There’s no doubt that applying to business school can be a stressful process. Researching MBA programs, taking the GMAT, writing essays, chasing after recommenders (often while also trying to balance a full time job) can be downright difficult. When prospective students talk to members of our Admissions team they’re often eager to know what we’re looking for in a candidate. 

While we outline the basics, we find it’s often more helpful for you to get advice from our current students. They’ve been there, they’ve done that, they feel your pain, and they’re here to help. Here’s what Stephanie Marr (MBA 2016), Molly Palmersheim (MBA 2016), Sam Travers (MBA 2016), and Matt Fujisawa (MBA 2016) had to say about applying to business school.

  1. Be your genuine self

    Stephanie: Be honest and genuine. I spent a lot of time reflecting on what really motivates me and what is most important to me. It may sound straight-forward, but I think it’s really important to have clear direction on what you want to do and how the HBS experience will help you get there. Then make sure that your application really shows your personality and conveys this message of who you are and where you want to go.

  2. Take time to think about why an MBA, and why now

    Molly: I was advised to think critically and objectively about the reason I was pursuing an MBA and how earning an MBA would support my short and long-term goals. The ability to communicate your goals and motivations clearly and succinctly will make you a stronger applicant.

    Sam: I worked for six years before deciding to apply for an MBA, so first I’d encourage applicants not to feel rushed by anyone else’s timeline. For me, the right time to apply to MBA programs came when I realized that I wanted a career in management but lacked the skills to effectively lead larger and more complex organizations. The MBA struck me as a way to quickly get out of my comfort zone while learning new analytic and management tools. Every applicant’s decision process will be unique, but I’m a big fan of projecting out 5, 10, and 25 years into the future and then thinking about what skills you’ll need to succeed at each stage. After putting myself through that exercise, I became confident that an MBA was the best path for me. Think hard about how you’ll be able to make a unique contribution to your classmates and the HBS community. Answering this question will help with every stage of the application process and let you make the most of the MBA experience once you arrive at HBS.

  3. Pick your recommenders carefully

    Matt: Think about the recommendations early and often. Give your recommenders lots of time to make a thoughtful contribution to your application. With both of mine, I had great conversations explaining why I wanted to go to HBS, which I think were ultimately helpful in crafting my own application.

    Sam: Select recommenders who know you well enough to tell a story that covers your accomplishments and the obstacles you overcame to achieve them. I chose recommenders who had seen me take on responsibility, struggle at times, and adapt to reach my goals. I think this matters much more than having recommenders with a particular job title or connection with HBS.

  4. Get to know HBS and decide if it’s the right fit

    Stephanie: Visiting campus is an amazing way to get a sense for the HBS experience and the case method in particular. I visited a couple weeks before the application deadline, and it not only helped me get a feel for the school, but it got me really excited and inspired to write my essay. Speaking with current students is helpful to learn more about what day-to-day life is like at school. Lastly, the easiest way to start getting information is to visit the HBS website and student clubs websites.

    Molly: I visited several schools to attend classes and speak with current students. I considered how I would fit into the school "hardware" (class structure, clubs, student organizations, etc.) and "software" (culture). I ultimately decided that the HBS hardware – including the case method, Social Enterprise Initiative, and mix of required and elective curriculum, best suited my interests. I also decided the supportive, close-knit section culture would be a great fit for me.

  5. Don’t self-select out

    Matt: The best advice I received was to apply to HBS in the first place – even if you’re not sure you have a chance of getting accepted. More specifically I also got advice to submit my application sooner rather than later. I had intended to apply for the second round but missed the deadline because of a big project at work. I had resigned myself to applying the following year, but friends, family and the few HBS alumni I knew convinced me that there was little downside to applying Round 3. I’m so glad I did.