HBS Applicants ‘Panicked & Confused’

HBSsignHarvard Business School’s radical changes to its admission policies yesterday (May 31) have made already anxious candidates to the school’s MBA program “panicked and confused,” according to several admission consultants. But they predicted that Harvard’s decision to ask for only one open-ended essay and make even that essay optional will likely result in a significant increase in application volume for the school.

“Our phones are already ringing with applicants who are anxious – one just described herself as ‘panicked,’” says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission, a major MBA admissions consulting firm. “HBS has introduced a ton of uncertainty into a process that already seems daunting to many. By removing word limits and creating such a broad essay question, applicants will have trouble framing their thoughts and will be unsure if what they are submitting is ‘right.’ My guess is that by asking a vague question, HBS will end up with a lot of what it does not want. I would be surprised if this question were repeated next year.”

The announcement by HBS yesterday (see HBS Down To Just One Essay) to ask for a single essay without a word limit, reduce the number of required recommenders to two from three, and to set a round one deadline of Sept. 16th, the earliest ever, sent would-be applicants and consultants into something of a tizzy. Dee Leopold, managing director of admission and financial aid for HBS, said the changes were made to make the application less of an essay-writing contest.

In a blog post on the school’s website, she provided the new essay prompt this way: “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? That’s it. 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.”


While those instructions appear simple and straightforward, they still were less than reassuring to many would-be applicants. Prospective candidates to the world’s elite schools tend to be an obsessive and fretful bunch, anyway. Some of them were already drafting responses to last year’s essay questions for Harvard, eager to get a jump on the round one deadline. So an immediately panicked reaction would hardly be a surprise.

Consultants, meantime, privately worried whether Harvard’s decision would hurt their business and whether they would have to lower prices for applicants who chose to apply only to HBS. “It’s hard to imagine people paying $3,000 or more to get help with a Harvard application if only one essay is required,” explained one consultant who asked not to be identified.

Ultimately, what seems sure is that Harvard has significantly lowered the hurdle to apply to its MBA program, a move that many consultants predict will lead to greater application volume for HBS. “The biggest impact will not be on the admissions consulting business,” believed Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com. “It will be on HBS application volume. Harvard is making the app easier and easier, and more applicants will say, ‘Heck, just one more essay, I don’t need a third recommender. I’ll give it a shot.’ It’s great for application volume.


“For our business,” she added, “there will be less editing-only for HBS, but more consulting on what to include. I also suspect that those essays will be longer than either one of the essays last year, but shorter than the two essays combined. A well-written essay still needs to be concise, and it’s harder to write concisely than verbosely.”

Most admission advisers contacted by Poets&Quants agreed with Abraham. They believe that change is always good and would likely make no difference to their business. Shawn O’Connor, founder of Stratus Admissions Counseling, said he thinks the new approach “better mimics real life and I firmly believe that the single essay with an unlimited word limit will pose a greater challenge for HBS candidates than the more structured essays of the past.”

As Stacy Blackman of Stacy Blackman Consulting Inc. put it, “Based on the somewhat panicked and confused reactions I am already receiving from clients, I think they are going to benefit from plenty of guidance on this one: How do they want to present themselves, what aspects still need to be revealed and how to very thoughtfully tell this story. I don’t see this as a ‘no essay.’ I see it as a very important exercise in presenting oneself, knowing what needs to be told and what can be left out.”

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