Truths and Myths About the First Year MBA Experience: Evidence From the Class of 2021

Exhibit A

How does the first-year HBS MBA experience differ across the student population? A class-wide survey of second-year students sheds light on this question.

Rachel Drapper (MBA ’22), Contributor
Christina Bracht (MBA ’21), Contributor
Julie Guzman (MBA ’22), Contributor
Gabbie Ivey (MBA ’22), Contributor

HBS students are a diverse population—different demographics and life experiences have shaped each of our journeys to and at HBS. We, a team of WSA members, conducted a survey investigating the HBS MBA experience to capture how some of those differences manifested themselves during the RC year. The survey covered a broad spectrum of topics including satisfaction levels, feelings of equity in the classroom, self-perceptions and perceptions of others, available time, and emotional support networks. The survey also explored views on academics, grades, and the Baker Scholar award. Here we share some of the results that we found most illuminating and shed light on the following key questions:

  • Do RC students experience the HBS MBA equitably?
  • Are HBS men more ambitious than HBS women?
  • Do HBS students care about grades?
  • How do HBS students define success?


The HBS MBA Experience Survey was sent to second year students in the class of 2021 in the fall of 2020. It asked ECs to reflect on their pre-covid RC experience. With the support and promotion of several HBS affinity groups and clubs (see Exhibit A), the survey had a response rate of 38%—higher than is typical for a voluntary student survey. The respondents represent a diverse cross-section of the class population (see Exhibit B). The project focused on four core aspects of identity: gender, race and ethnicity, nationality, and sexual orientation, and considered intersections between race and gender to capture heterogeneity within these identity groups. Several additional factors, such as socioeconomic status and individual political ideology were not explicitly addressed in this study, but we recognize that they, too, are important aspects of identity that shape people’s experiences and perceptions at HBS. In this article, all reported findings of differences between identity groups are statistically significant.

To keep responses anonymous, we combined students identifying as “Black” or as “Latino/Hispanic/Of Spanish descent” into one group (referred to here as “Black/Latino/Hispanic”; we also combined students identifying as “South Asian” or as “Asian, not including South Asian” into one group (referred to here as “Asian”). To preserve the anonymity of responses from students of other race/ethnicities, we report the results of the three largest race/ethnicity groups. Similarly, to preserve the anonymity of responses from students who identify as non-binary and transgender, the reported gender comparisons below include only respondents who identified as male or female.

Student Satisfaction

TL; DR: Overall, students are satisfied with the RC year. There are varying levels of dissatisfaction with faculty diversity. Students could do more to make the classroom feel equitable and ensure section mates’ perspectives feel heard.

Survey responses revealed high levels of satisfaction with the RC year: 83% of the class of 2021 were “somewhat satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their pre-COVID-19 RC experience. Asian students and older students were less satisfied. We also observed lower levels of satisfaction among Black/Latina/Hispanic women. Further differences emerged when students were asked more specifically about equity and inclusion. Overall, across all identities, only 43% of all students were satisfied with the degree of faculty diversity. When we look by gender, women were less satisfied with the degree of diversity in the HBS faculty compared to men (33% versus 52%). Students who identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian or queer were less satisfied with faculty diversity than students who identify as straight (22% versus 45%). Furthermore, Black/Latino/Hispanic students were less satisfied than white students (22% versus 49%). When we take intersections between race and gender into consideration, the differences are striking (see Exhibit C). 62% of white men were satisfied with the degree of faculty diversity compared to only 18% of Black/Latina/Hispanic women.

The general dissatisfaction with faculty representation notwithstanding, four out of five students felt that faculty treated people in their section equitably in the classroom, regardless of students’ identity group membership.

There was greater room for improvement in treatment by fellow students, however. When controlling for other variables (including race or ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, partner and family status), women perceived classmates’ treatment of people in the section as less equitable than did men. This effect appears to be driven by white men: less than three percent of white men reported that students were treated inequitably by their section mates, compared to approximately 12% of men of color and women of all race/ethnicities. Asian and Black/Latina/Hispanic women observed the most inequitable treatment. One white student reported, for example, that “section mates could be better about supporting individuals of a different race, nationality and religion.” A student of color described HBS as having a “dominant white culture”, going as far as to say “there are two HBSs: one for the white Americans, and one for the rest of us.”

Reflecting on RC classes overall, only six out of ten students felt that their perspectives were invited, heard, or understood. For example, one student of color noted, “as a minority, I felt pretty invisible in an HBS classroom.” Feeling misunderstood is not a problem exclusively for minority students; it is also a problem for students with conservative political views and students with low-income backgrounds. As one student noted, “We like diversity, but only one kind of diversity,” and, from another, “ignoring political leaning, and income is part of the problem.” Still others commented that “[t]here is no place on this campus for a conservative viewpoint” and “we never get both sides of the discourse.”

Ambition and Academics

TL; DR: Women and men at HBS are equally ambitious and wish to be perceived by others as ambitious. Students have little confidence that grades at HBS reflect intelligence. Women care more about grades than do men.

To shatter a commonly cited myth around campus, we saw no gender differences in people’s ratings of their own ambition levels, nor in the degree to which they would like section mates to perceive them as ambitious. Most men and women wanted others to view them as ambitious—but not too ambitious: over half of respondents wished section mates to perceive them in the second highest quartile for ambition, whereas only a quarter of respondents wanted to be placed in the most ambitious quartile. Shattering another myth, women and men were similarly invested in section mates seeing them as competent, likeable, and caring.

Some sex differences did emerge, but they, too, were counter to gender stereotypes.  Women reported a greater desire than men to be perceived as intelligent. Consistent with this finding, women were more likely than men to associate academic excellence with success. And only seven percent of women reported being indifferent to grades at HBS compared to 27% of men.

Concern with others’ perceptions seems to diminish with age. Older students cared less than younger students about being seen as likable and ambitious. Likewise, parents were less concerned than students without children about peers’ perceptions of their competence—they may have bigger fish to fry!

The survey unearthed considerable skepticism surrounding the validity of grading at HBS as a measure of academic excellence: only 41% of students agreed or strongly agreed that grades are a function of the effort one puts into preparing for class and exams, and only 28% agreed or strongly agreed that grades are highly predictable. Students described grading as “bizarre,” “arbitrary,” “subjective” and “biased.” Furthermore, many students expressed the sentiment that academic achievement at HBS reflects comment quantity above quality or intelligence. This perception may explain why less than a quarter (24%) of the class of 2021 defined personal success as achieving academic excellence.

Exhibit B

The Baker Scholar award is bestowed upon the top five percent of MBA graduates each year—a list that the HBS administration has scrutinised over the years for gender gaps. The Baker Scholar award evokes varied and emotive reactions across the student body. Many students agreed about the opacity of the Baker Scholar award: only 41% of women and 51% of men said they were clear on what it would take to become a Baker Scholar.  A divide exists between those who herald Baker Scholarship as the epitome of academic achievement and those who deride the award. For the latter, the award has overtly negative connotations. Consistent with the belief that high class participation frequency is required to become a Baker Scholar, there is a perception that striving for 1s is “obnoxious” and that “students seeking to be Baker Scholars hurt us all.” Students also spoke of a social cost that comes with pursuing the accolade—“I would be sacrificing likability,” said one white woman. Others felt receiving the award carried a negative signaling effect: one white woman, for example, said becoming a Baker Scholar “means you did the MBA wrong,” suggesting that the effort, time, and prioritization required reflects poor choices. Despite its divisive reputation and lack of transparency, 41% of respondents reported that they started RC year striving to become a Baker Scholar, but over half of these students gave up on the aspiration very early in their RC year.

In the Classroom

TL; DR: Men report taking more controversial and contrarian views than do women in RC classes, and men are disproportionately considered to be “geniuses” by their section mates.

 Self-reported, white and Asian women took controversial or contrarian views in RC classes the least frequently, while Black/Latina/Hispanic women reported doing so as frequently as white men. Asian men reported taking controversial or contrarian viewpoints most frequently (see Exhibit D).

To learn more about perceptions of intelligence in others, we asked students to consider whom they think of as a genius in their section. Genius is historically and culturally more strongly associated with men—survey findings suggest that this association exists locally in our own community. Men were significantly over-represented in responses to this question relative to the class population: 81% of people recalled the genius in their section to be a man, whereas men make up only 56% of the class.

Outside the Classroom

TL; DR: Women perceive higher opportunity costs to doing an MBA than do men. Women turn to more avenues for emotional support than do men, as do students who identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian or queer relative to heterosexual students. Family responsibilities vary across the community, and thoughts about starting or growing a family factor into decision-making for the majority of students, both men and women.

In addition to shedding light on experiences within the classroom, the HBS MBA Experience Survey also sought to elucidate student considerations for entering the MBA program and how people spend time outside of class. Overall, compared to men, women perceived more major opportunity costs of doing an MBA and rated loss of salary for two years as a higher opportunity cost. This finding was driven primarily by the high proportion of white women who see lost salary as a major opportunity cost (91%) relative to white men (76%) and Asian men (60%).

Exhibit D

In terms of emotional support, the survey revealed that women turned to more avenues of support than did men. Students who identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian or queer also turned to more sources than did heterosexual students. Black/Latino/Hispanic students turned to fewer avenues for emotional support than did other racial groups. Overall, people were more likely to turn to HBS peers who identify as women than to peers who identify as men.

In terms of family life, the survey exposed some sensitive issues that are rarely incorporated into the mainstream narratives of student experiences at HBS. Students have varying levels of care and financial responsibilities towards extended family members: 15% of international students versus six percent of students from the US provided financial support to relatives. Additionally, 30% of Black/Latina/Hispanic women provided financial support to relatives, compared to only four percent of white men and five percent of white women. Students caring for children represent seven percent of survey respondents; responses to open-ended questions suggested that their unique needs were not always considered. For example, one person noted that “students with families were seen as second-class citizens within the section.” Most students (64% of survey respondents) factored thoughts about starting or growing a family into decision-making during the MBA. We observed no significant gender difference.

Finally, we were heartened by how students in the class of 2021 defined personal success: they reported caring most about happiness, making a positive difference in the world, and respect (see Exhibit E).

Overall, these findings shed light on student experiences during their RC year of the MBA, shattering certain myths around campus and raising further questions. We welcome and appreciate any reactions to the findings outlined above—please feel free to email any of the authors with thoughts and ideas.

Christina Bracht (MBA ’21) holds a degree in mathematics and organizational psychology and worked in consulting before HBS. Originally from Germany, she is passionate about fostering inclusion and compassion. Music and dance, particularly to Afrobeats, is guaranteed to put a smile on her face.

Rachel Drapper (MBA ’22) has a BA in egyptology from Oxford and is a former strategy consultant, specializing in transportation. Motivated initially by the paucity of women in the sector, Rachel became a passionate advocate for gender equity and inclusion. For fun, Rachel plays rugby, cycles and skis.

Julie Guzman (MBA ’22) holds a degree in Islamic civilizations and societies with a focus on language.  She served as a Military Intelligence Officer in the United States Army before HBS. While in the Army, she recruited and trained Afghan women to serve in their country’s special operations and has a continued interest in equity and inclusion.

Gabbie Ivey (MBA ’22) holds a degree in finance and economics and worked in corporate strategy before HBS. She is dedicated to authentic leadership and inclusion and loves to hike and spend time outside.