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Insights from the Latest Round of HBS, Stanford GSB and Wharton Admissions

One of the most frequently asked questions we hear from clients is how to gain acceptance into the fabled trinity of Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB and Wharton, colloquially referred to as HSW. While all candidates are unique and there’s no magic formula guaranteeing admission, there are certainly consistent themes across the profiles of successful candidates.

Recently, I solicited stories from my Fortuna Admissions colleagues about clients who were admitted to at least one of the HSW schools for the incoming class. Analyzing these successful candidate profiles illuminated some salient patterns, affirming our team’s most emphatic guidance for business school hopefuls who set their sights set on the world’s most competitive MBA programs.


In my latest article for Poets&Quants, I offered five key factors for successful applications, as demonstrated by admitted HSW candidates for the 2021 MBA class, including:

  1. Willingness to get truly personal: The most impressive candidates took the risk to be heartfelt with an intimate story that typified their underlying motivations for pursuing the MBA. Often, the most memorable candidates take a risk in explaining their driving motivations for business school through an impactful narrative that reveals their vulnerabilities. My favorite example – an essay which gave me chills – is from a third-time applicant with an overrepresented background. Unlike in prior application cycles, the candidate shared a profoundly personal story about her formative family dynamics, conveying a gravitas to the meaningful change she was driving in her company and community.


“When you take the risk to be vulnerable, it inspires a human connection, and it’s so much more appealing to read,” says Fortuna’s Karla Cohen, former Associate Director at HBS in her article, What Harvard Business School Really Wants. “The more personal you can be in terms of why you do what you do, the more interesting and memorable you’ll be. Because so few people are. Honesty is too easily pushed aside in a bid to impress, and very few are vulnerable in the process of storytelling. But there is something so powerful about the truth when you read it – it hits you.”


  1. Importance of Recommendation Letters: Dynamic recommendations continue to serve as a defining factor in the MBA application process. The most effective letters advocate for applicants by specifically illustrating their professional and personal contributions, offering enthusiastic insights into their candidacy. Though not always realistically possible, most top programs ideally want to see at least one letter of recommendation from a direct supervisor.


One young woman with a private equity and investment banking background created a narrative around her desire to increase gender representation in financial services. She secured an impressive letter of recommendation letter from her manager, who offered tangible and convincing examples of her leadership in women’s networking organizations, as well as her drive to shift the gender balance. It illuminated how she was perceived by colleagues and further reinforced  her fit with the program.


“The people you select to be your outspoken champions – and the enthusiasm, thoroughness and strength of their recommendations – are an essential element of your overall narrative,” says Fortuna’s Jessica Chung in her article, Secure The Best Letters Of Recommendation. “Make sure that your recommender is someone who will take the time to write a supportive and thorough letter, detailing examples that speak to your leadership, teamwork and presentation skills.”


  1. Habit of engagement. Admissions committees are looking for candidates with a practice of getting involved and applying their ability to lead outside of the office. Notable extracurricular participation is an influential differentiator, particularly in saturated industries such as consulting, finance, or tech. One applicant founded a talent management company in a major city as a side venture to a taxing career in consulting. Her engagement narrative extended back to college, where she mentored underrepresented minorities pursuing creative endeavors, creating the foundation for an indelible essay. If it’s part of your story, mentorship is a particularly compelling activity to highlight in your application.


“What you do in your free time (what little you might have of it) is as interesting and important to the admissions committee as what you do at work, because it sends a signal about the kind of student and alum you’ll be,” says Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis, former alumni interviewer at Stanford GSB in her two-part series on Positioning Extracurriculars On Your MBA Application.


For all five tips to help you maximize your chances of admission at HSW, read the full article in Poets&Quants.


Fortuna Admissions Co-Founder Judith Silverman Hodara is the former head of admissions at Wharton.

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