HBS Applicants ‘Panicked & Confused’

Adam Hoff of Amerasia Consulting Group expressed a similar reaction. “Any impact on true admissions consulting–as opposed to essay editing–would likely be small and, curiously, probably would result in more people reaching out to vetted, talented consultants,” he said. “This is because a large part of what we do is help candidates navigate ambiguity and make educated choices about the process. The perception that a good admissions consultant just edits essays is as outdated as HBS believes the essays themselves to be.”


Consultants said they would generally advise applicants against the option not to file an essay at all. “I’m trying to imagine the applicant who chooses to just send in grades, scores, and a recommendation from David Petraeus,” quipped Betsy Massar, an HBS alumna and founder of Master Admissions.

Or as Graham Richmond, co-founder of Clear Admit, explained: “While the ‘new’ essay is indeed optional – and Dee Leopold indicates that HBS may admit candidates who do not submit an essay (if they feel the rest of the file speaks for itself) – my suspicion is that the vast majority of qualified HBS applicants will feel that they have more to offer than transcripts, data forms, test scores and recommendation letters and will therefore make use of the optional essay to further describe their personal background, leadership profile, professional aspirations and desire to join/contribute to the HBS community.”

Harvard’s changes do impact the way this season’s crop of prospective candidates should approach an application to Harvard Business School. “There are four major differences about to unfold at HBS,” said Dan Bauer, an HBS alum and founder and CEO of The MBA Exchange, Ltd. “By reducing the total number of essays, the description of job responsibilities, academic achievements and non-work leadership in the resume and application form must be more vivid and compelling. Boilerplate just won’t do. By asking an open-ended essay question, HBS is introducing greater subjectivity that will ‘spread’ the applicant pool and create new opportunities for applicants to break through. Higher risk, higher reward.”

“By eliminating one of the three recommenders, HBS is making the selection and cultivation of recommenders more critical. Recs now must do heavy lifting that the previous essays used to handle. By emphasizing the admissions interview and “reflection,” HBS is making interpersonal skills, self-awareness and diligent preparation more of a competitive advantage.”

It also has not gone unnoticed that Harvard’s changes mean less work for the school’s admissions staff. They will read fewer essays and recommendation letters, saving a significant amount of time. “Dee and her gang get to read less, and finish up Round 1 way before Christmas, and my guess is, what they read will be more varied and interesting,” explained Sandy Kreisberg, of HBSGuru, a prominent MBA admissions consultant based in Boston (see Sandy on Harvard’s New MBA Application). “Consultants get to guide the perplexed since the open-endedness of the question can be perplexing.  Applicants get to explain themselves, if they have to. And if they don’t, they get some assurance from Dee’s notes that something small and distinct, or nothing at all, will do, if you have the confidence to go down that road.  Less essay content may up the ante on the interview but I am not expecting HBS to expand that from 30 minutes any time soon. In summary,  HBS  ain’t going to fully define what they want, but they know it when the see it, and they don’t have to see much.”


Abraham of Accepted.com said the new open-ended question allows applicants the flexibility to craft an essay that smartly complements the application’s standard components. “The question gives the applicants an opportunity to tell HBS what they really want HBS to know about them that isn’t found elsewhere in the app,” she said. “They can discuss motivations for a certain path, challenges faced, context, or a common thread among activities just as a few examples. The common denominator among these options and an infinite number of others is that the applicant can choose what is important to him or her.

“The lack of a word limit means the applicant can demonstrate judgment and good communications skills without being in the straightjacket of word limits,” added Abraham. “Obviously, it also means that they can show a lack of judgment and shoot themselves in the foot. Given that HBS is reducing the information it is getting from recs and essays, it appears that HBS plans, or perhaps or already has been, on relying more on the other elements of the application — test score, grades, activity history, resume, etc. Clearly all those information sources count and probably will count more. Applicants have to make sure that the activity history and resume show impact, initiative, and leadership.”

Another less positive view is that HBS might very well get little more than recycled essays from applicants applying to other schools. “Without a formal essay question (the prompt is highly open-ended) the HBS admissions board may end up seeing a percentage of essays that are merely recycled from required essay questions at peer schools,” said Richmond of Clear Admit. “In other words, HBS may get some ‘What Matters Most’ material from folks who applied to Stanford.”


“In terms of the lack of a word limit,” added Richmond, “this is certainly a welcome element that should allow applicants to convey whatever message they feel will most likely add to their profile.  That said, given that HBS is describing the evolution of their essays as one that streamlines the overall application by reducing word count (and avoiding an essay writing contest), one could reasonably interpret the school as looking for something less than last year’s 800 total word count.”

Blackman said that her personal reaction to the new Harvard exercised was “I love it. Harvard wants students who are future leaders – they can act quickly and decisively, with little to no direction, under stressful circumstances.  Top leaders don’t need to be told exactly what to do and they go far beyond filling in required boxes.  This essay exercise gets to the heart of this:  HBS knows what they are looking for, and if an applicant does their research they know what HBS is looking for as well.  So now, HBS is saying to applicants:  ‘Based on what you know of how we compose our class, you tell us what we need to know. We aren’t going to force you into a specific box.'”






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