Can You Pass The Mirror Test At HBS?

mirror-mirrorCan you pass the mirror test at HBS?

That’s the challenge Dee Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School, posed to listeners of her first admissions webinar today (July 2).

Asked if there were any red flags in a typical MBA application at Harvard, she noted that it is a commonly asked question but one that is hard to answer. “I guess I would say don’t overthink, over craft, and overwrite and don’t get involved in something that feels like a production,” Leopold said. “It doesn’t have to be this incredible document that explains every single thing about you and goes on and on. Your blink response as to how you would answer the question is where you should start.”


And then, Leopold pulled out what she called the mirror test. “Do a draft of how you want to answer the question and then stand in front of a mirror and say it out loud and see if it sounds like you. Could you say this out loud, have it make sense and have it be a good picture of you? And then move on.”

In the 36-minute webinar, the first in this new admissions season with the earliest round one deadline ever on Sept. 9, Leopold guided listeners through the school’s new MBA application, section by section. And she went overboard to convey the fact that the admissions team is a compassionate and gentle group. “Think of us as really nice, relatively normal people who are eager to meet you halfway and understand (you) and be on your team,” she said.

That informal perspective is underscored with this year’s online application which discards the conventional boilerplate instructions and replaces them with conversational elements in Leopold’s own voice. “Read This First!” supplants the previous “Overview’ on the first page and is the first of a half dozen exclamation points in the intro section alone. At another point, the application notes, “No, we don’t give special consideration to recommendations written by HBS alums.”


During the webinar, a potential applicant asked that question again. Leopold’s response was just as sassy: “No, no, and no. There is no need to elaborate on that question because it is simply no.”

Admission consultants say the more informal casual approach is an attempt by HBS to take some anxiety out of the process of applying to a school that rejects 88% of its applicants each year. “It’s a lot easier putting together an application if you think they’re on your side,” says Betsy Massar of Master Admissions, an MBA admissions consultant. “The new application has sassy elements to it and it comes off as more of a dialogue.”

During the webinar, Leopold said that prospective students who complete their applications by the Sept. 9 deadline can expect to hear from HBS on whether they will be interviewed by early October. Interviews would then begin toward the latter part of October and go through Thanksgiving in November. Decisions would be sent to all interviewed applicants on Dec. 11. She said that in 2013, HBS invited 1,887 people to interview, nearly 20% of the 9,543 applications received by HBS. Some 940 students are expected to enroll in the Class of 2016.


Asked by one listener if she could describe “the feeling” during an admissions interview, Leopold said, “I assume you mean your feelings and not mine. Remember all these interviews are done by members of the admissions board. We don’t engage volunteer alums or students. Our ranks swell to 20-something during interview season. You’ll be nervous but we’ll be nervous, too, because we have 30 minutes to get to know you.

“I’ll describe what it feels like for me to get ready to do an interview. I will have read your application more than once and looked at your organization online and made sure I understand your school. What I have is not a list of formulaic questions but a roadmap of things I want to make sure we talk about on some level. The 30 minutes will go by quickly, and I want to make sure you feel understood. We are old hands at this. You are going to say that the time flies by and ‘Gee, It felt like a conversation.’ It’s not a rat-a-tat-tat series of questions being thrown at you. It’s going to be a conversation because quite honestly that is how our classrooms are like.”

During the webinar, Leopold offered lots of other advice to would-be applicants. As far as selecting recommenders, she said: “Most of us do not have people giving us constructive feedback unless they know us quite well and have been involved in our development. So use that but please don’t feel it needs to be some formulaic approach on your part: one from a current employer, one from a former employer, one from your extracurricular life. We just don’t have that formula or rigidity in place. Use your best judgment and please try to think of us as really nice, relatively normal people who are eager to meet you half way and understand (you) and be on your team.”

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