What you need to know about Harvard Business School

MBA admissions strategy
By Rahima

HBS has a great reputation as being one of the top business schools in the world, and people are often keen to apply just for its reputation alone. However, it can be helpful to really understand what you’re signing up for when you start at HBS. Academics are such a critical component of the learning and growth you undertake during your MBA, and different schools take vastly different approaches to curriculum. This post will outline the major components of the academic experience at HBS, so you can determine if the academic environment is a fit for you or not. 

Here’s what you need to know about Harvard Business School:

HBS courses are entirely case-based, even for more technical classes

This tidbit is important to know because it means that all required courses and elective courses will be taught exclusively using cases. If you’re the type of person who learns a technical area - say accounting or finance - best through lectures, demonstrations, or presentations, it might be difficult for you to absorb these concepts solely through cases. HBS’s vast repository of cases means that you’ll be learning statistics, corporate finance, capital markets, modern financial institutions, discounted cash flow analysis, valuations, weighted average cost of capital, and financial statements all through real-world case-based situations and applications. Think about your learning style and whether this approach might work for you. 

Everyone takes the same classes in their first year

HBS’s curriculum is split into two years - the RC year (required curriculum), which is your first year, and the EC year (elective curriculum), which is your second year. As an RC, you have no choice in any of your classes, and no choice in who you take your classes with. Each section takes all their RC year classes together, in the same room. If you are someone who wants a highly customized learning experience and wants to make sure you can choose a good portion of your classes, it may be something to think twice about. Throughout your entire HBS experience, you’ll only get to take around 8 classes of your choosing.

First-semester required courses are Finance I, Financial Reporting and Control (Accounting), Leadership and Organizational Behavior, Marketing, Technology and Operations Management, and the first semester FIELD immersion course.

Second-semester required courses are Finance II, Business, Government, and the International Economy, the Entrepreneurial Manager, Strategy, Leadership and Corporate Accountability (Ethics), and the second semester FIELD immersion. 

Academic participation is mandatory, and the classroom environment is intense

Many business schools have lax policies around class attendance and don’t mind if students watch lectures later or skip class. Not HBS. Attendance is mandatory at every single class. Each class has an HBS-employed scribe, who sits in the back of the room and takes attendance. Not only that, the scribe documents each comment that each person makes, and the professor later uses this transcript to review and score comments, which ultimately determines your class participation grade. For most HBS classes, participation makes up at least 50% of your grade. This structure results in an intense environment where many people are jockeying to get their voices in and make their opinions known - since not speaking up can result in a low grade. And since the quality, not just quantity, of your comments are scored, it is imperative that you pay attention during the entire class so your comment can build on other people’s comments and the overall discussion. This means no texting during class, keeping bathroom breaks to an absolute minimum, and really focusing on paying attention - all of which can be exhausting!

Grading is unique

HBS courses are scored on a 1, 2, 3, and 4 basis. A 1 grade is the highest, and only 5% or so of people get this grade. 80% of the class gets a 2. 5%-10% of the class gets a 3 or 4. Grades 1-3 are passing, but if you get too many 3s in your first year, you might end up on academic probation. If you’re someone who is very used to being top of your class, it can be frustrating to end up with a 2 and be in the middle 80%. But the good news is that for most students, no one will ever see your transcript and grades honestly don’t matter. 

The learning can be incredible

Due to this unique structure of the HBS classroom, you have the opportunity to really immerse yourself in cases, protagonists, and situations, which can help accelerate deep and meaningful learning. HBS prides itself on preparing students to make real-world decisions in the face of incomplete information - balancing pros and cons, considering new perspectives, and putting oneself in the shoes of different actors. The case-based curriculum means that you often don’t have a lot of background information and you don’t know how a case ends in real life - so the discussion in the classroom on what the best next steps might be can be incredibly dynamic as you learn from your peers who represent a wide array of backgrounds, sectors, and experiences. You’ll find yourself perhaps changing a closely-held view or considering a brand new approach that you wouldn’t have thought of before - which can be really eye-opening!

HBS cases are thoughtful about covering a diverse range of industries, sectors, and topics - so you’ll get exposed to many different areas. Be wary that if you really don’t like healthcare or another sector in particular - you’ll likely still have to read and engage with a large number of cases on that topic. 

HBS courses also employ experiential learning - you’ll do a good number of simulations, operational exercises, and immersion learning in your first year, particularly in FIELD and Technology and Operations Management. This type of hands-on learning can be really helpful for some people, as it allows you to apply concepts, work in teams, get to know many different people, and work towards a time-bound goal - but it can also be a competitive and overwhelming experience for others!

You’ll have plenty of support

HBS has a range of academic support options, including free tutors, office hours with professors, an office called Student & Academic Services (SAS) which is there solely to support students, and mental health support. Take advantage of it - it’s what you’re paying for!