What Harvard Expects Recommenders To Do

“Dee” Leopold, director of admissions at Harvard Business School, has some very keen advice for recommenders of applicants. “The best recommendations have a lot of verbs,” she told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published today (March 1). “They say, ‘She did this,’ versus adjectives that simply describe you.”

SCREENING FOR UNDESIRABLE QUALITIES THAT WOULD BE TOXIC

In the seven-question Q&A, Leopold said she sometimes questions her own admission decisions. “This process isn’t perfect,” said Leopold. “We’re like very experienced country doctors who see a lot of patients. We’re screening out undesirable qualities that would be toxic in our community. We like to think that our arrogance detectors are pretty good. We’re looking for confidence, with humility.”

AN APPLICANT WHO IGNORED HARVARD’S ADMISSIONS DIRECTOR AND MADE A GOOD IMPRESSION?

Leopold then gave the Journal a recent example during an interview session she held at the Harvard Club in New York. “The person I was supposed to interview was engaged in conversation with a mother and a daughter. They were adorable, but they wouldn’t let him go. He knew he had 30 minutes. I’m standing there, and he had such grace and composure to treat these people well. That’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

NEEDS A CHIROPRACTOR ONCE THE APPLICATION SEASON IS OVER

The director of admissions said she spends a “minimum” of 10 minutes on every application for the 1,800 applicants who are invited to interview. Half of those are invited to attend Harvard. “If you aggregate all the times I go back, probably 30 minutes or so,” she said. “I sweep over, look at everything, and then go back. Everybody goes in different piles—things that I need to spend more time on, things that I trust my quick judgment on. I kind of go into hibernation after interviews. By the end of that period,” she joked, “I need a chiropractor.”

APPLICANTS ARE OVERESTIMATING THE IMPORTANCE OF THE ESSAYS

Asked how important the essay questions are in the overall application, Leopold said that she believes people overestimate the role they play. “They’re very, very helpful for the candidate, and they’re a really good platform for starting a discussion in an interview, but we don’t admit people because of an essay.

“I don’t need to have too much of a dramatic arc. There are some essays where I start reading and all of a sudden I feel like I’m in the middle of a very well-written novel. It can get overdone and overcrafted. Sometimes the challenge in the essay is to be honest and to be clear. It may be helpful for someone to say, “I have no ideas what you’re talking about.’ De-jargonizing is helpful.”

PLANS TO SURVEY THIS YEAR’S INCOMING CLASS TO GET A BETTER PICTURE OF ITS DIVERSITY AND BACKGROUND

Leopold also disclosed that Harvard intends to try something new with this year’s incoming class to get a broader and deeper picture of Harvard’s newest admits. “We’re going to try something a little different this year, asking (admitted students) to answer some questions,” she told the Journal. “How many have been involved in a start-up? How many have worked abroad? That might not show up in their most recent work experience, which is the way we have captured a class before.”

DON’T MISS: THE WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL MBA GATEKEEPER or HOW NOT TO BLOW YOUR HBS INTERVIEW

  • jay

    Ha yes Sandy I am quoting you. It’s the most honest and accurate assessment of the HBS admissions process that I have ever come across. Hope you don’t mind, but I thought it should be shared 🙂

  • HBSGURU

    hey Jay, are you quoting me? Misspellings and CAPS are give aways.

    Sandy a/k/a HBS guru

  • App2012

    I can’t agree more with the above poster!!! Its all about the number game..

  • jay

    I agree that applicants (especially HBS applicants) overestimate the importance of essays. When I hear people discussing how they plan to “differentiate themselves” through highly personal essays, I’m reminded of some words of wisdom offered by a well known admissions consultant (who shall remain nameless).

    “Yes, clients w. high gmats, high gpas and who work for traditional feeder organizations are getting interview invites, and clients w. profiles away from those markers are not. SHOCKING!!!!!!

    Every year there is a new class of applicants going on the same roller coaster ride. First they listen to the adcom BS about ‘anyone can get in,’ then some ‘experts’ blather on about how essay execution, and especially what the significance of the accomplishment was to you IS CRITICAL, then kids write and write, deluding themselves that their personal and by now sandpapered story matters SOOOOOO MUCH……………………………………… then results come out, and 8000 out of 9000 applicants feel SCREWED when lo and behold, despite adcom song and dance, and despite really personal and ga ga essays, and despite urban internet myths about FedEx guy who got in, the SAME SCHMUCKS AS ALWAYS GET IN.”