Here is what an HBS MBA told me about what it takes to make it to Harvard

Lets admit it. If you are an aspiring MBA candidate, getting into Harvard Business School  (AKA HBS) is like a dream come true. Getting into HBS means the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the best minds out there, people that have been uber successful in whatever it is that they did before they all chose to get an MBA. A Harvard MBA is a brand that is bigger than pretty much everything else out there, and that brand alone can propel your career to great heights. The cherry on the cake however, is that you yourself are probably super smart and deserved to crack HBS’s often single digit acceptance rates. Bottomline is people don’t get to HBS by fluke.

Image courtesy HBS

Every week, I receive a lot of requests from followers of this blog to profile recent MBA alums from the top US Business Schools.  A lot of applicants  (especially from India) want to know the mantra to crack Harvard Business School in particular. Now  I did not go to Harvard, but I do have the privilege of knowing and working with several Harvard MBAs on a day to day basis. This post profiles my friend and colleague, Ravi C Kyasaram- HBS Class of 2015. Ravi was kind and gracious enough to find time and share his insights on some of the most commonly asked questions about cracking the Harvard MBA.  To preserve the structure of Ravi’s insights and thoughts I am publishing his responses to my questions as is.

Thanks for doing this Ravi, why don’t we start with you first?  Tell us a little about yourself.

RCK: Abhishek, thank you very much for this wonderful opportunity to interact with all the followers of your blog. I am glad I get to pen down my thoughts on the very day, four years back, that I had got an admit from Harvard.

I was born in Hyderabad, India. I was raised in different parts of India, primarily because of my parents’ transferable jobs with a public-sector bank. We started off in a couple of tier three towns of the now Telangana and then later moved to bigger cities like Delhi and Hyderabad where I finished my secondary and senior secondary education respectively.

After my schooling, I joined Punjab Engineering College (PEC) in Chandigarh to pursue my Production Engineering. I graduated from PEC in 2007.

What experiences led you to pursue an MBA?

RCK: I worked with the Tata Group for six years before I moved onto pursue my MBA. As an Industrial Engineer, I was very keen on applying my engineering learnings to industrial challenges. I had a flavor of the manufacturing industry through my 6-month industrial training at Eicher Motors in Pithampur, Madhya Pradesh. After graduation, I was very keen on continuing in the same sector and was fortunate to secure a job at the country’s largest automobile manufacturer, Tata Motors, it was a dream come true. I joined Tata Motors Lucknow Works, a manufacturing plant with focus on producing buses and trucks. I was a part of the Central Quality team at the Lucknow plant with an interesting customer facing element to the job. So, the role ensured that I got a good exposure to factory physics and at the same time enabled me an opportunity to work directly with our key account customers. I loved the job and worked on the manufacturing shop floor for a good 2.5 years after which I moved to the sales organization of Tata Motors to be responsible for sales of a coveted truck platform called Prima. I was responsible to sell Prima range of trucks in two states of India, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Alongside transitioning into sales, I also had the opportunity to participate in two leadership development programs of the $100B+ Tata Group – FTSS (Fast Track Selection Scheme of Tata Motors) and TAS (Formerly Tata Administrative Service, of the Tata Group). If successful, the opportunities allow the employees to leap frog the traditional hierarchies by 3-4 levels, which in other words means that you are ahead of your cohort by 9-12 years. Besides the exciting promotion, both these programs provide the selected candidate a rewarding exposure to business challenges that too in conjuncture with the rare opportunity to work with the best talent. I was fortunate to clear both the processes, FTSS and TAS in my first attempt and decided to move on to the Tata Group from Tata Motors.

My broader Tata Group experience was priceless, I had the opportunity to work with top managers in different Tata Companies in areas as diverse as Branding, Marketing, Strategy, New Business Development and Impact Assessment for a non-profit. After the first year of the TAS program I joined a small nascent Defense Electronics Company of the Tata Group which was just about to execute its first project.

Overall, I worked for 6 years with the Tata Group across 5 different industries and 6 functions.

When did you plan to apply to Harvard Business school? What other schools did you apply to? Did you apply to a “safety school”?

RCK: The thought of applying to Harvard Business School started on somewhat of a silly note. It was an engineering college dorm room conversation in the year 2006 which prompted the thought of pursuing an MBA at Harvard. Since then I have had the thought, “how wonderful would it be to go to Harvard”. I refer to it as silly because the thought was more of an emotional fantasy than anything else. In the years following this preliminary thought, I had realized my leadership potential and my fondness for business management which eventually led me to apply to Business School.

After I cleared FTSS and TAS, I thought the dream of studying at Harvard, perhaps could be a reality. TAS gave me the essential background to build a resume which showcased professional success and diverse learning which is non-negotiable when applying to a top business school. At the end of the first year at TAS, I was keen on pursuing a role which allowed me to apply my cross-functional learning and portray my leadership potential. Though the Defense electronics company that I worked for was very small (Compared to the $39B Tata Motors), it gave me the leadership platform to apply my broad skill set to create significant impact.

At the end of the first year, after running the operations for the defense electronics company as its Project Manager, I decided to apply to Harvard. It was 5 years since I had graduated from Punjab Engineering College and I would have a total of 6 years of experience before beginning my MBA. As an Indian student one might have to work longer to forge together the credentials to contend for a seat at the world’s top business schools.

I only applied to Harvard, it was for the first round of applications in 2012. In complete disclosure, if I did not get an admit to HBS, I did plan to apply to other schools, but had made no specific efforts for the same.

Did cost play a factor in where you applied? Did you apply for financial aid or scholarships?

RCK: Cost was never a factor, not that I had the financial wherewithal to pursue a $200K MBA, but I had a fair amount of clarity that going to a great institution is a once in a lifetime opportunity. To my mind, the education expense is only a short-term issue, which (hopefully J) pays in bountiful in the long term.

I did apply for the financial aid, and was fortunate to get the need based fellowship that Harvard is very generous with. I took a student loan, a seamless process, from Harvard Union Employee Credit Union. All that I needed was an admit to Harvard, and the Credit Union loan process was silk smooth. The interest rates were relatively high at 6.75% compared to what the local students pay, about 3.50%, but it was still an easy decision given the 13% rate of interest in India which also calls for countless collaterals to secure a loan as big as the one you would require for an MBA in the US.

Any insights you’d like to share on cracking a top business school? Any pointers for aspiring applicants?

RCK: I spent a good part of my early adult life thinking about applying to a business school. I have many pointers, which might call for separate blogs at a later stage, but here is a condensed view of what is important to secure an admit to a top-notch business school. I have categorized this into what “your resume should reflect” and “what you are expected to be”.

Your resume should reflect excellence in at least two of the following three – academics, work experience and extracurricular activities. While two of the above should reflect excellence, the third one can be nothing less than a good. Please allow me to elaborate on these three attributes further:-

Academics – it is important to go to a school which has at least some visibility at the global level. In my case, I owe it to the three other peers of mine from Punjab Engineering College, who either graduated or were graduating from HBS when I had applied. They were all my seniors at PEC, just by a year or two but had applied to HBS much before I did. It is not good enough to go to a good school, it is equally or in fact more important to score good grades.

Work Experience – as with academics, the Brand that you represent makes a difference. It is only logical that an MBA Admissions officer would know of a global company vis-à-vis a startup or a small local company. If ever at cross roads to choose a job prior to an MBA (and have plans to apply to a Business School), I would say go for a company that is well known. In my case the brand Tata was extremely helpful. While the brand is a crucial aspect, what trumps everything else is your success with your employer. Have you stood out from your cohort? Have you had an impact? Did you explore your leadership potential? Did you network with people? Do you know how your organization works? Will you be able to lead an organization? How good is your industrial knowledge? It is extremely important to portray most of these skills to give sufficient confidence to the admissions office that you are a top performer and will continue to be so post MBA as well. If you are young MBA aspirant, I would encourage you to look for opportunities / projects that would add to your story of why MBA? why you? Make sure you do exceeding well and network with the managers and top management, as you narrate your success, they will too, to augment your experiences with their recommendations. I had worked closely with all the three of my recommenders, and they validated my projects and performance in their recommendations to my application to HBS.

Extracurricular Activities ­– this part is not as straight forward as the other two, but there lies the opportunity too. In the western world, people respect you for who you are, rather what badges you carry. Academics or employment is one thing, but who are you? What are you interests? What inspires you? My classmates at Harvard had diverse yet distinguished accomplishments, if one was an Olympic skier, the other was a drummer for a well-known band. While there is no clear recipe to this aspect of your background, it must be something relevant, something that evidences the fact that you are not one amongst the crowd, but one above it. In my case, I clinged on to my leadership experiences in undergrad where I ran multiple events for the college, had leadership responsibilities which won me the prestigious college colors.

What you are expected to be is the tougher part of the application process, because it is not something that you can build overnight. This aspect of your personality reflects in your resume, in your essays, in your interviews and most importantly during and after your MBA. Most of the business schools aspire to groom leaders, and Harvard is no different. As a leader, you are expected to have the limitless attributes of leadership. To name a few, you are expected to be analytical, logical, knowledgeable, disciplined, intellectually curious, you are expected to excel with people, you are expected to be a tremendous performer, you are expected to have a well-rounded personality and hence it is easier to leave it at the fact that you are expected to be a good leader. Today’s top MBA programs are synonymous with leadership development; hence an important question to ask yourself – are you inspired at the thought of leadership? Are you happy leading? There are many kinds of leaders, you can choose which kind you’d like to be, but as long as you are comfortable leading.

So now that you are a Harvard MBA,  How have things changed, if at all? 

RCK: I came to the MBA program with a general management background. My love for people, processes, products and leadership has propelled me to stay on in the general management space. After my MBA, I joined the Corporate Planning team of Emerson Electric, a global industrials company, based out of Saint Louis, USA. I moved to the US after living for 27 years of my life in India, where I lived with Indians and worked for one of the finest Indian companies. Given this backdrop, MBA has had a profound impact on me. Without going into much details, I would say that I am now well positioned to understand global challenges, relate to diverse cultures and am excited to unravel the impact of macroeconomics on businesses (as an engineer, you learn the most from your macroeconomics and finance classes in the business school). 

In the end, I thank Abhishek once again for the wonderful opportunity to share my background and thoughts on my journey to HBS. Each of the questions merit much deeper and specific answers, and would love to help anyone with any specific questions. Thank you!

Hopefully Ravi’s insights will have provided some clarity into what it takes to crack the top business school in the world! Thanks for reading and if you have questions, or comments please share them below or reach out to me on twitter!


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