A Candid Look At HBS’ New Admit Changes

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

Shortly after the unveiling of the new Harvard Business School application, with its changed essay set Poets&Quants interviewed Sanford “Sandy”  Kreisberg, the founder of HBSguru.com, an admission consultancy which focuses on HBS and other leading business schools. Kreisberg has been consulting with applicants since the 1970s and has seen more than a dozen iterations of HBS applications, including the one Harvard MBA Admissions & Financial Aid Managing Director “Dee” Leopold herself filed with eight essay questions. (He was not Dee’s consultant).  He also typically does over 100 mock interviews for HBS candidates and writes the perennially favorite Poets&Quants’ weekly feature handicapping the odds of MBA applicants. As always, Sandy was his provocative self.

PQ: So Sandy, what do you think is driving this?

SK: Well, it could be the admissions office picking up a hint from some direct or off-the-cuff remark from the new Dean, Nitin Nohria, who has been ‘disruptive’ himself in his first years, especially the initiation of the Field Program (of trips and business plans) to the first year curriculum and who seems to like to shake things up.  It could be Dee Leopold wanting to make changes for the sake of changes, pre-empting a seven-year itch (she has been the adcom head for six years now). It could be “innovation envy,” a feeling that with the whole school running around and hiring coders to start companies, as part of the Field Program, well, admissions had to make a splash as well.  It could be all of the above.

PQ: What is you assessment of who this helps and who this hurts?

SK: It turns the application into something like a law school application, where they have your grades, your standardized test scores, and a couple of short essays.  That helps people with high grades and high GMATs and a clear and branded work pedigree.  It hurts non-traditional candidates, who have less room to explain themselves initially, and it hurts traditional candidates who were on the bubble, and also wanted to explain themselves.  One word you don’t hear about in this application is “leadership”–  which used to be the one-word description of HBS and a keystone of its motto, “to develop leaders who make a difference in the world.”  What they appear to looking for now are high-achievers who are hip to starting disruptive things, however defined, and new businesses. “Disruption potential” has replaced “Leadership potential” as the new buzz words.  Call it the Post-Zuckerberg effect.  Well,  the alternative –reality Zuckerberg Effect, they want Zuckerberg-types  who did not drop out, and instead get good grades, good jobs,  and found their “disruptive”  Zuckerberg mojo later in life.

PQ:   But how is that reflected in the new application?

SK: First, by the very fact that is new, and disruptive itself, “Hey look at us, we can innovate too!!” Second, by {Admission Director] Dee’s oft-stated and now even more clear obsession, especially in 2+2 candidates, with STEM applicants. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). STEM and Disruption have now replaced Leadership and Old-Fashioned Change (“change” was a hot HBS topic five years ago, and a required essay) as some useful clichés in understanding admissions policies and fancies. The fact they have slimmed down the essay part, and jettisoned such classic questions as “Describe three significant accomplishments” and “Describe three set-backs.”  They even jettisoned, “What do you wish we had asked?” which is a pretty blue-sky question.  So last year, you had to come up with seven stories (3 accomplishments, 3 set-backs and one blue sky event, what do you wish we had asked) over 1600 words, plus some goals blah, blah blah which could also be creative, all of  which took some real digging around in your life and thinking about what matters to you, and then strategically picking seven value-adding and representative stories, while this year, it is more high stakes, more like a business plan, where you need less writing but one   “bet the ranch” what are you good at idea, and one “Hey, I’m a work in progress because  . . .” idea.

  • Guest

    Hi Sandy,

    Great article – thanks for the insight!  What do you think about HBS’ “general recommendation” that two of three recommenders should be professional references?  Is this to say that one reference SHOULD be from outside of work (which may be difficult for bankers/consultants)?  Or is it there more to ensure that at least two references are professional. 


  • Arunpanda

    Sandy, you are considered the god of admission consultants but I have a habit of airing my opinion even though they might contradict those of gods.
    To me the questions seem to ask some thing different. the first question seems to ask “what have you done that you couldnt have done better and are proud of”.
    answers as i see can range from “i saved a drowning kid and have the satisfaction of saving a life”  to “i turned around a sinking company  to make it a multi-billion dollar profit making enterprise in record time and in retrospect couldn’t have done any better”

    towards the second question i see it as “i did this good by my standards but in retrospect could have done better”. answers can range from “during studies i did a great job in extra-curriculars and led a lot of sports and community activities but concentrating on my studies i could have graduated on deans list had i just decreased my extra curriculars just a notch” to  “i turned around a sinking company  to make it a multi-billion dollar profit making enterprise in record time and in retrospect could have done better if i had done such and such thing”

    I don’t intend to make you look bad or anything(heck you are so good that nobody could do that). Thats just the opinion of a foolish applicant and you of course have superior intellect and experience in this field. You do have a big role in all i know about the MBA admission process(including the part which taught me to challenge preset thoughts). 

    If you could give an opinion on the above I think  everybody else who is having the same doubts will be benefited.

    thanks for your great analysis

  • hbsguru

    thanks, I’m glad someone gets it. 
    I’m quite happy (and successful!)  as an admissions consultant, but I appreciate your thoghts.

  • hbsguru

    what makes you think the first call someone makes walking out of the interview isn’t a pre-set one with a consultant.

  • hbsguru

    That could be, and as noted by me and others, it will make capturing that in resume and small space they give in app itself to list 3 xtras more impt. It also upgrades the TITLE of extra currics and ROLE.  A lot of kids used to write really nice essays about tutoring one kid at Minds Matter, that experience will now be lost in many cases and the thing that will count more is just “DIRECTOR, NY REGION, MINDS MATTER, oversee 50 tutors and fundraising  . . .”  as a resume line, there may not be room to capture (as you could in 200 words in the past) your experience with one kid because that is using up 25 pct of the whole essay space.

  • hbsguru

    I never bought that 70 percent admissible jive, that was just old-time adcom baloney to make you look at the river before it hit their filters. And blind you examing closely who, in fact, they do  take.  Given the gmat  and gpa filters, feeder firms, age filters, work-exp. filters, and Identity politics filters, about 20 pct of the pool is admissible, and they cut that in half. What they mean by ‘admissible’ in that statement or similar ones, is, well, if as an experiment, we let you in, you probably would not flunk out.  But calling that admissible instead of workable on a dare, is a slight of hand. The new app changes NOTHING about who is going to get in excpet it will keep out some small number of kids who could create a rare + charming application under the old format b.c. of a lot of solid stories which now need to be cramed into two small essays, and it may benefit some other otherwise bubble candidates who find some sweet spot in the prompts (I’ve done well at forgiving the thug who raped me . . .) and really execute strongly. But we are talking single digit type nubmers. And as noted in interview above, that post interview question is ill conceived and will not flip too many outcomes.

  • Oopstyl

    Post interview essay is probably there to limit the effects of admission consultants on the whole process. If the pre-interview essays and post interview essays are significantly different in style, prose and insight–you bet your arse that’s going to raise some flags with adcoms. 

  • Monsieur Nuclear Option

    Sandy’s a remarkably insightful social observer. These articles make me sad to think that his talents are wasted as an admissions consultant. 

  • Sandy, given that ~70% of applicants are admissible, what do you think will make the different between those who make it to the 20% that get interviewed and those who do not? Will it be more of the same (leadership, recs, story, etc.) with just less room to say it in, or do you feel that HBS is sending a new and revolutionary message in who they are looking for (they were already geared toward STEM students, it seems)?

  • Dreamer


    Do you think this also signals that extracurricular might become less important? Less essays, less space to talk about them?

    Thank you