The Incredible Shrinking MBA App

by John A. Byrne on

It started with Harvard Business School’s decision in May to cut in half the number of essays required of MBA applicants. Then, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business dropped an essay requirement, going from four essays to just three. MIT Sloan scrapped one of three required essays for this year. And only last week, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management cut by nearly a third the total word limit on its essays to 1,525 words from 2,200 last year.

One of Kellogg’s essays—“What one interesting or fun fact would you want your future Kellogg classmates to know about you?”—now has a limit of just 25 words! One potential applicant quipped that the day will soon be here when business schools reduce their essays to a mere 140-character tweet. In fact, the University of Iowa’s Tippie School last year awarded a free scholarship to an applicant who submitted a winning tweet as part of his MBA application.

‘SOMETHING IS BEING LOST’

“Almost every school has either reduced the number of questions or shortened its word limits this year,” says Linda Abraham, founder and president of Accepted.com, a prominent admissions consulting firm. “I don’t think anyone wants to write the American novel here, but something is being lost. The knee jerk response from some applicants is, ‘Great. I can write less.’ But it means that a school won’t get to know its applicants as well and applicants will find it more difficult to express the nuances in their applications that can improve their chances of getting in.”

What’s behind the incredible shrinking MBA application? Dee Leopold, Harvard Business School’s managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid, has long believed that the essay portion of the application had 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.”

Indeed, when the changes by Harvard were first announced on May 22, the school said that applicants who were invited to an admissions interview would then have to submit a third essay–a reflection on the interview itself–within 24 hours. Since then, however, Leopold has even scaled this requirement back to little more than an email with no word limits. “Think of this as an email you might write after a meeting,” she wrote on her blog. “We will be much more generous in our reaction to typos and grammatical errors than we will be with pre-packaged responses.”

Leopold’s change of heart also clearly signaled the school’s desire that applicants not use MBA admission consultants to draft or polish the response. “Emails that give any indication that they were produced BEFORE you had the interview will raise a flag for us. We do not expect you to solicit or receive any outside assistance with this exercise,” she added.

IS A CONSULTING BACKLASH TO BLAME FOR THE CUTBACKS?

Some admission consultants now believe the cutbacks reflect something of a backlash to their increasing involvement in the application process. To the top ten schools, some consultants now estimate that eight of every ten international applicants are using their services and as many as half of all domestic applicants. Reducing the number of essays required and shortening the word limit ostensibly gives applicants less reason to employ a consultant. Asked by Poets&Quants how Leopold believes consultants would react to Harvard’s changes, she had said, “It’s going to be disruptive to admission consultants who write essays.”

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  • PaulSBodine

    To me, it’s ironic and disingenuous for Dee Leopold to say that HBS reduced essay requirements to reduce “applicant anxiety.” Leopold says that essays are needed less now because HBS now interviews all *admitted* applicants. But if HBS really wanted to justify cutting back on essays it would interview *all* applicants, which it’s not likely to do. How does HBS decide who to interview if not through essays?  The universal response I’ve heard from clients is that the HBS application process is now more of a beauty contest. The only applicants whose anxiety is reduced are perhaps ‘usual-suspect’ well-branded applicants, who now probably have more of an advantage than they ever did. 

    Paul S. Bodine, http://www.paulsbodine.com, Great Applications for Business School

  • Dreamer

    I think this also discourages people who thought they could get in through their story, which I think is good and bad. One thing that this website has done is to help people understand that no one gets in because of their personal story alone and pedigree and brand trumps everything.  There is a reason why the Ivy League and the top usual companies are the top feeders. 

    I think my concern is that there are people (not myself) who have done amazing things with the limited resources that they were given. GSB and HBS want the first-generation Ivy legaue student who works at Bain. But that candidate could have had parents who owned a business and where very successful and thus provided him every advantage (including money to pay fr a consultant). By cutting their essays, they might miss the first generation student who paid himself through state college, supported his family and work at a small firm. They both are very similar at the surface but both are impressive in their own right and arguably one did more with his resources than the other and I will say merits the admission letter as much as the other guy.

    Would be interested in hearing any thoughts

  • guest

     Exactly – Big GMAT with a good undergrad track record gets their attention.  Just don’t write the essays in crayon, and you’re good.

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