The first question I am usually asked is, “What did I do wrong?” after an MBA applicant is rejected.
Don’t assume you did anything wrong – it could be you applied from an overcrowded sector and/or demographic. Check your assumptions and solicit feedback but be careful not to fall prey to hindsight bias. Just because you’ve been rejected doesn’t mean Harvard Business School isn’t interested.
Many MBA candidates go through more than one admissions cycle before earning admission to their dream school (and roughly 1 in 10 HBS students had to apply more than once before gaining admission). Going through the process once is almost a rite of passage and it can give you a much better idea of what HBS really wants and how to deliver a stronger application the second (or third) time around.
As a former member of the MBA Interview Board at HBS and Associate Director of Doctoral Programs, I’ve seen many a promising candidate allow rejection to turn them into a vastly stronger candidate. Additionally, I’ve supported rejected applicants in positioning a successful reapplication as a Fortuna Admissions coach. Here’s what you need to know about reapplying to HBS, and the key elements to consider for maximizing your chances.
5 Essential Tips for Reapplying to Harvard Business School
1. Craft your reapplication to stand on its own.
Don’t assume HBS will read your past application. They absolutely can and in some cases they will, but in general, the approach is to view each application on its own merits, and it should be able to stand alone. This does NOT mean you should recycle the exact same content unless its unavoidable (certain elements, especially related to employment, should not change – or that would be another issue). So, while it is true that previous application(s) are always made available to the designated reader, it’s up to that individual to decide how much time to invest in reviewing past work.
Make sure to convey what you’ve accomplished since prior applications and focus on how you’ve grown and evolved. You are allowed to change your goals and ambitions (you are human, and we change our minds, especially at this stage in our lives). Just know that past records won’t be scrutinized as much as you might expect them to be. Readers are strapped for time, and pre-interview, far less time than you might imagine is allocated to reviewing applications than most applicants assume.
2. Seek outside feedback.
Part of checking your assumptions is getting different perspectives on what could be better. Many “released” applicants will jump to conclusions about GMAT or GRE scores being the issue and focus efforts on retaking that vs. considering the broader picture. It might have nothing to do with your score, if it’s in the range of what other admits have. Outside perspectives can help you understand if what you wrote or communicated was found lacking, as opposed to the more quant-driven factors in admission.
So get a second (and potentially third) opinion. Maybe you made it all the way through your interview stage but delivered a performance that failed to connect or was inconsistent with what you stated in your application. In the past, HBS would offer feedback, so you should always ask, though this may no longer be part of their process. Thus, feedback from a discerning friend, or an admissions coach with former experience as an MBA gatekeeper, can give you confidence in understanding what went wrong and what the opportunity is for the future. Get grounded in an understanding of where you can improve and look at every area of the application for growth areas to determine how to best enhance your story and chances.
3. It’s okay to redefine your goals.
If you suspect your career goals were the weak link in your previous application, take the time to get introspective as well as do the research to gain clarity and focus. Maybe your goals were too vague or were unrealistic (an engineer hoping to pivot to private equity, for example). HBS wants to see a blend of realism as well as ambition when considering goals. This means positioning your short- and long-term career goals to be coherent, credible, and powerful.
Use LinkedIn to research different individuals who may have followed your proposed trajectory and see if you can identify models of success with the goals that you’re developing. This can give you a stronger sense of whether your goals make sense or if your pathway is viable. Sure, you can be a pioneer, but understand how you’ll be perceived and be prepared to make a compelling case. If you are to be pioneering, you need to demonstrate that this isn’t the first time you have mapped out success in uncharted territory.
4. Revisit and reassess your recommenders.
Should your recommenders be the same, or different people? Should their letters be a light revision and update, or something more substantive? The answer is, it depends. Some applicants have a sense of what their recommenders wrote, others have zero access to the content produced on their behalf. And if the latter is the case for you, ask yourself, is this absolutely the ideal person to write about my case? If you’ve changed jobs, that’s a signal to consider someone different who’s a direct supervisor (though sometimes a move is too recent, so a switch isn’t always appropriate). If you’re returning to a previous recommender, supply them with new developments to share that reinforce your fit and potential. Ensure they have sufficient detail to write this refreshed letter with specificity, depth, and enthusiasm.
Many of my reapplicants found success the second time around by being more strategic with letters of support and finding advocates for them with clear evidence of stand-out success along with real, authentic enthusiasm for the applicant’s overall potential. Remember, Harvard doesn’t want people who have just done well, they want the superstars. Are your recommenders able to advocate for you and call out how you distinguish yourself? If not, the application, no matter how strong, will likely face a dead end. (For a deeper dive, view my related article on MBA Letters of Recommendation Strategy for HBS.)
5. Take your essay to the next level by going deeper and more personal.
I’ve written previously on What HBS Really Wants, and it bears repeating in this context: Once you’ve reached a certain level of exceptionalism in terms of being brilliant, dedicated, and driven, it’s about your story. And great stories inspire an emotional connection with the reader. For the HBS essay, know that it’s your willingness to get truly personal and honest that can often make the difference. Think deeply about what you can share that the committee would not already know about you from the other materials and how you can expand their view of your candidacy by opening up and sharing more on why it is you are motivated, driven, and successful. No one wants to read an essay that is a laundry list of successes. It is far more interesting to show an ability to adapt and overcome challenges than to just breeze down easy street. To echo my Fortuna colleague, Sharon Joyce, in Writing a Powerful MBA Essay, “This is a medium to be courageous.”
A terrific example is this third time reapplicant to HBS, whose astonishing essay gave my Fortuna colleague, Judith Silverman Hodara, goosebumps. Says Judith: “Unlike in previous years, this individual revealed an achingly personal account of the family dynamics that shaped her, which conveyed a level of depth to the positive impact she was advancing in her community and company.” This applicant’s willingness to share an intimate story that typified her underlying motivations for pursuing the MBA revealed a level of depth and clarity of purpose that hadn’t come across in past applications.
Finally, don’t consider your status as an HBS reapplicant a disadvantage. Instead, think of it as further evidence of your determination, tenacity, and commitment to HBS, yourself, and the process of becoming a wiser and more self-aware human being. Most people give up after the first no. Almost everyone after the second. You can SHOW HBS you are committed and able to deal with rejection by coming back stronger, more focused, and more driven than ever. Approaching your reapplication from this perspective will allow your sincerity, courage, and confidence to make it shine.
Want more advice on applying to Harvard Business School?
View these essential articles on HBS by Karla and other members of the Fortuna Admissions team:
6. HBS video strategy sessions on our YouTube channel (8 videos)
Fortuna Admissions Expert Coach Karla Cohen was Associate Director of Doctoral Programs at HBS and served on the MBA interview board for the Harvard MBA program. Fortuna Admissions is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 16 of the top 18 business schools. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at HBS and other top MBA programs, sign up for a free consultation.