How to succeed in the HBS/HKS Joint Degree Program

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Commonly known as “Jointees,” the students in the joint degree programs at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business school are united in their desire to affect change in both business and in government. Their experience moving between two Harvard schools presents a unique set of opportunities and challenges, and each year the third year jointees pass on their wisdom to the classes below them. Some of the piece of advice agree, others conflict, but they are all born out of three years of lived experience.

Work on improving your influence – The “core curriculum” at HKS and the “Required Curriculum” at HBS both help you understand and analyze problems on the firm, industry, and systemic level. However, you be successful, you still need to convince others how to change, the benefits of change, and the imperative to change. Use your time outside of class to grow in this area.

Speak to the unconverted – once you have learned how to solve global challenges and have developed the tools to be convincing, make sure to break out of the echo chamber and speak to those who do not agree with you. That’s the only way to make change.

Take "fierce control" over your education – You only have three years to explore two schools in which someone could spend a lifetime. Don’t count on the distribution requirements to show you everything worth exploring. If you find yourself over committed, talk to HKS professors about not submitting assignments. After all, grades here really don’t matter.

Invest in people – People are what will make your educational experience and people are what you’ll take away from the school after you graduate. Determine who you want to stay friends with in 10 years, and spend time with them!

Don’t be a bleeding heart – The rest of HBS will expect you, as a jointee, to be a bleeding heart, always reflexively advocating for government regulation and against business enterprise. Don’t fall into that trap. As soon as you do, people will anticipate your opinions, see your views as biased, and stop listening to them. By instead trusting that others will fill those roles early in the term, you can save your credibly (and that of all jointees) to advance social arguments later on when the lines are blurrier and the stakes are higher.

(or) Be a bleeding heart! – Someone has to do it.

Be proud of your story – Own it and learn to tell it well.

Make special time for other jointees – they will be your best partners, champions, friends, and resources.

Save your ammo for the last third of class – some of your peers at HKS will villainize the private sector and some at HBS believe that government is unnecessary. Jointees know that the public and private sectors need to work together (and with the non-profit sector) to tackle the “great challenges” in the world. You usually only get to make one comment per class session, so save your airtime for the end so you can correct your peers when they say otherwise.

Pick your PAE client carefully – As a Master in Public Policy (MPP)* candidate you’ll have to complete HKS’s thesis-like Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE) in which you will work with a client to deliver a policy deliverable. Pick someone who communicates clearly, understands your limitations, and will value your work. If the work is interesting, the client relates to your post-graduation goals, and the experience broadens your personal network, that’s a plus.

Pick your PAE partner carefully – You can only use this trick to do half the work if your partner is reliable.

*Note: joint degree candidates between HKS and Tuck, Wharton, Stanford GSB, and MIT Sloan can transfer to the MPP to the Master in Public Administration degree, which does not have a PAE requirement

Be open to random talks and new experiences – there are so many of them at Harvard. Say yes to a few of them each week – especially those at other schools you wouldn’t otherwise explore.

Advice for HBS from the graduating class

The HBS experience is brought to a close at the end of the second year with an event called “Bridges.” Students return to their original classroom to the seat where they sat on the first day, to reconvene as a section and reflect on the journey they all have just completed. The time leading up to bridges also affords second-year “ECs” to pass along wisdom to rising first-year “RCs.” Here is a collection of some of the best advice we came across:

Ditch imposter syndrome – many people at Harvard suffer from imposter syndrome; they worry that they were admissions mistakes. The truth is that life is too short for such self-doubt and that no one really “deserves” the benefits of the program. Instead of worrying about cosmic fairness in your admission, focus instead of living your life so that you are worthy of the gifts you are give.

Whiteboard your priorities – The currents at HBS are strong. Career events are geared to push you towards consulting and investment banking, the social hierarchy pushes you to rack up large bills drinking and traveling, and the curriculum implicitly pushes you to value higher paying jobs. If you don’t set your heading before you embark on your HBS journey, they will take you out to sea. To keep yourself on track, purchase a white board and stick somewhere in your apartment where you will see it every day. On the whiteboard, write down your 1-3 priorities for the coming year. As you consider whether to attend a lecture, social event, or weekend trip, check the opportunity against your criteria. If it doesn’t match, then decline with confidence.

Timebox your activities – If you plan on spending one hour on a case, pull out a stop watch and set it for 60 minutes. When it goes off, wherever you are in your reading or analysis, stop! There is always more work to do, more things to read. If you don’t put open-ended tasks into boxes they will eat up all the time you’re saving for other valuable activities.

Don’t put anything off – Your calendar next week may look more open now but it will become just as busy as your calendar this week. If you can avoid it, don’t push that coffee chat or phone call into the deceptively open future in order to buy time now. If it’s not worth doing now, instead ask if it is ever worth doing at all.

Roll over your IRA into a Roth – this is perhaps the most valuable advice you will get while you’re in graduate school!

Embrace unlearning – we all come with prejudices and misconceptions. Lean into experiences where you find your view challenged and when you find that they are wrong, change them!

Remember: companies exist for more than “shareholder value” – It's fashionable to advance Milton Friedman’s “property view” of corporations: that they exist solely for the enrichment of the owners, and that management should prioritize that objective above all others. Some of your classmates will believe that this opinion is accepted fact. This is not true! While management has a duty to maximize shareholder value in the event of a sale (in which case no “long term” interest can credibly exist), they have broad legal berth to exercise their own judgement in determining and attaining the objectives of a company. Furthermore, investors agree. On average, holding times for stocks are about two years, and the price tracks to earnings over 10 years, evidencing compelling market long-termism. In fact, if you analyze earning calls, short-term concerns are almost always brought up by the management, not the investors. Don’t let this myth perpetuate in class... or in the boardroom!

Hack your calendar in Year 2 – While you don’t get to choose any of your classes in Year 1, you have total flexibility in Year 2. The administration will say that it is not possible to get all your classes on either Monday/Tuesday (“X” Days) or Thursday/Friday (“Y” Days”) in the second year, but it is! Just look for International Field Courses between terms and Independent Projects.

Don’t let Harvard define you – You are so many more things. Harvard should just let you become more potent expressions of them. Plus, it’s always refreshing to read a speaker’s biography where HBS is mentioned only in passing at the very end.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was your goal in founding Ivy Admissions Group?

When we went through the MBA admissions process, we found it full of unnecessary anxiety, odd speculation, and bad information on sketchy websites. The goal of Ivy Admissions Group is to take the stress out of the process by sharing good information born out of our own experience and working with admissions.

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So it’s just the two of you?

Yes. We’re not trying to be a big industrial admissions consultancy. We only want to take on a few select clients and offer them exceptionally insightful and highly personal advice. We have very different backgrounds and are confident that between the two of us, each applicant gets a diverse set of perspectives.

What makes Ivy Admissions Group special?

A lot, actually.

  1. We focus on narrative and know how to build credible, authentic ones.
  2. We’re Harvard MBAs. We’ve walked the walk and can empathize with clients.
  3. We have the results. Our clients have been admitted to Stanford GSB, HBS, Wharton, Booth, and elsewhere
  4. We’re boutique, not an application factory. All clients work directly and only with us.
  5. We’re marketing managers. We are used to brilliantly marketing things to discriminating audiences.
  6. You get two diverse perspectives for the price of one.
  7. We’re not just copy editors. We intimately help with application brainstorming and crafting that perfect package.

Why are you so focused on narrative?

I (Nate) know from experience. When I applied, I had all the right elements. An above average GPA from a target school, a perfect GRE, impressive leadership experience in the military, and glowing recommendations. What I had was a brand, but not a narrative, and so I was placed on the waitlist at HBS, Stanford, and Wharton. Through update letters that established my narrative, I was able to get admitted to all three. So take my advice, and get your narrative right the first time around.

How did you start advising admissions applicants?

I (Nate) started by re-reading college applications of younger friends after they had been deferred admission from Dartmouth. I’d go over essays about community service and cringe because I knew that admissions officers would read them as “vacation stories”. I would work with them to improve their narratives for the general admissions cycle and got a lot of satisfaction watching them get get into fantastic universities.

Did you hire admissions consultants when you applied?

No. We wanted more than just a series of worksheets and spell-checkers. We wanted someone who had actually been admitted to HBS, who knew what the classes and clubs were like, and who had enough contact with admission deans to know how they think. We built Ivy Admissions Group to be the service that we wish we could have used.

When did you decide to make this a business?

When we found ourselves spending 20+ hours per week advising MBA applicants for free! We realized the advice we were giving them was superior to what our advisees were getting from paid consultants, that we were more responsive than paid consultants, and that we sometimes found ourselves more invested in our advisees' admissions prospects than they were. Switching over to a professional service allows us to go deeper with a smaller number of motivated applicants.

How do you set your prices?

We have day jobs (as marketing managers), so we're not in it to earn a living. We believe in offering the best value of any admissions service, while charging and fair and consistent prices that are just enough to make it worth our own substantial time investment in each applicant. Definitely do your diligence before choosing a service, but let us know if you can find a better deal.

How do you determine which clients to work with?

We only work with clients we think we can offer substantial value. If we don't believe we can move the needle that much in a particular case, we figure that out upfront, refund that client's money, and try to refer them elsewhere. We believe our value is clearest for applicants applying to top schools, where the admissions process is most difficult.