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Behind Harvard’s Big Admission Changes

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

Harvard Business School announced today (May 22) the most significant changes to its MBA admission policies since 2002 when the prestigious school required interviews for all admitted candidates.

Harvard said it is cutting in half the number of required essays for most applicants to its full-time MBA program. Instead of requiring applicants to write four separate essays, for a total of 2,000 words, MBA candidates will now have to turn in two essays, for a total of just 800 words.

The two questions that form the basis of the essays also are more direct and simple than the previous menu of questions. They are:

Tell us something you’ve done well. (400 words)

Tell us something you wish you had done better. (400 words)

HARVARD ADDING A 400-WORD REFLECTION ON AN APPLICANT’S INTERVIEW WITH A 24-HOUR DEADLINE

The school is adding a novel twist for MBA candidates who make the first cut and are invited to an interview with the school’s admissions staff. Those applicants will be ask to write an additional essay of 400 words within 24 hours of the interview on what they wished they had said during the interview session but didn’t. The “written reflection of the interview experience” will be submitted via Harvard’s online application system.

Harvard is also moving up its round one deadline for applicants to the earliest date ever, Sept. 24. Candidates who get their applications in by that date will hear from the school by Dec. 12. These new dates compare with a first round deadline last year of Oct. 3, with notification of the admission board’s decision by Dec. 19th.

Harvard announced the changes on its website with a blog post by Leopold and the posting of the new application online, signaling the start of the newest MBA admissions cycle for admission into the Class of 2015. The changes go into effect immediately and will be required of applicants to Harvard’s 2+2 deferred admission program for undergraduates this July.

CHANGES MIRROR MORE INTROSPECTIVE REQUIREMENT IN NEW HBS CURRICULUM

In an interview with Poets&Quants, Deirdre “Dee” Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid for Harvard Business School, gave several reasons for the changes. She said they are in keeping with recent improvements in Harvard’s MBA curriculum, which now requires a greater amount of introspection from students.

“Adding this piece mirrors what we’re asking candidates to do in the MBA program,” Leopold said. “We ask people to reflect on a number of things and this will be a recurring theme.”

The changes also coincide with her belief that essays have become too large a part of the admissions process. “I’ve been saying that admissions is not an essay writing contest and that is where a lot of the anxiety (among applicants) is,” Leopold said. “When we never met anyone, essays were the only way we had for applicants to get some form of personalization of the application. But since the Class of 2004, we’ve been interviewing all admitted applicants. The interviews are a big investment of our time, money and assessment energy, so I think it’s time to have a corresponding reduction in that initial (essay) hurdle.”

APPLICANTS SHOULD REACT WITH ‘JOY AND JUBILATION’ TO CHANGE

Leopold said she believes applicants to Harvard will act with “joy and jubilation” over the changes “because the chance to have the last word could be a gift. We’re pretty much dancing with you in the interview, but we’re leading. It’s not a standard interview where you get to go through your resume and control it. You can’t give a speech. If you now wish to add something you didn’t get to say, here’s your chance.

“Our goal is to have people feel understood and to assess their ability to be successful and enjoy a very unusual and distinctive educational experience. We’re trying to find ways to be innovative, but to be sensible with innovation. We’re also trying to find ways to help the candidate. We know how anxiety producing and stressful this whole thing is.”