A Revealing Interview With Harvard Business School’s Dee Leopold

Harvard Business School students walk through campus. Trees in the background have leaves that have color, and some have dropped to the ground.

On Harvard Business School’s sprawling campus

When you originally began cutting the essays in half, you said that applying to HBS was not an essay writing contest. Wasn’t there a time when there were eight essays required?

I think I wrote eight essays to apply to HBS. I remember writing the essays, but it was so different. I didn’t have an interview.

In terms of where we are today, I don’t think we’ve got this nailed. This isn’t perfect. We’ve got so many opportunities to explore. But doing this kind of selection process is different from hiring for a company. We are not hiring into a specific skill set to do a specific job. We are trying to assemble the best conversations so that would require a lot more things exploding in different places in a good way. You don’t want all the same types of people, and you are also catching people at a time in their lives when they are still changing a lot. You are catching people in flight and making some bets.

We also have this very aggressive peer school calendar. I would love to have all applications due on Sept. 9 but I wouldn’t have to let anyone know until May. Think of all the great things we could do to go from that large group down to the class. But I am not sure the market will tolerate that at all. There is a very intense timeframe going on here.

By going to one essay this past year, what did you gain and what did you lose?

It’s hard for me to think of what we lost. There were no word limits, no expected answers. When I think about what that might feel like from a candidate’s standpoint I imagine there is this, ‘What should I write? What do they want to hear?’ That is obviously not the question I want them to ask. It is ‘what do I want to say?’ versus ‘what do they want to hear?’

We saw such variety that it was stunning to see that some people would approach it one way and others completely differently-and they are both accepted. There were wonderful essays from people who didn’t end up getting in. It was good for us to walk the talk that this is one element of the selection process.

It’s fair to say that with 9,500 applications, we are not going to get to know 9,500 people. Our job is to get to that next stage—the 1,800 people who we are going to interview and to do that as fairly, intelligently and strategically as we can. And then pour it on in terms of our investment for the 1,800.

Every time i do an interview I am really nervous. And that matters. I want that feeling to happen, that every interview matters, that we are prepared and that we are there to dance. We are going to lead but we are going to give you a chance to talk and to have a conversation.

By removing essays, didn’t you essentially make other parts of the application more important? The interview, for example?

I’m not sure I would say that. I would say that the weighting has stayed the same but it is more obvious to the candidate now. When you wrote eight essays or four essays, maybe you thought the essays were the reason you got in or didn’t. Maybe they weren’t. We were always able to keep the essays in balance as an element of the application more than the candidate thought. Candidates have the most control over the essays so they think that the essays are the driver, and maybe they weren’t in general. We added the post-interview reflection and it is an opportunity again to see how people write in modern times under some time pressure. It is a chance for them to literally have the last word on what they wanted to say during the interview. We like that. We’re happy with that.

You made the one essay optional last year. Most admission consultants predicted that no one would dare apply without submitting it. Did anyone not write an essay?

Less than ten people did not write an essay.

Did anyone get admitted?

Yes. One person was admitted. I liked everything I saw in the written application.

Were you surprised that many schools followed your lead in reducing the number of essays they require?

Why do you think that is?

I think you’re probably right that MBA admissions had become too much of an essay writing contest and reading all those essays had become a significant burden for schools. Eliminating a lot of reading allows admissions to focus more on the people they really believe are qualified to attend.

This concept for us of going from 9,500 applicants to 1,800 is where the emphasis should be. Who to move forward is a big decision for us. At the 1,800 mark we are trying to create pretty much a mini class. If we were to select 1,800 people based on only the written application what would it look like? I don’t get involved in that stage. I do not decide who goes to interview. I see the 1,800 people after the interview so I have a check and balance that I am not too big a voice in the process. It’s the balance of a very senior team and then me at the end who brings them back in to discuss. It’s a system that works for us.

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