What can we do to earn our place at HBS?
An education at Harvard Business School is one of the most enviable distinctions in the professional world — but what exactly is the defining value of the experience? Can it be isolated to a single attribute?
We are a school after all — perhaps it is the education? HBX CORe has won plaudits for the quality of its teaching and is indeed used by a host of business schools, including our own, to bring students up to speed on business concepts. But yet graduates of that program alone are not welcomed into the full kinship of HBS students. Neither are those who benefit from a host of other exceptional business education systems, nor those who have distinguished themselves by virtue of publishing academic articles on topics relevant to business. To some extent this makes sense given that the higher one climbs up the business hierarchy, the less the specialized training of an individual contributor matters, and the more that ethereal virtue of a leader. Few at HBS aspire to be paid for what they know and instead seek to earn a living on what they can envision, create, and inspire.
Perhaps it is the social life of the school? Students at HBS spend a considerable portion of their mental bandwidth planning, participating in, and (too often) recovering from social events. But here again we are found wanting. Consider the hypothetical HBS partner who attends every section event and retreat; one integrated into the section to the point of attending every class. That partner would have experienced every academic and community aspect of HBS and yet would not achieve the full social and career benefits of his student partner.
Perhaps it is the ability to use the school as a platform to further an entrepreneurial endeavour, or to push forward a social mission that you believe in. Our cover story on one student’s mission to do this proves that however trite HBS’s motto may sometimes seem, there are many students do in fact try to make a difference in the world.
Or perhaps the tragedy of HBS is that for each of us, the defining experience of Harvard Business School already passed, and it never even required us to step foot on campus. It was the mere offer of admission. Countless employers come hunting for potential interns before first year students have made any substantial progress in the Required Curriculum. They come before the students are fully integrated into the school; sometimes before they are fully unpacked. Potential employers do this precisely because they realize that the academic and social aspects of HBS are dwarfed in value by the selection effect.
As students at Harvard Business School, this fact disturbs us. Can we really say that the chief benefits of HBS are already behind us? We wonder then what to do with our time in Boston. If our worth is dependent upon the machinations inside of Dillon House, how flawless are we prepared to argue is the admissions process? There may “not be any admissions mistakes,” but surely admissions can sometimes be mistaken. How different are we truly in qualifications and aspirations than our peers who were denied admission? Harvard Business School could probably fill ten more sections with equally qualified students. If all that is true, how much can we attribute our spot in section to privilege and admissions luck? In most cases, quite a lot.
The fact is that none of us truly “deserve” to be here. There really is no level of accomplishment high enough to rightly earn your way into HBS.
But rather than wallow in Impostor Syndrome, we propose facing this truth with a different course of action. Spend your time at HBS earning your spot here. Make yourself worthy of the privileges you have been given.
There are a number of ways to accomplish this. First, you can take leadership in the clubs which are the glue that binds together the student body and provides the scaffolding linking classes with one another. In the best of cases, your leadership in these clubs can pull double duty of advancing your professional interests. But even if it doesn’t, you will be providing a valuable service to the school, and a body of work that shows how right they were to admit you.
Second, you can use the perch you have been given as HBS to advance a worthy cause you care about. Like the American Presidency (in a bygone era), the key power of HBS for global advancement is its convening authority. Bring together a conference of those passionate about a world challenge, and those with the resources to ameliorate it. Lead a trek to show the future leaders of the world, not another discotheque in an exotic locale, but something urgent worth championing.
Lastly, use your time rubbing elbows with future business leaders, perhaps in their last formative years, to educate them on something important from your own background. Use the case conversation not to repeat case facts or dodge cold calls, but as opportunity to say something that all of us need to hear.
Having these powers to change — to improve — HBS is the defining part of the experience.