How to get into HBS: play the piccolo, not the violin

harvard_business_school.gi.top.jpg By Greg Spielberg


(poetsandquants.com) -- When Janet Stark finally gets around to building her own website, the admissions consultant will run it with the headline, "I've been accepted to Harvard Business School over 50 times!" Her students are a bit less open.

Stark, a '82 HBS grad and board member of the HBS Women's Association of Greater New York was reminded of that at a recent gathering of alumni. She greeted guests, shaking hands and exchanging warm smiles with graduates from the world's top B-school and spotted a recent client. When the HBS '10 grad came close, Stark smiled but the MBA walked right past, avoiding her for the rest of the night.

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"I can say this laughingly because I know this has nothing to do with me personally," Stark jokes. She has former clients at top campuses across the country, but her offline presence and thin LinkedIn profile are testament to the fact that consultant-client relationships are under wraps. And despite the snub, she doesn't mind keeping it that way if it lets her students into school without the stigma. One of her recent customers, Jamal Motlagh, 26, now a second-year student at Harvard Business School, has no problem with people knowing he hired a consultant.

Like many of her clients, Motlagh came armed with a top-notch undergrad degree from Princeton University, where he majored in Politics and Near Eastern Studies. He also played water polo, reaching the Final Four in his junior year at Princeton. After graduating in 2006, Motlagh joined Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) and worked his way up from a junior sales associate to an account executive.

In choosing his target schools, Motlagh had an elite brand-name strategy. He applied to Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Kellogg, and Sloan, B-schools that are among the most selective in the world. When he sent off his application to Harvard, he was one of 9,093 applicants competing for what would be 937 seats in the Class of 2011. The school would accept only 12% of the people who applied. Stanford was even more picky, accepting only 6.5% of its applicants. If estimates of the use of admissions consultants are correct, more than 4,500 applicants to Harvard (roughly half) paid for advice and counsel to help them make the best case possible.

Ultimately, those who enrolled in Harvard's two-year MBA program not only had their "positioning" down, they also boasted exceptional numbers -- an undergraduate GPA of 3.67 and a GMAT score of 719 (out of 800). Those averages, however, don't tell the full story because at least one applicant made it through Harvard's screen with a GMAT score of 490. Motlagh declined to disclose his undergraduate grades or his GMAT score.

Rather than pay the going rate for a five-school consulting package to all five schools, something that would generally set him back between $7,000 and $8,000, Motlagh wanted to get away cheap. He hired Stark to help only with his four required essays for Harvard, paying her $100 an hour for nearly 20 hours of consulting help. "I figured I'd bang out one or two schools with an essay with her and be able to reuse a lot of those essays," Motlagh says from Harvard's campus.

Stark didn't consider Motlagh an elite candidate, but as a former brand manager at Nestle and General Foods, she knew he could be "well positioned." Harvard's 900-plus class is carved into 90-student sections that spend the entire first year together. As an admissions consultant and former HBS student, she views each section as a freestanding orchestra, requiring a diversity of players and instruments. To her way of thinking, the bankers and consultants are the violins (ie., there's a lot of them) and Motlagh with his more unusual background is like a piccolo, the woodwind instrument with a unique sound. "You can't have an orchestra with all violins," suggests Stark. Motlagh's piccolo status was enhanced by the fact that he also was an accomplished athlete, a resume credential that is especially attractive at Harvard. His ethnic name (Motlagh is an Iranian-American), Stark hastens to add, at least helped him stand out on paper.

When Motlagh hired Stark, he lived in San Diego, California, but was in the middle of a major life decision -- whether or not to join the Molins de Rei water polo team in Barcelona. He was apprehensive about getting out of the business world to play a game, but Stark didn't dissuade him. As she saw it, the experience would help him play the piccolo, further his athletic career, display a worldly bent and give him a chance to learn Spanish.

Water polo was an early love. Motlagh competed on a high school team that won regional championships each of his four years and nationals twice. He made Princeton's team as a freshman. While many of his Princeton teammates went abroad to play professionally, he accepted the sales job from Microsoft. Sales comes naturally to him; his outgoing manner and self-confidence are so evident he could sell air conditioners to Eskimos.

"Selling is my focus," says Motlagh, who is now co-president of Harvard's Sales Club. At Microsoft, he reached his performance targets within one year to gain a full sales position. He continued to play water polo as an amateur until one day he impressed the coach of a Spanish team who offered him a chance to play professionally. "I was at a crossroads: do I stay with Microsoft, or do I dare to be great?" The reassurances he received from Stark helped him with that decision. He left Microsoft to play water polo.

Harvard requires all applicants to craft four essays that range in length from 400 to 600 words each. Two of the essays are mandatory, while the remaining pair must be chosen from five other options:

1. What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?

2. What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit)

Please respond to two of the following (400-word limit each):

1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?

2. Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.

3. Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision

4. Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions Board.

5. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?

With coaching from Stark, Motlagh highlighted his "dare-to-be-great" decision by choosing one of the five options under which applicants have a bit more freedom to riff on whatever they'd like.

Motlagh and Stark's relationship was different than what they were used to. As a Princeton applicant, Motlagh had face-to-face sit-downs with his consultant. Stark, meanwhile, often sees clients at her home in New York City and continues friendships for years down the road. With the Harvard application, the pair only spoke for a few hours on the phone, and once he moved to Spain, they continued the conversation over dozens of back-and-forth emails.

Still, Stark got the opportunity to hammer him on his essays, especially the one on a mistake. Motlagh says he was at first stubborn and then impatient as he re-wrote the 400-word essay over and over and over at his consultant's insistence. Now, though, he's glad Stark never made the process easy. "I wasn't paying her to be a 'yes' woman," Motlagh says.

Despite the time and energy he poured into those drafts, Motlagh's applications met with less than an enthusiastic response. One school after another rejected him. He got dings from Stanford, Columbia, Kellogg, and Sloan. Surprisingly, perhaps, Harvard didn't reject him outright. Instead, it put him on the waitlist, often a wasteland of hopeful MBA candidates who often end up with a no, anyway. At many schools, fewer than ten applicants gain acceptance from a list of more than 200. This year, Harvard took 50 applicants off a waitlist that probably had as many as 300 applicants on it.

With the odds heavily against him, and with Harvard his last slim chance, Motlagh went into overdrive. Over the next few weeks, he made as much contact with HBS as he could, even though Stark told him it wouldn't make much difference. Stark believes, "There's absolutely nothing you can do to get off the waitlist. They don't want to know that you have since won the gold medal in the Olympics at Beijing."

Undaunted, Motlagh ignored her advice. As soon as Motlagh returned from Spain, he visited the Harvard campus, something he didn't get a chance to do before applying. He met with an admissions officer at Dillon Hall, sat in on a class, visited student friends, and then sent a follow-up letter to the admissions department. His enthusiasm was contagious. As he would later put it, "I was completely energized by what was happening (in the Harvard class). I wanted to raise my hand and jump in, even though I didn't really know what was going on. I believe in learning by doing, but I saw that this was a way of learning by not doing. You get a chance to build an education based on borrowed, real-life experiences."

He also reached out to the water polo team to see if he could shake out an extra recommendation to the three required letters Motlagh already filed with his application. And he smartly told Harvard about a job offer from the BBC that he would take if the program didn't accept him.

The school eventually pulled him off the waitlist. Motlagh, who interned with Goldman Sachs (GS, Fortune 500) over the summer, hopes to one day "realize my dream to start my own business, to push myself through good times and bad to make something amazing." If he bumps into Stark at a cocktail party one day, Motlagh's unlikely to pretend he doesn't know her. After all, she helped him get into his dream school and he's not ashamed of it. To top of page

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