Harvard B-School’s “Japan Problem”

Japanese students at a sushi party

Japanese students at a sushi party

When Harvard Business School released its round two interview schedule for MBA applicants today (Jan. 28), there was one very big surprise. HBS set aside four separate days of interviews in Tokyo.

That’s a lot of interview slots for a country that produces perhaps 100 applicants to HBS a year. It’s twice as many as Mumbai in India and one more than Shanghai in China, even though GMAT test takers from both China and India outnumber the Japanese by a factor of nine to one. For every person who took the GMAT in 2012-2013 from Japan, there were 8.8 who did so in India and 9.1 who took the exam in China.

Dee Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid, told applicants that admission board members will be interviewing invited round two applicants in Tokyo on February 19, 20, 21, and 22. It’s part of a major push to attract more MBA students from Japan–and will likely come at the expense of candidates from other countries.


“I’d like to know how many of those four days worth of Tokyo interview slots are being taken by applicants outside Japan,” says Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com, an admissions consultant.

“My guess is, not many. That means they are interviewing LOTS of Japanese passport holders in an effort, for whatever reasons, to increase Japanese enrollment. It is also an interesting question about who is getting “punished” for this initiative, e.g. applicants from China, India? Could be.”

Only last week, Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria bemoaned the fact that MBA applicants from Japan—and therefore Japanese students—have dwindled down to a precious few. In an interview given in Asia to The Wall Street Journal, Nohria said he believes a major falloff in candidates from Japan is occurring because the country has become more insular in recent years.

“One of the anxieties we have is we used to see 30 to 40 Japanese students out of 900 M.B.A. students every year,” he told the Journal. “Now it is down to four to five. Japan is only part of Asia that’s in retreat. They were so engaged in the global economy in the 1980s, now they have become more insular. Japan is the third largest economy in the world, it’s important for us to find a way to reach out.”


In truth, turning the Japanese “problem” around won’t be too difficult for Harvard. As Kreisberg notes, the school would only have to “prefer” those applicants to others–and that already seems the case. MBA admission consultants say that Harvard Business School already accepted eight candidates from Japan in the first round, nearly twice as many as the school has in its latest entering class. HBS is expected to double that with the round two invites that began going out today, and the high number of interview dates in Tokyo suggests that HBS invited a lot more Japanese candidates for interviews.

“Frankly I don’t know when Dean Noria means by 30-40 Japanese,” says Adam Markus, a prominent MBA admissions consultant who works out of Japan. “As far as I know there have not been numbers like that since the 1990s. HBS adcom is making a big push this year for Japanese based on pressure from the Japanese alums and the Dean. They let in 8 for R1 and are apparently shooting for around the same number for R2. If HBS has 15 Japanese in the Class of 2017, it would be the largest for many years. About eight to 13 students has been typical in the 2000s.”

GMAT test takers in Japan in the past five years have remained relatively stable. In the 2014 testing year ended June 30th, 2,612 Japanese citizens sat for the exam, just slightly down from the 2,680 who took the GMAT in 2010. The Graduate Management Admissions Council, which administers the GMAT, has said that more Japanese applicants are applying to schools in Singapore, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, France and Spain. In 2012, the percentage of score reports sent from Japan to U.S. schools fell below the 70% mark for the first time to 67%. In 2008, 77% of the score reports in Japan were sent to U.S. schools.


The reasons for the trend are many. Vince Ricci of VincePrep.com, who helped his first Japanese client gain admission to HBS in 2003, says that Japan’s increasing insularity is hardly the only reason why Harvard is having more trouble attracting qualified Japanese applicants. He says the “perceived degree value is in question and the career impact is unclear.” Ricci also believes that many Japanese believe HBS and other schools are thought to have an “Inflexible curriculum. Case study and general management skills are not as desirable as practical, hands on learning.”

But it is clear to him that HBS is making an effort here. In the last 12 admissions cycles, Ricci says he has helped anywhere from zero to six Japanese applicants get admitted to Harvard Business School. “The 2014 round one was a personal best, with 80% market share for Japanese admits,” he says.

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