The Early Verdict On HBS’ New App

Dillon House is where Harvard Business School makes all of its admission decisions.

Dillon House is where Harvard Business School makes all of its admission decisions.

Harvard Business School’s round one application deadline ended yesterday, but MBA admission consultants are saying that their clients felt a mixture of relief and frustration by the school’s decision to cut its required essays in half.

In the aftermath of Harvard’s round one deadline on Sept. 24, a survey of leading admission consultants by Poets&Quants found that some of the nearly 3,000 applicants who filed in round one even felt cheated by this year’s revolutionary changes in the HBS application process. MBA admissions consultants are in a good position to gauge market reaction to the application changes because anywhere between 30% to 50% of Harvard’s candidates are estimated to gain the help of a consultant during their application process.

Dee Leopold, managing director of admissions and financial aid, announced last May the most significant changes to Harvard’s MBA admission policies since 2002 when the school required interviews for all admitted candidates. Harvard cut 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 had to turn in just two essays, for a total of just 800 words (see Behind Harvard’s Big Admission Changes).

The two questions that form the basis of the new essays also were more direct and simple than the previous menu of questions. Harvard asked candidates to “tell us something you’ve done well” and to “tell us something you wish you had done better,” both in no more than 400 words.


Leopold partly explained the move by saying that essays 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 told Poets&Quants. “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.”

Initially, some applicants were relieved to hear they had only two essays to write this year, explained Linda Abraham, founder and president of “Others were frustrated because they felt they couldn’t really tell their story,” she added. “And sometimes the relief combined with a feeling of being cheated and overly constrained in the same individual.”


Sanford Kreisberg, a prominent admissions consultant known as HBSGuru, said he had spoken to more than 150 HBS applicants during the run up to the round one deadline and found the majority of them frustrated by the changes. “The new application is not going to change any outcomes, for the most part but it does change the user experience,” said Kreisberg. “Most applicants I’ve spoken to are frustrated at not getting a chance to fully describe themselves, and they submit without feeling a sense of closure and earned exhaustion, which is what you should feel,” he added. “They just don’t feel like they got to show HBS who they are. This was not a problem last year when you got to tell seven stories which often tapped out most applicants.”

Several other prominent consultants agreed with Kreisberg. “If I could offer two words, they would be ‘limited’ and even ‘robbed,’” said Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission. “Great candidates have a lot to say and Harvard’s essays no longer allow them to say it all. The uber-achievers don’t want to offer just a few pieces of their personalities and experiences – they want to fan out all their feathers. I certainly don’t blame them for being frustrated.”


The cutback in essays caused some applicants to attempt using other parts of the application to tell a fuller story. “Some of our clients initially felt constrained by the reduced number and length of essays,” conceded Dan Bauer, founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange. “Then, we helped them discover additional ways to convey their unique candidacies. They used the resume to express leadership and teamwork, recommendations to confirm analytical ability and reveal core values, and application questions to describe tangible impact.  And the upcoming interviews — and third essay — represent ‘wild cards’ that our clients will use, thoughtfully and strategically, to really personalize their case for admission.”

  • hbsguru

    well, there’s a lot to what you suggest, but there’s a real borderland where essays, and other things consultants work on, esp. recos, add up to make a difference in many cases (altho no, I do not have a peer reviewed article with data, just my feeling fr. doing a lot of this and reading dinged apps for my Ding Report Service, and at HBS, 100’s of apps for my interview prep service). A consultant needs “admissible” raw material, that is for sure, but after that, a lot is in play. You are right that one BIG thing consultants do is filter out bad essays. But ‘bad’ essays are more freq. than you think, it is not just comically bad essays that consultants help with, MANY early drafts of good essays are ‘bad.’ If you have the brains, time, and esp. the skills to write many drafts of all your essays, and sense what they need fr. reading your own early drafts, well, you prob. don’t need a consultant.

  • Dreamer

    I believe your fate is decided before the application by all your accomplishments. Bad essays may keep someone out but amazing essay won’t get someone in and here is why consultants are useful: they make great candidates not make fatal mistakes, they don’t make crappy candidates great.

  • hbsguru

    I don’t think what you report above is going to change your outcome–as I noted in story in chief, HBS knows what is looking for. Your experience does reflect the frustration many applicants felt: the feeling of having to make a bet on what to say, in a bad way, versus the better feeling of feeling tapped out in a good way (the old app., with 7 story requirements vs. two did that). Yeah, I know, in business you have to make bets, too, but HBS is not a business, it is a school, and once you get there, they can introduce you to simulations which force you to make bets with limited info,etc. — the application process should not feel that way. It should feel fair and logical and complete. You do a good job at capturing the problem very well.
    The issue of 1 versus 2 page resume–hmmm, if you have a lot to say, and have a lot of extras, I would advise two pages. It is a setting where you can expand a bit on your extras, if those were impactful, and it should cert. include all your jobs. I think Dee is being a bit high-handed in some of her advice, I mean she got to write the application, write the lengthy web instructions, and since then, has been blogging about what the app really means at great length. Some of that is helpful, and I salute that, but she should realize that applicants this year don’t have a similar forum to explain themselves. This isn’t so much about outcomes, as noted, I don’t think the new format is going to change many outcomes vs. the old one, it has to do with the user experience, which is one thing a school should be aware of. Believe me, if this year’s application were in some genuine “level” competitive market situation, instead of being basically part of a duopoly, it would be a flop. If Apple released that app, Dee Leopold would be facing a very uncomfortable meeting w. Steve Jobs. Mobile Me anyone??? (Of course Apple just did release another dud app, maps for iPhone5, and at least they apologized). Your Majesty, getting lost in Cleveland for 10 minutes is not as bad as feeling lost when you submit your HBS application.
    Any other HBS applicant experience stories also welcome.

  • dingedbytheessays?

    I left tons of valuable info off of my HBS app — e.g. extensive work experience (like founding a start up) and extracurriculars in college and personal info about being a first gen college student b/c of the limited app. I have had 3 post-college full time jobs so decided to let those speak for themselves. Hope HBS won’t assume I didn’t do anything in college b/c it was quite the opposite. I couldn’t have gotten those great post-college jobs unless I had done well college academically and leadership wise. I’ve heard Dee’s strong views on limiting to a 1 page resume and not using the optional essay section for these types of things so I didn’t. I didn’t try to cram things in but just decided to represent only really strong things. I wrote and rewrote so many drafts of my essays trying to decide what angle. Not trying to be snobby, but I’m a gifted writer. But, I simplified my essays too much I feel — they read like a 2nd graders essays. I’m really disappointed in myself for that.

  • hbsguru

    thanks, that is the consensus view fr. the consultants in the story as well, anyone else???

  • rd

    I had a lot going on in my application for Rd 1 at HBS – and I didn’t feel like I could give a full picture of who I am with just two short essays and the limited space all around the app.

    I think the Stanford app had a lot more leeway in terms of giving a fuller candidate picture.

  • hbsguru

    “Would have been better to interview anything but consultants IMO.”
    Well, if those applicants leaving profiles, and any other folks who applied Round 1, could add if they felt limited/frustrated or rather relieved –or both– by having just those two questions, I’d be interested in hearing that.

  • sassafras

    The consultants should be happy. They charge the same amount per school regardless of how many essays!

  • girl tech

    Gmat is above average. Gpa is barely below average but I went to a top 20 US school. But I’m Chinese American, so overrepresented (??).

  • JohnAByrne

    No. It means he spoke with that many applicants. Consultants do a lot of “free” upfront consulting with people who may or may not hire them.

  • jsp92

    Does that mean HBSGuru had 150 clients for first round HBS? Thats an insane number

  • Guest

    Well, you could say it’s a weak assumption to assume everyone that took the GMAT before the IR section was introduced got the score they wanted and put themselves in prime position to apply in R1.
    Common sense says that a good chunk didn’t score how they wanted and had to take the GMAT again in late/summer early fall and that could easily push someone back to R2.

  • kmu

    I think you would definitely be at an advantage – assuming your academics and GMATs are in line with median.

  • Gil Levi

    At Aringo, we were also surprised to see the new HBS app and struggled to
    understand what does it mean for our candidates. Mostly, we found it stressful
    because it’s difficult to present yourself in only 800 words. We also found it
    interesting that the other schools seemed to follow suit with a “less is
    more” approach. Stanford, for example, went from four essays to three and
    from 1800 words to 1600. Twice HBS, but still.

    One Aringo consultant said she likes the no-nonsense approach of the HBS
    application: “This soul-searching process of other schools is very
    difficult, at least for candidates who tend to be more action-oriented, so
    having to write less is sort of a blessing.”

    On the other hand, some consultants and clients had to find creative ways to
    present more accomplishments.

  • haxx19

    Judging by all the profile evaluations I have read you do get a benefit from being female even in an overrepresented pool. I am pretty sure ad coms would find that a woman from a male-dominated industry would provide “diversity”. Physical sciences and Big Oil are other examples

    IB and engineering are always crowded, which is why most consultants recommend those clients apply round 1 (assuming no huge difference in quality of apps). You’ll have a better chance standing out being one of the first 100 engineers they see rather than the 1000th (though most of these apps are assumed to be Indian folks, so you might have some buffer if you are not Indian).

  • girl tech

    Any girls apply to HBS R1? What are your profiles? Tons of investment banker and engineering guys seem to apply. What if you’re a girl in either of those industries or consultant focused on IB tech issues? Are you still bucketed with the guys? Or judged against girls. Seems like tons of girls applying who i meet are in marketing/nonprofit/govt…do I get any credit for being the lone female in these traditionally male fields. Even though IB and engineering are so overrepresented in R1 (according to beatthegmat 2015 applicant profiles)

  • RD

    Hedge Fund, H/Y/P undergrad, 3.74 GPA, 730 GMAT, LGBT

  • km

    Tech Mid-Market IB, 750, Male, 3.62 GPA

  • Aris

    Procter & Gamble, 720, Bachelors York UK ’09, Masters Cambridge UK ’10

  • patrik

    Think that’s a weak assumption here. Change in GMAT pushed people to take it sooner. With that out of the way and shorter application, easier to complete this year. I think 40% apps first round. And slightly smaller app pool. Anyone else apply first round, what kind of profile did you have. Me: Wells Fargo IB, SF, 720, male, Notre Dame ’07.

  • Duriangris

    Sounds like a lot of consultant whining to me: a 60% cut in essays is roughly as much work less work for them… Would have been better to interview anything but consultants IMO.

  • JohnAByrne

    Typically, about 30% of the applicant pool comes in during the first round. Harvard is getting roughly 9,000 applications a year so the “nearly 3,000” estimate is a function of those two numbers.

  • DH

    Where did the 3,000 application number near the beginning of the article come from?