Hey guys, thanks for the compliments
The application was one hell of a ride.
I started with research. After a lot of reading, I decided to apply to HBS, MIT and Stanford. When you make reading about top schools a habit (their programs, cultures and unique features), you begin to get "gut" feelings about certain schools and not others.
I especially liked what I read, saw and heard about those three schools, so I decided to apply to them and not to anywhere else. My friends thought I was crazy not to apply to Wharton, Columbia, Booth, LBS and INSEAD. But I just felt something different about HBS, Stanford and MIT. "At the end of the day, it's a very personal decision" I kept telling my friends. And I still maintain that it is. If you're not going to be subjective and opinionated about where you're going to spend two years of your life, you might was well just throw your whole life away and replace it with a non-biased feasibility study!
That being said, my ultimate preference was HBS and the very very very distant second was Stanford, and then MIT. I was just so impressed with everything I knew about HBS. The diversity, the students, the program, the facilities, and last but definitely not least, the inexplicable grandeur of the brand. I thought Stanford was great, but wasn't as moved as most people about the value of having a small class size or the entrepreneurial culture.
So I got to work. With the GMAT out of the way, the first thing I did was form a network of people around me who were either graduates of top schools, admits, or in any other way knew what it took to get in. Through asking for some favors, pushing for some introductions and in some cases running into lucky coincidences, I managed to form my "advice pool". Most of them were consultants (duh!), and I was surprised by how helpful they were. Throughout the 1-hour coffee chats I usually had with them, I found that they presented sharp, balanced and objective feedback. As a matter of fact, it was one of these people whose advice significantly contributed to my decision to retake the GMAT
But that was over 1 year ago when I wasn't even thinking about forming my advice pool...now THAT was a lucky coincidence. Go figure!
All members of my advice pool agreed that my profile was full of interesting things to say about myself. Perhaps from the way I talked about HBS, or maybe from how much they knew about the school, they all advocated my inclination to give HBS everything I've got. "You definitely give out a Harvard vibe", they kept saying. I didn't know if they were saying this just to motivate me, or if they really meant it. But I decided that not giving a shit about that for the moment would save me a lot of useless pondering. Instead, I started focusing a huge amount of effort on the 2 HBS essays. I decided to use all of the feedback and expertise gained from writing and perfecting the HBS essays to later write the Stanford and MIT essays.
With the help of my advice pool, I went through about 10 drafts for each HBS essay. The difference between each draft and the next one gets smaller as you progress. At first, our back-and-forth attachment-littered emails were about topic selection and content...and starting the 6th or 7th draft they evolved to small changes in sentence structure and vocabulary. At last, I felt satisfied about the quality of the essays. They were down to earth, action-packed, unboastful, and to-the-point.
Around that same time, my parents -who were extremely excited about the possibility of my receiving a top MBA- starting exerting...ahem...formidable amounts of pressure on me to apply to more schools to "increase the probability of getting in to a top program". I kept telling them that it wasn't about how many schools you apply to, but rather about how diligently you devote yourself to the application(s) you're writing. I argued that all of the deadlines were in the same month, and that it was far better to focus on just 2 or 3 applications and perfect them than to distract yourself with 5 or 6 applications and end up hurrying all of them. My parents, bless them, would have none of it
Eventually I got tired and agreed to apply to Columbia and INSEAD as well, just to get them off my back. Doing this was both good and bad. It was bad because I suddenly had a huge amount of essays to write, all at the same time, and all with similar deadlines. But it was also good because since I was still convinced that focusing hard on any application is what makes it great, I decided to invest about 90% of my effort on the HBS application. I was just so sure that the investment would pay off, and that I wouldn’t give a damn if I didn’t get in to any other school.
One of the members of my advice pool recommended that I run the 2 HBS essays by an admissions consultant just for a quick spice-up of sentences and a few interesting word changes here or there. I got in touch with the consultant and made it very clear that I did not want any help with the content or the ideas; I just wanted to polish the wording. After going through both essays, she got back to me with almost meaningless changes and informed me that the essays, from her experience, were in very good condition for submission.
At that point, I started scouting for recommenders, and quickly got my boss and ex-boss on board. I sat down with each one of them alone and we had quick chats on what they can mention in their recommendations. I mostly agreed with what they wanted to write, and I asked one of them to make it a point to refer to a significant achievement of mine that I had wrote about in one of my essays. For the third recommendation, I called up an older friend of mine who knows me quite well and is running a very successful business. I asked her to just write what she thought about me, and I knew that she would have good things to say -with a wealth of examples to back them up.
At last, when I had made sure that my HBS application was coherent, told a strong story, contained everything I wanted the adcom to know, and thoroughly revised, I submitted it. And then I turned to the other 4 applications. I found that writing essays was becoming a much simpler issue than before, since I kept drawing from the advice and feedback I received throughout my rollercoaster ride with the HBS essays. Perhaps because I subconsciously could not see myself anywhere but at HBS, I did not give the other applications as much focus. I even remember not feeling that anxious about their deadlines approaching.
I was done with everything by the time the deadlines came rushing, and I submitted everything (I decided to apply to INSEAD in Round 3, since all 3 of its rounds have equal probability of acceptance, unlike most US schools). I felt so relieved that I was now done with all the work, and then resigned myself to checking when HBS would get back to applicants for interviews...every single day
On the day they specified, I got the interview invitation and was absolutely over the moon! 3 days later, I got a rejection from Columbia and (frankly) could not care less. “It’s an incredibly great school, but I just don’t think it’s for me”, I kept saying. I know you’re probably thinking now that I’m so arrogant to only want HBS, but trust me it’s not about pride at all. It’s about finding your perfect fit. If you were in love with someone, and for some reason she wasn’t available, would you just go ahead and marry her twin sister? Even if she was just as smart/pretty/adorable? If things should be like that, then God help us all
After consulting with my advice pool, I decided to fly to Boston and interview on campus. In the week leading up to the flight, I scheduled and sat for 4 mock interviews with different people, some in person and some on skype. After the 4th mock interview, I felt that I was very anxious but ready. I kept reminding myself that the fear was good, because it would keep me alert and prevent me from being reckless and overconfident.
And so I flew to Boston. Needless to say, I loved every single thing about the campus and student life there. I scheduled a class visit, and during the class I actually wanted to raise my hand and say what I thought about the case being discussed…that’s how engaged I was.
The interview was extremely friendly. I had it with 2 members of the adcom, with one mostly doing the writing and the other mostly doing the talking. I was very impressed with the balance they struck between friendliness, professionalism, and time management (the interview lasts for EXACTLY 30 minutes, and they’re very precise about that). They mostly asked me about my job, my achievements, how I viewed leadership, what it took to inspire other people, and how challenging it is for a business to thrive in Egypt in the midst of everything happening. I tried my best to stick to answering what they asked in structured, meaningful and non-repetitive statements, and felt I did fine on the whole.
I wrote my post-interview reflection essay the next day, and mostly wrote about questions I would have loved to have been asked and my answers to them. One of the members of my advice pool did a quick edit of the essay and introduced minor comments. I submitted it and decided to wander around Boston for the rest of the day before heading to the airport. In the middle of a delicious steak meal I was having, I got an email from MIT saying that the decision was available on the online application…which essentially meant that I was rejected without an interview (they send you an “interview invitation” email if they want to interview you). I went back to the hotel, opened my laptop and was not at all surprised at the MIT rejection staring back at me from the computer screen. I did not feel quite as indifferent as after the Columbia decision. I was a bit disappointed, but acknowledged that there is nothing I can do about it now.
When I got back to Egypt, I decided to prepare the INSEAD application. I reasoned that if I was also rejected by Stanford and Harvard, I would not be able do an MBA this year at all. Yes, I wanted HBS, but I wouldn’t wait another year just because I got accepted somewhere else and not at HBS. The fact that I felt I was now ready to start this new chapter in my career superseded the fact that I wanted a specific MBA program and not others. In other words, the ultimate priority was that I do an MBA in a world class program. And THEN, the second priority was that I go to HBS, and I had to be very harsh with myself about that.
So I started and finished the INSEAD application, and felt I had done a very good job on it since my full attention was directed towards it.
On the 27th of March, the HBS decision notification date, I did not even attempt to concentrate at work. The decision would come at 6:00pm Egypt Time, and I kept looking at my watch every 5 minutes starting 11am
When the day finally rolled by -excruciatingly slowly, I might add- and 6pm approached, I headed to my desk at work, opened my laptop and simply stared at the computer’s clock until 5:59pm showed up. At that point, I couldn’t take it anymore. Without yet getting the email saying that the decision was now available on my online application, I opened the application fully predisposed to see the usual layout of submission verifications and other info on the front page. But then I noticed a new item, a link, at the very bottom of the page: “Your application decision is now available online”. I clicked on it, and up popped a small window with a lot of words in it. The very first sentence told me everything I needed to know, and before I knew it I was punching the air, shouting out in triumph, slapping the desk, and making a hell of a lot of noise
An hour later, I checked my unread emails and found that Stanford had also sent me an email saying that their decision was now available online. Since I hadn’t got invited to an interview, I knew what the decision was and didn’t even bother to open it. I was ecstatic, and I couldn’t believe that I got into HBS. Nothing else mattered, and nothing else would ruin it for me.
Later, as I reflected on my whole experience with the application process, I arrived to a very simple conclusion: If you give an application everything you’ve got, there is no way in hell you won’t, at the very least, get invited to an interview. But in order to do that, you have to allocate your time wisely. Don’t get tempted to apply to dozens of schools! Apply to the schools you absolutely love, and give them EVERYTHING. Give them your time, your effort, your resources, and your devotion. Look at me, for heaven’s sake: dinged at Columbia, dinged at MIT, dinged at Stanford, and accepted to Harvard...definitely not because it’s the easiest to get into, but because it’s the one to which I gave my sweat, heart and soul.
Just today, I got an interview invitation to INSEAD. I’m not sure whether I should go to the interview or not. On the one hand, it’s definitely a very cool experience to meet an alumnus and have a casual chat with them. But on the other, if I am accepted, I don’t want to be the reason that someone else who might need this acceptance more than I do didn’t get in because I took his/her place. I’m still trying to decide.
To conclude, I’d say that going through these grueling applications is one hell of an experience. It teaches you patience, networking, stamina, responsibility, tolerance, and dedication. I think that working on these applications is something that I will always remember with pride. It’s the sort of thing you look back on and say “Remember that effing time when you had to do this, this and that? Nice work. Now go make a difference in the world.”
I hope this covers your inquiries and concerns. If you have any other questions, ask away
Nabil Ahmed Nabil