Love on the Brain

After Valentine’s Day, HBS students reflect on the state of romance on campus.

Rory Finnegan, Editor-in-Chief

We’re a few drinks deep when the topic finally comes up. Maybe we’re at Daedelus or Alden & Harlow or someone’s apartment in Continuum. It probably took us three tries to schedule this but now that we’re here, we gush about how great it is to be catching up (“it’s been so long!”) After complaining about classes, the craziness of our calendars, and the disorganized treks we’ve gone on recently, we’re ready to talk about it. Like clockwork, someone asks the question: “So… how’s your love life?” 

Sound familiar? I thought so. For those who arrived at HBS single, this is a conversation we have again and again. Even the happily married among us are hungry for gossip, eager to know who is hooking up or going out or crushing on a section mate. 

In February, love is especially top-of-mind – with Valentine’s Day as a social focal point for couples and singles alike. This year on campus, several new and old HBS traditions brought it even more to the forefront. 

The first was a series of pitch nights across RC sections, but not the type you might think takes place at a business school. Instead, students prepared slides to show off their most eligible single friends in front of one to two other sections. Alice Zhai (MBA ’24), a social chair for Section B, helped put together the “BAE” singles pitch night in collaboration with Sections A and E. “I was surprised how many people put themselves out there,” she told me. When I asked Joe Sciamanna (MBA ’24), one of Section E’s social chairs, if he knew of any matches coming out of the event, he hedged, “None that I can comment on.” (For what it’s worth, I heard secondhand about at least five different singles exchanging numbers across sections). 

The Asian Affinity Business Association Club further buoyed the wave of romantic gestures with its annual “Candygrams” campaign, enabling students to send a sweet treat with an optionally anonymous message for just $6. I was thrilled to find that my seatmate had received a joking candygram from one of his friends. When he deemed the candy too sugary (he had big plans at the gym that day), I took one for the team and pocketed all of his Lindt truffles.

New to HBS this year, and arguably most newsworthy, was Marriage Pact. The dating questionnaire, whose algorithm uses the latest research on romantic compatibility to create optimal matches, was started by two Stanford students several years ago. It is already popular on college campuses across the country (Harvard included); HBS is its first trial with graduate students. 

Marriage Pact launched at HBS via word of mouth on the evening of February 13th. Initial reactions to the questionnaire varied. One friend told me that he thought it was stupid – “at first when I saw it I got the ick” – but agreed that it would, at the very least, be an interesting social experiment. By the next morning, February 14th, Marriage Pact was all the buzz on campus. “Once people found out their friends were doing it or talking about it, they wanted to do it, too,” Michael Bervell (MBA ’24), who helped bring the questionnaire to HBS, shared. “On that day, anyone you talked to, this is what they talked about. It was the topic of conversation.” 

By the numbers, nearly 800 students participated over the 48 hour submission period – around 60% of those participants were RCs, and the gender breakdown was roughly even. Each participating student received five messages over the course of the multi-day matching process. After filling out the questionnaire, participants received emails with punchy pink graphics welcoming “rookie romantics” to the world of Marriage Pact. The message also compared each participant to their peers on dimensions like “flakiness,” “being the mom friend,” “dying on every hill,” “ambition,” and more. A few hours before matches were formally revealed, a teaser email shared the initials of their perfect match. This fueled the fire: WhatsApp groups lit up with screenshots as students scrambled to guess who they’d been paired with (if you’re like me, you also scoured Slack for anyone with those initials). Later that night came the grand reveal: participants learned who they’d been matched with, why they were compatible, and the extent of that compatibility down to a hundredth of a percent.

The Marriage Pact website boasts its algorithm’s superior ability to “find your best backup plan out of everyone on campus.” Did it work? 

Results were mixed. The questionnaire included anyone, so it was not unheard of to match with a married classmate. Some people were paired with section mates; I know of at least one who matched with their seatmate. An RC I spoke to heard about matches with both friends and strangers, and knew someone who had been paired with their current fling. Another matched with a guy she had been secretly crushing on. Still another told me he was looking forward to breakfast with his match in Spangler this week. Some people enjoyed the “game” but weren’t sure what they’d do next. “I haven’t reached out yet, but there’s still time,” a student told me. 

Perhaps it’s too soon to tell if the whole thing worked. And what would it mean if it “worked” anyway? The algorithm promises to find a back-up for the future, after all – not a partner for the present.

“I hope it helps us to not take ourselves too seriously,” Bervell told me. “It’s a fun way to get to know yourself, and someone else, better. Even if you didn’t meet the person you matched with, you know you have someone out there with shared values. That’s a win in my book.”

The morning after receiving my match, I woke up from a dream in which the singles of HBS had all congregated in Schwartz Pavilion and paired up, whisking one another away into the glow of SFP 2. Everyone was laughing and dancing and madly in love. “In your dreams,” I muttered to myself, rather unimaginatively. But that dream was not too far off from the perceived reality of most prospective students: as a Harbus reporter wrote in 2015, “People in the outside world glamorize what it is like to be a 20-something in business school. Romantic options are far scarcer than anyone likes to admit.” To better understand the current student body sentiment on campus romance – both more broadly and in light of the love-inspired events taking place last month – I interviewed and surveyed dozens of individuals across the RC and EC years, most of whom asked to remain anonymous. It turns out not much has changed since 2015.

“It feels like a small pool,” an RC who is currently single shared. “Everyone is already in a relationship,” another student agreed. When I talked to people in committed relationships, they felt similarly. A married student said, “The dating scene seems tough. I would have not liked being single here. It seems like most people have a significant other.”

There is also a sense that privacy is hard to come by. “The rumor mill at HBS is very real, and as a consequence, I think a lot of people try to keep things quiet to avoid gossip,” one student told me. Many feel that their peers make “dating decisions based on how they’re perceived and not compatibility or merit” which leads to some people being “far too guarded, not willing to make a move or take a chance with someone.” Another talked about the “challenge of knowing that I can’t take a risk without the community buzzing” and how that has kept him “a bit more on the sidelines.”

Especially within sections, romance is often deemed too risky. “I think that a lot of people here are looking to date, but there’s definitely a slight stigma associated with dating within the class or section,” a single RC told me. I also spoke to several section officers, one of whom said he had “heard stories last year of sections where people consistently hooked up.” But, he clarified, “I don’t think that’s happening in my section.” When I asked someone from another section if he had heard of any section romances,  he said, “None that I know of.” A third implied that it likely wouldn’t happen this year, but could be on the table in the future. “My sense is that people aren’t that interested in dating within the section this year just because everyone is too close in the same classroom every day,” she said. “All I see are platonic relationships.” (Section leaders may not be as privy to the flirting going on among their peers as they think; I was informed of a non-trivial number of section connections.)

Many students commented on what they perceived to be a negative gender dynamic. “For women interested in men, it’s very demoralizing because it feels like men have a wider selection,” I was told by a female RC. “It’s especially tough for accomplished women,” someone else shared. A male student said he thinks “men date HBS women less than women date HBS men.” More broadly, the dating culture in business school is “tough for people because we’re all in different life phases” – unlike college, where the age range is much narrower.

There are some bright spots: most people I talked to knew of at least one happy couple who’d gotten together since arriving on campus. An HBS survey from 2015 reported that of alumni between ages 25 and 30, 31% of married women and 16% of married men had tied the knot with a fellow HBS alum. One optimistic student said, “The dating pool is awesome. So many amazing eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. I’m excited about tons of relationships (friendship or otherwise) and prospects.” On the sillier side, a Slack community called #ugly-singles-only emerged last semester as a space to “post photos and jokes about dating life,” founder Jonathan Lee (MBA ’24) told me. The group has even gotten together in person for events like ugly sweater karaoke. 

So, what is the verdict on the state of romance at HBS? Is it true that “the days of meeting your partner in business school are over,” as one RC told me? Yes, the percentage of the student population seeking a partner is small. Yes, you will inevitably run into the person you slept with over the weekend the following Monday in Spangler. Yes, people might talk about it. 

And yet, even presented with the facts, even immersed in the experience myself, I just do not believe it. I’m a hopeless romantic. So while you may not meet “the one” in business school, I am confident you will meet at least one person who finds their way into your heart – a lifelong best friend, a first date who changes your mind on something you thought you believed, or a hottie from the law school who is perfect for a semester-long fling. And hey, in ten years time, you can always reach out to your Marriage Pact match as backup. 

Rory Finnegan (MBA ’24) is originally from New Jersey. She graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in poetry writing in 2018. Prior to HBS, she worked in consulting and CEO communications in New York.