A Consultant To HBS: No Hard Feelings

A case study professor in action at Harvard Business School

A case study professor in action at Harvard Business School

There’s no denying that Harvard Business School has dramatically changed the process of applying to a top MBA program.

It started with the school’s decision in 2012 to cut in half the number of essays required of MBA applicants. Then, one school after another followed suit, slashing essays, word counts, and recommendation letters. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business initially dropped an essay requirement, going from four essays to just three. MIT Sloan scrapped one of three required essays. And then 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.

Further cutbacks came last year–so much so that we wrote about The Incredible Shrinking MBA App–and still more cutbacks continue into this year. So far, both Stanford and Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business have dropped an essay each. And, of course, Harvard is now down to just one “optional” essay.


Some MBA admission consultants initially cried foul. They believed the cutbacks reflect something of a backlash to their increasing involvement in the application process. To the top ten schools, consultants now estimate that eight of every ten international applicants are using their services and as many as half of all domestic applicants.

Reducing the number of essays required and shortening the word limit ostensibly gives applicants less reason to employ a consultant. When HBS’ Admissions Director Dee Leopold was asked by Poets&Quants how consultants would react to Harvard’s changes, she said, “It’s going to be disruptive to admission consultants who write essays.”

As it turns out, the business of admissions consulting wasn’t diminished at all. Consulting firms contend that business is still very good, if not booming. That’s largely a function of the large number of competitors in the field as well as the market share they already have. But Harvard and its rivals have unwittingly changed the business of consulting in rather unintended ways.

“There is an interesting dynamic happening in admissions consulting, where schools seem increasingly wary, when in reality the undertaking is becoming more and more like coaching in any other field,” explains Adam Hoff of Amerasia Consulting Group. “Helping people get out of their own way, maximize their potential, make good decisions and move away from bounded rationality.”


Adam Hoff, co-founder of Amerasia Consulting

In a blog post advising applicants how to answer Harvard’s more open-ended optional essay, Hoff did an unusual riff on “Why I love Harvard, but Harvard probably doesn’t love me.”

As Hoff concedes, “There is a prevailing theory out there that HBS is trying to drive admissions consultants out of the process. I’d like to respond to that – as much to Harvard as to potential clients. It’s self-serving to say this, of course, but in all my years in admissions, I never felt more valuable to my clients than I did for my HBS folks last year. And not because I told them what to write or gave them some secret formula, but because I helped them find what made them special to begin with and then I gave them the permission and confidence to believe in that and to articulate it clearly and with assurance.

“I stood behind them so they could stand strong and confident. And when they did that, they thrived. Now, HBS may still wish I didn’t exist, but I firmly believe that they have 10 amazing new Harvard students coming to their campus this fall because I was involved in their candidacy. Everyone comes to a point in life when a coach helps them not just train or boost their skills, but to gain clarity. I’ve hired trainers and life coaches and each time, they’ve helped me get out of my own way and put my best self forward. HBS’ application process helped me serve the same role for my clients last year. So if Harvard really is trying to drive me out of the process, it kind of backfired. I’ve never been more valuable or fulfilled in my work.”


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