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Harvard, Stanford, Wharton: The MBA Trinity

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April 1, 2021

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Josh Jones

What makes a successful HSW applicant?  

We’ve all heard about HSW (Harvard, Stanford, Wharton) because we all know there’s something different about those three business schools and, thus, about successful applicants to those elite programs.  If there were a simple formula for success, it wouldn’t work because the market would adjust. (The efficient-market hypothesis is one of those fancy finance theories you’ll learn about at HSW!)

Granted, being Bill Gates’s son is a pretty simple formula for success, but what about the rest of us?

Can I suggest that a great marketing strategy is the one thing that every successful HSW applicant has in common?  If you’re applying for HSW, then you’ve been pretty successful – but why? That’s the first question you need to answer about yourself: why have you managed to achieve whatever you’ve achieved that’s placed you on the threshold of HSW?

Second, you need to ask why everyone else hasn’t managed to equal your success.  The folks at Stanford like to take shots at Harvard’s case method, pointing out that it’s not just what successful people have in common that matters, it’s also what distinguishes them from everybody else that counts.  The example Stanford likes to use is that virtually every successful leader brushes their teeth, but so too does virtually every failed leader: the secret of success, therefore, lies in what the successful don’t do as well as what they do.

In that spirit, it’s important to customize your application to each school, but that’s not enough.  It’s great that you love the case method and that you’re convinced Philadelphia is Athens on the Schuylkill; it’s better that you remember to tell Harvard the former and Wharton the latter (you’d be surprised how many people mess that up!), but – really – who cares?  A line here or there that proves you can use the Internet isn’t going to cut it; you need a strategy to position yourself for each school’s self-image. Ideally, you need to craft a story that fits their story, or – as writers say – “show, don’t tell” why you are a fit.

If I were to summarize each school in a sentence, it’d would be this:  Harvard’s about leadership; Stanford’s about innovation, and Wharton’s about rejuvenation.  Build your story around those central ideas, and you’ll have laid the foundation for a great application.

HBS = Leadership

Spend a little time at HBS, and you’ll quickly realize that HBS is all about leadership.  Heck, they even name their dorms for U.S. Secretaries of the Treasury! And, in many ways, Harvard’s brief stint as an officer training school during World War II is its defining moment: they build leaders, and they expect them to conquer the world!  If you want to succeed, you’ll need to build a compelling story that explains how and why you can be a leader.

Now leadership is a curious thing – it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the brightest, so don’t worry about proving how smart you are.  And it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the most innovative, so don’t worry about proving it was “your” idea. Leadership doesn’t even require a formal leadership role.

The key to a successful HBS application is to explain how you have managed to lead something, anything, to success, and why you believe that HBS will help you go further.

Let me illustrate my point by example.  If you were part of a team that created a new product, I wouldn’t discuss my role in creating the product; I wouldn’t talk about how or why I “knew” the product had to be a certain way; rather, I’d focus on the tensions within the team and what I did to address those dynamics, or I’d analyze some obstacle, and I’d explain how the team and I overcame that obstacle.  

In other words, it’s far more important to have resolved X conflict than it would be to have identified Y opportunity in the market or to have invented Z solution to the product’s previous technical limitations.  For HBS, it’s better to have guided others to those solutions than to have answered those questions by yourself.

And, surely, if you’re a serious candidate for HBS, there must be multiple examples you can choose from.  To be clear, I wouldn’t worry so much about the nature of examples – you don’t have to led the defense of Stalingrad; it can be a seemingly trivial victory as long as your insights are sufficiently-important.  Heck, a well-written story about leading your Little League team to a championship could work, as long as your insights were appropriate.

And what if you’ve never led a team, but you have solved great technical issues, etc.?  

First, are you sure business school is for you?  Kidding, kind of. Remember HBS wants leaders, not eccentric geniuses…Steve Jobs would not have made it.

Second, that could be your angle; you could admit your shortcoming (your tendency to go it alone) and argue that HBS will help you overcome that shortcoming.

Of course, there are other approaches, but the key is to bring everything back to leadership because that’s the HBS brand.  And remember it’s not enough to say “leadership;” everything about your essay has to speak to it.

STANFORD = INNOVATION

Stanford – what’s not to love?  If Palo Alto isn’t heaven, it’s close enough.  I don’t need to sell you on Stanford, but you need to sell Stanford on you; how?

I won’t go so far as to say that Stanford wants eccentric geniuses, but Steve Jobs would have had a shot at Stanford in a way that he never would have had at HBS.  The problem, of course, is that Steve Jobs probably wouldn’t bother, so how do you persuade Stanford of a paradox? How do you convince them that you’re the Steve Jobs who would have bothered?

Here, I want you to focus on stories from your life that illustrate your ability to innovate, to solve problems through new approaches that nobody else has tried.

I don’t want you to get caught up in technology (despite the fact that Stanford is, quite obviously, the Valhalla of tech) because it’s more about the theme than the particular facts.  Maybe you were the first person to realize that pig waste would make great biofuel or maybe you were the first person to realize that biofuel tax credits would make great assets for securitization – it’s more about the originality than what you were original about.

And focus on originality!  As I said when I discussed HBS, I’d want to explain how I led my team to a solution, even a very conventional solution, in my HBS essay, but – here – I’d rather explain how I invented a nifty-new solution than talk about the group dynamics that prevented its adoption.  Granted, I still want my solution adopted (it’s still business school after all), but leading by example works at Stanford in a way it doesn’t at HBS.

Frankly, Stanford’s a little more into intelligence – don’t get me wrong, everybody at HSW is smart, but Stanford’s more focused on creativity, so you’ll have to talk about that, and the best way to talk about that is to have a little flair in your essay.  Remember creative people are a bit quirky, they think differently than the rest of us, and your essay – in both its facts and its style – should reflect that.

Finally, remember that Stanford admits very few students relative to Harvard and Wharton, so be prepared for a little randomness: you can do everything right and still miss because the numbers are just so tight.  That’s not meant to discourage you; it’s meant to prompt you to invent that innovative solution that proves you’re Stanford material!

WHARTON = RE-ENERGIZE

Donald Trump.

In some ways, Wharton’s most famous alum tells you all you need to know about Wharton.  Now, I won’t claim that Wharton’s anti-leadership, nor will I claim it’s anti-innovation, but Wharton’s not HBS, and it’s not Stanford.  Wharton’s alums tend to have their impact within pre-existing organizations, and – as Donald Trump’s example proves – their change isn’t so much about new ideas as it’s about new energy.

Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t write an essay pledging my undying devotion to Donald Trump.

What I mean is that Wharton’s about internal change.  If the prototypical HBS alum is the CEO and the prototypical Stanford grad founded the company, then the prototypical Wharton grad led the subsequent turnaround.  These are stereotypes, of course, but there’s an important grain of truth here: Wharton sees itself as producing leaders who will re-energize existing entities far more than it sees itself as products entrepreneurs or leaders per se.  If I’m writing for Wharton, therefore, I’m trying to explain how I re-invigorated something, anything.

Again, don’t get hung up on details; think themes.  When, in my life, did I bring about dramatic change in an organization?  Maybe I wasn’t the leader; maybe I wasn’t the innovator; maybe I was just the guy who blew through all the obstacles in my way.  Feel free to take another angle, but remember that Wharton wants agents of change – granted, a leader can be an agent of change, as can an entrepreneur, but the focus is more on change than leadership or innovation.  (Heck, if you’ve led an innovative change, you might have the holy grail: an essay that works for three programs! But I wouldn’t advise it – fit the essay to the program!)

Now I know some alums of these schools will disagree with my analyses; heck, the schools might disagree, but the fact is that everybody has a self-image, and those self-images vary a bit.  You need to fit your story to those self-images, which aren’t hard to deduce: just look at each school’s website.

If you’re choosing between HSW, then you’ve got the world’s best problem, but I want you to have that choice, and, for that, you’ll need a strategy.  With Test Prep Unlimited’s guidance, you’ll develop the strategy that’s best for you.

Even if that strategy doesn’t include HSW.  It’s important, but often overlooked that the world’s best business school might not be the world’s best business school for you.  If, for example, someone asked me to compare the University of Chicago or NYU to the Business Trinity (HSW), I’d reply that I can’t because which is “better” depends.  

For lots of applicants, some other top business school is a better choice, both for their chances and their long-term success.  Again, get help, get advice, get Test Prep Unlimited. When you rank your schools, your ranking shouldn’t look like U.S. News and World Report’s ranking.  UVA, Northwestern and their peers may serve your needs far, far better, so don’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by allowing a program’s “rank” to determine your ranking.

Remember you’re not just writing the story of your past; you’re writing your future story, and that takes time, patience, and a little help.

(This article was written by Chris, who has a Harvard MBA and a Yale JD and assists us with MBA Admissions Consulting.)

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