Letter to an Applicant

In late 2007 and early 2008, I wrote three blog posts about a then-new Harvard Business School admissions initiative called 2+2. In September 2008, I learned I’d been accepted into the first 2+2 cohort; this past September, my first semester at HBS commenced.

In the four years since that first blog post, I’ve received a steady stream of emails from students seeking guidance through the application process. In response to one of them, I sat down and wrote the letter below; it rang so true to me then (and still) that I’ve sent it to almost every person who’s written since. To come full circle, I wanted to share it here, too.

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It’s hard to say or even know what HBS is “looking for” in 2+2 candidates, because they’ve intentionally left it so open-ended. But here are some collected thoughts on what they might be looking for based on my experience with the students they’ve admitted so far.

In some environments—both corporate and academic—sheer “drive” is favored. In essence, this means that once you set a goal you usually accomplish it at almost any cost. This may even be true of Harvard Business School, to some degree. However, this mode is incredibly distant from my own experience.

The type of caring I’ve seen at HBS is much quieter and more generous. It does not lack momentum, but it is an odd combination of earnest and assured. The key is to be calm, confident, and striving all at once, all the while being generous with your ideas and unfailingly kind to those around you.

So let’s say this describes you, and let’s say that I’m right: that this character profile starts to get at the ineffable qualities HBS “looks for.” How do you even start to go about showing this kind of quiet caring in an application?

The application consists of two parts: the facts, and the narrative. It’s true that the facts should probably resemble those of other HBS students (admirable grades, engagement in activities outside of your classes, ambition and efficacy), but the criteria for that resemblance are far less strict and far less important than you might imagine. No, the most important thing you can do for yourself is not to work tirelessly to improve the facts—your scores, your grades, your activities and accomplishments—but, instead, to rest and think about how you came to be the person you are, and what kind of person you long to become.

I have come to believe that serious introspection is the single most important thing you can do for your chances of being admitted to HBS. If you already spend a good deal of time in calm introspection, you will have a head start; but it is not too late to begin. The key here is “calm”; anxious introspection will help little, and might even hurt.

What should you think about? It seems safe to start with figuring out what you care about. The best way I’ve found to think about this, actually, is by reading a book by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt called The Reasons of Love. The book, in fact, is all about the importance of what we care about. (Also worth reading: an essay of his by that very name.) A passage:

It is by caring about things that we infuse the world with importance. This provides us with stable ambitions and concerns; it marks our interests and our goals. The importance that our caring creates for us defines the framework of standards and aims in terms of which we endeavor to conduct our lives.

It is important to know of the HBS Admissions Office that they are extremely experienced judges of character. Your accomplishments speak for themselves; you speak for your character. That is part of why the interview is so important, and why HBS insists that it be in person. And that is why introspection is a valuable way to spend your time.

The more calm and curious your introspection, and the more coherent the self-image that surfaces, the better you will be able to reconstitute that image out of thin air. That kind of integrated self-awareness is the ineffable quality that HBS seeks.

This may sound all too general, but I can assure you that it is more specific than you might suspect. The admissions office knows it when they see it; admitted students recognize it in each other. For a program like 2+2—so vague about who the ideal candidate might be, so wildly and almost nonsensically varied in the backgrounds of the students it admits—this is, I believe, the common denominator that makes the program cohere.

If you are interested in this program, industrious enough to seek it out, patient enough to endure its opacity and uncertainty, you are almost certainly ambitious. You are almost certainly accomplished. More importantly, you are almost certainly ambitious and accomplished enough.

So what makes the difference? What ineffable quality sets some people apart? As far as I know, it is: caring about something honorable, outside yourself, in such a way that you are impelled to take risks and apply sincere effort. It is knowing this about yourself, and being able to coherently conceive of and narrate your life through its lens.