(Poets&Quants) — Harvard Business School announced today the most significant changes to its MBA admission policies since 2002, when the prestigious school began to require that candidates be interviewed before it offered admission.
Harvard said it is cutting in half the number of required essays for most applicants to its full-time MBA program. Instead of requiring applicants to write four separate essays, for a total of 2,000 words, MBA candidates will now have to turn in two essays, for a total of just 800 words.
The two questions that form the basis of the essays are more direct and simple than the previous menu of questions. They are:
1. Tell us something you’ve done well. (400 words)
2. Tell us something you wish you had done better. (400 words)
The school is adding a novel twist for MBA candidates who make the first cut and are invited to an interview with the school’s admissions staff. Those applicants will be asked to write an additional essay of 400 words within 24 hours of the interview on what they wished they had said during the interview session but didn’t. The “written reflection of the interview experience” will be submitted via Harvard’s online application system.
Harvard is also moving up its round one admissions deadline for applicants to the earliest date ever, Sept. 24. Candidates who get their applications in by that date will hear from the school by Dec. 12. These new dates compare with a first round deadline last year of Oct. 3, with notification of the admission board’s decision by Dec. 19.
Harvard announced the changes on its website with a blog post by managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School Deidre “Dee” Leopold and the posting of the new application online, signaling the start of the admissions cycle for the class of 2015. The changes go into effect immediately and will be required of applicants to Harvard’s 2+2 deferred admission program for undergraduates this July.
Are essays taking a back seat?
In an interview with Poets&Quants, Leopold gave several reasons for the changes. She said they are in keeping with recent improvements in Harvard’s MBA curriculum, which calls for more introspection from students.
“Adding this piece mirrors what we’re asking candidates to do in the MBA program,” Leopold said. “We ask people to reflect on a number of things and this will be a recurring theme.”
The changes also coincide with Leopold’s belief that essays have become too large a part of the admissions process. “I’ve been saying that admissions is not an essay writing contest, and that is where a lot of the anxiety (among applicants) is,” Leopold said. “When we never met anyone, essays were the only way we had for applicants to get some form of personalization of the application. But since the class of 2004, we’ve been interviewing all admitted applicants. The interviews are a big investment of our time, money and assessment energy, so I think it’s time to have a corresponding reduction in that initial hurdle.”
Leopold said she believes applicants to Harvard will act with “joy and jubilation” over the changes “because the chance to have the last word could be a gift. We’re pretty much dancing with you in the interview, but we’re leading. It’s not a standard interview where you get to go through your resume and control it. You can’t give a speech. If you now wish to add something you didn’t get to say, here’s your chance.
“Our goal is to have people feel understood and to assess their ability to be successful and enjoy a very unusual and distinctive educational experience. We’re also trying to find ways to help the candidate. We know how anxiety producing and stressful this whole thing is.”
Asked how she believes consultants are likely to react to the changes, Leopold said, “It’s going to be disruptive to admission consultants who write essays.”
While the changes essentially lower the initial burden of applying to Harvard, they also increase the pressure to make a final memorable impression in a short, 24-hour period if a candidates is invited to an interview. In the most recent admissions year, roughly 9,060 people applied to Harvard’s MBA program. With an acceptance rate of 12%, Harvard interviewed about 2,200 candidates and accepted about 1,100 to fill its 905-910 available seats.
So the third essay would be written and submitted by slightly less than a quarter of the school’s application pool, requiring the admissions team to read and evaluate about 2,200 essays instead of more than 9,000 if the essay was placed at the front end of the application process.
Among several B-schools changing their admissions game
Most other major business schools have not released their new essays yet, but Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management required applicants to complete four essays this past year. Stanford’s combined word count for the requirement is 1,800 words, while Kellogg’s is 2,200 words. The shift by Harvard to a mere 800 words is a significant departure from current practices.
Harvard is not the only school making changes to its admission process. As an experiment for 30 third-round interview applicants, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School recently added a team-based exercise in which candidates engage in a discussion about a business issue with other applicants while being observed and evaluated by admissions staff. That practice may become permanent this year.
Wharton currently asks candidates to complete three essays, with a combined word count of 1,500 words, though it also offers applicants the chance to turn in an optional 250-word statement on what it calls “extenuating circumstances” that allows a person to specifically address weaknesses in their application, such as a low undergraduate grade point average or a below average score on the GMAT or GRE.
Leopold described Harvard’s changes as an “experiment.” “We’d like to think we’re not writing a 10-year policy here,” she told Poets&Quants. “We’re always in design/development mode.We’re always trying to tweak and improve and this is what we’ve come up with for the class of 2015.”
In the most recent admissions cycle, applicants to HBS had to answer the following four questions:
1. Tell us about three of your accomplishments. (600 words)
2. Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)
3. Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)
4. Answer a question you wish we’d asked. (400 words)
Leopold said the changes are unrelated to application declines at Harvard for the past two consecutive years. Last year, applications to Harvard’s MBA program fell by 4% to 9,331. This year, applications fell an additional 4% to about 9,060.
More from Poets&Quants:
A Guide to Filling Out One of the Most Important Forms You Will Ever Complete: The HBS Application
In life, we fill out so many forms: tax returns, credit card applications, Facebook personality quizzes (admit it). With so much focus on the essay, recommendations, interviews, and resume in the business school application process, it’s easy to forget about the actual application form. But trust me, this form is a lot more than a repository of requisite contact information and detail on education, employment, and interests.
You already know that you want your Harvard application to look perfect: immaculately free of typos and spelling errors. But have you thought about the story the form itself is telling about you? Have you crafted an identity that will set you apart from other HBS applicants? When admissions officers set down your application, have you given them something to remember?
Harvard’s MBA application happens to be one of my favorite business school apps. It’s friendly in tone, even humorous, and visually appealing and straightforward. But don’t confuse this informality for cavalierness, however. HBS is very serious about what you put on its application (and about you following instructions). There’s no fluff here. Every single question is carefully chosen and crafted to tease out of you exactly what they want to know.
Let me illustrate this by walking through some key parts of the Harvard MBA application form itself: the components of your app that are NOT the resume, essay, and test scores you’ve been working so hard on. (Update: there’s a bit on the essay below as well. I couldn’t resist.)
What Harvard Wants to Know: The Employment Section
You might be wondering why Harvard wants you to rehash details that might already be on your resume or CV. The thing is, it doesn’t. Use the descriptive space here to tell them what’s NOT on your resume. Some of this is going to be required information you probably don’t put on your resume anyway, such as your salary and your biggest challenges. Salary data (along with the required list of key accomplishments) gives Harvard admissions officers a sense of your level of experience and your value (monetary and otherwise) to your most recent employers. When you list your “key accomplishments” in the teeny 250-character limit space, make sure they can understand what they are. It might be tempting to want to squeeze more in by abbreviating awards and names of titles, but this doesn’t do much for you if admissions can’t make heads or tails of them. Once again, remember you are crafting an identity that you want to be woven throughout your entire application–what are the accomplishments that best support the “you” you are selling admissions?
The required “biggest challenge” response for each of your three latest jobs can be a tricky prompt, but it’s a crucial question that tells HBS a great deal about your personality and your thinking. This is not the place to hide behind platitudes such as “My perfectionism made it challenging to keep up with the rigorous pace.” Give them something real (but not incriminating). They will appreciate it. But also make sure you let them know how you positively addressed this challenging circumstance.
Most applicants once again balk at the 250-character word limit here, but this is no mistake on Harvard’s part. HBS prides itself on attracting and developing students with superb communication skills, and conveying substantial information in a concise manner is a real art.
Finally, although it should go without saying, don’t lie here or anywhere on your app! If you’re accepted, this information will all be verified by HBS.
After HBS: The “Intended Goals Post-MBA” Response
For those of you wondering why Harvard doesn’t explicitly ask you to talk about your goals in your essay, you’re not entirely off the hook. You are required to state your post-Harvard ambitions in 500 characters or less on this portion of the app. This is a key place to set yourself apart from the pack. HBS, with its focus on leadership, attracts leaders (aka a lot of applicants who will say they want to be a CEO). So don’t waste this space telling them that you would like to be CEO of some yet-to-be-determined company one day (unless it’s one you want to start–and even that is tricky because you’ll have to sell the plausibility of this in a very small space).
Even if you are planning a career change, avoid giving them an answer here that is completely out of line with your past education and experience, or one that is wishy-washy. An MBA is only two years, after all; you don’t have a lot of time for dabbling. The reality may be that that is exactly what you will do at HBS, but now’s not the time to dwell on your indecision; they want to know that you will be hitting the ground running from day one.
HBS Life: The Extracurricular Activities Section
Here you have a little bit more freedom to, once again, craft your HBS applicant persona. You get to choose which of the many activities you’ve likely participated in that you want to tell admissions more about.
My recommendation is that you first list out all of your activities and evaluate them on their ability to demonstrate (in 200 characters or less) each of the following criteria: leadership, dedication, and uniqueness. Leadership means you took on some type of shining role within the activity, whether it had an actual title or not. Dedication means the activity took up a good portion of your time (whether that is hours per week or years of your life) and your energy. HBS life is filled to the brim with activity both inside and outside of the classroom; it is a school that attracts individuals who like to have their schedules full, and you want to show the admissions committee you’ll fit right in with others who are equally involved. Finally, uniqueness. Fraternity soccer team does not jump off the page as much as ukulele band or trapeze team. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as quirky as these examples–but think about something you’ve been involved in that is not something everyone and their brother has also done. In other words, show some personality. Give them something they will remember; something that will make them smile. It may be that you have one activity that perfectly demonstrates all three of these traits; or it may be that you choose three activities that each demonstrate one of these traits. But regardless, consider the balance.
Harvard’s MBA Essay
Oh boy, this could be its own topic for a much longer discussion, but let me just point out a couple things here. Harvard’s MBA essay is traditionally and famously open-ended. The current prompt is:
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.
If you enroll at HBS, you will have the opportunity to share this response with your classmates, so that should encourage you to truly take this question to heart. (It will also help you avoid the temptation to impress or try to be something you’re not in your essay.).
The application also suggests that you view a video on the Harvard Case Study approach before you begin your essay. I find this to be really telling. HBS wants to make sure you know what it is like to study at HBS–this means that you will be hashing out and arguing your case with your peers, both in small groups and in front of large lecture halls, on the daily. There are many aspects to HBS other than the case study method, of course, and a great deal of diversity amongst its students, but the hidden message here is that Harvard wants to make sure you are a good fit. So…maybe don’t talk about your fear of public speaking here, for example. Your essay should also complement or further develop the identity you’ve been crafting for yourself throughout the other open-ended parts of the application.
Get Feedback on the Message
After you’ve drafted your application responses, get feedback not just on your essay, but on your entire application, from people you trust. Have them tell you what is jumping off the page about you–whether it is positive or negative–or if the message is muddled. Make sure what they learn about you is what you wanted them to learn, and if it’s not, go back to the drawing board.
See some tips on how and where to get feedback on your writing.
The best applications, even though they may never explicitly call attention to it, send the message that the applicant fully understands what the school considers to be important and what they will be bringing to the school. So make sure you do your scrupulous homework on HBS, think carefully about the identity you want to pitch, and make sure your entire application nails it.
For official information, visit Harvard’s applications process page and their description of the students they’re looking for.