The Gatekeeper to Harvard Business School

In the past, the Graduate Management Admissions Council had produced some research which showed that the GMAT typically accounts for 30 to 40% of the admit decision at most business schools. How important is the GMAT score to a Harvard applicant?

I don’t think we have a formula. Other schools may weight these different parts but we are completely subjective. We might take you because we think you are exceptionally strong in a particular area and fine in the others. But that would be sort of a moving target so there is no weighting formula. My thinking on the GMAT and the GRE is that they are both pretty good measures of what a standardized test can measure which is not your intelligence but your ability to commit to do well on a standardized test. Nobody walks into the GMAT cold. People prepare for these tests.

There has been a fairly significant increase in GMAT scores.

No kidding.

There are now 15 schools in the U.S. reporting GMAT scores of 700 or above for their enrolled students.

The average GMAT score for our entire applicant pool is over 700. So that means that people before they apply to a school are doing a fair amount of self-selecting. Going back many years, you would see a much more spontaneous or impulsive decision to apply to a business school. It was, ‘I’ll apply and let’s see what happens,’ because information wasn’t as readily available from all these different sources. If you applied to a business school, chances were you never visited the campus. You read their catalog, which was the only thing you had. So you had no idea if you were seen as a viable or strong candidate, but now there are so many ways that candidates can do their homework and be good diligent shoppers beforehand.

Is that why GMAT scores are up at most top schools?

It could be that you simply don’t take the test until you have scored high enough on all these practice tests. The GMAT is now given every day so you can take it every 30 days. In earlier years, the GMAT was only given a certain number of times a year. So you didn’t have as many opportunities to keep taking this test and submit a higher score.

So the apps come in. They get two reads at a minimum. They get graded, right?

It’s go, or no go. I review all applications that have been interviewed. I interview my full share, too, so I will interview 50 to 60 candidates in any given round. I go to New York and California. I have in the past been to Europe as well. But again, our interview model is that almost all of our interviews are done by us, members of the admissions board, which is different. We used to use alums to an extent, but we don’t have a culture of using students so that would be off the consideration set for us. We think it’s better for a small group of people to be completely exhausted at all times (Leopold says this jokingly) so they that can do their own curve (assessing all candidates in interviews under the same criteria). At the end of the day, we’re not using our energy trying to calibrate interviewers with candidates. Everybody sees enough people so they can say, ‘Wow, this person is really strong.’

What are you trying to find out?

Each interview is 30 minutes long. We’re trying to assess a whole bunch of things. The first thing is to screen out, to the extent that we can, hubris and character issues. If you cannot behave yourself for 30 minutes with a member of the admissions board at Harvard and we accept you, 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. Once you are beyond that issue, we’re looking for your ability to fit into this learning model, which is not a classic academic model of you sit still and listen and take notes and write papers and spit back stuff. You come into a 90-person section and you are there to contribute. You are there not to be a bystander but are there and willing to put yourself on the line and take a risk and say that ‘I think that Sally Smith in this case should do this and here’s why.’ And you need to be able to accept pushback, to be interested, alert and engaged. I need to know you want to be there.

I am a huge fan of curiosity and I think that every interview that anyone of us has will look for the kind of person who will dig into the case about the company they never heard of, in an industry they don’t care about, and still be 100% engaged.

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