Mod Note (Andy): Each day we'll be posting the top WSO forum posts of 2014. This one was originally posted on 10/1/2014 and ranks #23 for the year by total silver banana count. You can see all our top ranked content here.
I'm just about a month and a half or so into my first year ("RC year") at Harvard Business School, and I wanted to write a bit about what it's been like so far. Since I'm still new to the place, take my experiences with the requisite grain of salt, but I've realized that various parts of what my "earlier self" thought this place was going to be like (the pros/cons) are pretty different from what HBS is actually like in concrete terms, whereas other things I'd never thought about make a big dent in my quality of life here. Hopefully this is valuable to others around here.
My background and interests:
American white male, HYPSM, quantitatively oriented, ~4yrs WE in industry and PE/VC, strong leadership stuff in my past life, etc. I'm unsure whether I want to go into IM (hedge funds) or entrepreneurship after graduation, and open to some other options (VC/PE, etc.). I went to business school for many reasons: I never had a formal/structured business education and wanted one, it's an easy way to buy optionality if you're still considering more than one path, I thought the networking was worth investing in, I thought soft skills are worth investing in, it's a two year breather, etc., all of which were worth the price tag to me.
People / Social Life:
I like 'em. I was worried that this'd be a place full of 28 year olds trying to re-live the glory days of college, and it's not been that. About 15% of people are aggressively social, another 50% are just generally nice people who like meeting new people and trying out new things, about 20% are social but also particularly nerdy (i.e. enjoy building droids and tech startups and hang out out with others that do the same), and the rest are people who do their own thing (you only see them in class). While there's a lot of hanging out at the "usual" bars, a lot of the social scene takes the form of weekend trips nearby (we've not had any crazy trips yet). The fact that a lot of people are in a different life phase (married or on the marriage track) than in college plays a role in that mix.
Dating scene's not been top of mind for me since I'm in a relationship, but surprisingly, most people in my section are either married, engaged, or in serious relationships. I hear, though, that a lot of the weaker relationships fall apart within 4-5mo, so I'm sure that'll up the drama factor in a few months. Also, those who aren't married / on the marriage track seem pretty motivated to get on it, both because there's the sense of "it's my last chance to find a high quality guy/girl" and because so many others at HBS are farther down the track. That dynamic's powerful enough that I'd bet good money it'll make for some interesting times in the coming months...
Obviously the gender ratio favors women here, but 40% female ain't bad if you're coming out of finance, and other grad programs (education, public health, etc.) have the opposite ratio.
Something I'd under-weighted in my thinking about HBS is the "section" experience. This is your group of ~90 peers with whom you have every single first year class and with whom you spend the bulk of your social life. It's one thing to realize this in theory, but it's really hard to describe some of the more subtle but powerful effects of this dynamic. Sections provide a good education in soft skills basics: getting along with very different types of people (not all of whom will be your friends), developing a good "personal brand" (as much as I hate that phrase), and so on. But the other is that - since sections are communally run bodies - it's an interesting exercise in learning about things like leadership, power, and influence.
It's been a pretty interesting petri dish so far, but I obviously don't want to harp here for much longer since it's still early innings in my section experience. I'd only pause to note that sections, so far, seem like an under-communicated learning vehicle.
I very much came to HBS despite the case method and not because of it. I felt like schools serve students best when they lay out a framework to slice-and-dice through messy problems rather than let students wade their way through it, bullshit and all.
Maybe it's the koolaid at work, but I'm significantly more bullish now. The method requires a lot of ingredients for it to work - right students, right professors, right cases, right norms, etc. - but when it works, it works well. A couple of things I hadn't appreciated much: (a) it's a great way to organically get exposure to all sorts of industries and businesses since you dive into one business each class rather than talking about concepts in the abstract, (b) the absence of a clear cut math/modeling problem makes even the "hard" classes much more interesting since there's not a clear line of attack at the problem and because context matters much more, and (c) thinking through "what should this business do" in the absence of full information 2-3x a day is a great education for an investor since it mimics real world judgment as decently as an academic setting can.
There are a few qualifications to the positives. For one, this is not a quant-y place. Number crunching is taught with the goal of helping you understand how number crunching is a means to an end, not with the goal of helping you become a very good number cruncher. This is fine and well when you're a PM at some hedge fund calling the shots, but if you want to get the analyst job at the hedge fund, a Wharton education (based on comparing notes with a friend there) will be more directly relevant. The area where this is particularly applicable is actually not finance (as a finance guy, I've found that the subject is pretty well taught) but accounting. So if you come to HBS, bring an accounting textbook with you and study it on your own.
Something else I'm not 100% convinced of is whether the case method is the best way to develop all kinds of soft skills. It obviously helps in many ways (see "Section" above), but I wonder if Stanford's "Interpersonal Dynamics" class would be a better model than HBS's LEAD and FIELD courses. I'm not really sure one way or the other.
I didn't realize until I grabbed lunch with one of the senior professors the intensity of planning that goes into the first year curriculum. HBS has iterated it's current pedagogy for about ~100 years, and everything happens for a reason. Every case, every simulation, every study group, etc., across every department, was purposely planned out and placed for some specific goal in a student's development at that time. You could debate whether the goals are effectively met, but honestly, the fact that so much thought goes into getting-it-right makes me feel a lot better about shelling out $100K.
I'm really not qualified to talk much here just yet. One thing I've liked is that HBS holds off all recruiters to campus for the first two months or so, and then holds off all internship recruiting (or at least interviews for them) till January. This is a f--king godsend, since there are so many other things here to spend time on. In terms of getting a job in IM, it seems like it's tough but do-able (whatever your background) if you stay plugged into the right clubs and network hard from there. I think HBS gives you a little tailwind (since a large number of big shops do come by here and recruit), but people with priorexperience or mega-cap PE experience (not to mention Goldman, , etc. types) are also dime a dozen here.
Whoa. This ended up being way longer than intended. Hopefully it's helpful to someone, and happy to answer questions about this, admissions, etc.