Bankers: Don't fret. Harvard Biz School still loves you.

December 23, 2010: 11:35 AM ET

Despite growing fears that Harvard Business School has turned its back on financiers and consultants, it's more likely that recently rejected applicants to the elite MBA program fell victim to common application fumbles. Here are a few tips to avoid the pitfalls.

By Shawn O'Connor, contributor

An anxious buzz is sweeping through the ranks of analysts and associates at the country's premier private equity firms and investment banks.

Harvard Business School Baker Library 2009

Image via Wikipedia (Photo: chensiyuan)

"Why doesn't Harvard Business School want us anymore?" these bankers wonder as they fret over email, text, and Facebook.

The panic began early last week, when Harvard Business School released its first round of admissions decisions. The decisions were covered on this website and elsewhere as being "the worst year on record" for "high-powered private equity and investment banking superstars."

Has HBS really turned its back on leading finance professionals?

As an advisor to numerous Round 1 applicants to Harvard Business School and a graduate of the school, I have carefully analyzed the evidence and can confidently say that any such a trend is vastly overstated, if it exists at all.

What is far more likely is that the 20 or so such candidates who were denied admission made some fundamental, avoidable application errors. And, in a time when competition for MBA slots is at an all-time high (last year, for example, Harvard whittled down 9,524 applicants for its 910 slots), applicants -- regardless of pedigree -- can't afford any missteps.

I'd like to allay the frantic concerns out there among the second round applicants, and among those considering applying to Harvard in the years to come: Harvard Business School is most certainly still admitting financial services professionals and consultants.

Rather than speculating about an unsubstantiated shift in admissions criteria, future applicants should ask what mistakes they must avoid if they are to spare themselves the same fate as those who were disappointed in the first round.

Here are four tips and insights that any applicant should adhere to when aiming for Harvard Business School:

  1. No matter who you are, no matter your credentials, you are not entitled to be admitted. In my experience working with some very bright applicants, I've learned that if Harvard even suspects that you feel entitled to win admission, you have already sunk yourself. To be successful, you must understand that you may not get in; only then can you write with the humility that will win the hearts and minds of the admissions team.
  2. Don't overemphasize your professional experience. Not surprisingly, we find that the more professionally successful our clients are, the more they want to wax poetic about their incredible achievements at work. However, HBS is not looking just for successful businesspeople; but also for leaders who have the potential to change our world. You must demonstrate leadership potential outside of work.
  3. Show that you embrace diversity and a global perspective. Over the last week, I have read countless quotes suggesting that HBS is somehow uninterested in admitting white male applicants. We have worked with successful clients from just about every possible background, and found that this year, like in previous years, HBS is far more concerned with your perspective on the world than your ethnic background.
  4. Remember that HBS cares about your undergraduate GPA more than nearly every other business school. Harvard Business School prides itself on recruiting some of the world's brightest young leaders. Don't assume that your professional accomplishments can erase a weak undergraduate academic record.

HBS is not new to diversity, and its commitment to diversity should not be used to scapegoat the rejection of finance professionals who could have been very competitive applicants if they had followed these tips.

Armed with this advice, I know you can put your best foot forward and maximize your chances of being admitted. And don't worry, this applies even if you happen to work at Goldman Sachs (GS), Blackstone (BX), or KKR (KKR).

Shawn P. O'Connor is the Founder and CEO of Stratus Prep, a New York-based test preparation and admissions counseling firm.

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