09 Jul 2020

HBS Summer Admissions Events Go Big, Even from Home

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Anita Elberse

Two primary Harvard Business School (HBS) Admissions programs, the Summer Venture in Management Program (SVMP) and Peek Weekend, went virtual this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than being slimmed down versions of their in-person programs, the virtual gatherings actually inspired, affected, and attracted exponentially more prospective students.

In a normal summer admissions cycle, both SVMP and Peek Weekend are highly-anticipated programs for organizers and participants alike. Participants get to experience the residential life of an MBA student for a weekend (Peek) or a full week (SVMP), while the Admissions team gets to do what they do best—open the doors of the campus and engage with aspirational college students about the HBS experience.

SVMP and Peek are designed for college students who are uncertain that business school is for them, and who represent a variety of communities that are historically underrepresented in business education and corporate America. Peek seeks to engage those with limited to no academic or professional exposure to the field of business, while SVMP also focuses on racial and ethnic identities, students who identify as LGBTQ+, first generation college students, and students from schools sometimes underrepresented in business education. Both programs typically have a maximum capacity of 180 participants. Without any such physical limit, the hope for virtual programming was to open the HBS experience to a much wider audience—and the response was phenomenal. The Virtual Peek Experience (VPE) welcomed nearly 2,000 registrants; Virtual Venture in Management (VVM) nearly 1,700.

“One silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is that it provided an opportunity to expand virtual admissions events beyond what we thought was possible,” said Kate Bennett, director of marketing for MBA Admissions. “We were able to reach a far higher number of prospective students—an unprecedented number of universities, majors, and interests—than in person, yet still in a high quality and meaningful way.”

Virtual Venture in Management

VVM was inspired by SVMP—a program launched nearly 38 years ago to increase diversity at HBS—offering similar sessions and learnings, but without the rigorous application process, travel costs, and associated requirements. The 1,700 registrants represented 399 universities in 47 states; 46 percent were first generation college students.

Brook Dennard Rosser, assistant director of MBA Admissions and diversity outreach, wanted to ensure that all participants walked away with a better feel for the HBS MBA community and the applicability of the degree to all career paths, and—most importantly—with the confidence to apply to HBS. “I wanted this audience of college-age students, who are still thinking through who they are and who they want to become, to see that an MBA should be an option they consider in building out their educational toolkit,” said Rosser. “Business school may not be where they ultimately land, but it shouldn’t be because they didn’t know it was an option, or how it could be beneficial to their career trajectory.”

She and the Admissions team crafted the daily sessions to mirror those that past SVMP participants noted as most powerful and useful: demystifying the case method, panels with SVMP and HBS alumni, and informational sessions facilitated by the MBA Admissions and Financial Aid team. The week kicked off with Professor Anita Elberse, faculty chair for SVMP and VVM, introducing the case method via the Lebron James case. All 1,000 students in the opening session were extremely well prepared, said Rosser, and eagerly engaged with Elberse and each other. The participants built and established their own sense of community, even in advance of VVM’s official start, with Zoom and Slack convenings and virtual group meetings and get-togethers. That camaraderie resurfaced throughout the week, in Tuesday’s HBS alumni chat sessions focused on the business case for business school, in Wednesday’s SVMP and HBS alumni panel, in Thursday's presentation about the ins and outs of HBS admissions and financial aid, and most certainly for Friday’s grand finale: a surprise Zoom chat with Elberse’s special guests, singer Ciara and her husband, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Both highly successful entertainers and entrepreneurs, Ciara and Russell have called upon Elberse’s expertise to strengthen and expand their businesses (Ciara’s Beauty Marks Entertainment and Russell’s West2East and Limitless Minds among others), and they were delighted to share their experience and passion.

Both Ciara and Russell offered words of wisdom and inspiration to participants. Ciara, who attended the 2019 Executive Education program in Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports, encouraged participants to “Tap into your uniqueness, empower yourself with it, and attack it head on. The power of believing is real. All it takes is one person to believe, and that person is you.” Russell also offered words of encouragement and shared the mantra he calls upon every day: Love big, serve big, and forgive big. “Be uncommon,” he advised. “Be the best in the world at what you do—we’ll be here waiting and watching.”

For Rosser, the week—particularly the alumni panels—provided an important opportunity to dispel common myths about HBS, business schools, and corporate America. “Everyone has a different story, and there is no one pathway that leads to HBS,” she explained. “With a brand like Harvard Business School, it's easy to self-select out of applying or even considering our programs. I wanted everyone to walk away from our programming knowing that they can and should absolutely be here. The authenticity and candor of our alumni and current students really helped to drive this message home.”

Participants certainly seem to have been inspired, based on the Zoom chat comments and testaments:

“Honestly, this was the highlight of my week. I believed in myself before, but this solidified it and paved a pathway for action. I am very grateful for this experience.”

“Thank you so much to all the panelists, you are all so incredibly inspiring and empowered us to be even more proud of who we are and [to] believe in our potential!!”

Virtual Peek Experience

VPE featured three days of sessions with HBS students, staff, alumni, and faculty focused on the case method, authentic leadership, and the value of an MBA. “An MBA from HBS is not just for people who have a business undergrad degree,” said Director of Admissions Chad Losee in his welcome address. “We’re looking for people from all kinds of academic backgrounds, from all parts of the world, and who are working in all types of industries. An MBA from HBS is really about getting things done.”

In the past several years, Peek Weekend has become increasingly competitive. By removing both travel cost barriers and physical capacity limitations, an online version provided an opportunity to reach a greatly expanded pool of students. The record-breaking number of registrants included 32 percent first-generation college students and 10 percent community college students—groups underrepresented at graduate business schools.

“I was excited that the students on the other side of the camera heard directly from HBS staff and faculty that their voices were wanted and important,” said Liz Hutchinson, MBA Admissions college outreach manager.

The programs featured an informational Q+A session with Admissions staff about the student experience and the value of an MBA, an introduction to the case method with Senior Lecturer and Peek Faculty Chair Jill Avery, and an interactive virtual version of Peek Weekend’s most popular discussion; authentic leadership with Professor Scott Snook.

The remarkable attendance and interest have inspired the Admissions team to expand their future online offerings beyond any restrictions required by the global pandemic. “In-person Peek gave us the ability to create personal interactions that humanized our institution for undergraduates who might have not personally connected with us before,” said Hutchinson. “The Virtual Peek Experience gave us an opportunity to provide similar value to a much larger audience, which now has an affirming and thoughtful experience with the HBS brand, whether or not they choose to engage in the future.”

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