Harvard Business School kicked off the unofficial start to the 2013-2014 MBA admissions cycle today (May 30) with a radical change in its application process. The school reduced the number of essays to just one open-ended question–and even suggested that it would be possible for prospective applicants to the Class of 2016 to skip the essay entirely.
For analysis and commentary on the change, we turned to Sandy Kreisberg, of HBAGuru.com, a prominent MBA admissions consultant who works closely with candidates who apply to Harvard, Stanford and Wharton. In a wide-ranging interview, Kreisberg commented on who will gain from this new format, who will be in danger, what mistakes to now avoid, his suggested word counts on both the single essay and Harvard’s post-interview reflection and other issues.
JOHN A. BYRNE: So Sandy, there’s big news today from Harvard Business School. Dee Leopold, the admissions director, shook things up last year and she’s at it again with a new application that requires only one essay. Last year HBS asked applicants two questions,
Tell us something you’ve done well (400 words) and Tell us something you wish you had done better (400 words).
The new question is “What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?” and there is no word limit. What is going on?
SANDY KREISBERG: A lot and nothing.
Let’s start with the nothing. The essay, however mystical it can seem, and this one comes wrapped in mystery, with no word limit, remains some other piece of the application–along with the rock hard facts of your GMAT/GRE, college and GPA, your major (HBS likes STEM), your age, your work history and its selectivity, your recommendations and extras, plus the usual identity politics issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. As Dee says, the essay is one piece, and that is true and unchanged.
The essay BY ITSELF can, in some 10% of cases, damage you, and in some 20% of cases help you, and in most cases, confirm what they already know from the other stuff — which is a lot. To that extent, nothing is new. The new HBS essay is actually very similar to the famous Stanford essay, “What Matters Most to You and Why?” in that it is open-ended, and especially in the no word limit format, it can provide lots of room for you to drift into trouble. To the extent you can drift into trouble because it is open-ended, well, I suppose that is new and important. It was really harder to screw up last year’s essays and become offensive or annoying. That is now easier. On the positive side, it gives some people lots of room to explain their backgrounds (that was not the case last year), career goals, if they are career switchers (that was also hard to do last year) and you have the satisfaction of being able to say whatever you want.
BYRNE: How can the essay damage you?
KREISBERG: As noted, you can drift into trouble, especially since it is open-ended. The most common way is that you can go down some rabbit hole of personal story telling, quirky affectations, “literary” style, and bragging. To that extent, developing a personal voice in the essay versus just being bland in some acceptable way, can be dangerous if 1. you were marginal in the first place, 2. your voice turn offs the reader in some hard-to-define but easy to feel way. You can sound dislikable, whiny, immature, and unaware.
BYRNE: Give me some examples.
KREISBERG: Well, bragging in all its many overt and covert forms is the most common way to seem immature and silly. Writing an essay along the lines “that I would like you to know what is behind those bullets on my resume and what a swell job I did on projects X Y and Z” and then straining to make that case, even if true, by rehearsing a lot of facts and cliches, and then having that pile up, for a lot of examples, even if all of them are ‘true,’ well, yeah, I could see that turning some OK candidate into someone you don’t want to interview. They would blame you for the lack of self-awareness, for not knowing how you are coming across. At HBS, being boring or unaware or immature then leads to the $64 Billion Dollar Question, “Is this someone you would want to sit next to in a case method class?” And the answer is NO!. There are a million variants of bragging. There is being boring, there is saying too much of the same thing, there is presenting OK material with cliches and overstatement. There is just sounding immature, in all its varieties, which is probably more frequent and deadly than sounding boring, although boring is not good either.