estimate that 50% of my closest friends are from my section, and 50% are not.
Here’s what I underestimated about the section dynamic:
• The value of a section as not just friends, but as a family. Just like your family, you don’t choose your section, and they don’t choose you. It is a rare and wonderful experience to be a part of creating a new family that provides a safe space; it’s the place where people know you best, and care about you in spite of your faults.
• The ease of meeting people outside section after the first few months of class. Clubs, lunches, parties, FIELD, discussion groups, intramural sports — all of these activities are cross-section. The majority of people don’t WANT to stay isolated within their section, and are itching to make friends outside!
• The difficulty of and value in thoughtfully prioritizing relationships. Ultimately, everyone experiences the challenges of prioritization with classes and section events and friends, but by the second year it becomes clear that this is necessary within relationships too. That’s not only normal, but good practice, and section gives you a chance to be thoughtful about your choices.
The fact that I’ve come to terms with many of my initial concerns about coming to HBS doesn’t mean that those concerns were unjustified. It’s also unlikely that someone could’ve convinced me not to worry back in 2013; like all life lessons, I had to figure them out myself.
But being cognizant of your concerns about business school (even during the application process!) can help you make better, more thoughtful decisions about where to focus your energy once you’re here, and allowed me to feel comfortable saying that my years at HBS have been among the best and most productive of my life.