First Semester – Diversity and the Case Method

It’s been an unbelievable first semester at HBS, and I’m still catching my breath. The first semester is notoriously tough, and things become a little more about finding your own path in the second (Elective Curriculum, EC) year, once the first year (Required Curriculum, RC) is over.

After the opening of a new year I both have a little breathing space and time to reflect on 2014, as well as my first semester. I’m lucky enough to be on my way to China (via Thailand) for the first big installment of HBS’s FIELD program so I am writing this with the best view I’ve had in quite some time…

R&R during FIELD

R&R before FIELD

With a semester down and a shocking 25% of the MBA course already completed, I can at least provide a little more depth on some of those things you probably wanted an insider’s viewpoint – I know I did – before you apply.

Attitudes and Diversity at HBS

A big one before I left, and like many I’d read this NY Times article. Would these be my sort of people? Would it really be a diverse experience? Well the answer, to me at least, is a resounding yes.

Almost every case we discuss seems to have someone with a background in that or a similar industry. Everyone seems to have an amazing range of interests, even those with a more traditional career background. There’s a really nice group of LGBT’s in my section, and a huge numbers of nationalities are represented by the flags at the back of our classroom. It’s certainly more diverse than the perception I had before I got to HBS.

In addition to the vast array of backgrounds, I have to say everyone is a whole lot… nicer and collaborative than I expected. HBS I suppose has a reputation as the a temple of capitalism and of representing the dog-eat-dog cutthroat corporate world. It is highly competitive for sure, but not at all costs, and there is plenty of kindness and great team spirit shown by my fellow students.

HBS classroom with a wide array of nationalities represented

HBS classroom with a wide array of nationalities represented

Case Method & Grading System

The case method has gradually been adopted by many of the leading B-schools for at least part of their teaching – Harvard (as pioneers of the method) use it the most and teach virtually all their course material by the case method. I’ll readily admit that this doesn’t always make sense, with occasional classes away from the core content sometimes appearing to be ‘an exercise in disguise’. However, most of the material does adhere to the case philosophy pretty closely.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, this video does a pretty good job of explaining the preparation involved in this type of class. The chance to discuss, try out your own ideas and engage with the professors is highly valuable. I’m still stunned that my (at that point future) professors were greeting me by name in the week lead-up to first class – each professor learns by pre-provided photos the name of every student, along with their academic and career background, before the semester begins.

If you’re familiar with it or watched the video, you’ll understand how crucial class participation is. HBS pushes you, hard, to participate, and this can cause quite a bit of pressure. Grading (varies with course) of class participation is roughly comprised 50% of your final course grade. This consists of how much you’ve participated and whether you have made a valuable comment.

With 94 students in each class, the average is to ‘comment’ once every two classes or so. With grades allocated as a 1 – top 10%, 2 – middle 80% and 3 – bottom 10% of each class, the aim appears to be to identify extremes while reducing comparisons between the rest of the class.

The pressure while still unfamiliar with this system is intense in the first semester. As an international student I feel fortunate to have English as my first language in this context. The English of those with a second language is genuinely superb, just a slight lag in reaction times can cause students initially to be unable to get into the conversation.

On a positive though, many of those in the class have said to me that while this format is taught initially, it is the best language lesson you can get, and already seemingly fluent speakers now sound like native speakers.

There was a revealing insight from one of my professors in the last semester;

Even just five years ago, I walked into the classroom in the first semester and I usually knew who would be my ‘three’s’ [the bottom grade]. It was the international students, as their grasp of English left them at a significant disadvantage. Today, its not at all the same – the international students all have truly exceptional language skills and you often can’t tell who is not a native speaker

Verdict so far

The loan I have is the biggest financial liability I’ve ever had (excluding a shared mortgage) and the first statement caused my parents to ask if it’s a mistake. If you’re reading this you probably know what a commitment HBS is (and many other top tier B-schools are). In that context I have no hesitation in saying I have no regrets whatsoever in taking up their offer of admission. It’s a phenomenal place to be, and the experience is only just beginning.

P.S. Good luck to all those applying in R2 this year!

Next time: FIELD2: The adventure abroad

The insecurities begin


noun, plural neu·ro·ses  [-seez]  Psychiatry.

1. Also called psychoneurosis. a functional disorder in which feelings of anxiety, obsessional thoughts,
compulsive acts, and physical complaints without objective evidence of disease, in various degrees and
patterns, dominate the personality.
2. a relatively mild personality disorder typified by excessive anxiety or indecision and a degree of social
or interpersonal maladjustment.
I suppose I would say that it had to happen eventually, I just didn’t expect it this early. It’s a holiday weekend in the UK, I’m painting the bedroom at home, and I’m gradually working through a cycle of my own list of worries;
  1. A lack of funds. The 6th 0 on total costs of most of the programs I’m looking at now really troubles me
  2. My age. I’m 28 now, so by the time I reach matriculation I’ll be almost 30. This is above average for most schools in the US.
  3. The US is like a distant dream. Its not supposed to be for people like me. I’m supposed to do a boring part-time MBA in the UK and be happy with my lot.
Repeat ad infinitum.
So I found a good article on P&Q, which I’ve started reading recently after being referred by some other useful blogs.( … -an-mba/1/). I found it reassuring and alarming in equal measure.
Alarming because only 2-3% of HBS’s student body is above 30. I’ve told myself that I’m being silly – there is NO WAY that being under 30 can be ‘too old’. I still don’t think it is, but its a hell of lot closer to being the actual case than when I rationalised with myself before any research.
Looking a bit deeper its also reassuring because it seems a major part of this age gap is self-perpetuating by the potential applicants. The schools themselves seem to have a similar acceptance rate for both those above 30 and below – its simply the case that there are far fewer applications once you get above 30 so the number of students simply reflects this.
So in conclusion, If I don’t make it in, it probably wasn’t because of my age.  If I go and I feel too old – its simply my own fault. I should have followed the crowd more. There also seems to be a big difference between schools – HBS for example is a very ‘young’ crowd (and the US generally). Europe is positively geriatric by comparison.
‘The Distance Problem’
I don’t really know how best to explain this, I feel very disconnected from the whole MBA experience at the moment. I like the idea, I can see it looks good on paper. Research makes it sound great. But at the moment, its still something that happens to someone else.
It is surely key at this stage to visit to colleges to get a feel for the atmosphere, connect with adcoms and start building a relationship. The only positive steps I’ve had so far were from the meeting with Rotman which wasn’t exactly reassuring (see my previous post I think I’m going to send some introductory emails this week to see if I can make some contact that doesn’t involve a computer, but keep things slightly to a distance for now.
If you thought I was still sketchy on the distance this is a big worry. The most reassuring I can get is involving having faith and “it’ll be fine”. Surely the state of world capital markets will have improved by next year…? (*cue nervous laughter*)