Harvard shakes up its MBA admissions

May 22, 2012, 5:18 PM UTC

(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.

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