The Gatekeeper to Harvard Business School

Did the number of applications to this class surprise you, particularly because some schools have reported declines?

I’ve learned to not be surprised by anything. I’ve learned that there can be any number of macroeconomic or geopolitical trends that influence it. The class of 2004 was the high water mark and that was influenced by the collapse of the dot-com bubble. This year is the second highest number—just over 9,500.

HBS Class of 2012 by Undergraduate Degree Year

Class of 2012 by Undergraduate Degree Year

So what happens to an application once you receive it?

I can give you some broad guidelines of how we do it. Everything is coming in online these days. That feels different. I have been here since 1980. When you submitted an application on paper, you actually got an instant blink feel about a person. You got it from the type of paper they chose or how neat the application was filled out. We didn’t have word limits. So you could also see how many words a person used to answer what seemed like a pretty short question. You were able to have an impression of the person. And then when things evolved to online, a little of that tactile feel has been taken away because what you’re now seeing is a screen, in essence. So what happens is, we get the written application, and it’s a lot of stuff.

I don’t know how the business school admissions process ever evolved into this world of a lot of essays. I don’t know if anyone has ever mapped the ability to write essays to the ability to lead a complex organization. I think it’s a vestigial remnant of a time when business schools did not do any interviewing. So the only way we had to get to know a candidate was through these essays. So each school developed its own essays which became not only questions they want answered but signals they want to send about their school’s personality, profile, values, etc.

At one time, when I applied, there were eight essays. It got to be an extravaganza of essay writing. We have to step back and say, at the end of the day this is not an essay-writing contest. But out there in the applicant world, because it’s the element of the application they have the most control over, it’s become very important. And it’s the one area of the application that 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.

We very quickly but thoroughly review all the written applications and decide which belong in the group to invite for an interview. Everyone who is gets admitted has to be interviewed. But you can’t choose to be interviewed. It’s not an elective thing. So we try to get to 1,800 or so finalists. What we want is, once you’re being interviewed, we want you to have a little better than an even chance of being admitted. That balance feels right so the interview is not meant to be a slam dunk or rubber stamp nor just a one-in-ten chance of getting in. We’re lucky because when we make an offer of admission, roughly nine times out of ten the candidate will choose us. So we can shape the class quite early at the invite and interview stage. When we send out these 1,800 invitations, that population is roughly the way the class might look on a whole bunch of dimensions.

So you have a one-in-two shot of getting in if you’re interviewed?

Roughly, it’s about a 60% chance of getting in.

How many people read an HBS application?

Every application gets a minimum of two reviews and by the time someone is admitted you could have five or six people involved in this. I would say that every application is read twice, and then once you get into whether to admit or not, it would be reviewed at least three or four times. And then, we could bring lots of people to look at things.

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