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How to Apply to Harvard Business School’s Round 1 During COVID-19

How to Apply to Harvard Business School’s Round 1 During COVID-19 main image

It’s MBA application season, but this year, the whole process is a world away from the norm.

COVID-19 has changed the way we live, work, and educate ourselves. It’d be easy to spin off kilter and not be motivated, but there is no better time to start preparing for the next big step in your career than when you’re stuck at home in lockdown.

Fortuna Admissions recently held a live strategy session with senior admissions coaches from Harvard Business School, the Wharton School, and Stanford Graduate School of Business to discuss the ins and outs of applying to these selective business schools during Round 1 of the application process.

And although it would be an amazing year to apply to Wharton, Harvard or Stanford without the GMAT (as it likely won’t be on the cards ever again), there’s so much more to the process.

Paul Stramaglia, HBS MBA & HBS research assistant offers his insight.

Mission statement

‘We educate leaders who make a difference in the world’ is the mission HBS strives for.

Educating leaders who want to make a difference is incredibly important at HBS. To reiterate this, the values and missions are posted in every classroom, and are realized in the entire HBS experience.

Paul said: “It’s incredible to see how such a short and sweet mission statement can have such an impact on the campus.

“In those two years I grew and developed more than I could have ever imagined. It was by far, one of, if not the best experience I’ve ever gone through, and it really does stem from the unification around the mission statement.”

COVID-19 attitude

We’re living in unprecedented times, but should we allow the current state of affairs to put the brakes on our future? 

The strategy session talked about attitudes to COVID-19 and whether you should still apply, but everyone has had a unique experience during the pandemic. Would the admissions office in Boston be looking for examples of leadership during the pandemic?

Paul said: “I think it can be very pivotal for applicants as they go forward for future rounds and years.

“You have an opportunity now where everyone has rallied around a common goal, a common mission. It’s a great opportunity to show that habit of leadership, which HBS definitely takes seriously.

“From a leadership opportunity, now is the time to stand up and there’s no better opportunity to raise your hand and say, ‘How can I help? How can I be a leader in the community?’ and that’s what HBS wants.”

The importance of the GMAT and academic journey

Some people are going to be more gifted than you academically, that’s a given. But it’s how you demonstrate your strengths and uniqueness that sets you apart from the crowd. 

Paul admits his class was diverse and gifted. However, not everyone had a 3.9 GPA or a 790 GMAT, and understanding diverse perspectives is important.

Paul said: “Let’s focus on what we do have, why are you unique? How can we show the admissions committee you are dedicated to this process, and you are committed to the self-awareness and self-reflection?

“It leads to this holistic approach. You need to bring your true voice, your uniqueness, what do you have to offer among that applicant pool? It’s really important how you tell that story.

“Yes, the numbers are important, they matter. But it’s not something we can’t get over. The application process is not fun, but it is beyond worth it.”


Reverting back to HBS’s mission statement, the resume is a great opportunity to show growth and development. Allow your resume to show that even if you’ve remained in the same job title, you’ve taken on much more responsibility – exhibit your leadership skills.

Paul said: “Leadership encompasses so many different skills. Communication, articulation, how you present information, things you find valuable.

“Just from one page you can glean so much about a person. What they truly care about, their habits, the schools they went to, it tells this life story.”

What’s your resume going to look like 10/15 years from now? Do you have the leadership ability, are you going to educate future leaders in the world? That’s what HBS is looking for.

Paul said: “The resume is simply one element of a whole story. The resume, essays, different test scores…they’re all different pieces of who you are as a person.”

Showing who you are

Extracurricular community engagement is something all three business schools want. This is an area that allows you to show your sense of committed community involvement.

Paul said: “[The business schools] know if something is important to you, you will make time for it. I think what most programs will be looking for is commitment over a period of time that's meaningful. Determined choices we made, how we spend our time, and what it meant.”

Letters of recommendation

Think substance over the corner office Senior job title. You need your letter(s) to be from someone who has worked closely with you and can vouch for you as an individual.

Paul said: “A lot of clients say, ‘I can get a letter of recommendation from the CEO’. And I say, ‘Well, how much have you actually worked with the CEO? How much do they know you?’

“Admissions know if this was just a reach. Substance is the key word. You want someone who can speak to who you are as a person, your career trajectory, what you've learned, how you've grown; they’ll shed more light on you for the admissions committee.”

The essays

The essay is an invitation to get personal, and let admissions know what else you’d like them to know about you.

Paul said: “This should be something completely different. It's all about self-reflection, self-awareness and understanding. Show who you are as a person, how you've grown, the things that are important to you and what makes you unique.”

In short, they’re looking for the voice you will bring to the classroom.


If you reach the interview stage, the odds have moved dramatically in your favor – taking into account the thousands of applicants vying for a spot.

The HBS interview is high stakes and lasts just 30 minutes, so, what would HBS alum Paul advise?

He said: “Preparation is key. Just be yourself and bring it to the table.

“I think one thing the admissions team screens out is if there is disconnect from who's sitting in front of me from the application.”

But most importantly, the admissions team will look for humility – for the people who genuinely care about others; those who want to make a difference in the world.

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Written by Niamh Ollerton
Niamh is Deputy Head of Content at QS (TopMBA.com; topuniversities.com), creating and editing content for an international student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of students, alumni, faculty, entrepreneurs and organizations from across the globe.  

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