A Revealing Interview With Harvard Business School’s Dee Leopold

Dee Leopold of Harvard Business School

Dee Leopold of Harvard Business School

It was only last year when Dee Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School, surprised the admissions world of B-school admissions by requiring only one essay of applicants and even making that optional.

Admission consultants worried that business would dry up. Some applicants feared that by putting less emphasis on essays, HBS would become more reliant on GMATs and GPAs. Neither prediction came true, but schools are continuing to slash essays, word counts and recommendation letters as a result of Leopold’s changes at Harvard Business School.

Asked in a interview with Poets&Quants what HBS has sacrificed by going down to just one optional essay from four only three years ago, Leopold says matter-of-factly, “It’s hard for me to think of what we lost.”


Only about ten applicants out of 9,543 for the Class of 2016, she said, decided not to turn in an essay at all. She admitted one of them, Impressed by the candidate and the rest of his application—even though he failed to turn in an essay. Leopold points out that the acceptance rate for the group that didn’t write an essay was roughly the same as the 12% of admits who did.

In a wide-ranging interview, Leopold provided insight into candidates who made a memorable impression on her, what she commonly tells applicants who gain interviews but are ultimately rejected, how the case method comes into play when making admit decisions, and how she evaluates GMAT or GRE scores. For the first time ever, HBS is asking applicants to list online courses and MOOCs on their application because Leopold believes such classes can help to build a case for a candidate whose quantitative ability may be in question. As for dispelling myths, Leopold explained why it’s not necessary for applicants to have what she calls a “laminated life plan” with a clear career path and also why applicants who want to do a startup at HBS are more than welcome.

And despite fairly negative publicity from a New York Times story on gender inequality at HBS last September, Harvard apparently had no trouble increasing the percentage of women in its applicant pool. Leopold says that female applicants were up 5% this past year, while applications from men rose 1%. All told, applications for the Class of 2016 rose 2.4%.


Few admission directors bring as much experience or perspective to the job of selection. Leopold, who graduated with her MBA in 1980, began sorting and reading HBS applications from home in 1980—making this her 35th year in admissions. Jokes Leopold, “We rode in on our brontosauruses, parked them outside and then we read the applications on stone tablets.”

In her early days, when she and another part-time staffer sorted all the files that came in, the applications were typed on manual typewriters with Wite-Out brushed on the paper to barely disguise typos and other changes.

“By the time you got the mail, you had a pretty good sense of the differences among candidates,” she recalls. “Some people were a mess, and some people were pristine so it was a lot like getting someone’s personal craft project. But those people were far less informed about what went on at HBS and who was here. We had a catalog, a very pretty catalog, and people would write or call in and request a catalog and we would mail it out. Maybe they would apply or maybe they wouldn’t. That is how the process worked.”


When she first started in admissions, HBS had five or six admissions rounds—built around GMAT test dates. “We also had an admissions board guru—Jim Foley—who was an operations expert,” she says. “He liked to run a level process. The machines were always running. We were always open for business in terms of applications being in process. There were no interviews. It was all a written application and your job was to read a certain amount of applications each week.”

“You did a writeup on them and then they would get sent out to be read again. That was it. You didn’t really know what happened. There was no central tracking of them, no Excel spreadsheet or any sort of data management. You just had to go into drawers to see what happened to people. It was a very small operation. and we were in Morgan Hall, right down from the dean, and Dean (John) MacArthur would wander in every so often. We admitted about 750 a year back then—and many of them were college seniors. By the early 1980s, about 250 in each class would come through deferred admission. They had applied as college seniors and had come right after two years. Another 100 would come direct from college. And our recruiting consisted mostly of going to colleges.”


  • Thanks very much!

  • Surabhi Dholakia

    Really helpful article, John. Thanks for conducting the interview!

  • Pingback: HBS MBA Admissions Essay for the Class of 2018 « Adam Markus - Graduate Admissions Guru()

  • Michael Cohan

    Thanks for conducting the interview John.

  • DITTO! I would love hear the current director’s thoughts about applying to Wharton, the group interview, and the many changes that have undergone Wharton over the last 2-3 years (focus on MOOC, leadership changes, etc)

  • jrwells5

    Adding another dimension to Ms. Leopold’s comments, I offer the amazing example of my nephew who was home-schooled all his life in the Boston-area. Yet 4 years ago he was accepted into Harvard’s Extension School, went on to the College and 2 weeks ago graduated as full Harvard graduate, with honors. If I didn’t have personal knowledge of this case, I would not have believed it was possible.

  • EnoughWithCambridge

    It’s really great reading an article about HBS. It’s so rare to see them featured on P&Q.

  • JohnAByrne

    Absolutely. We have on the site a fairly comprehensive interview with the former director and I’m sure we’ll have a sit down with the current director in the coming months. Here’s the previous one:


  • Hedge67

    Rayan, what the hell are you doing here!

  • Rayan Saab

    haha… you are such a tool.

  • Agree. Thanks John!

  • Ferdinand

    hahaha you are so funny, I like it 🙂

  • Whartonite

    Good article. Hopefully we can get one for the other equally #1 school — Wharton.

  • Nupur Gupta

    Wonderful read. Thanks for posting John.

  • Great article, John. All applicants should read it and take her words seriously. She does prospective students a great service by spelling it out with you.

  • Sam

    Dear John, Thank you for this helpful website. With respect to the MBA programs at Oxford University and Cambridge University in England, the two schools compete with each other, Cambridge released its latest employment report, it contains the usual information, Oxford on the other side released a weird report that does not contain the most important element of any career report, the salary figures. Could you please comment on it? is the mba outside america that weak? best regards, Sam.

  • JohnAByrne

    Sorry about that Matthew. I’ve taken down our registration form block.

  • Matthew Heintz

    Log in isn’t working, can’t read page 2 onwards