For the first time ever, Forster-Thomas reveals the data behind its HBS applicants to provide a snapshot of what a successful candidate looks like.

HBS has spoken. Now that the b-school has announced interview invitations on two back-to-back Wednesdays (along with those dreaded dings and deferrals), a picture has quickly emerged as to what the school is looking for in its new, sole admissions essay. So what kind of essays is the school responding to?

In a word: Personal.

At Forster-Thomas, we spent the last week crunching the numbers to determine who got interviews and who didn’t—and what set the yeas apart from the nays. While there are many factors that determine a given applicant’s candidacy, one clear trend emerged with regards to essays: a full 75% of the essays written by candidates who received interview requests were personal in nature.

Instead of beating their chests about their accomplishments, these candidates spoke from the heart, reflected upon challenging experiences, and talked about how they think, not just what they’ve done. In some cases, this meant exploring how overcoming a challenging situation in the candidate’s youth provided them with the outlook and perspective to succeed later in life. Other candidates spoke about a current passion of theirs, and why it’s so important to them. Still others reflected upon an attribute or value that has defined their decisions throughout life. In many of these cases, candidates spent up to 75% of their word count (which averaged around 700) describing these defining experiences, then related how these perspectives have driven personal or professional success.

Forster-Thomas has always embraced the notion that the best essays are introspective, insightful, and focus on the candidate’s journey (rather than just the destination or result). It’s one of the key messages in our book, The MBA Reality Check: Make The School You Want, Want You. Our candidates’ Round 1 success at HBS proves just how powerful this approach is.

“Snobbery” not a factor

Another metric we uncovered—though one we’ve long been aware of—is that HBS will not turn up its nose at candidates lacking in “prestige” brand names. Among our Round 1 applicants who received interviews, only a quarter attended Ivy League universities. Meanwhile, those remaining split almost perfectly between private and state schools—including second-tier state universities. In other words, despite a reputation for the contrary (see here, here, and here for three pretty funny examples), HBS is not wowed by prestige—it is wowed by great candidates.

The GMAT sweet spot

Over our 17-year history, we’ve helped candidates with a vast range of GMAT scores get into the b-schools of their dreams. In a recent Poets & Quants’ feature, we even came the closest among a number of top admissions consultants to identifying 2012’s 570 GMAT admit into HBS (having helped numerous candidates with sub-600 GMAT scores over the years helped us greatly). However, we have always maintained that the optimal GMAT score is around a 730-750: high enough to raise (rather than lower) a school’s average GMAT score, but not so freakishly high that admissions assumes you are a socially awkward bookworm (Big Bang Theory characters don’t belong in b-school). Our HBS Round 1 findings support this perspective, with the average GMAT score being…drum roll…a 740. We expect the average GMAT of our interviewed Round 2 candidates to be more like a 720 (Round 2 is generally more accepting of less conventional candidates in our experience).

Candidacy is King

Ultimately, all other factors aside, what our successful candidates all possessed were great candidacies. As Evan Forster wrote in a blog right after HBS announced the move to one optional essay, “[HBS is] really going to be evaluating you more on who you really ARE, not on who you SAY you are. Candidates can’t just talk the talk anymore. They have to walk the walk.” In other words, HBS is still looking for the same qualities they’ve always valued: A habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship. A great GMAT score and powerful essays can help a strong candidate stand out from the pack—but a weak candidate can’t gussy him/herself up at the last minute and hope to be taken seriously. That’s why we have our Leadership Action Plan—and why every candidate needs to be a strong candidate from the get-go, not at the eleventh hour.

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