The Gatekeeper to Harvard Business School

In the first year of the 2+2 program, Harvard accepted 106 undergrads from 630 applications for an acceptance rate of 17%. In this latest batch, the school accepted 100—a fifth of them from Harvard College– from 828 applicants, for an acceptance rate of 12%. About 60% of the admitted students have engineering, hard sciences, or technical undergraduate majors. So why did Harvard start the program?

We haven’t had them physically here yet. The first group arrives in September of 2011, after two years of work. So we started almost three years ago. So they apply after their junior year and are in a segmented round in the summer. They all come here for an interview. We don’t travel to them. Then, we select them the first of September and they have that senior year to get some (career) coaching from our people. It’s kind of getting their heads into what an HBS coach is like. Our coaches help them figure out what to do for the two years. They go out and work and come here for abbreviated summer get-togethers and then hopefully they will arrive all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed two years later. We had a 100% yield on the admits.

What we’re trying to do is have more scientists and engineers in there, people who I believe will end up in business and have a high impact, but they don’t know it at the time they are in college. They think that business school means you are going to wear a suit every day, go to a bank and sit in a cubicle. They don’t know what an MBA can do for them — that it’s a degree that can take them virtually anywhere they want. When you get in front of them and explain what MBAs really do, they say, ‘I didn’t know that.’ They get it that when the engineers who want to tinker and make things like Thomas Edison meet with the people who want to finance things that is a nice meeting ground.

What are the most common mistakes applicants make?

I guess I get annoyed when people overstate their importance in ways that are ridiculous. 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. They do billion-dollar deals and all the grown ups are somewhere else. They take too much credit for things. They don’t realize that the goal of this application is really not to make yourself stand out but simply to tell your story. We have plenty of people who have done ordinary things very well. If you look at these application questions, your blink response is the answer. Figure a way to tell that story cleanly so that regular people can understand it and it is not laden with jargon. I will paraphrase something that a peer of mine says every well: ‘Instead of thinking of the application as a m exercise, think of it as an accounting exercise.’ Instead of marketing yourself, think of it as a process in which you’re going to tell your story. Let us do the selection. Realize at the end of the day that at an elite school, it’s all about selection. You can try to understand an evaluation. But you can’t control selection.

What about a common mistake during the interview?

Thinking it’s the opportunity where you are going to recite what you’ve already said in your written application and not understanding that is a conversation or even a dance. We’ll both dance but we’re going to lead. If I ask you a question, I’d like to hear the answer to the question I’m asking, not the question you wished I had asked.


Leopold’s Record as Director of Havard Business School Admissions

(The cited year below refers to the admissions cycle for the class that will graduate two years later.)
Year Applications Percent Admitted Yield
2010 9,524 11% 89%
2009 9,093 12% 89%
2008 8,661 12% 91%
2007 7,438 14% 89%
2006 6,716 15% 91%
2005 6,559 16% 89%

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