A Harvard Business School grad who now works at Google shares how she got into the top MBA program
- Olivia Melendez graduated from Harvard Business School in May and is a product manager at Google.
- She attended the University of Michigan and gained work experience at Intel before pursuing an MBA.
After enjoying her experience as an intern at Intel between her last year of undergrad and her master's year, she decided to go back full-time first.
"At that point, an MBA felt like more of a longer-term goal and wasn't something I was considering seriously yet. Plus, I had always heard that MBA programs prefer that candidates have three to four years of work experience before starting a full-time program," Melendez said.
While working at Intel, where she held the roles of systems analyst, program manager, and portfolio manager from 2016 to 2020, she began to question how a company made certain business decisions — for example, why one project got funded or why another was canceled.
She followed this curiosity to a role at the chief information officer's program-management office at Intel, where she began to receive answers. "It made me realize how much I didn't yet know. I felt like I lacked the practical business foundation that an MBA ultimately provides," Melendez said. She also wanted to dive deeper into strategy, organizational structure, and general leadership and managerial skills.
Melendez got into HBS, her first choice, in early 2020, and started the program that August. In addition to HBS, she applied to several other top-tier programs, including the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Wharton Business School, and Kellogg School of Management, all of which she was admitted to. But HBS stood out to her because of the size of the program and diverse student body, both in terms of background and interests.
Compared to her other business-school applications, Melendez said HBS' was the most concise. Whereas Stanford's application offered more room to discuss work experience, HBS' only allowed applicants to discuss their three most recent jobs. "This initially bummed me out, but led me to think of every word as being more impactful," Melendez said.
Here's what Melendez did during her application process to maximize her chances of getting in.
She signed up for prep programs to get help with the application process and network with fellow applicants
Melendez applied and took part in one of Jumpstart Advisory Group's annual MBA summits prior to applying to HBS. The summit, which is aimed at undergraduates and working professionals who aspire to attain an MBA in the next one to five years, brought together representatives from competitive MBA programs around the country, and she learned about each school's unique value and whether it would be a good fit.
"I took advantage of as many resources as possible," Melendez said. "If you're eligible for any prep programs, I'd recommend applying."
Through Jumpstart, Melendez heard about Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), which offers career and MBA prep programs for the historically underrepresented minorities, and Forte Foundation, which offers MBA prep programs for women.
"MLT and Forte both offered a cohort-style model of 10 to 20 people," Melendez said. "You have a coach and follow a curriculum that includes GMAT coaching, personal-statement workshopping, interview prep — basically every step of the application process."
Melendez added an extra bonus to these programs was getting to connect with other prospective students going through the same process. "We would critique each other's personal statements, share advice, share resources," she said. "And once we all found out which programs we'd gotten into, it was awesome to see where everyone was going."
She also pointed out that these programs cost a fraction of the price of hiring a private admissions consultant. Forte's Program is a few hundred dollars, MLT's traditional program is $1,000, and the accelerated program is $3,000.
She focused her essay on tying together disparate parts of her life and career
HBS' admission essay prompts applicants to share what else they believe the admissions committee should know beyond their résumé. "I think it's both a positive and a negative that the prompt is so open-ended," Melendez said. "It can be overwhelming, but on the positive side, it's a blank slate and you can go wherever you want with it."
Melendez said she used the admissions essay as a chance to tie together pieces of her background that needed additional context. In her essay, she talked about her family, her hobbies at the time — boxing and jiu-jitsu — and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives she'd been involved with. "At the surface level, these three things don't connect, but I realized there was a consistent thread that bound them together," Melendez said.
"Growing up, I think I was very aware of how hard my parents worked to create a comfortable life for my siblings and I. I grew to believe that hard work, perseverance, and the right support system can lead to success, even in the most trying of circumstances," Melendez said. "It's not so different from a boxing match or a jiu-jitsu tournament. Fighters at every level put in countless of hours of preparation and have probably had to pick themselves up from the ground more times than they'd like."
For anyone struggling with the admission essay, Melendez recommended an exercise she learned at MLT. "There was an old essay prompt from Duke Fuqua School of Business that asks you to list 25 things about yourself," Melendez said. "During that process, I thought about different parts of my personality, background, and life decisions that explained how I got to where I was."
She wasn't afraid to highlight extracurriculars that showed her strengths, even random hobbies
Melendez said she mentioned a lot of her extracurriculars that had to do with diversity and inclusion in her essay, such as her involvement in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and Latinx-focused employee groups at Intel. "I also got involved in innovation and patent workshopping at Intel, so that helped demonstrate my technical creativity and inspiration," she added.
Melendez also encourages prospective applicants to mention their random hobbies. She'd been involved in boxing since college and began thinking more about why she boxes and how that hobby helped her detach for an hour or two every day and gave her the mental reset that she needed during the application process.
"I decided to include my hobbies in my application because they were a big part of my life at that time. Although an MBA is a professional degree, a lot of the experience is interpersonal and social," Melendez said. "I think the more you can represent yourself in an application as a complete and multifaceted individual, the better."
She went into the interview ready to show who she was beyond her résumé
Melendez said a lot of the questions she got during her admissions interview at HBS focused on why she chose certain career moves or became involved in certain activities, what she would've done differently, and how she interacted and influenced those around her. "It was ultimately very conversational, reflective, and dug deeper," Melendez said.
"The interview is about the admissions committee trying to understand who you are as a person, rather than all of the data points they see in your application," Melendez added.
HBS also has prospective applicants complete a post-interview reflection, which is a written response to the interview itself. "It's very open-ended," Melendez said. "My best advice is to have a stream of consciousness right after the interview. I recorded a voice note and talked through what I was feeling — what I'm glad we covered, what surprised me."
The best piece of advice she received during her preparation was to think about what the admissions committee would say once they read her entire application.
"Consider four or five highlights that you want the admissions committee to remember about you," she said. "The admissions committee wants to understand who you are as a human being. The easier you can make it for them, the more likely you are to end up at the school that's right for you."
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