Harvard Switches Out Its Essay Question

On Harvard Business School's sprawling campus

On Harvard Business School’s sprawling campus

Dee Leopold is at it again.

The managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School today (May 15) ditched the school’s open-ended, optional essay question and tossed out yet another test for prospective HBS applicants.

The new required question:

It’s the first day of class at HBS. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your “section.” This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this shared experience will be lasting.

Introduce yourself.


The school did not disclose whether there is a word limit on the essay. The last essay imposed not limits whatsoever on how much a candidate could write. In a blog post, Leopold explained that the new question is “about as straightforward and practical as we can make it. It gives you a chance to tell your story however you choose. Imagine simply saying it out loud. This is what we mean when we’ve been encouraging you to use your own ‘voice’ when approaching this part of the application. We have no pre-conceived ideas of what “good” looks like. We look forward to lots of variance. It’s useful. You will actually be introducing yourself to classmates at HBS.”

Harvard dropped its two-year-old ‘optional’ essay, Leopold added, because “we were trying to signal that the essay wasn’t The Most Important Element of the application so we thought saying ‘optional’ might accomplish that. But, this season, every applicant submitted a response. We get it. You want to tell us things.” Translation: The new essay is required.

Leopold suggested that before applicants write their responses to the new question they view the school’s six-year-old video on its case study approach to teaching business (see below).

It was only two years ago, in 2013, that Leopold decided to cut the school’s application essays in half to just one, with only two recommenders, down from three. At that time, Harvard even left open the possibility that an applicant wouldn’t have to even write a single essay if he or she believed the rest of the application fully reflected their candidacy.


The open-ended essay prompt went like this: “You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?”

And the year before adopting that question, Leopold announced the most significant changes to its MBA admission policies in ten years when, among other things, it brought its four separate essays with a total word limit of 2,000 words down to just two with a word limit of 800.

Harvard Business School has the earliest first-round deadline again: Sept. 9th, same as last year, with notification in December. The round two deadline is Jan. 6, with decisions released in March, while the round three and final deadline is April 14th, with notification in May.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.