Toughest Year Ever for HBS Applicants

With the round one application deadline for the Harvard Business School just 24 days away, this year’s admissions cycle at the school promises to be the toughest ever for applicants. The reason: there may be 100 fewer seats available in the class due to a new deferred admission program for undergraduates. Indeed, Harvard’s acceptance rate–11% for the just entered Class of 2012–will likely fall to its lowest level ever because of the influx of these younger students next fall.

A spokesperson confirmed today that the size of Harvard’s incoming class next year will remain the same despite the earlier acceptance of 106 applicants under the school’s 2+2 program for undergraduates. It will be the first year that Harvard’s applicant pool will be directly impacted by the program which allows juniors in college to apply for admission to HBS. So instead of filling 910 seats next fall from its applicant pool, Harvard will be looking to fill about 810 spots. Deirdre Leopold, managing director of admissions and financial aid, believes that some of the admitted 2+2 students may want to defer the start for another year so that fewer than 100 could show up for class.

Another likely impact of the program is that the MBA population at Harvard Business School will become considerably younger–reinforcing what seems to be a change in admissions strategy in recent years.  In the Class of 2011, Harvard MBAs have on average more than a full year’s less work experience than just three years ago. MBAs in the Class of 2011 average 41 months of work experience, down from the 54-month average for the Class of 2008.

It’s the most dramatic shift in such numbers in recent memory. Work experience tends to be a moving target for most admissions offices which tend to keep the aveages within a tight range. At Harvard, for example, it went from 54 months in 2005 to 52 months in 2006. Then, it fell to 50 months for the Class of 2007 before inching back up to 54 months for the Class of 2008. But the 12-month shift in the past two years is a significant change–and, more importantly, it has occurred long before the impact of the 2+2 program students who would naturally bring these averages much lower. Adding the 2+2 students to the current mix would effectively lower the average by an additional two months to 39 months of work experience. Interestingly, Harvard may be quietly making some changes to offset the forthcoming 2+2 impact because the average work experience for its just entered Class of 2012 is 44 months.

Even so, among all the elite schools, Harvard remains something of an outlier, at the extreme end of a youth movement. The average work experience of MBAs in the Class of 2011 at Dartmouth’s Tuck School and Northwestern’s Kellogg School is 64 months, 23 months more than Harvard, while the average for the same class at Wharton, Yale, MIT and Berkeley is 60 months, 19 months more than HBS (see table below). Comparable numbers for incoming classes this fall are not yet available.

Business School Months of Work Experience* Age
Harvard Business School 41 26
Stanford 47 27
Virginia (Darden) 49 28
Cornell (Johnson) 54 27
Columbia 55 28
NYU (Stern) 56 27
UCLA (Anderson) 57 28
Chicago (Booth) 58 28
MIT (Sloan) 60 28
Pennsylvania (Wharton) 60 28
Berkeley (Haas) 60 28
Yale 60 28
Michigan (Ross) 62 28
Northwestern (Kellogg) 64 28
Dartmouth (Tuck) 64 28
Duke (Fuqua) 67 29

* Average months of work experience for students in the Class of 2011. Average age at the time of enrollment in the fall of 2009.

At Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, the median amount of work experience for the Class of 2011–the latest figures made public–is four years, or 48 months, exactly the same number for the Class of 2008. The average is 47 months, still eight months more than HBS, making Stanford the closest to Harvard’s work experience averages. Stanford reports a range of work experience from a low of zero to a high of 21 years.

Harvard’s 2+2 program was launched by Leopold in an attempt to lure highly talented undergrads who might otherwise pursue graduate work in law, medicine or engineering schools into business school. They apply in their junior year and are accepted and given a two-year deferral during the summer before their senior year. Then, HBS assigns career coaches to the accepted candidates who have to get two years of work experience before showing up as an MBA candidate.

When Harvard first announced the program in 2007, the news drew a disapproving letter to the editor of The Harbus, the weekly student newspaper for the business school. “Current HBS students have no problem with you letting in 100 kids with no experience, but please keep them away from us and don’t take away slots from 100 well-deserved applicants,” the MBA wrote. “Just up enrollment by 100 and give them their own section so they don’t ruin our case discussions with zero experience….I think each section right now has one kid right out of undergrad. 2+2 means 10 per section. Everyone will agree that discussions will go downhill with this many folks having zero experience. Give them their own section.”

The latest batch of accepted applicants in the 2+2 program, however, are an impressive bunch. Only last week, Harvard announced that it had accepted 100 students—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. In the first year of the 2+2 program, Harvard accepted 106 undergrads from 630 applications for an acceptance rate of 17%. Those students, now into their second year of work experience, will be in the Class of 2013.

In an earlier interview with Poets&Quants, Leopold noted that “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.”

Historical Class Profiles for Harvard Business School

2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001
Class Size 899 889 908 914 895 891 891 894 911 878
Female 38% 36% 34% 38% 34% 34% 33% 36% 36% 31%
International 33% 35% 33% 33% 32% 32% 33% 33% 32% 35%
Countries Represented 71 65 69 67 66 72 66 67 67 N/A
US Ethnic Minorities 27% 24% 22% 22% 21% 22% 19% 29% 20% 18%
Avg. Months – FT Work Exp.


42 48 54 50 52 54 52 45 N/A N/A