Monday, April 04, 2016 Gabby Bill 0 Comments

Yes I'm that tiny blonde one in the back!

I'm coming up on my 6-year anniversary of graduating from Harvard Business School, which means that nearly 9 years ago at this time I had made the decision to apply, and about 8 years ago, I found out I'd been accepted. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly time passes, and yet, in spite of applying to grad school nearly a decade ago, the process remains ever-etched in my mind.

I guess when you spend 6+ months researching something, preparing for something and putting every ounce of your effort into something, it has a way of sticking with you, and that's a good thing, because even today I'm often asked: "How exactly did you do it?"

My first instinct is to shrug my shoulders and say, "I don't know! I'm just me! A normal, average person!" And then the memories float back: memories of studying endlessly for the GMAT, of prepping for my interview, of crafting "packets" for my recommenders. These memories remind me that even if I am just a normal, average person, this normal, average person worked really damn hard to get into Harvard. 

Caveat: I'll be the first to tell you that advice is dangerous. Although I'm excited to share my story, I don't make any claims that my efforts represent the "right" or "only" way to get into HBS. In fact, I'd say trying to be me, rather than pursuing a path that you create, might actually do more harm than good. So take this with a grain of salt, rather than as a bible you're intended to follow.

Now that we're on the same page, I present to thee, in no particular order, 7 things I think played a role in me gaining admission to HBS:

When I first decided to look into MBA programs, I cast a wide net and researched lots of schools in lots of cities. But when I saw that they all cost $100K+ for a two-year, full-time program, I decided if I was going to spend that much money, I was going to go to the best school possible. Of course, this left a ton of options, and I remember researching lots of the schools on the typical "top" lists -- among them Wharton, Stanford, Tuck (Dartmouth), Kellogg (Northwestern), Stern (NYU), and yes, Harvard. In my research, it became clear to me that each program had a "brand," just like any product, and just as some consumers prefer Charmin to Scott toilet paper, it was important for me to think about which school aligned with my goals and needs. I decided to apply to Harvard not only because it was "Harvard," but also because the program's focus was on preparing people for general management careers. There were no specializations, the first-year curriculum was well-rounded, and for a journalism major, this meant I could leave with a strong foundation of cross-sectional knowledge. Becoming intimately familiar with the HBS coursework and really seeing myself at the school gave me interesting, compelling content to write in my essays, and gave me a convincing, confident stance to present in my interview.

This point is controversial and may not be what an admissions consultant would recommend, but I only applied to Harvard and NYU. I did this purposefully, not only because application fees were ridiculously expensive (like $250+), but also because they were the only two programs that really appealed to me. Harvard was my goal school, and NYU was a choice I'd feel comfortable with if I didn't get in, but if neither school accepted me, I decided I'd find a less expensive, less time consuming path to making my career dreams come true. To me the MBA wasn't so important that I was willing to go to a program that was a poor fit. The additional benefit here was that I only had to complete two applications, and given the many steps involved in each (essays, interviews, letters of recommendation, etc.), it allowed me to focus on making these two applications stellar. I never felt spread too thin; never stressed out about juggling multiple deadlines. My concentrated efforts took a tiny bit of complication out of an already hectic time.

I've never been a math girl. I can do it, but it takes a lot of effort versus coming easily. So when I set my sights on HBS and knew I'd need a minimum 700 GMAT score to be a viable candidate, it became clear I'd need help. I bought a few GMAT prep books (with practice tests and worksheets), but quickly realized having an actual human to teach me and be a sounding board would be a better approach. I (painfully) forked over about $1,000 for a Princeton Review GMAT prep class, and it was one of the best decisions I made in my application process. The details are a bit fuzzy now, but I think I went to class for a few hours a week for around 8 weeks. The practice exam that I took before the course netted me a score of 590, so I had a lot to improve upon. And I'm not kidding you with how much I studied. I did so many practice questions that my brain hurt, and I was dreaming about sentence completion and data sufficiency. But when I took the exam and saw my score (720), I knew that every ounce of effort had been worth it. (Literally guys, I started crying so hard in the testing center that the administrator had to come over and ask me if they were tears of happiness or sadness).

Although I was really happy to have gotten my desired score on the GMAT, my studying didn't stop there. When I found out I was asked to come in for an interview (a key step for many applicants), I took to the internet to research other candidates' experiences. The online reviews were all over the place -- some people said the questions were killer; others said it was a piece of cake. Many chalked it up to whether or not you received a "kind" admissions officer. A few sites posted questions that students were specifically asked; others had lists of questions they thought you might get asked, but couldn't be sure. I didn't take any chances. I gathered every question I could find and made a massive list in a Word doc, then typed out my answers to every single question. I dug through my brain to find stories that applied to basically anything they could ask: mistakes I'd made, opportunities in which I'd led others, times I'd exhibited my core strengths. And like an actor rehearses for a play, I rehearsed my answers. My friend Lauren can even attest to the fact that I had her "quiz" me, not only to see how good my "story recall" was, but to ensure that when I did answer the question I didn't sound like a robot reading from a script. When I eventually did sit down for my interview, there wasn't a single question I was asked that I wasn't prepared to answer, so I was able to project the image of someone poised, confident and well-rounded.

For most aspects of your application, you're completely in control. You can choose how much to study for the GMAT, what the content is in your essays, how much you prepare for your interviews. But with letters of recommendation, you're literally putting your fate into the hands of someone else, and most of the time you'll never get to see what that person writes. So not only did I think really strategically about whom to ask for letters of recommendation, I also did everything in my power to influence their content. I put together an "MBA Game Plan" that I handed them -- in it, I included a list of the top 5 projects I had worked, calling out the key strengths and skills I had exhibited in each. I put in a sheet defining my personal brand and the qualities I was most trying to showcase. I included my resume, information on why I was pursuing an MBA and easy instructions/deadlines for completing their assignments. When I handed these packets to my recommenders they were surprised and entirely grateful. Rather than them having to sit and think about things to say about me, I had done much of the work for them. Of course, I told them they were free to choose other examples that I hadn't mentioned, but my work got their juices flowing.

Remember that MBA Game Plan from the last bullet? Well, I created that document not only to help my recommenders, but also to help me. In figuring out what my personal brand was and how I wanted to represent myself in my application, I was able to look over each piece of my submission materials and ensure they laddered back to that story. This came into play in a big way when I was writing my essays. At the time, we had to submit 5 essays with a strict word count -- I don't think any was allowed to be longer than 600 words. That doesn't leave you with space for flowery language, so every word choice must be intentional. I used each essay to highlight one of the points I wanted to get across -- that I was a leader, that I was persistent and resourceful, that I was goal oriented, etc. And then I shared my essays with close family and friends, got their feedback and re-wrote the story if the message wasn't clear. 

I'd be remiss if I wrote this without admitting there were a few things playing in my favor that weren't a direct result of my MBA application efforts. Not saying these things to brag, but rather to give you a complete picture of my application: I did graduate valedictorian of my undergraduate program with a 4.0 GPA. I had a pretty solid resume with a big brand name like Disney on it. I was also coming from a non-traditional background with communications experience, which some may argue could have hurt me, but when you're a "celebrity" publicist competing against throngs of consultants and investment bankers, the pure fact that you're a little bit different can give you the edge, especially when the school is looking to fill their class with a diverse student population. Do I think these things would have warranted me admission without the previous six bullets? Probably not. But I'm sure they helped.

I've said it once, and I'll say it again. The two years that I spent at Harvard Business School were two of the best of my life, and I wouldn't trade them. And to those who think they'd never have a shot of getting in, I hope this testament shows that you don't have to come from an Ivy League pedigree, have insanely wealthy parents or "connections" in the right places. Sometimes pursuing things with intention and truly giving it your all pays off.

Are there other questions or topics you'd like me to address regarding my HBS experience? Let me know in the comments section below and I'll add them to the roster of future posts!

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Gabrielle "Gabby" Bill is a career coach and consultant who believes everyone should be working in a job that leaves them feeling fulfilled. She coaches groups and individuals through a reflection process, uncovering often hidden motivations, values, goals and skills as they relate to their career. These reflections are then parlayed into concrete action plans to guide clients through the process of finding, creating and landing their dream jobs. You can learn more about her services by visiting

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