Dee Leopold’s Harvard B-School Webinar Slides

Question: Why did you change the application from prior years?

Leopold: I would say that for a long time the culture of the business school application process has developed around writing personal essays. I’m not sure why. I don’t think there have been any studies done that correlate writing personal essays to success in a complex organization. I think it’s what I am calling a vestigial remnant of a time from when business schools didn’t interview candidates and only had essays as a way to get to know a candidate. Part of a pre-internet time. That meant that essays really were “more personal.”

More than likely a candidate had not shared or shown their essays to anyone. Now the folklore is that it’s a good idea for lots of people to get involved with your personal essays; friends, family, and often paid consultants. And that’s led to two things: We’ve noticed that essays can feel over-crafted, over-written, over-thought and over-wrought. There is much more anxiety about them than is appropriate–given the relative way they play in the process.

So we decided to shake things up. We’re going to see if we can pare this down a bit and still feel like we are able to understand a candidate, which is our ultimate objective. We are looking for an awful lot of information before we even get to the essays. We always have. Demographic information, transcripts, test score, resume, recommendations; If we add in a couple of essays to that, we think we can take that first big step of deciding who to invite to interview. The one thing we may need to emphasize again and again, is that, our overarching goal is to comprise a class with as much diversity on many many different dimensions as possible. The vast majority of HBS applicants are qualified. This is a pretty tight quality band.

It takes a lot investment of time and energy to get through a business school application. No matter how many essays there are–and to be ready to follow that down to the next step. So this is an experiment. We’re going to try this. We are going to see if we can make it easier to introduce your self, to put an application in, and we’ll see how it goes. If we find that we are unable to find out about a candidate in this way, we’ll adjust–obviously not in the course of an application season, but I am pretty confident that we will be fine with two essays.

Question: Who should recommenders be? What if I cannot ask my supervisor?

Leopold: We’d like to see one from your immediate supervisor. We’d like to see professional recommendations. But at the end of the day, this is a judgment call for you. There is no sort of amazing mind-reading exercise that we can do to say who is the right recommender. I would say look at the question posed to the recommender, especially the one that asks, ‘What is a piece of constructive advice that you’ve given the candidate?’ Use that as your guideline. Most people that you don’t know well don’t go around giving you constructive advice. If the person can pass that threshold, then that’s probably a pretty good choice.

There are choices that might be difficult for us to understand: your piano teacher is probably not the right person. Remember, at the end of the day we are talking about a business school. Family friends who have simply watched you grow up, not so much. Not a good idea. And we are not a school that puts a premium or value on a recommender who is a peer. We’d like to have someone who is quite honestly at a different developmental stage than you are.

An exception to that will be people who have done startups. And if that’s a big part of your candidacy and your presentation as to who you are. In order for us to understand that, it would be great corroboration for you to have a partner, and that partner may be someone who is your peer. That is fine, we understand.

Here’s an escape door for you. If you think you are really worried about who’s going to write your recommendation and don’t have the right person, use the additional information section to explain the choices you’ve made. It should only take a sentence or two. This is over-arching advice to you, and a reminder, we are really nice people here. Really really really. We are human, we want to understand, we are not ogres, with hatchets. We will go waaaay down the road to understand the choices you’ve made.

Question: Can you really evaluate the candidate with only two essays, and will that change the weight you put on any other part of the application.

Leopold: I don’t think we ever had a weighting session. So this doesn’t feel like any kind of cataclysmic change for us. There will be some candidates who will be very interesting to us because of the work they’ve done, the places they’ve been, or their upbringing, or the stuff they’ve done outside of school. At the end of the day, this is a selection process and our goal is to comprise the most interesting class. Year in and year out, our challenge is not to rank order candidates and have all kinds of scoring models for anyone, but to make sure we are delivering in September students with different perspectives in our classrooms.

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