NYU Stern Prof Calls Harvard’s New MBA Essays ‘Ridiculously Vague’

Suzy Welch

NYU Stern management professor Suzy Welch at the school’s 2024 commencement

Harvard Business School’s new essay prompts have come into a fair bit of criticism since their release two weeks ago. MBA admission consultants have judged the changes “regressive,” “formulaic,” and “Frankenstein-like.” One leading consultant, who works closely with many HBS applicants, believes the school has “lost gravitas” because the consultant believes the essays do not require critical thinking or deep introspection.

The latest critic of Harvard Business School’s application essays is Suzy Welch, a management professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and the widow of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch. In her Becoming You podcast, Welch calls the new essays “ridiculously vague, nebulous and ding-dongy,” “off the rails,” “completely unrelated thoughts,” and likely the result of drafting by a committee of “smart people…all with different agendas.”

Welch, who teaches Developing Managerial Skills and Becoming You at NYU Stern, typically starts her weekly podcasts off with a “rant.” Yesterday (July 8), her focus was on the new application essays published on June 25th by Rupal Gadhia who joined HBS as the new admissions chief nine months ago. Gadhia, an HBS alum and former marketing executive, retired the one required essay of nearly a decade and replaced it with three shorter essays (see Revealed:  Harvard Business School’s New MBA Essays).


Twice a Harvard alum who earned her MBA from the school in 1988, Welch noted that what HBS asks candidates in the admissions process is “a window into what kind of leaders it wants to create and what it thinks is important.” But the former editor of The Harvard Business Review and an author of three books, including the bestseller Winning, isn’t very keen on the new questions being asked by Harvard of MBA applicants.

She was most critical of the first two essays, including the first business-minded essay.

Business-Minded Essay: Please reflect on how your experiences have influenced your career choices and aspirations and the impact you will have on the businesses, organizations, and communities you plan to serve. (up to 300 words)

“I have no freaking idea what it means,” says Welch of the business-minded essay. “I don’t understand it. I don’t know how I would answer it. I don’t know what it means and I can’t understand it for the life of me. They must have done this at Harvard on purpose. There are two explanations for me: This question is so vague and so ridiculous it’s basically like…just fill us in on what’s important. The other (explanation) and the more likely reason for this ridiculously vague and nebulous and ding-dongy question is this is an example of when there are too many cooks in the kitchen.


“I think what happened is all the smart people got together, all with different agendas, and they said this is a clean slate. Let’s come up with a new question and what you have here is ten people at a meeting coming up with a solution. This happens in life and in business. I am going to guess that is what happened here because I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. If this is one person coming up with this question this person needs to go back to school himself for clarity. He needs to get a degree in clarity.”

As others have noted, Welch also is critical of what she calls a “totally unrelated” second question in the same essay. “I don’t even know how these two things go together in 300 words,” she says. “The other two are equally bad.”

Welch isn’t all that fond of the second essay prompt on leadership: Leadership-Focused Essay: What experiences have shaped who you are, how you invest in others, and what kind of leader you want to become? (up to 250 words)


She believes the school is asking applicants three separate and unrelated questions that are impossible to answer in fewer than 250 words. “This goes completely off the rails,” believes Welch. “What were they thinking? I am guessing again this is a committee (decision).” And then here it goes…how do I invest in others? What does that have to do (with the first question)? And what kind of leader do you want to become? I’m sorry. It’s unrelated. God bless the applicant who finds a way to write a cogent essay about those three completely unrelated thoughts. I couldn’t do it, and I am an award-winning writer.”

Welch concedes that the third essay prompt — Growth-Oriented Essay: Curiosity can be seen in many ways. Please share an example of how you have demonstrated curiosity and how that has influenced your growth. (up to 250 words) — is the best of the three questions. Welch notes that along with IQ, EQ, and grit, it is a trait commonly found among successful professionals. But she notes that curiosity is a problematic trait because “social scientists and social psychologists believe it is pretty much born into you…  It is easy to game this question. Do a gut check: how curious are you and how much are you leaning into it? You have to be careful not to over-express it.” 


OUR BUSINESS CASUAL PODCAST: The New HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL MBA Application:  Fortuna Admissions’ Caroline Diarte-Edwards and ApplicantLab’s Maria Wich-Vila join P&Q’s John A. Byrne to offer applicant advice on how to answer the new HBS essay prompts

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