When the dean of Harvard Business School meets someone who wants to go to HBS, he asks them a simple question

Harvard Business School/FacebookHint: It’s not, ‘How are your grades?’
  • HarvardBusiness School dean Nitin Nohria said he looks for candidates who have displayed leadership potential.
  • Whenever someone says they’d like to attend HBS, Nohria told Business Insider, he asks them to consider one question: “What is it that other people would say that would describe you as a leader?”
  • That could be through college extracurricular activities, military service, or running a business.
  • Candidates’ leadership skills are more likely to tip the scales in their favour than stellar grades, Nohria said.

If you’re thinking about applying to Harvard Business School, know that your academic achievements – however impressive – aren’t going to be the deciding factor in whether you get in.

To be sure, grades are important, but there’s something else even more so.

That’s according to HBS dean Nitin Nohria. Whenever someone says they’d like to attend HBS, Nohria told Business Insider, he asks them to consider one question:

“What is it that other people would say that would describe you as a leader?”

Nohria said HBS wants to help candidates explain “in what ways they have already exercised leadership and how they hope to exercise leadership in the future.”

Somewhat frustratingly, Nohria added that there’s no single type of answer that will win over the admissions staff. “We will take people who have very different passions,” he said.

Indeed, the HBS admissions website indicates that candidates may display leadership through, for example, military service, “running an independent business,” or “spearheading initiatives at work.”

Stacy Blackman, the founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting who helps clients earn admission to top MBA programs, previously told Business Insider that candidates need to prove that they made a difference with their leadership efforts. Or, as she put it, “that you left indelible footprints.”

Nohria breaks down leadership into two components – competence and character – and he said HBS students learn to develop both.

Competence is about getting people to trust you and your decisions: “It’s not like you can call yourself a leader just because you have an important position,” he said. Character is about your values, and your ability to make ethical decisions.

Ultimately, HBS doesn’t want students to be carbon copies of one another, especially in terms of their leadership experience.

“We are excited about leaders of all kinds,” Nohria said. “They just need to be people who are pursuing a particular passion in which they are likely to be very good leaders.”

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