At 12 noon on March 25, some 1,100 nervous applicants learned they had been accepted to the Harvard Business School. For many, it was the crowning moment in a months- or years-long application process.
Business Insider caught up with a newly-admitted member of the incoming class of 2017 — Anny Jeung, a senior strategy analyst at PepsiCo and a New Jersey native, who graduated from New York University’s Stern School of Business in 2011.
We talked about the ups and downs of the gruelling application process and exactly how she went about getting into one of the world’s most prestigious MBA programs.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Start planning early.
“I’d been thinking about business school for a long time,” Jeung said. “I was in consulting when I graduated from college, and it’s a pretty standard route you take. So I started thinking about it as soon as I graduated from undergrad.”
For Jeung, who was working full-time at PepsiCo while applying to business school, the whole process took about 14 months in total. Harvard accepts applications in three rounds — September, January, and April — and each round gets more competitive. So you definitely want to plan ahead to give yourself enough time.
2. Prepping and writing your GMAT takes longer than you think.
Jeung, who took Manhattan GMAT’s prep course, said studying for the GMAT was the hardest part of her entire application experience.
“I thought it could be one of those things where you just study on the weekend,” she said, but instead she found herself studying every day, while simultaneously going for a promotion at work.
Ultimately she did get the promotion, and a good GMAT score, but it took a lot longer than she’d expected — closer to five months rather than two or three.
“It is the hardest exam I’ve ever taken in my life,” she said. “Probably the busiest time of my life — I got very little sleep and it was really rough.”
If she could redo it, she said, she would have taken the exam during her senior year of college, back when she was still in full student mode.
3. Use the people around you as an indicator.
After her GMAT, Jeung started narrowing down which schools she wanted to apply to. In the end, she chose only four.
“I think that a really good indicator of where you have the best chance getting in or where you could be a pretty good fit is, look at your coworkers and look at people more senior to you, and see what type of schools that they went to,” she said.
Jeung also visited the campuses of each of the schools she ended up applying to.
4. You’re going to need to figure out a marketing strategy for yourself before you put together your application.
Jeung spent a good three months perfecting her application.
“There’s not that many elements to it, yet it takes you so long,” she said. “Because it’s not the actual content you’re putting together, it’s the strategising and how you’re going to market yourself and package yourself.”
Even the more straight forward parts — like your GMAT score and transcript — take time to put together. You want everything to look perfect, from spelling and grammar down to spacing and indents.
But there’s good news: “There’s a tremendous amount of content online that you can just research for free,” Jeung said. She said the online forum GMATclub.com was helpful and chock full of resources.
5. Your essay should be a reflection on the decisions you’ve made your life to get where you are.
Jeung spent more time planning out her essay than actually writing it.
“Even before you get to typing a single word on your essay, you have to take a lot of time to think about who you are, why you’ve made the certain life decisions you’ve made, why you are at the place you are today, and what you want to do in the future,” she said.
Cheesy as it may sound, she said she actually learned quite a bit about herself from that process. So what did she write about in the end?
“I’ve made a couple of interesting transitions in my life, not just with my career, but even as a human being, growing up. I’ve always kind of gone against the traditional grain of thinking, and … I’ve always known how to think for myself and take risks. So I wrote about that.”
6. Work with the people who are writing your recommendations.
Letters of recommendation were a completely different kind of challenge for Jeung.
“This whole thing is one big strategy game, right?” Jeung said. “And letters of rec was especially hard because you have no control over what they’re going to say.”
What you can control is who you pick, and Jeung said it’s important to find recommenders who really care about you and who will work closely with you to make sure you have the best recommendations possible, rather than someone with a more senior title but who may not know you as well.
For her part, Jeung chose her direct manager and her senior vice president, both of whom she works with on a regular basis.
7. Keep a good support system.
Jeung said that, throughout the application process, it’s important to surround yourself with people who care about you and who are comfortable sharing their opinions and challenging you.
“It’s probably the single most important thing that helped me throughout the process,” she said.
One of those people for Jeung was her boyfriend, a consultant at Greenwich Consulting who was also applying to business school at the same time as her. He’ll be attending the Wharton School in the fall.
“We’re different people and we have different ways of thinking,” she said, but ultimately their conversations had a positive impact on her application.
So did advice from colleagues and friends. She said one 20-minute phone call with a senior director on her team, who was a Harvard alumni, was so inspiring that it completely changed the direction of her essay.
“You learn who is really there for you and who really wants to see you succeed,” she said.
8. Be prepared to cope with feeling like you’re not in control.
“You have so many ups and downs,” Jeung said. “I was really nervous, super anxious — I felt hopeless sometimes. And then you talk yourself up, and then you feel really hopeful. And then you just knock yourself down again.”
Despite sometimes feeling powerless, Jeung did have control of the moment she found out whether or not she had been accepted. That’s because the Harvard Business School chooses to post their decisions online rather than calling applicants.
“You can control where you are, when you check it, who you’re with — so I actually really appreciated that,” she said.