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What it takes to get into Harvard Business School

This originally appeared on LinkedIn. You can follow John A. Byrne here 

What does it take to get into the best MBA program in the world?

Let’s start with the raw data, the most tangible way to answer the question. The latest entering class of MBA students at Harvard Business School reported an average GMAT score of 724 which would essentially put them in the 95th percentage of test takers. So Harvard MBA students scored equal to or better than 95% of those who took the GMAT exam.

If your GMAT score is lower than 724, you are at a slight disadvantage. But don’t give up. Harvard accepts a wide range of applicants, and for the Class of 2014, at least one had a GMAT score of only 570, which put that candidate in the not-very-impressive 55th percentile. The highest GMAT score of a Harvard MBA student, by the way, was 790, which is in the 99th percentile and just ten points shy of a perfect 800 score.

During their undergraduate years, applicants who were accepted to Harvard Business School got very good grades as you would expect. The average grade point average for the entering class was 3.66, much better than the 3.3 average GPA at a private university or the 3.01 average at a public university (See table at left for how Harvard’s stats compare with other top ten U.S. business schools and the top ten averages).

On GMAT and GPA alone, you pretty much have to be among the top 5% of all MBA applicants in the world to have a better than 50% chance of getting an invite to the school.

But remember: it’s also not merely your GPA that counts here. What also matters is where you got your degree. This is, after all, a bit of an elite game, especially at the very top schools which place a premium on landing graduates of prestige universities and colleges–not your local state college.

The top ten feeder colleges to Harvard Business School? Harvard University undergrads lead the pack, followed by Stanford, UPenn, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth, Duke, UC-Berkeley and MIT. Then comes Georgetown, the Indian Institute of Technology, Cornell, Brown, New York University, the U.S. Military Academy, Brigham Young, Northwestern, and the University of Virginia.

Yet, many of Harvard’s applicants who failed to get into the school had GMATs well above the 724 average and GPAs above the 3.66 average. That’s because the entire applicant pool has an average GMAT at Harvard of over 700. So the competition is tough, requiring the school to turn down many who meet or exceed the average scores. That’s why the school accepted only 13% of those who applied to HBS last year, among the lowest acceptance rates in the world.

Here’s where the intangibles come into play. They include the value an admissions officer would attribute to the company that employs an applicant, the career progression and accomplishments of the applicant on the job, and the number of years of work experience.

If the applicant’s employer is a well-known company, the odds fall in favor of the applicant’s work experience. People who work for such firms as McKinsey & Co., Bain & Co., Boston Consulting Group, Booz, Deloitte Consulting, Google, J.P. Morgan/Chase, Goldman Sachs, the U.S. Army as an officer, Citigroup, Microsoft and Morgan Stanley have an advantage over those who work for no-name companies that lack glamour and prestige.

And if you’ve been promoted and have been given increasing responsibility during your stint at work, you’re far more likely to get an invite to Harvard–especially if your GMAT and GPA is close to the averages and you are working for a brand name firm.

As for experience, too much work is a bad thing. Too little work also isn’t very good, either. The average age of an entering student in Harvard’s Class of 2014 was 27. The sweet spot for work experience among successful Harvard applicants is three to five years. When you have more than five, the odds start falling. When you have less than three years, they also decline.

To see how Harvard compares with other top ten schools–and to see what GMAT scores and GPAs you need to get into those schools, see PoetsandQuants.com:

What It Takes To Get Into A Top Ten Business School

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