November 21, 2013 4 min read

“If you can get into Harvard, you should go.”

That is the advice I have given to everyone who has asked for the last 30 years. The program does not matter; if it says Harvard on it, it is worth enrolling.

There are three big reasons for my recommendation:

1)    You will never have to explain yourself

I’ve never said the Harvard name to any adult in the world who did not know what I was talking about (Okay … okay … I do remember saying “Harvard” to some people in China in 1984 and they looked at me strangely. Then I learned how to pronounce it in Mandarin – “HaFo” – and I was an instant celebrity.)

2)    You can say the stupidest things the world and get away with it

I naturally say some pretty dumb things. They just slip out. Within several seconds, I realize I’ve made a profound mistake and work to fix it. Usually, by that time, others are jumping in to make sense of my stupidity—not to explain it away, but to figure out the spin a Harvard PhD must have placed on the words he chose to make them deep and erudite. That is a rare luxury in this world!

3)    You will go to school with really interesting and cool people

I have stayed close friends with a handful of people since I was in school—truly wonderful people! Even when I run into those with whom I’ve not maintained communication, I’m always really happy to hear about their very interesting, compelling lives. Some have turned into clients and bosses. It is an amazing, international network.

Two of the above rationales might apply to other top-name schools around the world as well. But what is really interesting about the list is what I did not say. I did not say:

1)    You’ll get a better education

2)    You’ll get a more innovative educational experience

3)    You’ll be taught by better teachers

Because none of these things are true. 

So why does every school—especially every business school—strive to emulate Harvard to some extent? Granted, it is the first name in business schools, but not because it was the first business school (it wasn’t), or because it is the biggest (it isn’t), or because it is the top ranked one (it rarely is). It is the premier business school because of the Harvard name—and there is no bigger brand in education in the world. 

Harvard Business School (HBS) also has developed a strong brand name in business education specifically, because of its emphasis on practical research and writing. In the 1920s, the case study method was developed there, and has been imitated in almost every other school on Earth. Harvard’s published business case studies are the staple of every MBA education. HBS professors are, moreover, encouraged to write practitioner-focused books and articles and publish them in the Harvard Business Review—the largest “academic” publication in circulation. The best Harvard professors do a lot of consulting and executive education—they are industry savvy and practical in their world outlook. These are not your average ivory tower academics. 

Well-regarded-case-studies-and-book-writing professors are not good reasons for deciding to matriculate at any business school. In fact, these may work against learning. Generally, professors that research and write academic articles are not great in the classroom. Sure, read their articles, just don’t try to sit through a 3-hour session with them!

Harvard does have a lot of professors who spend significant time in real companies; that should be an excellent rationale to attend a school, but as most Harvard MBAs will tell you, students rarely see these professors at a place like Harvard. When I was a student at HBS I only saw a couple senior professors, and these were not the big name stars. Now, granted, I was at Harvard a few decades ago, but when I talk to current Harvard students and faculty, the experiences sounds eerily familiar; this is to be expected in a place so steeped in tradition.

From a student perspective, the name and the network you get at Harvard are reasons in and of themselves for attending Harvard Business School. As for the rest of what you’ll get there, you can get more and better at many other schools around the world. Or, you can just read a bunch of good books and learn even more than you would in business school because of the way almost all are taught today.

A school bent on mimicking Harvard makes no sense at all because it’s effectively a step backward, not forward. Sure, Harvard makes small changes from time to time in its program and makes a big deal out of them; they’ve inserted a 3-week “field immersion” course into the first year of the MBA program, but this is just an abridged version of what many other schools have been doing for years. Because it’s Harvard, it is touted as the “latest thing” in business education. But any “innovations” the school adds rarely are. Matriculating at a school that copies Harvard is a terrible idea for anyone interested in meeting the complex challenges of today’s business world. You get all the weaknesses and none of the benefits.

But if you get into Harvard, definitely go!

Photo courtesy of Freddy Monteiro.