A Revealing Interview With Harvard Business School’s Dee Leopold

Headshot of Dee Leopold, wearing a gold blazer over a black top, chin resting on hand.Is it damaging to tell admissions that you would like to start a business with your MBA? Some consultants think that could torpedo a candidate because he or she could very well end up unemployed.

No. Wanting to do a startup would be great. I think we’re all so over that. Maybe that fits back to something that is also true. We don’t think you know what you want to do before you come here. You can say you want to be X and then you come here and everything changes for you.

My best story about that is someone I just met for his fifth year reunion. He is an Indonesian who came from Georgia Tech and GE Medical. When I interviewed him as a candidate, he was very passionate about medical devices. After 30 minutes, I could have joined him in a medical device company because he was so enthusiastic and he wanted to change the world and had determined this was the way to do it.

We admitted him and we ran into each other on campus in the spring after the first semester. I ask him what he’s going to do for the summer? I bet it’s something in medical devices which is exactly what he told me during the interview. He said, ‘I am so shocked. I am going to India to do a retail startup.’ He had studied a case in the required first-year Entrepreneurial Manager course on Fab India, a clothing company that uses village women in India to make fabric. He said, ‘I just never thought I would do this.’

You might think he gets out of HBS and goes to do retail in India. No, he goes to do medical devices. He goes back to Indonesia to work for J&J and now he has just started a chain of local drug stores in Indonesia which is very underserved. HBS has changed everything for him. His company has more than 100 stores already. He came back to sort of the same place but with a totally different perspective as a result of coming here.

Is it a myth then that an applicant should have a clear career plan to present to admissions when he or she applies?

There is a big difference between having a laminated life plan and having some direction of what you might like to do. We are not big fans of laminated life plans. In the written application, we will follow you wherever you want in terms of what you want to do or not. In an interview, don’t tell us you are extremely focused on medical devices and then can’t talk about any of the companies in that space. It’s very hard to fake it in an interview. I don’t think it’s true that people have to have found their one life passion at age 20 something. If they haven’t, you could call it passion deficit disorder but there is nothing wrong with you if you haven’t found your calling.

You do post-interview feedback. What is the most common feedback you give a person who has interviewed but has been rejected for admission?

We call them touchpoint calls. Everybody who interviews gets a letter that says, ‘I’m sorry. You are qualified to attend but we don’t have room for you.’ Every round we do four one-hour sessions and I used to do them all and now we share them. It’s useful. I will have the file in front of me and I’m glad I do it. I learn a lot, and it’s a service we should provide. There are so many candidates who have been so successful and they see not getting into HBS as such a failure. And if I can say it’s not about you. It’s about us, math and the numbers. Only one in every ten or twelve get in. It’s not like they’ve done something wrong.

I start every call with a question: ‘What do you want to talk about? You want to talk about a future application? About other options you might have?’ And then they say, ‘Well I want to know why I didn’t get in.’

Then I say, ‘This isn’t about you. It’s about the reality of a process where we are going to admit one in ten. Everybody we invite to interview is qualified to do the work here and these are tough selection decisions. If I see something as I look through your file and interview report that would be helpful for you to know as you face other processes like this, I will certainly be brave enough to tell you that you have spinach in your teeth or that sort of thing. I won’t back away from that. But if I don’t have anything to say I won’t make up things to fill time. I will say, ‘You know what, you’re fine. You are going to be fine without Harvard Business School. You can reapply again if you want.’

There are times when I’ll say, ‘Did you realize that in the interview we just couldn’t get you to go back and forth with us. It felt like you came in wanting to give your speech and we were hoping to get to know you at a different level. You said you wanted to go into this but we couldn’t actually get you to talk about it.’

Are there three most common things you find yourself saying?

For this kind of interview, our hope is that we just have a conversation. We are trying to talk about some industry-wide things and people just didn’t seem to find that interesting or exciting. And we think, ‘Oh my God, this is business school. You are going to have 550 cases and not all of them can be about the exact thing you do. Will you like it here?’ We are trying to figure out if you will really thrive in a case method environment and do you really want to be in a community where there are no bystanders. You really have to be a giver and not a taker in this ecosystem.

GMAT or GRE. Do you have a preference?

The percentage of people we admit from each test is pretty consistent. One of the changes we are making this year is that you cannot submit both tests.

We are looking at sub-scores. We are not looking at overall numbers like a 700. We are looking underneath the hood of that. So we are trying to break that down for the latest entering class.

If we are looking for your analytical ability, we can look in a lot of different places. You can take MOOCs and do well. We are not looking for people who can do abstract math. We are looking for people who can use numbers to get to words. A familiarity with financial accounting and statistics is a lot different than being able to develop theorems.

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