The Gatekeeper to Harvard Business School

Deidre Leopold, managing director of admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School

In the hierarchy of MBA admissions people, Deirdre “Dee” Leopold sits at the very top. As Harvard Business School’s managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid, she sees more applications in a single year than any other MBA admission official in the world. The 910 members of the Class of 2012, chosen from 9,524 applicants, will get their official dean’s welcome on Sept. 7th and soon after settle into their first classes in Harvard’s two-year MBA program. With the exception of 2004, when 10,382 people applied to the Harvard Business School, it was the highest number of applications Leopold’s office ever had to process.

So while some other top business schools, including Wharton and Cornell, saw their applications fall for their just-entered classes, Harvard’s applications were up by 5%, from 9,093 a year-earlier. It’s a major change from only a few years ago when Harvard received just 6,552 applications for the Class of 2007. The more recent flood has allowed Leopold to post some of the most impressive numbers ever for an MBA admissions machine: only 11% of applicants were accepted, and 89% of those agreed to come to Harvard. No less important, this year’s incoming HBS students also boast the highest average GMAT ever—a record-breaking score of 724, up five points from 719.

Through all the ups and downs, including the days when all the apps were on paper and GMAT scores were 50 points lower, Leopold has seen it all. She has been a member of Harvard Business School’s Admissions Board for more than two decades. During that time, she has been involved in all areas of the board’s activities. A graduate of Columbia University, Leopold earned her MBA in 1980 from Harvard, where she was co-president of the Women’s Student Association. Before attending HBS, she worked in New York as a portfolio manager for Merrill Lynch.

Without question, she is the most powerful gatekeeper in the MBA world, the person who often stands between nearly 10,000 obsessive applicants a year and a highly valued seat in an HBS section. Leopold’s posts on her official blog–The Director’s Blog–are dissected and parsed as closely as minutes of Federal Reserve Board meetings. And one admissions consultant recently ran a poll on his website in which visitors were asked to vote on who is “hotter” (ie., sexier)? Leopold captured nearly a third of the 2,400 votes cast to win what she would surely regard a dubious distinction.

I recently sat down with Leopold in her second-floor office in Dillon House. In a wide-ranging interview, Harvard Business School’s gatekeeper talks about the difference between what she says is diversity that is easy to observe versus a deeper notion of diversity that will lead to superior leaders, how the admissions process has changed over the years, and how an MBA candidate wowed her in a recent interview.

Coming off one of Harvard’s most successful admissions cycles, Leopold was in a good mood, quick to laugh and confident to be quite candid about one of the most anxiety-filled parts of a person’s journey to business school. She said her staff’s 30-minute interviews with MBA candidates are largely meant to screen out applicants with potentially troubling character flaws. “If you cannot behave yourself for 30 minutes with a member of the admissions board at Harvard and we accept you,” she says, “it would be like trying to bring a loaded gun on a plane. So to that extent, we’re baggage screeners, without any thought that we are going to catch every character flaw, but we are going to pay attention.”

A pet peeve? Boastful applicants who take far too much credit for their accomplishments. An example, she cites, is someone from a private equity firm involved in a major deal. “They talk about their substantial accomplishments and they think I could believe that at their entry level there is no one else in the organization,” she says. “They do billion-dollar deals and all the grown ups are somewhere else. They don’t realize that the goal of this application is really not to make yourself stand out but simply to tell your story.”

Leopold also suggested that the essays required by business schools might have turned the application process into an “essay-writing contest.” “Because it’s the element of the application that applicants have the most control over, it’s become very important. And it’s the one area of the application that admission consultants can come in and fill that space. Consultants can’t come in and fix your transcript, improve your GMAT, or change your job. But they can help you with this anxiety around what a business school wants to hear. Which is exactly the question you shouldn’t be asking. It should be what you want to say as an applicant.”

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.