HBS Application Down To Just One Essay

Deidre Leopold, managing director of admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School

Deidre Leopold, managing director of admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School

Last year, Harvard Business School announced the most significant changes to its MBA admission policies in ten years when among other things it cut in half the number of required essays for applicants to its full-time MBA program.

Harvard is shaking it up again.

The school said it now will ask MBA applicants for only one essay, down from two, only two recommenders, down from three, and also set its earliest round one application deadline ever—September 16th.

Even more astonishingly, Harvard left open the possibility that an applicant wouldn’t have to even write a single essay if he or she believed the rest of the application fully reflected their candidacy.

Dee Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid, announced the changes for admission to Harvard’s Class of 2016 in a blog post on the school’s website. The new open-ended essay prompt:

“You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?”


Only two years ago, Harvard required applicants to write four separate essays for a total of 2,000 words. Last year, it fell to two essays of 400 words each for a word limit of 800 words. This year’s single question has no word limit at all.

“That’s it,” writes Leopold. “No word limit. Use your own judgment as to how much you tell us. We have neither a ‘right answer’ nor a ‘correct length’ in mind. We will review all the elements of the written application to decide who moves forward to the interview stage of our process.”

Harvard’s changes last year kicked off a round of alterations by many other business schools, which tended to follow Leopold’s lead. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business dropped an essay requirement, going from four essays to just three. MIT Sloan scrapped one of three required essays for this year. And only last week, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management cut by nearly a third the total word limit on its essays to 1,525 words from 2,200 last year.

With this latest change, Harvard is inching ever closer to the admissions world of law schools which generally require a personal statement–and little else. “The future of B-school apps might be something you do online, e.g. some simulation, or power point, to thin out the crowd, then the interview becomes a real important nerd filter,” says Sandy Kreisberg, of HBSGuru.com, a prominent MBA admissions consultant (see Sandy on Harvard Business School’s New MBA Application).


Typically, the posting of the new application by Harvard Business School signals the unofficial start to the new MBA application season. It’s the time of the year that the next generation of MBA applicants begins to prepare for admission by prepping for the GMAT, researching business schools, possibly hiring an admissions consultant, and mapping out a strategy for what will turn out to be a campaign to get into a selective school. Most schools have yet to issue their new questions, though Stanford Graduate School of Business, Columbia Business School, and the University of Michigan’s Ross School have only recently done so.

In an interview with Poets&Quants, Leopold said she changed the requirement yet again to make applying to Harvard less of an essay-writing challenge and more of a straightforward application process. It is a message that Leopold has sounded consistently for several years, one that was trotted out to justify the reduction in required essays last year.

“It’s not an essay-writing contest,” she said. “There is always–and will always be– great variance in both subject matter and degree of polish in the essays of admitted candidates. It’s very possible that there will be admits this year who say we don’t need to know anything else beyond the credentials they have already submitted–for them, the application may be ‘essay-less. ‘ I also think that removing the word limit brings this process closer to the way things work in the Real World—always our goal.”


Leopold said she hoped the new change is a “win-win. We have what we need to make decisions,” she told Poets&Quants. “And yet candidates feel they have an opportunity to express themselves and not be constrained by word limits or specific questions. We are always trying to reexamine what we really need to do. People in the real world are not limited in their words.”

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