More Anxiety for HBS Applicants?

Dan Bauer of The MBA Exchange

Changes to the admission policies at Harvard Business School are expected to encourage more people to apply to its prestige MBA program but are unlikely to quell the anxiety of applicants who sorely want to get into the school. That’s the fairly unanimous view of several leading MBA admission consultants.

The consultants believe that Harvard’s decision to cut in half the required number of application essays will likely reverse a two-year, post-recession fall in applications. But they argue that a new 400-word essay for applicants invited to interview will ratchet up the pressure on MBA candidates due to the 24-hour deadline Harvard is imposing to get the essay filed online.

The admission changes, the most significant since 2002 when Harvard made interviews with admission staffers mandatory for applicants who passed a first cut, were announced yesterday by “Dee” Leopold, managing director of MBA admissiona and financial aid. She said the changes were in sync with significant changes in Harvard’s MBA curriculum as well as her belief that essays have been given too much emphasis in admissions. Leopold told Poets&Quants that she thought the changes would eliminate some of the anxiety MBA applicants typically feel as they go through the application process.


“As far as reducing anxiety, I’m underwhelmed both with the goal and the execution,” said Linda Abraham, founder of “The writing contraints can provoke more anxiety than the ability to tell one’s story,” said Linda Abraham, founder of “And I think that applicants will be much more anxious about the 30-minute interview and the 24-hour-max ‘written reflection of the interivew experience’ than they have been about the two essays that they no longer need to write without time pressure.”

Linda Abraham, founder of

Abraham believes that any school would be hard-pressed to diminish the pressure most candidates at top schools feel over the application process. “Applicant anxiety is an outcome of an opaque, subjective, intensely competitive admissions process where a prized, scarce resource is allocated among largely Type A millenials,” added Abraham. “Harvard’s change, no matter how sincere and noble the motives, hasn’t changed anything about that process.”


Other consultants agreed. “The 24-hour timeframe for the third essay adds some pressure for the applicant, but also is very appealing,” believes Dan Bauer, a Harvard MBA who is founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange. “This is an unprecedented opportunity for the individual to respond to rather than just speculate on what is most important to the admissions board as revealed in the interview. A well-crafted essay here will help close the deal for an astute applicant.”

Chioma Isiadinso, who had been assistant director of admissions at Harvard Business

Chioma Isiadinso, co-founder of EXPARTUS

Chioma Isiadinso, co-founder of EXPARTUS

School before launching her consulting firm EXPARTUS, thought the changes would lighten the school’s workload because it would require admission staffers to read fewer essays.

“I think this is good for HBS and not necessarily for applicants,” she said. “These changes are about helping HBS manage their admission resources effectively, weeding out too much outside influence and increasing application numbers given two years of declining application figures. I doubt applicants will consider a 24-hour, shot-gun essay reflection a stress-free application experience.”


Some consultants, in fact, suggested that reducing the initial applicant’s essays to just two 400-word statements imposes a different kind of pressure on MBA candidates. Bauer said it “means that every thought and word will count even more in making that critical first impression. Those individuals who know themselves and can integrate their past, present and future best will thrive.

“The focus of these new essay questions is similar to Stanford’s infamous question, ‘What matters most to you and why?,’ he added. “HBS is now providing a canvas for the applicant to paint a compelling picture rather than just respond to a narrowly defined, tactical query. Rather than just expanding on the resume, these new essays will reveal the individual’s values, awareness and priorities in ways never before possible.”

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