A Candid Look At HBS’ New Admit Changes

Sandy Kreisberg, HBS Guru, in Harvard Square

Shortly after the unveiling of the new Harvard Business School application, with its changed essay set Poets&Quants interviewed Sanford “Sandy”  Kreisberg, the founder of HBSguru.com, an admission consultancy which focuses on HBS and other leading business schools. Kreisberg has been consulting with applicants since the 1970s and has seen more than a dozen iterations of HBS applications, including the one Harvard MBA Admissions & Financial Aid Managing Director “Dee” Leopold herself filed with eight essay questions. (He was not Dee’s consultant).  He also typically does over 100 mock interviews for HBS candidates and writes the perennially favorite Poets&Quants’ weekly feature handicapping the odds of MBA applicants. As always, Sandy was his provocative self.

PQ: So Sandy, what do you think is driving this?

SK: Well, it could be the admissions office picking up a hint from some direct or off-the-cuff remark from the new Dean, Nitin Nohria, who has been ‘disruptive’ himself in his first years, especially the initiation of the Field Program (of trips and business plans) to the first year curriculum and who seems to like to shake things up.  It could be Dee Leopold wanting to make changes for the sake of changes, pre-empting a seven-year itch (she has been the adcom head for six years now). It could be “innovation envy,” a feeling that with the whole school running around and hiring coders to start companies, as part of the Field Program, well, admissions had to make a splash as well.  It could be all of the above.

PQ: What is you assessment of who this helps and who this hurts?

SK: It turns the application into something like a law school application, where they have your grades, your standardized test scores, and a couple of short essays.  That helps people with high grades and high GMATs and a clear and branded work pedigree.  It hurts non-traditional candidates, who have less room to explain themselves initially, and it hurts traditional candidates who were on the bubble, and also wanted to explain themselves.  One word you don’t hear about in this application is “leadership”–  which used to be the one-word description of HBS and a keystone of its motto, “to develop leaders who make a difference in the world.”  What they appear to looking for now are high-achievers who are hip to starting disruptive things, however defined, and new businesses. “Disruption potential” has replaced “Leadership potential” as the new buzz words.  Call it the Post-Zuckerberg effect.  Well,  the alternative –reality Zuckerberg Effect, they want Zuckerberg-types  who did not drop out, and instead get good grades, good jobs,  and found their “disruptive”  Zuckerberg mojo later in life.

PQ:   But how is that reflected in the new application?

SK: First, by the very fact that is new, and disruptive itself, “Hey look at us, we can innovate too!!” Second, by {Admission Director] Dee’s oft-stated and now even more clear obsession, especially in 2+2 candidates, with STEM applicants. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). STEM and Disruption have now replaced Leadership and Old-Fashioned Change (“change” was a hot HBS topic five years ago, and a required essay) as some useful clichés in understanding admissions policies and fancies. The fact they have slimmed down the essay part, and jettisoned such classic questions as “Describe three significant accomplishments” and “Describe three set-backs.”  They even jettisoned, “What do you wish we had asked?” which is a pretty blue-sky question.  So last year, you had to come up with seven stories (3 accomplishments, 3 set-backs and one blue sky event, what do you wish we had asked) over 1600 words, plus some goals blah, blah blah which could also be creative, all of  which took some real digging around in your life and thinking about what matters to you, and then strategically picking seven value-adding and representative stories, while this year, it is more high stakes, more like a business plan, where you need less writing but one   “bet the ranch” what are you good at idea, and one “Hey, I’m a work in progress because  . . .” idea.