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)


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.


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.”


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.”

  • Harvard’s essays for the MBA class of 2015 are blissfully straightforward. I strongly suggest following their advice: “Don’t overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don’t know your world can understand.” You shouldn’t
    choose your loftiest success or your most embarrassing failure. When describing something you did well, there should be a challenge involved and your answer should describe how you overcame it. For example, consider a time when you communicated effectively with a difficult boss/colleague/client. How did you approach the situation and adapt your speaking style and tone? Avoid writing the essay that tells why you earned the big promotion; the focus should be your thoughts and actions, not your accomplishments. Start by asking yourself, “What do I want the admissions committee to know about me?” Try to name two or three distinct attributes (such as patience, creativity, empathy, or
    self-awareness) and then show the reader how you demonstrated them. The same advice applies to the essay about something you wish you had done better, as failures are often even better opportunities to demonstrate self-awareness and the desire to improve oneself, which are critical for getting the most out of your MBA. Don’t forget to conclude with a statement about how you changed your behavior to avoid making the same mistake twice. When you’re done, have a trusted friend read the essays and ask them, “Does this sound like me?” The most important goal is to preserve your authentic voice. Visit for more advice.


    Last year applicants had to come up with 3 accomplishments and 3 setbacks, this year only one of each, and only 400 words! Every word counts…
    HBS candidates – see here some HBS application tips and useful info:

    Good luck!

  • guest

    i think hbs knows that career goals essays are bullshit anyway.. plus they are a brand slut so my guess would be they figured through the many application seasons that essays dont make that much of a difference. recommendations are the new essays.

  • Dreamer

    I actually it will be the opposite. Just think about how many near perfect GMAT and GPA’s are at Mckinsey and Goldman. Is going to be though to differentiate themselves. I think it makes it fair for everyone i think

  • mappleby

    I love this change. I much prefer interviews over essays. They are more dynamic and I think you can get a much better feel for a person from an interview. You don’t get the chance to polish and redo your interview 100 times yet the addition of the reflection is a novel one. I would much rather write short essays and emphasize the interview.

  •  Most in June and July a few in August.

  • glupglup

    it is clear they are trying to get the number of applicants up…and it is not true to say that this is decreasing the tension in applying when you have 24 hours to submit an additional reflection essay

    the message is clear: you can apply to HBS in one night, guys and gals!

  • klip999

    In my opinion, this change is not in the right direction. HBS has had a reputation for recognizing leadership potential well. A lot of it had to do with the answers to those questions that they had on the application before this change. They are going to have a tougher time forming a diverse class based on an applicant’s aspirations, goals and prior achievements. On the other side, this is good news for people with stellar GMAT scores and work experience in top consulting/finance companies as they will have an advantage over people with not so great scores but excellent success stories.

  • With Wharton recently experimenting with a group-based exercise, UCLA requiring a video/audio essay (2 years ago), and now HBS changing it up, there’s only going to be more school I believe that will continue to move away from the old model of long essays–> interview –> decision

    In fact, I think they can (and likely will) move towards the following model:

    1. Resume + simple application form (demographic info, test scores, GPA)

    2. Interview + short essays (questions that are meant to reveal what cannot be reasonably inferred from the resume/profile alone)

    3. Two or three recommendation letters

    4. Decision

    I don’t think adcoms need essays or rec letters from EVERY applicant. At top schools, they can pretty much identify the top third to top half based on the resume/profile alone (and for those who aren’t in the top third to top half, there’s no need to waste the time of the adcoms, applicants, or recommenders on the essays and rec letters). Adcoms are trying to build a diverse class based on demographics and pre-MBA professional backgrounds – they are divvying up the applications into groups as it is, so it’s not that hard most of the time to identify the top third to top half based on resume/profile alone.

    And then once they’ve identified the top third to top half – they invite these folks for an interview (or interviews) and to write short essay questions that are only given to them once they’ve been invited. And since only a subset of the applicants are invited to write the essays, the adcoms can provide a different set of essay questions to different applicant groups (i.e. traditional applicants or those from “crowded” demographics are given a set of questions that will be different than the questions being asked those non-traditional professional backgrounds and/or underrepresented demographics – and this will allow the adcoms to more effectively evaluate subjective info from applicants based on their backgrounds).

    And then only ask for reference letters once they’ve weeded out those from the interview/essays. The majority of the time, the rec letters won’t make a difference either way, and it’s really just to uncover any potential “gotchas” or info about the applicant that may be incongruous with what the adcom has seen so far. The rec letter in a way is a “human” background check to complement the standard background checks they will do on admitted students.

    This kind of process I don’t think will require more resources or time from the adcoms (in fact, it may be less) — and it’s a more efficient and effective way to evaluate applicants (and saving the applicants time as well – giving them more chances to apply to more schools, which will benefit all b-schools as they see applications rise since more applicants will “punt” if there are no essays required for the initial round).

  • highwyre237

    I dont know, I can write some pretty great poetry…

  • hbsguru

    well, I hope you are right about the post interview recap, but I do a lot of mock interviews, and the issue is not getting a chance to say x or y, the next day, but wanting a whole redo, where you speak more clearly, don’t get flustered, wander, and digress, etc. The interview is not scored like a quiz, it is scored like a date, and you are not going to change a bad date by writing a note. On the other hand, the very exercise looming over you head–of leavingthe interview and having to write ONE MO’ essay– is a bummer, see my take on this issue in my Full Analysis of the new HBS App, right here at Poets&Quants.

  • kingfalcon

     According to my research from last year, most of the top programs release their essays in July, with some releasing in late May.

  • Guest

    I know HBS likes to kick off the application season by getting their essay questions out first, but when do the rest of the B-schools typically follow suit?  I’m chomping at the bit to apply round 1!

  • mba2015

    As a prospective applicant this year, I definitely appreciate the change. Very curious about the post-interview recap. 

  • I concur; seems like a definite stab @ Stanford’s “we’re the most innovative, entrepreneurial and selective” differentiation…all the way down to the focus on “introspection”. Though I can’t say its a bad thing; I think its good that business schools are looking at applicants more holistically.

  • highwyre237

    Although I’m not applying to HBS, I’m a huge fan of this change.  I’m sure there are many people out there who would have loved to have a chance to get their point across after an interview. Also, great move on HBS’s part.  If someone was on the fence about applying, 800 words seems like a much more approachable “on a whim” app to write then 2000… SO their app pool will rise, their acceptance rate will decrease, and their ranking will be solidified at #1.

  • Dreamer

    I like this change. I think, unfortunately, adcom’s fool people into thinking that they can overcome bad grades, bad GMAT and weak work experience with an amazing essay. This creates false hope in applicants and with this change they are signaling “you are not going to get in with the essays alone.”