The Early Verdict On HBS’ New App

by John A. Byrne on Print Print

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.”

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  • 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.

  • 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

    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.

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