More Anxiety for HBS Applicants?

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.”

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

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.”

  • M T

    Expartus are all big talk with and don’t deliver what they promise.
    Won’t go into detail – For an hour paid consulting, the consultant spent half an hour understanding my grades and British Grading System in particular!

    The advice to improve my candidacy was nothing more than what I already read on internet! What a was of Time!

  • Markedwards10

    To add to my previous post; of course you want to tweak your pre-written essay  with some introductory sentences that make it fit into the context of the interview.

  • Markedwards10

    I think applicants and consultants will come to realize that the applicants should take their time and pre-write a strong, well crafted post interview response along the lines of  “I  wish the interviewer had asked me about the time I”… insert your second greatest accomplishment here… 

    With such shortened essays and only 400 words devoted to your greatest accomplishment this post interview opportunity is crying out to be utilized to strengthen the  overall application.  Used like this it will be of most beneft to qualified, strong applicants who did adequately in the interview, because as Sandy said nothing you write post interview will redeem a poor interview that the ad-com saw with their own eyes and ears. A strong pre-written essay can help differentiate an already qualified candidate from others who  try and wing their third essay in 24 hours.

  • jay

    “I think it saves both sides a lot of time and effort to more or less get to the same result.”

    I agree completely. The adcom doesn’t need 2000 words to identify top candidates. Applicants with traditional HBS qualities (top school, feeder companies, etc) will continue to gain admission. Those without can redirect those 1200 words towards a more appropriate school.

  • I hate to do this, as I do respect some of my competitors, but I have to disagree with what many of them have said.

    I think this change is a great thing for applicants and adcoms alike. As I have mentioned in another post here, I think it saves both sides a lot of time and effort to more or less get to the same result (i.e. adcoms probably would’ve ended up admitting the same applicants anyhow regardless of whether they asked 2,000+ words worth of essays, or just 800 words worth of essays).

    I mean, if so many of us admissions consultants doing so many profile reviews can pretty much tell whether someone is “HBS material or not” based on a short profile or resume, then why would it be any different for the adcoms?

    I think this will mean more applications for HBS, because it doesn’t require as much effort to submit it. Will there be anxiety with the interviews? Sure. But that has *always* been the case.

    That extra essay post-interview won’t affect 99% of the interviewed candidates: adcoms will have decided who they want based on the interview alone. Where that extra essay can come into play is for that 1% who are truly on the margins where the adcoms could go either way (obviously the 99/1 is arbitrary, but point is, that extra essay won’t affect the overwhelming majority of interviewees).

    The thing is, the real *anxiety* is with the admissions consultants. If more schools start changing their admissions process, the admissions consultants will have to change their business models as well. Stay tuned.

  • kingfalcon

     I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but there aren’t really newsworthy things to post about everyday in the world of business schools. I, for one, appreciate all the coverage John has given this surprising change.

  • Alex

    Seems like this site should be renamed