The World’s Most Powerful MBA Gatekeeper

Deirdre Leopold, managing director of admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School

In the hierarchy of MBA admissions people, Deirdre “Dee” Leopold sits at the very top. As Harvard Business School’s managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid, she sees more applications in a single year than any other MBA admission official in the world. The 910 members of the Class of 2012, chosen from 9,524 applicants, will get their official dean’s welcome on Sept. 7th and soon after settle into their first classes in Harvard’s two-year MBA program. With the exception of 2004, when 10,382 people applied to the Harvard Business School, it was the highest number of applications Leopold’s office ever had to process.

So while some other top business schools, including Wharton and Cornell, saw their applications fall for their just-entered classes, Harvard’s applications were up by 5%, from 9,093 a year-earlier. It’s a major change from only a few years ago when Harvard received just 6,552 applications for the Class of 2007. The more recent flood has allowed Leopold to post some of the most impressive numbers ever for an MBA admissions machine: only 11% of applicants were accepted, and 89% of those agreed to come to Harvard. No less important, this year’s incoming HBS students also boast the highest average GMAT ever—a record-breaking score of 724, up five points from 719.

Through all the ups and downs, including the days when all the apps were on paper and GMAT scores were 50 points lower, Leopold has seen it all. She has been a member of Harvard Business School’s Admissions Board for more than two decades. During that time, she has been involved in all areas of the board’s activities. A graduate of Columbia University, Leopold earned her MBA in 1980 from Harvard, where she was co-president of the Women’s Student Association. Before attending HBS, she worked in New York as a portfolio manager for Merrill Lynch.

Without question, she is the most powerful gatekeeper in the MBA world, the person who often stands between nearly 10,000 obsessive applicants a year and a highly valued seat in an HBS section. Leopold’s posts on her official blog–The Director’s Blog–are dissected and parsed as closely as minutes of Federal Reserve Board meetings. And one admissions consultant recently ran a poll on his website in which visitors were asked to vote on who is “hotter” (ie., sexier)? Leopold captured nearly a third of the 2,400 votes cast to win what she would surely regard a dubious distinction.

I recently sat down with Leopold in her second-floor office in Dillon House. In a wide-ranging interview, Harvard Business School’s gatekeeper talks about the difference between what she says is diversity that is easy to observe versus a deeper notion of diversity that will lead to superior leaders, how the admissions process has changed over the years, and how an MBA candidate wowed her in a recent interview.

Coming off one of Harvard’s most successful admissions cycles, Leopold was in a good mood, quick to laugh and confident to be quite candid about one of the most anxiety-filled parts of a person’s journey to business school. She said her staff’s 30-minute interviews with MBA candidates are largely meant to screen out applicants with potentially troubling character flaws. “If you cannot behave yourself for 30 minutes with a member of the admissions board at Harvard and we accept you,” she says, “it would be like trying to bring a loaded gun on a plane. So to that extent, we’re baggage screeners, without any thought that we are going to catch every character flaw, but we are going to pay attention.”

A pet peeve? Boastful applicants who take far too much credit for their accomplishments. An example, she cites, is someone from a private equity firm involved in a major deal. “They talk about their substantial accomplishments and they think I could believe that at their entry level there is no one else in the organization,” she says. “They do billion-dollar deals and all the grown ups are somewhere else. They don’t realize that the goal of this application is really not to make yourself stand out but simply to tell your story.”

Leopold also suggested that the essays required by business schools might have turned the application process into an “essay-writing contest.” “Because it’s the element of the application that applicants have the most control over, it’s become very important. And it’s the one area of the application that admission consultants can come in and fill that space. Consultants can’t come in and fix your transcript, improve your GMAT, or change your job. But they can help you with this anxiety around what a business school wants to hear. Which is exactly the question you shouldn’t be asking. It should be what you want to say as an applicant.”

Did the number of applications to this class surprise you, particularly because some schools have reported declines?

I’ve learned to not be surprised by anything. I’ve learned that there can be any number of macroeconomic or geopolitical trends that influence it. The class of 2004 was the high water mark and that was influenced by the collapse of the dot-com bubble. This year is the second highest number—just over 9,500.

HBS Class of 2012 by Undergraduate Degree Year

Class of 2012 by Undergraduate Degree Year

So what happens to an application once you receive it?

I can give you some broad guidelines of how we do it. Everything is coming in online these days. That feels different. I have been here since 1980. When you submitted an application on paper, you actually got an instant blink feel about a person. You got it from the type of paper they chose or how neat the application was filled out. We didn’t have word limits. So you could also see how many words a person used to answer what seemed like a pretty short question. You were able to have an impression of the person. And then when things evolved to online, a little of that tactile feel has been taken away because what you’re now seeing is a screen, in essence. So what happens is, we get the written application, and it’s a lot of stuff.

I don’t know how the business school admissions process ever evolved into this world of a lot of essays. I don’t know if anyone has ever mapped the ability to write essays to the ability to lead a complex organization. I think it’s a vestigial remnant of a time when business schools did not do any interviewing. So the only way we had to get to know a candidate was through these essays. So each school developed its own essays which became not only questions they want answered but signals they want to send about their school’s personality, profile, values, etc.

At one time, when I applied, there were eight essays. It got to be an extravaganza of essay writing. We have to step back and say, at the end of the day this is not an essay-writing contest. But out there in the applicant world, because it’s the element of the application they have the most control over, it’s become very important. And it’s the one area of the application that consultants can come in and fill that space.

Consultants can’t come in and fix your transcript, improve your GMAT, or change your job. But they can help you with this anxiety around what a business school wants to hear. Which is exactly the question you shouldn’t be asking. It should be what you want to say as an applicant.

We very quickly but thoroughly review all the written applications and decide which belong in the group to invite for an interview. Everyone who is gets admitted has to be interviewed. But you can’t choose to be interviewed. It’s not an elective thing. So we try to get to 1,800 or so finalists. What we want is, once you’re being interviewed, we want you to have a little better than an even chance of being admitted. That balance feels right so the interview is not meant to be a slam dunk or rubber stamp nor just a one-in-ten chance of getting in. We’re lucky because when we make an offer of admission, roughly nine times out of ten the candidate will choose us. So we can shape the class quite early at the invite and interview stage. When we send out these 1,800 invitations, that population is roughly the way the class might look on a whole bunch of dimensions.

So you have a one-in-two shot of getting in if you’re interviewed?

Roughly, it’s about a 60% chance of getting in.

How many people read an HBS application?

Every application gets a minimum of two reviews and by the time someone is admitted you could have five or six people involved in this. I would say that every application is read twice, and then once you get into whether to admit or not, it would be reviewed at least three or four times. And then, we could bring lots of people to look at things.

In the past, the Graduate Management Admissions Council had produced some research which showed that the GMAT typically accounts for 30 to 40% of the admit decision at most business schools. How important is the GMAT score to a Harvard applicant?

I don’t think we have a formula. Other schools may weight these different parts but we are completely subjective. We might take you because we think you are exceptionally strong in a particular area and fine in the others. But that would be sort of a moving target so there is no weighting formula. My thinking on the GMAT and the GRE is that they are both pretty good measures of what a standardized test can measure which is not your intelligence but your ability to commit to do well on a standardized test. Nobody walks into the GMAT cold. People prepare for these tests.

There has been a fairly significant increase in GMAT scores.

No kidding.

There are now 15 schools in the U.S. reporting GMAT scores of 700 or above for their enrolled students.

The average GMAT score for our entire applicant pool is over 700. So that means that people before they apply to a school are doing a fair amount of self-selecting. Going back many years, you would see a much more spontaneous or impulsive decision to apply to a business school. It was, ‘I’ll apply and let’s see what happens,’ because information wasn’t as readily available from all these different sources. If you applied to a business school, chances were you never visited the campus. You read their catalog, which was the only thing you had. So you had no idea if you were seen as a viable or strong candidate, but now there are so many ways that candidates can do their homework and be good diligent shoppers beforehand.

Is that why GMAT scores are up at most top schools?

It could be that you simply don’t take the test until you have scored high enough on all these practice tests. The GMAT is now given every day so you can take it every 30 days. In earlier years, the GMAT was only given a certain number of times a year. So you didn’t have as many opportunities to keep taking this test and submit a higher score.

So the apps come in. They get two reads at a minimum. They get graded, right?

It’s go, or no go. I review all applications that have been interviewed. I interview my full share, too, so I will interview 50 to 60 candidates in any given round. I go to New York and California. I have in the past been to Europe as well. But again, our interview model is that almost all of our interviews are done by us, members of the admissions board, which is different. We used to use alums to an extent, but we don’t have a culture of using students so that would be off the consideration set for us. We think it’s better for a small group of people to be completely exhausted at all times (Leopold says this jokingly) so they that can do their own curve (assessing all candidates in interviews under the same criteria). At the end of the day, we’re not using our energy trying to calibrate interviewers with candidates. Everybody sees enough people so they can say, ‘Wow, this person is really strong.’

What are you trying to find out?

Each interview is 30 minutes long. We’re trying to assess a whole bunch of things. The first thing is to screen out, to the extent that we can, hubris and character issues. If you cannot behave yourself for 30 minutes with a member of the admissions board at Harvard and we accept you, it would be like trying to bring a loaded gun on a plane. So to that extent, we’re baggage screeners, without any thought that we are going to catch every character flaw, but we are going to pay attention. Once you are beyond that issue, we’re looking for your ability to fit into this learning model, which is not a classic academic model of you sit still and listen and take notes and write papers and spit back stuff. You come into a 90-person section and you are there to contribute. You are there not to be a bystander but are there and willing to put yourself on the line and take a risk and say that ‘I think that Sally Smith in this case should do this and here’s why.’ And you need to be able to accept pushback, to be interested, alert and engaged. I need to know you want to be there.

I am a huge fan of curiosity and I think that every interview that anyone of us has will look for the kind of person who will dig into the case about the company they never heard of, in an industry they don’t care about, and still be 100% engaged.

Is there a scoring sheet for the interview?

It’s really rough and the numbers aren’t determinative. They are meant to be guidelines. A superb, off-the-charts person in an interview may not get admitted because at the end of the day the interview isn’t meant to be the lightening round where how you perform in 30 minutes determines your fate. It’s not, you’re in or you’re out. You might say this person is a star in the interview but we have a lot of people with similar backgrounds who did well and we just can’t take them all. So the shaping of the class can become more of a driving factor than the evaluation.

There is a senior team of people here who decide who goes out to interview and then the write-ups come back to them for another round of review so they have a feedback loop, and then everything comes to me. We have meetings every so often to discuss some of them.

What role do recommendations play in the process?

Everybody worries a lot about the recommendations. We require three of them. Who should write them? People who know you well enough to answer the questions which are ‘describe this person, what is the most constructive piece of feedback you’ve given the candidate and how well did they respond.’

A lot of people think that they need to have someone famous or have an HBS alumus be a recommender. Is that true?

No. We also have people who try to get current HBS students to write on their behalf. I have a pretty standard response to that. I say ‘I’m so glad our students want the very best people to be here, but it’s really important to me that people are not advantaged in our process by being fortunate enough to have HBS students as friends and colleagues.’ It is a level playing field, and we are trying to make the field as level as possible.

What’s the hardest part about shaping a class and getting the makeup and social dynamic to be just so?

We have lots of piles all over the place. There is no formula. It’s funny that we talk about the mosaic of diversity and so many people focus on some of the stuff that I would call (easily visible and measurable) diversity like gender, race, and nationality. The next level would be where you worked for a few years. That’s where I think people get stuck in the quick sand. When applicants think about what they are when they apply to business school, they say, ‘I am an engineer.’ ‘I am a consultant.’ But I can line up six people from the same private equity (PE) firm that are applying and I can find more elements to differentiate them than similarities to unite them.

They will come into the class—and they will say ‘Oh, I am from firm PE’ and wear a sweatshirt with the firm’s name on their chest. But I will know that one of them grew up in rural Arkansas in a single parent household and paid his own way through Michigan State. And the other might have had been an entrepreneur in college. Those levels of diversity–your background, the hardwiring of how you lead people—are what matter. I go on the road and say until I am blue in the face that ‘How you’re hardwired to lead in a school that is training leaders to make a difference in the world is the most exciting level of diversity in the classroom.’

You take someone who has always wanted to be student class president or someone who wants to work up to be the CEO of a Fortune 50 company and has incredible patience and skill for hierarchy. And you put them in a case discussion with an entrepreneur who has no interest in that sort of life. And then you put in another person who might be someone who can get a small team of fractious people who are jealous and fighting and get them to perfectly row in crew, and pull their oars at the same time, and then get someone who quite honestly might not be the person you would think is a leader but who has this track record of presenting in a way that can change a discussion. You mix those people together in a class and that’s the most exciting diversity you could ever get. When you see that in an application process, you say, ‘I want him in the class or I want her in the class.’

Dee, the typical MBA student tends to have five years of work experience. Yet, Harvard now has a program, dubbed 2+2, to welcome a much higher percentage of students with only two years of experience. Is this because Harvard wants a younger class?

This program is relatively new, but it is a re-jiggering of the old deferred admission program. It is meant to attract people to business school at a time when they are making other decisions—thinking about law or medicine or engineering. These Millennials want to have their plans mapped out and so do their parents. So the 2+2 program is meant to get the MBA degree before them. They apply in their junior year of college and before they become seniors we accept them, giving them a two-year deferral before they start at Harvard. The first class of about 100 of them will begin next year as members of the Class of 2013.

Is the program also meant to bring the average age of a Harvard MBA down?

It’s about capturing college seniors at the time they’re making decisions about their future. In the Class of 2012, zero percent have no work experience. There’s the perception out there that suddenly Harvard’s average age of admission is 22. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our metric is years from college graduation rather than work experience. A 30-year old, might have less work experience because she’s been in a PhD program. We do want to straighten out a perception that there is a direct correlation between work experience and the strength of an applicant’s candidacy. People were staying in jobs they didn’t want to be in because they wanted to be a stronger applicant.

What has it been like for you to switch gears and recruit college juniors who are 20-year-olds?

Let me tell you a story. There was this kid who was coming into my office here for an interview in the summer. He just finished his junior year. It was a 9 a.m. interview on a Monday morning. We know how young this group is so we are really primed to make them as comfortable as possible. And when this young guy arrived, I could tell he was nervous so I tried to toss him a softball question.

‘If this were New Year’s Eve and you had to make a resolution about what you would do to get better what would be on your list?’ I asked.

He said, ‘I would really like to be more organized and make better plans.’

So I‘m thinking to myself, why would he say that?

‘Can you give me an example so I understand what you mean,” I asked.

He says, ‘I was getting ready to come here from Washington, D.C., and I was packing and I thought I had done a great job trying hard to be well organized. I got to my hotel last night in Boston, unpacked my suitcase, and I realized I didn’t have a dress shirt.’

So it’s 10 p.m. on a Sunday, and he is freaking out. He has to meet us at 9 the next morning. I said, ‘Okay, that is scary. What did you do?’

He said, ‘I had a funky t-shirt from college. I went into the street and managed to barter it for this shirt.’

He had a perfect white dress shirt on, and I was thinking, bingo. That’s what I want at HBS: Someone who could think on his feet and figure it out. I don’t know if I could have gotten to that story any other way.

In the first year of the 2+2 program, Harvard accepted 106 undergrads from 630 applications for an acceptance rate of 17%. In this latest batch, the school accepted 100—a fifth of them from Harvard College– from 828 applicants, for an acceptance rate of 12%. About 60% of the admitted students have engineering, hard sciences, or technical undergraduate majors. So why did Harvard start the program?

We haven’t had them physically here yet. The first group arrives in September of 2011, after two years of work. So we started almost three years ago. So they apply after their junior year and are in a segmented round in the summer. They all come here for an interview. We don’t travel to them. Then, we select them the first of September and they have that senior year to get some (career) coaching from our people. It’s kind of getting their heads into what an HBS coach is like. Our coaches help them figure out what to do for the two years. They go out and work and come here for abbreviated summer get-togethers and then hopefully they will arrive all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed two years later. We had a 100% yield on the admits.

What we’re trying to do is have more scientists and engineers in there, people who I believe will end up in business and have a high impact, but they don’t know it at the time they are in college. They think that business school means you are going to wear a suit every day, go to a bank and sit in a cubicle. They don’t know what an MBA can do for them — that it’s a degree that can take them virtually anywhere they want. When you get in front of them and explain what MBAs really do, they say, ‘I didn’t know that.’ They get it that when the engineers who want to tinker and make things like Thomas Edison meet with the people who want to finance things that is a nice meeting ground.

What are the most common mistakes applicants make?

I guess I get annoyed when people overstate their importance in ways that are ridiculous. They talk about their substantial accomplishments and they think I could believe that at their entry level there is no one else in the organization. They do billion-dollar deals and all the grown ups are somewhere else. They take too much credit for things. They don’t realize that the goal of this application is really not to make yourself stand out but simply to tell your story. We have plenty of people who have done ordinary things very well. If you look at these application questions, your blink response is the answer. Figure a way to tell that story cleanly so that regular people can understand it and it is not laden with jargon. I will paraphrase something that a peer of mine says every well: ‘Instead of thinking of the application as a m exercise, think of it as an accounting exercise.’ Instead of marketing yourself, think of it as a process in which you’re going to tell your story. Let us do the selection. Realize at the end of the day that at an elite school, it’s all about selection. You can try to understand an evaluation. But you can’t control selection.

What about a common mistake during the interview?

Thinking it’s the opportunity where you are going to recite what you’ve already said in your written application and not understanding that is a conversation or even a dance. We’ll both dance but we’re going to lead. If I ask you a question, I’d like to hear the answer to the question I’m asking, not the question you wished I had asked.


Leopold’s Record as Director of Havard Business School Admissions

(The cited year below refers to the admissions cycle for the class that will graduate two years later.)
Year Applications Percent Admitted Yield
2010 9,524 11% 89%
2009 9,093 12% 89%
2008 8,661 12% 91%
2007 7,438 14% 89%
2006 6,716 15% 91%
2005 6,559 16% 89%