Anxiety Builds Over Early HBS Deadline

Dillon House, the home of admissions at Harvard Business School

Dillon House, the home of admissions at Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School’s round one deadline–only five days away on Sept. 16th–almost always produces a certain level of anxiety in MBA applicants. But this year the unease and worry has reached something of a crescendo due to a new open-ended essay question and a round one deadline that is eight days earlier than last year.

“I do think people are freaking out,” says Betsy Massar, a Harvard MBA and founder of Master Admissions, an MBA admissions consulting firm. “They email me every five minutes with new ideas and questions. No one has walked this path before so a lot of people are confused about what to do. And if Harvard believes the simplified application will bring more applicants, people feel this year will be more competitive so they are anxious about that.”

The new open-ended essay, with no word limit, that has racketed up the anxiety: “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?”

“There is no right or wrong answer,” says Massar. “Nobody knows what works, including the admissions office because no one has ever seen this open-ended essay before. There is no side of the pool to hold onto. The question is really the question: ‘What else do we need to know about you?’”


Dee Leopold, managing director of admissions and financial aid at HBS, acknowledged the increased nervousness yesterday (Sept. 10). Leopold suggested that many applicants are finding Harvard’s new optional essay question ambiguous in a ‘gotcha’ way–which she insisted is not true. “This may not be easy to hear, but it’s true: Writing this (optional) essay is not a tightrope walk,” she wrote in a post on her director’s blog. “One false move (i.e. only discussing professional things, only discussing personal things, only talking about things that happened recently, only talking about things that happened long ago, etc., etc., etc.) is not going to have you ‘fall.’ It just doesn’t work like that. I know that this question is being experienced by many of you as very ambiguous. But, seriously, it’s ambiguous in a good way, not in a ‘gotcha’ way.’”

Leopold almost seemed annoyed by all the handwringing. “Maybe you would have preferred fill-in-the-blank responses or questions we’ve used in the past so you can search for ‘successful’ essays (which are really not going to have any relevance to you), but that just isn’t going to happen and that’s a good thing for you,” she continued. “Read the essay prompt slowly a couple of times. Your ‘blink’ response is, in my opinion, what should guide you. Write it down. Read it out loud to see if it makes sense. Edit it for spelling errors. Move on.”


The increased anxiety is also a result of the fact that Harvard’s deadline makes it the very first in the new MBA admissions season, more than two weeks earlier than either Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, which has a round one deadline of Oct. 2, or the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, with a Oct. 1 deadline. The Sept. 16th deadline is eight days earlier than last year. Only three other top business schools have round one deadlines in September: Duke University’s Fuqua School on Sept. 18th, MIT Sloan on Sept. 24th, and Yale University’s School of Management on Sept. 25th (see application deadlines for top business schools on following page).

“This deadline is a little earlier than most,” adds admissions consultant Massar. “Usually everything is all in something of a lump. So if someone is applying to more than one school, the anxiety is dispersed a little bit. Now there is an element of standing on an empty stage and having to be chosen.”

Harvard said it would actually respond to emails and phone calls this weekend from round one applicants with last-minute questions. Leopold said admissions staffers will be answering phone calls from noon to 2 p.m. EST on Saturday and  from 3 to 6 p.m. EST on Sunday before the noon EST first round deadline on Monday. Email questions can be sent to

In May, Harvard announced that it would ask MBA applicants for only one essay this year, down from two, only two recommenders, down from three, and also set its earliest round one application deadline ever.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. Few applicants are expected not to send in an essay with their application, however.


That new policy leads some admissions consultants to believe that the essay has been so greatly diminished at Harvard that it will count for very little. “The essay will be a zilch for most people, not moving the needle, just taking up a lot of time and worry,” believes Sandy Kreisberg, founder of and a prominent MBA admissions consultant. “By far, most people are turning the essay into a personal statement: I was born here, that was important because, I went to X university becasue and got interested in x y z.  I joined Firm One because, and then moved to Firm Two.  HBS can help me 1 2 3 .  That answer, unless you sound puerile, disorganized, or odd, will be graded as ZILCH, no help, no hurt, but ‘say, bend over, spread ’em,  and let’s look at your GMATs and GPA.'”

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