How I Got into Harvard Business School (by an over 30 HBS MBA ’17)

blog-hbs(Intro – MBA Over 30)

Several months ago, I received an email from someone who had filled out my form for a free MBA profile opinion. Since I was at the gym, I wasn’t able to answer right away, but I did scroll quickly through the basic information that was submitted. I zipped right down to the GMAT score: 600. “Welp”, I thought to myself, “this person definitely needs to retake the GMAT. I’ll give them my honest opinion but may not be able to take them after that unless they are willing to do a retake.”

When I spoke to the candidate, I was immediately impressed by her communication skills. Then as we spoke further, I was knocked out of my chair by what she had accomplished at work. Her results were astonishing. She made it clear, however, that she did not have time for a GMAT retake and wanted to move forward and apply to several Consortium schools. I warned her that even taking that route, her score would be a stretch, but that her A average in a top 5/top 10 undergraduate engineering program in a quant major would probably help, and so we began.

We went back and forth several times beating her application and essays into shape until I felt that we really had done a great job communicating her value via her resume and essay set. I was worried about her chances, but hopeful. Then, a day or two after submission, she sent me an email asking me about a potential last minute application to Harvard Business School (HBS). At first, I cringed. I told her that while large programs like HBS may take one or two candidates each year with similar GMAT scores, it is not necessarily wise to plan to be that one without a rich donor as a family member, an olympic medal or appearance on a hit TV show. Plus she was 30. And of all schools, HBS is probably the most strict about age for non-military candidates.

“On the other hand”, I said, “if Harvard is going to overlook the GMAT for anybody who is not rich or famous, it is likely to be someone like you. You have a high GPA from a top-tier engineering undergrad and your accomplishments and impact might land you an interview with Oprah if she were to ever find out about it. Additionally, you have a VERY clear vision about how you want to impact the world in 10 or 15 years. Your vision is not only huge, but your previous track record and the pedigree of organizations you’ve already worked for would make just about anyone bet that you’re the person who can actually accomplish it….AND…its something that probably less than 1% of MBA’s at top tier programs are focused on. I could really see you giving a lot of insight during cases on this subject. And if you do accomplish what you say you’re going to…Harvard will not want to miss out on being able to say that it was their graduate that made that kind of an impact. So yeah,  throw the hail Mary and see what happens.”

Some weeks later, I got another email. She had gotten the interview! As I do with all of my school package clients, I conducted a mock interview with her. Knowing that HBS digs notoriously deep, I did my best to rip her apart. I gave her my feedback for her to close whatever gaps she had in her reasons and anecdotes, and wished her well. In the back of my mind, however, I thought: “with her advanced communications skills, as soon as she opens her mouth, her interviewer is dead. There is no way that someone with the kind of ‘NBC Nightly News’-level speaking skills she possesses will get an interview and not get in.” Thankfully, I was right. She is now a proud member of the Harvard Business School Class of 2017 with a >100% tuition fellowship package! I could not be any more proud of her or any happier for her and her family.

While an outlier for sure, this applicant is a living testament to the power of packing a powerful punch in so many areas of consideration she was able to marginalize the importance of her GMAT score. Don’t try this at home kids…but definitely glean what you can from her story…

– MBAOver30


MY STORY (by an over 30 HBS MBA ’17)

My Stats
Engineering undergrad with >3.5 GPA from Georgia Tech.  600 GMAT.  Underrepresented minority female with over eight years of work experience, primarily in the not-for-profit sector.  Looking to move into senior management positions within public education and government sector with focus on turnaround/improvement strategies for large, matrix organizations.
My Strengths
Clear goals and personal story in education reform space; quickly and consistently promoted with strong leadership results; 5+ years of team management experience; founded a small college-prep program for high school students; pattern of demonstrated leadership since high school (and yeah… I wrote about high school in my b-school essays…)
My Weaknesses
Low GMAT; average GPA; > average age/years of work experience
My Approach
My main concern with going to graduate school has been costs, so when I sat down to apply I knew I needed to apply to programs where I had an opportunity to get significant funding.  I primarily planned to only apply to Consortium schools, but at the last minute I also applied to HBS because it had been my dream school (ever since attending SVMP back in 2005) and I just wouldn’t feel right if I had never at least tried.  My GMAT was low, but I had lots of leadership and I knew that b-schools liked results – so I was just going to give it my best shot.
On Relationships
So anything I do is about building relationships and maximizing them.  Since I am in Atlanta, I went to every possible Goizueta event.  I made sure they knew me and my story very well.  I also had some friends who were alums who really helped me to understand the culture of the school and how I would fit in/complement that environment.  Before going to campus for my HBS interview, I reached out to the new director of their social enterprise initiative for an informational meeting and he accepted my invitation.  He gave me insight into the program and how I could immediately make an impact on campus and even gave me advice for my interview and post-interview reflection.
Focusing On Results
For HBS, I attended a summer program there and had a network of alumni that I reconnected with to get tips on the application.  Everyone told me to focus on leadership and the results I’ve had.  I made sure that every word in that application (for both my Consortium schools and HBS) was talking about impact in some shape and form (something that Lawrence also taught me… keep reading).
Writing Essays
 Since my GMAT is so low, I knew I needed to have strong essays and overall application presentation; I really needed to capture the essence of who I am and what I’m looking to do – clearly, concisely, and on PAPER.  So I started looking for coaching specifically in that area and came across the amazing blog.  He helped me make my resume more impactful by packing more meaning into less words, helped me tell compelling stories through my essays (which was really a challenge for me, because I tend to ramble…), and helped me feel more confident in what I had already accomplished even though we were dealing with the fact that I had a really sub-par GMAT score. He also helped me to paint the picture of how my GMAT was not fully representative of my academic ability – by drawing connections to the quantitative rigor of my undergraduate studies and how I earned As in most of my quant-heavy classes.
My Application Results
HBS – admitted with significant financial aid (> 100% tuition)
Goizueta – admitted with full tuition fellowship
Kenan-Flagler – admitted
Marshall – waitlisted
My Decision
I’m going to HBS!  The only thing that concerned me was being able to afford it.  As additional context, I’m the primary provider for my family and I have a toddler and… I’m over 30 leaving a mid-senior level position at a prominent non-profit.  I felt kind of silly applying to school in the first place – but if I’m going to go, I better go for the lowest cost and to the best program possible.  So, when Dee called me personally offering sizable assistance to ensure that funding was not the barrier, the decision became very clear for me.
My Advice
TRUST THE PROCESS.  Also, trust yourself and surround yourself with people who will really push you to be great.  My family, friends, and mentors have been nudging me for years and I’m finally doing it. Oh and work with MBAOver30!  He really helped me be more compelling on paper and also helped me focus during my mock interview for HBS (and curtail some of this rambling).  His process of having you write down and reflect on all your experiences is really important; it can be time consuming, but it helps you pull out themes and build the narrative to sell yourself.

About mbaover30

Wharton MBA and admissions expert

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9 Comments on “How I Got into Harvard Business School (by an over 30 HBS MBA ’17)”

  1. Ergen Says:

    Thanks for the article. I would like to know what impressed you in her communication skills. Thanks.


    • mbaover30 Says:

      Sure Ergen. Namely, it was that she did not merely answer questions, but was able to back up her answer with poignant, detailed examples and anecdotes that went an additional step beyond giving a good answer and also sold her strengths, self awareness and character to the listener quite convincingly.


  2. Stephen Says:

    I would be interested to learn more about the summer program at HBS. Can you provide any insight? Thanks!


    • mbaover30 Says:

      Hello Stephen. I didn’t attend it; a former client did. Did you see anything when you Googled it?


      • Stephen Says:

        There seems to be a few options:
        1. HBX CORe
        2. Harvard Summer School for Young Professionals
        3. Two-day management programs at Harvard

        I was curious to which program specially your client attended as I’ve been interested ina pre-MBA program.

  3. HBS17Over30 Says:

    Hi Stephen – it was the HBS Summer Venture in Management Program (SVMP).



  1. How I Got into MIT Sloan and INSEAD | MBA Over - April 24, 2015

    […] with applicants of all ages, this particular gentleman just happens to be over 30 just like the previous applicant who got into HBS at over 30 years old, further proving that a full time MBA at a top tier program can be, while a […]

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