The Un-Interview: Harvard’s Dee Leopold With Sandy Kreisberg

Zeroing in on the new MBA application for Harvard Business School

Zeroing in on the new MBA application for Harvard Business School

Few admission directors bring as much experience or perspective to the job of selection than Dee Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid for the Harvard Business School. She began sorting and reading HBS applications in 1980—making this her 36th year in admissions—and became director in 2006. On June 1, she pushed the new HBS application live on the school’s website.

Over that time span, she and her team of admission staffers, working out of Dillon House on the HBS campus, have read and evaluated nearly 350,000 MBA applications, ultimately enrolling more than 32,000 students to Harvard Business School. Put another way, those students represent roughly four out of every 10 of the school’s 81,000 living alumni.

She herself was once a student on the campus. A graduate of Columbia University, Leopold earned her MBA in 1980 from HBS, where she was co-president of the Women’s Student Association. Before attending HBS, she worked in New York as a portfolio manager for Merrill Lynch.

A NEW HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL ESSAY QUESTION & A NEW ADMISSIONS SEASON

Leopold already has announced that HBS would switch out its two-year-old optional essay question and replace it with a new, required one, also with no word limit:

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 new essay and the start of the 2015-2016 admissions season made it a perfect time to check in with Leopold. This time, however, Poets&Quants asked Sanford Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com and a leading MBA admissions consultant, to ask the questions.

SANDY ASKS THE HARDBALL & SOFTBALL QUESTIONS

Like Leopold, Kreisberg is also a veteran in admissions. He started advising friends and family shortly after earning a master’s in English Literature at Harvard in 1971. Over the years, he has helped more than 1,500 clients, many of them wanting to win the approval of Leopold and her team and gain a coveted seat in a Harvard Business School class. In his early days, he also was a lawyer in private practice and for the government. Kreisberg transitioned to admissions consulting full time in 1993.

Leopold and Kreisberg conducted their interview over several days via email. During the back-and-forth exchange, Leopold answers some hardball and softball questions from Kreisberg about the new “Introduce Yourself” essay, the 30-minute admissions interview for candidates who make the first cut, the process of evaluation, and much more.

Sandy: We’ve read your blog and website, could you introduce yourself to your applicants?
 
Dee: Very funny. I guess I’d like applicants to know that while I’ve been doing this for a very long time,  it’s not a solo operation by any means. The Dillon Team is simply the finest group of colleagues imaginable. Every season they come up with ambitious new ideas and then execute beautifully. And all while making day-to-day office life fun.

Sandy: Yes, but just in light of the question you asked others, could you “introduce yourself” which is the question you asked others this year?

Dee: I’ve already endured the HBS admissions process as an applicant long ago. The questions I responded to were: What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?

Strengths and weaknesses?  Career plans?  What careers other than management that you have considered?  And some more that I’ve forgotten.     What I remember was that the application form was on gray paper –  a rather cruel choice given that these were the days of typewriters and white-out. No interviews.  

And let me add, as to what might surprise people about me,  I think applicants  would probably be surprised to know how much I worry about them having a healthy mix of anticipation and anxiety about this process. My family would probably describe me as an Olympic level worrier so I am always having to remind myself that waiting for news from HBS should not become elevated to toxic levels of stress. 

Sandy: Bravo! And let me say this to any shrewd applicants out there: That is about the right tone for this answer, not too talky, but vernacular and “honest,” within the context of this exercise. A wee bit self-serving, but without being objectionable. 
 
Dee: Sigh.

Sandy: By the way, going back to your original application,  do you recall what you said your three accomplishments were?

Dee: Of course, I do.