Musings: My First Semester at Harvard Business School

HBS LogoThings have been extremely busy since my last blog post about music; the process of applying to business schools combined with the chaos of an extremely busy work life have taken a toll on the more creative pursuits that I try to make time for, including writing.

However, now that I have finished my first semester at HBS (Harvard Business School), I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the MBA experience so far: the lessons, the challenges, and the great things yet to come. I will try to avoid repeating information you already know about the business school experience.

Brief Recap

For those of you who don't know how the MBA program at HBS is structured, here are the important details:

  • I am in a class of 900 students, which are divided into 10 sections of ~90 students.
  • My section is assigned one classroom. We sit in the same assigned seats for every class, and the professors are the ones who rotate in and out of the one room.
  • Everyone in the first year takes the same 10 classes (5 per semester). Everyone has the same assignments and reading due on the same days. We have class every morning at 8AM, usually until about 3; this is followed by a few hours of coursework for us to do at home. Second-year students have much more variation in their schedules, and rarely have classes that early in the morning.
  • Though grades don't 'matter' to many people, we all still care. ~50% of our grade comes from class participation.
  • In addition to the standard case method experience, the administration added a new class called FIELD (Field Immersion Experience for Leadership Development), focused on experiential learning. We first focus on individual leadership skills development, then a team global immersion in January, and finally developing and launching a micro-business in the spring. For the global portion we are divided into teams of 6, and we work with a global partner in an emerging nation on some product development work. HBS is actually flying us out to the partner sites in January for a week. Logistically this has been very challenging. For the third phase we will be receiving some initial startup money from HBS to help us get our business going.

Learning at HBS

Ever since I was on campus for the Admitted Students' Welcome, I have heard the administration and faculty espouse the merits of the case method. Preparing for class every day can be challenging; students only have a few hours during which they have to read and understand up to three cases for the next day, and they have to try to extract some deeper conceptual learnings from the specific case during the class discussion. If you were skeptical about the learning model's effectiveness at the beginning of the semester, you would definitely be drinking the kool-aid by the time you finished your last final exam. When it came time to actually study, my sectionmates and I realized that we had really just 'learned' the material throughout the semester, and that only a minimal refresher was needed to feel confidently prepared for the exam. Though obviously the caliber of our faculty makes a difference here, I think that the quality of my section is a more important factor.

Section & Social Life at HBS

I know this is something many of you want to hear more about, but I don't know if you'll like everything I have to say.

The RC ("Required Curriculum", a.k.a. first year) is all about your section. You go to classes together, you go on retreats together, you eat together, you party together, and (sometimes) you sleep together. They are your core, and your foundation. They are the people you know the best, and probably the people you will be closest to many years in the future.

My section is Section A, and is, of course, incredible. Everyone is from very diverse backgrounds, and in very different stages of life; this diversity brings a lot of fresh perspectives to our group that helps me learn some other valuable points of view. Our section has people from manufacturing, hi tech, sales, military service, banking, consulting, social enterprise, tech startups, and more, so you can imagine how spirited our in-class and out-of-class conversations are.

The social scene in the RC is challenging. With classes at 8AM, so much coursework, the new FIELD program, and so much time being devoted to recruiting-related activities, there simply isn't much time left in the evenings to socialize. Many of the student clubs host parties on the weekdays, where they convince RCs to buy tickets a few weeks in advance. By the time the party comes, the students realize they have more work than they had anticipated, and try desperately to sell their tickets on Facebook. ECs ("Elective Curriculum", second-years) appear to enjoy such parties, probably because they have enough time to actually go out to them.

Nevertheless, the parties and other events on the weekends are a lot of fun. We have recently had a few black tie events that have been incredible opportunities to relax and meet some new friends.

Clubs & Participation at HBS

Every person you talk to might have different thoughts on this,but here is my perspective: we have limited time, and we have many interests; it is imperative to pick the one or two activities that mean the most to you, and dive deeply into them. I'm a member of several clubs on campus (Tech Media, Marketing/CPG, Harvard Brew Club, Wine & Cuisine Society, HBS Show), but I have only taken a leadership position in one of them (Marketing Manager of the HBS Show). Frankly, that is all there is really time for. I am also the Historian for Section A, where my responsibilities include producing and compiling documentation (photographic or otherwise) of our activities during our 2 years on campus.

The Little Things

It is very easy to forget the little things, and I will likely do exactly that. I apologize for that in advance. Here's a list of the ones that I can remember:

  • The roommate I share an on-campus apartment with seems like a nice guy, but our schedules are so busy that we have barely had any time to get to know each other this semester.
  • Even when we have 'mixer' events with people in other sections, we often just end up socializing with people in our own sections.
  • Because participation is such a big part of our grades, people are a bit over-eager to contribute something, anything, during class.
  • My FIELD global partner company and project are amazing, but not everyone was likewise blessed.
  • It is great to be able to walk to the dining hall for lunch and feel almost 100% certain that you will be able to sit with someone that you have met and talked to at least once before.
  • Having an e-mail address opens many doors for you when it comes time for the job search. HBS also provides an incredible team of staff and vast resources to help students figure out what they want to do, and then help them get there.
  • You get tired of going to the same restaurants/bars/clubs in Harvard Square day-in and day-out, but because of the business campus's location there are no reasonable alternatives.