How Essay Reductions Impact Applicants

Headshot of Jana Blanchette, founder of Inside MBA Admissions

Jana Blanchette, founder of Inside MBA Admissions

Two years ago, the Harvard Business School made a bold move by reducing the application requirements for potential MBA applicants. They moved to one essay, technically optional, and reduced the number of required letters of recommendation. It didn’t take long for their rivals to follow suit. Top MBA programs like HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Ross, Sloan, and many other schools are drastically cutting their essays/total word counts and number of recommenders.

I think it is safe to say there has been a significant “shift” in the application process. It’s no secret that MBA application volumes have been down over the past two years. Theoretically, if schools can lighten the workload for prospective candidates, then they should see an increase in the overall pool of applications. As an admissions consultant and former admissions insider at a major business school, I understand the school’s intent and it definitely makes sense. But how is the applicant truly affected as a result of this shift in the industry?

When working with my clients or speaking to potential clients, their initial response (before actually starting the application) was very positive to the reduction in application requirements. Many of them reported that it “felt less overwhelming” and that they could “apply to more schools to increase their odds of gaining admission.” Keep in mind, these were their thoughts and opinions before starting the application. It can be more challenging to write a 250-word essay than a 500-word essay for a given topic.  One has to be much more concise with their writing and much more thoughtful when choosing their topics. And, with fewer recommenders, one needs to ensure they are picking a reputable source and are able to convey strong messages that help the applicant stand-out.


Finally, other aspects of the application become even more important – the resume, school selection, understanding the specific MBA program, the on-line applications/short answer questions, the interview; and, of course, GMAT and academic record(s).   Even though, at first glance, our clients and potential clients were less overwhelmed and more eager to apply to an MBA program, as they dug into the process they began to realize how challenging it would be.

One client stated, “I did appreciate those applications that had fewer and shorter essays.  It at least made the applications feel a lot less overwhelming.  That being said, once I began the application, I realized how difficult it was to say everything that I wanted to convey within the limits. For example, HBS only had one essay, and I definitely wanted to make mine stand out so I wrote about something pretty different.  It would have been helpful to have another essay to balance that first one out.”     – Client, “New Haven, CT”

Yet, another client has a slightly different take on the matter, “The length of the essays or the number of essays had no bearing on my decision to apply to business school or even how many schools I would apply to – top tier schools will always attract as many qualified applicants as the market will bear.  With that being said, once we started writing the essays, I realized how hard it was to get the content down to the appropriate length. However, in the end, I think it led me to focus more, ultimately leading to better essays.”   – Client, “New York, NY”


And lastly, one of our clients was frustrated and more overwhelmed as she indicated, “I was initially thrilled to see less essays, less word count, and fewer recommenders.  That all changed when I started the application process and began working on my application components. I felt crushed by the limitations because I knew I had a wide array of unique stories, attributes, and feats that I wanted to share with the admissions committee, but I wouldn’t have the opportunity to share them. It seemed like it would all boil down to numbers – GMATs and GPAs.  Thankfully, we brainstormed, prioritized, stayed focused and had all aspects of my application buttoned up – so I was successful in the end.  I still feel like I got admitted without them [the admissions committee] really knowing me and how I will truly contribute to their community.” – Client, London, UK

This trend has not affected our business in any negative way.  However, we noticed that during our free consultations, potential clients wanted to spend more time obtaining our opinion on how they would be able to stand-out in the application pool.

In summary, from my personal perspective, I understand what the MBA programs are trying to accomplish, and it does help our clients focus on the most important aspects of their candidacy. However, I think the general consensus from our client pool was that it wasn’t an easier process, it didn’t make them want to apply to more schools, and it left many of them feeling dissatisfied.  It may have increased application volume, but the question remains as to whether it had an impact on the quality / profile of the admitted class.  The trend is here to stay, at least for now, so our job as consultants remains the same – coach them through the process, help them focus, prioritize the most important/differentiating aspects of their application, and weed out irrelevant information.  Most of all, we help them deal with the stress of the process and feel confident in the material they create!

Jana Blanchette, former admissions director of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, is the founder of Inside MBA Admissions, an admissions consulting firm. If you’d like advice on your candidacy, you can get a free consultation by clicking on the link.


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