What Harvard’s Affirmative Action Trial Says About Elite MBA Admissions

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Dillon House is where Harvard Business School makes all of its admission decisions.


Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com and a leading reader of admission tea leaves at Harvard Business School, notes that “the one big difference between college and HBS is that the expectation of ‘fairness’ for HBS is less–it’s a business school! For instance, one factor for them, if you are employed by your family business, is how big is the business. They also have work history of each applicant as a super important part of the mix, and all work situations are not equal. And while both schools claim to ‘build’ a class and not admit a person per se, building a class at HBS is more defined, in addition to gender, race, and grades, it also includes industry and some unpublished hierarchy within industries, in many cases.”

Judith S. Hodara, a co-founder and director of Fortuna Admissions, has an unusual perspective. For years, she was involved in the selection process for both undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania for seven years and then at Wharton for MBA candidates for nearly ten years from 2000 to 2010. “How MBA files are read by admissions officers are quite different from officers for undergraduate programs, where usually school groups ( think Stuyvesant for example) are read regionally as a group, so that students can be reviewed in relation to one another given that they have all come from the same high school,” she explains. “Those are incredibly tough undergraduate pools; because academically and  future path-wise, the profiles can appear to be similar, and the individual characteristics may also appear in extra curricular activities too. It’s just harder for those applicants to stand out from amongst their peers.

“For MBA applicants, there are more points of data in addition to the academic and extra curricular profile; on average, three to five years of work experience and professional growth plus essays that reflect that additional growth and maturity. In addition, there is usually not a regional or industry reader for the whole subset of the pool, which means that there is not as systematic ( if you can actually use that word) approach. As a result, its hard to take the undergrad process and lay it over graduate admissions because of this- its more like apples and oranges. Certainly the outside interest groups including alumni and donors do come into play. I would add to this that relationships with banks and consulting firms can matter as well. After all, MBA graduates are looking for positions in these same firms when they graduate, so it behooves both parts of that equation to have positive interactions) as it grows the pools on both ends.


Judith Silverman Hodara – a co-founder and director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions

“While I was at Wharton,” adds Hodara, “we could have admitted an entire class of bankers or consultants, but then they would be learning only from bankers and consultants, and not opening themselves up to different paths and ways of thinking. We were thoughtful as a committee (and it’s not an exact science by any means) of taking those kinds of ideas into account; and that the makeup of cohorts, clusters and learning teams at Wharton and many other M7 schools reflect that approach.”

Like Hodara, Hoff at Amerasia also had been involved in undergraduate admission decisions at Pepperdine University, his alma mater, earlier in his career. He acknowledges that explaining many admission decisions in undergraduate or graduate admissions is virtually impossible. His work at Pepperdine in reviewing over 1,000 applicant files a year, he concedes, “wasn’t anywhere near Harvard’s microscopic acceptance rate and it was still difficult to fully explain and justify all decisions. You are going off a mix of what the university wants in terms of an overall direction, combined with statistical pressure (rankings, diversity, filling certain majors) and various mandates (athletic recruits, performing arts, religious affiliation in the case of a religiously-affiliated school), all while dealing with completely uneven demographics in the applicant pool.”

At his liberal arts college, over two-thirds of the applicants were white females. “Would it benefit anyone at the college to have a class that was 70% white female?,” he asks. “It wasn’t fair to some of the amazing candidates who got denied, but it also wouldn’t have been fair to put them in that environment. where they pay $50,000 a year to be around only people who are just like them.  I see the same thing now at the MBA level with the more ‘over subscribed’ demos. It doesn’t feel fair when you go case by case, but I also don’t think you can turn the schools into villains merely for trying to create a diverse environment.”


Hoff says most admission counselors are hardly surprised by the “trade secrets coming to light” in the trial. “Any good counselor already knew all of this, without a trial bringing Harvard’s formula into the public space,” he maintains. “I already teach my clients who are in competitive demos to stand out by being more human, not more impressive. Readers who get hit with wave after wave of accomplished candidates are even more likely to jump at someone interesting or funny or honest or unique or whatever the case may be.

“I would guess that many candidates who get dinged and can’t believe it often doubled down on what was already clear to a reader from jump – that they are impressive, accomplished, driven, and so forth. The key is to take your life’s work, let it speak for itself, and then say something completely different and that grabs a reader in a new way. This is how you wind up with admissions officers squirming, trying to explain how and why they took Applicant A over Applicant B when they aren’t even really sure. So much it is more of a gut reaction and wanting, as a file reader, to find a new way in besides just ‘wow, exceptional!’

“Of course, at the end of the day, some of it is just pure bad luck.  I am sure I got cases wrong when I was an admissions officer and there are plenty of clients each year now who I feel get robbed and were just plain unlucky.  But when you pursue schools with a microscopic acceptance rate and a subjective admissions process, you are inviting that.”


Jeremy Shinewald, founder of mbaMission, one of the largest MBA admission consulting oufits, believes the disclosures from the Harvard will change at least one thing: internal communications about applicants from admission officials, deans and faculty. “In a lot of business school ethics classes, they talk about the ‘Wall Street Journal’ test – don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want seen on the front page of the Journal,” he says. “I have to imagine that a lot of admissions officers, now seeing another office’s communications made public, are at a minimum thinking carefully about what they are writing about specific applicants.

“I imagine that children of influential individuals and donors at all schools, not just Harvard, will yield less of a paper trail, though the reality is that influence will never be eliminated – there is too much self interest in cultivating donors. Meantime, generalizations about applicants are probably going to be emailed about less, but again I don’t think much will change in terms of the admissions process itself, just the way it is communicated.”

Whatever the outcome of the trial, the decision is likely to wind its way toward the U.S. Supreme Court. But already, there are signs that it has had an impact at Harvard. Newly revised guidelines for admission officials at Harvard for the Class of 2023 explicitly prohibits the consideration of a candidate’s race when assigning scores for personal traits, according to The Harvard Crimson.


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