An Incoming Harvard MBA Candidate Describes How To Design A Winning Application

Looking for advice on drafting a winning application to Harvard or another elite school? Look no further.

May 30th, 2018 was Decision Day — the day when I would know my fate.

Two weeks earlier, I had interviewed for Harvard Business School via its 2+2 deferred admissions program. Now, as a friend and I boarded a flight from Paris to London, I checked my phone for news of a decision.

It was 5:40 p.m. local time. Decisions were scheduled to be released at noon in Boston, which meant 6 p.m. where I was located. With no news as I boarded the plane, and with no Wi-Fi on the aircraft, I had to wait until I landed to either celebrate or be met with disappointment.

No matter the outcome, I knew that I would eventually end up at Harvard Business School. If I got the unfortunate news that I did not receive admission, I would devise a plan to reapply after a few years of work experience. HBS was my dream institution.

I was going to get in.

When my friend and I landed, we took a train to the hotel and I tried connecting to the Wi-Fi. I saw a voicemail pop up from a random phone number, but I could not open it for some strange reason. After trying to connect to the application portal for a few minutes, I saw my decision — “Dear Abdi: Congratulations and welcome!”

At this point, I felt a mixture of happiness and relief; it was surreal. I went on to read the rest of the acceptance letter and hugged my friend.

I was ecstatic to tell my family when I arrived back home. It was one of the best weeks of my life.

A screen shot of the acceptance message Abdi Sherif received from Harvard Business School in 2018.


It still feels surreal two years later as I prepare to start my journey at Harvard Business School. When I re-read my official admissions letter, I’m still struck with a combination of happiness and relief.

The happiness may seem obvious to everyone, but the relief is something only a select few will understand well. Anyone who has gone through the MBA application process knows how grueling it can be. A massive amount of time and energy goes into test preparation and essay writing.

My personal journey to HBS started early in my sophomore year at Carnegie Mellon University. After more than two years of working on my own application and helping others craft winning applications to the MBA programs of their choice, I developed a playbook for designing a successful MBA app. Here is my five-point approach, inspired by my career in product management:

  1. Treat your desired MBA program as your customer and your application as the product you are developing for your intended customer. Do you understand your MBA program’s needs? Most will have a What We Are Looking For page, where they list the attributes of their desired candidates. Have you read your MBA program’s mission? What is their goal? What is your unique value proposition and how do you differentiate from other competitive candidates? How do you plan to leverage specific resources at your MBA institution, and how do you intend to provide value to the world after graduation? These are all questions you should think about in your period of introspection before you put pen to paper.
  2. Aggregate profile data of successful applicants at your desired MBA programs. Poets&Quants is the best resource for this task, but you can conduct research on other platforms for additional insights. After gathering profile data, you should display convergent thinking and group similar profiles under personas that generalize a group of profiles. When you create persona profiles, you start to discern patterns in your data. Find the persona that seems most similar to you and reach out to those people for conversations. LinkedIn is a great tool. Most people are willing to share their advice. Moreover, these connections may turn more fruitful and you may form a relationship with a mentor or classmate before business school that can guide you on your journey if you are successful with your application.
  3. Display divergent thinking and ask yourself: “What really sets me apart from those with similar profiles?” What is your unique value proposition? What is your unique story? Once you have figured that out, it will be your main selling point in your application. You want to make sure everything in your application is centered around that idea. Consistency is key — make sure your recommenders are in sync with the theme you are trying to communicate.
  4. Prioritize your strengths and evaluate your weaknesses. Try to mitigate your weaknesses well in advance of your application and take action to show growth. For example, if you did not take many quantitative courses at your undergraduate institution, you may want to take a few quantitative classes at another institution before applying, to show that you can handle the rigor of MBA classes in such areas as finance. Also, you will need to do well on the quantitative section of the GMAT or GRE. The top MBA programs receive thousands of applications from very competitive candidates around the world, so you will want to make sure that every aspect of your application is strong. The admissions committee may turn a blind eye to one weak area if the rest of your application is stellar, but you are pushing it if more than one aspect of your application is subpar.
  5. Likeability. Coachability. Honesty. People do business with who they like. MBA programs are training future leaders of tomorrow. When it comes to the interview, are you who you say you are? These are important things to consider when applying to any MBA program. Make sure to display thoughtfulness and an executive presence in all of your communications with the admissions committee. Every interaction is an opportunity to make an impression, so effective communication is of utmost importance.

Harvard Business School. File photo


I frequently receive messages from candidates all over the world who seek guidance on crafting a winning MBA application to the institution of their dreams. I run a nonprofit, Easy Entry Group, aimed at providing educational and informational equity to minorities and marginalized communities in the hopes of increasing their access to opportunity. We work in three key areas: Undergraduate Admissions, Internship and Full-Time Job Search, and MBA Admissions.

During my conversations with these candidates, many questions arise repeatedly. Here are some frequently asked questions I receive, with my answers below:

Q: What is the minimum Graduate Management Admission Test score I need to receive admission into a top MBA program?

A: While there is no minimum GMAT score that will secure you admission into a top MBA program, a very low score may severely undermine your chances of getting accepted. Admissions committees take a holistic view of MBA applications, and the GMAT is only one data point. However, a low score may signal that you won’t be able to handle the academic rigor of an MBA program.

Based on the candidates I have worked with, most students who score between 680-750 on the GMAT receive an acceptance from one of their top-choice MBA programs. However, I have also worked with successful applicants who have scored less than 600 on the GMAT and less than 310 on the Graduate Record Exam.

Q: Should I take the GMAT or GRE?

A: I hate to give the standard consulting answer here, but it depends. About 90% of MBA programs will accept GRE scores, but you should look at the application requirements section of your target school’s website to determine whether you have a choice between the two examinations. While you should have a clear intention on why an MBA is the best investment for you in the next two years, if you are applying for multiple types of degrees — such as in a joint-degree program — it might be wise to take the GRE. You might also want to take the GRE if you struggle with the quantitative section of the GMAT, as the GRE is composed of comparatively easier quantitative questions.

Lastly, the GRE may serve better for those who find both exams extremely difficult. Students who take the GRE are able to change their answers to questions within a section, but once you submit an answer to a question on the GMAT, there is no going back. Your answer is locked. In addition, since many MBA programs have only started recently accepting the GRE in lieu of the GMAT, less data on competitive GRE scores is available.

Q: What are the standards for international students? Is it harder for an international student to receive an acceptance at a top MBA program?

A: My advice here is to focus on what you can control. You cannot control whether you are an international or domestic candidate. In addition, there are no quotas for domestic candidates at the top MBA programs. Like I mentioned before, MBA programs will share what they are looking for in prospective candidates. Look at those characteristics very diligently and be purposeful in the experiences you undertake. For example, if an MBA program is looking for consistent leadership, make sure you understand its definition of leadership and exhibit those values habitually.

Q: What are some tips for writing an effective essay?

A: You want the admissions committee to say, “We have to take this candidate!” To achieve this strong exclamation, convey the characteristics that the MBA program is looking for in their candidates, through a story that portrays a consistent theme that is unique to your passion. Stories are memorable, and the admissions committee goes through thousands of applications of high-achieving individuals every year. You need to stand out from other competitive candidates and there is no better way to do that than a story.

Q: Is it safe for international students to come to the United States to pursue their education during the coronavirus pandemic? What is the value of a virtual MBA?

A: Many MBA programs are opening campuses to students but holding virtual classes. Follow the safety guidelines set forth by your institution and the state in which your institution resides. Thanks to the present state of technology, members of your community can still connect in many ways. While nothing beats in-person communication, platforms like Zoom provide adequate alternatives. MBA programs have had the chance to experiment with a virtual format with their students in the spring, and they are bringing their experience to the classroom in the fall. In addition, many MBA programs are incorporating new initiatives to the academic and social experience.

Lastly, learning how to manage in a crisis is invaluable — and there is no better way to acquire this skill set than to engage with thought leaders who have conducted a plethora of research on the topic.


When I received admission into Harvard Business School, it was one of the greatest moments of my life. I strongly believe an MBA degree can be a catalyst for you to make a difference in the world and connect with lifelong friends who will be doing the same.

I hope my advice is helpful on your journey to gain acceptance into the MBA program of your dreams. I wish you the best of luck.

Abdi Sherif has written about his experience applying to Harvard at Medium: My Harvard Business School Acceptance Story. He invites those with questions about the application process to reach out and follow him and Easy Entry Group on both LinkedIn and Instagram (@kingsherif10, @easyentrygroup). Gaining entry into the school or role of your dreams should not be hard, it should be Easy! If you are a minority and looking to gain admission into a top MBA program, sign up for a consultation on our website. Our team is looking forward to working with you. And if you would like to support our mission, please consider donating here. We appreciate your generous contributions.

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