Harvard HBX (now called Harvard Business School Online HBSO) Tips & Words of Wisdom

I recently had someone e-mail me who was feeling unsure about her performance through the Harvard Business School’s HBX program. With her permission I’ve decided to post her e-mail and my response just in case there are others out there who are going through the same thing.

– – The e-mail – –

Hi Budd,

I came across your blog post regarding the HBX core program– I was wondering if you ended up passing? I am currently enrolled in the program myself and have been having doubts about my own program performance, your approach is quite refreshing and it made me curious!

Also, any tips you might have for me while completing the course would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you!!


– – The Response – –

Hi P.L.T,

Thank you for your e-mail. It’s always nice to hear from fellow HBXer. To answer your question, I did end up passing. I keep the HBX certificate in my office to remind me of the accomplishment. As for your program performance, I wouldn’t stress too much about it. When I did the program, my results weren’t that great and seeing the results some of my class mates posted on Facebook just made me feel stupid. So if you’re having doubts about your own performance, trust me you’re not alone.

As for tips on how to survive the program. Here’s a list of 10 things. (I use this format so you know how long I’ll be ranting for LOL)

1.  Think in absolute performance and not your relative performance against your peers. There’s no point comparing yourself to others, this is true not only for HBX but for everything else in life really. it’s crazy hard to figure out in absolute terms how much you’re learning so the best method I found was to compare what you know now compared to the pre-HBX you.

2. It’s pretty hard to avoid comparing yourself to others. Even if you were on the bottom of the class like I was, you need to remind yourself that there were plenty of people who applied and didn’t even make the cut. It’s like being in the Olympics, you might not be #1 there or even the top 10, but you’re still better than everyone around you where you come from that didn’t even get that far.

3. Supplement your learning. There is no textbook doing HBX. What’s covered in the lectures is just the guiding principles, you really need to do some supplemental learning on the side. While I’ve done a couple of accounting and economics courses prior to HBX, I have never in my life touched statistics (Business Analytics). Add the fact that I’ve never been that great with Math (never passed Gr. 11 math), I didn’t exactly understand everything right off the get go so I had to supplement my learning with whatever I could find whether it was Khan Academy or some random youtube videos of people trying to explain the topics.

4.Understand what kind of a learner you are. Some people can read stuff and memorize it immediately, some need to visualize it, others need to apply it. While HBX does a much better job at getting people to learn things than virtually every program I’ve ever done (and trust me I’ve done a lot), it may not be enough. I found it’s really important to understand how you best learn a new topic. Trying to rewatch the same videos over and over hoping it’ll click doesn’t always work for me so I had to find a way that I personally learned best.

5. Know don’t just memorize. This spins off the last point. Memorizing works for some people but I found that although I can force myself to memorize stuff verbatim for the short term, the important thing in business isn’t that you can regurgitate the concepts but rather know them well enough to apply. I found it to be much more effective to find a way that I can apply the business concepts in my own business. Don’t have a business? Start one. If you ever wanted to start a small business like a bakery, coffee shop or pet shop, this is a great time to get some of the ground work done. I found it to be really easy to understand the concepts when it’s your own business you need to apply this stuff you’re learning to. Trust me. EVERYTHING taught in HBX can be applied to any business out there.

6. Allocate time in your schedule for HBX, it’s hard but it’s doable. Don’t just do it on your free time, make time and dedicate time for HBX. I worked two jobs while juggling HBX and got home at 5am only to leave again around 10 or 11am. That meant I had to effectively make use of my time. I allocated about an hour a day between 5am and 6am when I got home to do my HBX courses. Whatever I couldn’t get done at home, I did during lunch at my day job. At my night job, I did all my supplemental learning. The HBX platform didn’t work on my iphone but Khan academy and youtube did so I made use of my time in between flights on those (I work for an airline at night). Personally I found 15mins to an hour a day is better than a full 3-4 hours on a random day I had off.

7. Exam prep. The exam itself is three back to back exams with no break in between. Given that the HBX courses are all technically intro courses, I deduced that like most other schools, the material covered on intro exams are more on the basic understanding of the concepts and not the deeper application of the concepts(which you’d force yourself to learn if you did what I did and applied it to your own business whether it was fictional or real). With this in mind, I found that my best course of action was to take the glossary PDF’s they give you at the end of each section, wipe the explanations and try to rewrite them with my own examples.

In case you’re wondering, the time allotted for each question on the exam is more than enough. If you’re not too sure about one question, just mark it as a question to go back to, move on and then go back to the ones you weren’t too sure about. This way you can bank minutes on easy questions to spend on the tougher ones later. I think I did the 3 hours exam in about 2 hours which honestly made me wonder if I actually did ok.

8. Fight imposter syndrome. If you’re like me, you probably feel like you don’t belong here and they must have made a mistake about letting you into the program. It’s normal. There’s no point focusing on who you were pre-HBX but rather who you want to be. You might feel like an imposter when you begin but once you finish you’ll realize that we were all imposters learning the craft at first.

9. Don’t quit. Know your goal and keep it in sight. Basically, ask yourself why did you really want to do HBX? How badly do you want that goal? Are you willing to make sacrifices to get it? For me, although I did want the Harvard education, the deep down “why” for me was to fulfil the dream of having what it takes to earn a piece of paper from Harvard and that’s what kept me going. Having to endure a whole lot of discomfort to make it happen was the price I had to pay to make this a reality.

Getting through HBX isn’t just a test of intelligence but also a test of perseverance. The Harvard Business School’s mission is to educate leaders who make a difference. You can’t lead and make a difference by giving up when things get tough. Personally I’d rather do my best, fail and learn something than to give up and quit. At least this way I can say I survived HBX and walk out knowing I still did better than those who quit.

In all honesty, getting into and through HBX was the confidence boost I needed to prove to myself that if I really, really, really, really wanted to make something happen, I could do it.

10. Get to know your peers and reach out. They’re a great resource. HBX is probably the only online program I’ve done where you can actually get to know your peers in a similar way to being in a physical class. Aside from helping you with HBX specific stuff, you can connect to some rather interesting individuals you’d never find anywhere. Going back to the previous point, I’m pretty sure HBS doesn’t accept people based on IQ alone but rather on the potential that the people they accept might actually make a difference in the world. I’d bank on more of my peers at HBX making it somewhere in life over most people I know. You never knew when you’ll need to pull the friends in high places card and this is one place where you can find people who have the potential to be in high places.

That’s about all I can think of. I hope that helps. The best thing you can do is press forward and do the best that you can. It’s pretty normal to feel like the stupidest person in the room when you’re in a room full of geniuses. I mean even though I passed, I think I was only in the 14th percentile. That meant that 86% of the people there were smarter than me, ultimately though we all ended up with the same piece of paper. Besides, I can’t inspire someone else to go through hell and back to make dreams happen if I don’t do it myself. (It makes a better story this way 😉 )



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