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Harvard Business School had a big reputation to live up to. On the morning of my visit, as I walked in the cold, grey, drizzly streets from Harvard Square, across the river, to HBS, I expected to be impressed by the famed case method and the HBS facilities.
The saying goes that if one expects to be impressed, one rarely is. But HBS was certainly the exception to this rule. The class I sat in on was interesting, engaging, and left me itching to participate (alas, I was told to stay shut).
Although the campus had a bit of a pish-posh feel to it, contrary to the stereotype, the students were very friendly and did not have the elitist, old money aura that Harvard is known for. I managed to connect with a couple of them during my visit and I will write about that in a separate post. But, this post I dedicate to my visit to HBS – and based on this visit, HBS has certainly secured its spot in my top-3 list. I just hope someday the reverse may come true.
I was the only one who showed up for this particular class visit. I am not sure if individual visits are the norm or I just got lucky; but I did notice that there were barely any seats open to accommodate other visitors. So if you are planning a visit, plan early.
The class I attended was called (I think) Business, Government, and International Economy; but everyone referred to it as BGIE (pronounced Biggy). The professor started the class by having one of the students provide a summary of the case about education in New York during 19th Century (not entirely a business-related topic. But as the class name suggests, I think BGIE is meant to expand the horizons of MBA students). The professor then, very briefly, provided some background information on the case. The rest of the class was a guided discussion.
Looking back I think of the class as an orchestra playing music purely on the directions of the maestro. Although a bit haphazard at first, the longer I listened to the music the more it came together as the maestro expertly guided the musicians into harmony. After the initial case summary, the students brainstormed what the relevant topics of discussion were. These included social dynamics, government policies, puritan values, immigration, etc. No topic was ‘dismissed’ as irrelevant by the professor and each student was encouraged to speak. The professor also did an excellent job of extracting topics he thought were relevant but the students initially missed. The class then discussed most of the topics in further detail (e.g. the positive or negative influence of puritan values on public education and public policy).
There were also debates. On many of the topics the class opinion was split and students made arguments and counter arguments against each other – but again, instead of fighting like monkeys, it all felt structured and guided by the professor.
So, as I said before, because the professor encouraged the students to extract, discuss, and debate relevant topics in a guided format, what started as a set of random ideas coalesced into a coherent analysis of the case at hand. At the end, I felt I could look at public education in New York during 2013 and know how to go about analyzing it. This was the magic of the case method.
The only drawback I found was that there were too many students in class. Of the three schools I have visited and the four classes I have been to, this was, hands down, at least three times as big as any of my other classes. While this allows a larger spectrum of perspectives, I noticed that some of the students who wanted to participate simply did not get called on because of the number of students in class. Therefore, I have to wonder if students can ever get the personalized attention from professors they deserve.
Overall I would rate BGIE as the best class I have been to. I feel by itself the case method is now a HUGE selling point for HBS. And, to boot, the rest of my experience did not disappoint either.
The tour included around 15 other visitors and was given by a current second year student. I actually enjoyed the tour quite a bit; but I think this was a function competency of the tour guide. As far as I know, the student was in no way affiliated with the admissions office – when he walked in the admissions office thought he was another visitor. Also, the first thing he said was “Feel free to ask me anything, I will in no way be reporting any of this back to admissions”. I think this allowed the visitors to open up and get comfortable with asking lots of questions along the way.
The tour path itself was pretty standard – we saw the library, the classroom area, the health facilities, the faculty building, and the new innovation center. But what was really useful for me was the fact that mixed in with the facts and figures about the campus, the student happily supplied personal stories and experiences at HBS.
I also felt he was very honest and did not coat his answers with bullshit. For example, upon learning that I am a management consultant, he said “That’s great, but so is every other applicant to HBS. So being a management consultant can actually be a detriment because you have to try extra hard to stand out.”
If my tour guide was at all representative of a typical tour guide at HBS, I highly recommend going on the short hike – just make sure you do not go in the winter.
The information session was fairly basic. The presenter simply provided overall information about HBS MBA, the structure of the curriculum, and insight into the interview process. There are only a couple of things that stand out for me:
1. The FIELD program: This is a new “class” HBS has started that is divided into three phases and aims to provide real world experience to HBS students. Most of this information can be found on the web.
2. The Post-Interview Essay: This is something HBS started recently. They ask interviewees to write a short essay within 24 hours of the conclusion of their interview. Their main reasoning is that it allows applicants to get the last word in and perhaps shed some more light on their on their application.
I think the biggest takeaway from this way: do not prepare for it. The presenter said that last year it was easy to tell who had prepared for this essay and who had not – those who had not were perceived as more genuine and were put in a more positive light. “We had interviewees make tons of spelling and grammar mistakes on this essay,” she said, “but that was OK – we don’t expect a masterpiece in so short a time and all we are looking for is genuine reflections.”
Unfortunately, I had to leave early from the information session so I did not get the full experience. In hindsight I could have probably skipped this and not rush to catch my flight, but since I was already on campus I am glad I went.
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