‘Dee’ Leopold’s Harvard Webinar Slides

by on August 10th, 2012

Following up on Harvard’s May 22 announcement of significant changes to the way Harvard Business School will admit its next class of MBAs, Admissions Director ‘Dee’ Leopold held a series of webinars. During the session, Leopold is bringing applicants and admission consultants through the changes which cut the required essays on the application to two from four and added a brief essay to be written within 24 hours of an admissions interview.

In a series of succinct slides, Leopold explains how the school receives about 9,500 applications, interviews about 1,800 people and ultimately makes offers to about 1,000 to get an entering class of roughly 900 MBA students.

The slides bring no new revelations to Harvard’s admissions process, just a neat measure of clarity.

As Leopold has written, “Our process is the product of an admissions team that is always in design/development mode. All throughout the year we meet and dream up ways that will make it easier for you to feel “understood” and undertake assessment steps that map to what we do here in the classroom and what you will do in your careers. We’re always trying to tweak and improve, and this is what we’ve come up with for the Class of 2015. Welcome to the starting gate.”

After today’s webinar, nine more sessions have already been scheduled through Aug. 16th. Potential applicants need to register to attend these webinars and can do so here.

The slides for the webinar help to capture the presentation in its entirely. You can access them by checking out the original article.

Leopold’s lively question-and-answer section

Question: Why did you change the application from prior years?

Leopold: I would say that for a long time the culture of the business school application process has developed around writing personal essays. I’m not sure why. I don’t think there have been any studies done that correlate writing personal essays to success in a complex organization. I think it’s what I am calling a vestigial remnant of a time from when business schools didn’t interview candidates and only had essays as a way to get to know a candidate. Part of a pre-internet time. That meant that essays really were “more personal.”

More than likely a candidate had not shared or shown their essays to anyone. Now the folklore is that it’s a good idea for lots of people to get involved with your personal essays; friends, family, and often paid consultants. And that’s led to two things: We’ve noticed that essays can feel over-crafted, over-written, over-thought and over-wrought. There is much more anxiety about them than is appropriate–given the relative way they play in the process.

So we decided to shake things up. We’re going to see if we can pare this down a bit and still feel like we are able to understand a candidate, which is our ultimate objective. We are looking for an awful lot of information before we even get to the essays. We always have. Demographic information, transcripts, test score, resume, recommendations; If we add in a couple of essays to that, we think we can take that first big step of deciding who to invite to interview. The one thing we may need to emphasize again and again, is that, our overarching goal is to comprise a class with as much diversity on many many different dimensions as possible. The vast majority of HBS applicants are qualified. This is a pretty tight quality band.

It takes a lot investment of time and energy to get through a business school application. No matter how many essays there are–and to be ready to follow that down to the next step. So this is an experiment. We’re going to try this. We are going to see if we can make it easier to introduce your self, to put an application in, and we’ll see how it goes. If we find that we are unable to find out about a candidate in this way, we’ll adjust–obviously not in the course of an application season, but I am pretty confident that we will be fine with two essays.

Question: Who should recommenders be? What if I cannot ask my supervisor?

Leopold: We’d like to see one from your immediate supervisor. We’d like to see professional recommendations. But at the end of the day, this is a judgment call for you. There is no sort of amazing mind-reading exercise that we can do to say who is the right recommender. I would say look at the question posed to the recommender, especially the one that asks, ‘What is a piece of constructive advice that you’ve given the candidate?’ Use that as your guideline. Most people that you don’t know well don’t go around giving you constructive advice. If the person can pass that threshold, then that’s probably a pretty good choice.

There are choices that might be difficult for us to understand: your piano teacher is probably not the right person. Remember, at the end of the day we are talking about a business school. Family friends who have simply watched you grow up, not so much. Not a good idea. And we are not a school that puts a premium or value on a recommender who is a peer. We’d like to have someone who is quite honestly at a different developmental stage than you are.

An exception to that will be people who have done startups. And if that’s a big part of your candidacy and your presentation as to who you are. In order for us to understand that, it would be great corroboration for you to have a partner, and that partner may be someone who is your peer. That is fine, we understand.

Here’s an escape door for you. If you think you are really worried about who’s going to write your recommendation and don’t have the right person, use the additional information section to explain the choices you’ve made. It should only take a sentence or two. This is over-arching advice to you, and a reminder, we are really nice people here. Really really really. We are human, we want to understand, we are not ogres, with hatchets. We will go waaaay down the road to understand the choices you’ve made.

Question: Can you really evaluate the candidate with only two essays, and will that change the weight you put on any other part of the application.

Leopold: I don’t think we ever had a weighting session. So this doesn’t feel like any kind of cataclysmic change for us. There will be some candidates who will be very interesting to us because of the work they’ve done, the places they’ve been, or their upbringing, or the stuff they’ve done outside of school. At the end of the day, this is a selection process and our goal is to comprise the most interesting class. Year in and year out, our challenge is not to rank order candidates and have all kinds of scoring models for anyone, but to make sure we are delivering in September students with different perspectives in our classrooms.

You want to be in these case method classes, and we want students to come out of each class saying, ‘I never would have thought of it that way.’ I have never encountered one student on campus who grabs me by the shoulder and says, ‘I’m having a great time here; but I wish there were more people just like me in my section.’ Our goal is to comprise an interesting class. And that means a selection. It doesn’t mean a check-the-box evaluation.

Question: Is there a difference between Round 1 & Round 2?

Leopold: I cannot predict the future, but I am going to capsulate what we’ve seen historically, because Round 1 tends to be a strong round. There are a lot of applicants. They are ready to hit submit. They have everything lined up on Sept 24, and they tend to have very strong academic qualifications. I am generalizing, but we plan accordingly.

In Round 2, we historically receive the greatest number of applicants, but there’s more of a normal distribution in terms of some metrics. So we plan accordingly for that. We start each round and try to take an overall look at what the applicant pool looks like. We make an estimate of how many offers we’d like to make. And we don’t drive to that target as if, we’ve got to hit it or else, but things worked out year over year, that we are pretty consistent.

By Round 3, 90% of the class is selected, and we always say to ourselves, why do we have Round 3? We like Round 3. It tends to attract a smaller number of applicants for a smaller number of spaces, but we’re always looking for interesting backgrounds, and often we actually find them in the intrepid Round 3 applicants. I don’t want to get rid of Round 3. Round 3 does deprive people of having a gala admit welcome and miss housing deadlines, and internationals can be at real jeopardy for getting visas in time. But in our case – and this is important – it would be that financial aid does not run out.

We are a need-based school and we have just as much money available for the last round admitted as we do for the first. Because it is based on a formula that takes into account your last three years of earnings, this is pretty easy to find on the website as to how we do this.

Question: If you are released early, is there any chance that you will be put on the waitlist for a future round?

Leopold: No. It’s one application per customer per year. The way the waitlist works, is that in Round 1, you could be put on the WL before an interview, or you could be put before or after an interview. But that’s something that we decide, not something you can request. If you are released, which means “goodbye,” in Round 1, that means you are finished for the season. We can talk about next year, but you cannot move from that status to the waitlist.

Question: When can we find out more about the “post-evaluation interview?”

Leopold: We’ll have details on that when it is time to invite candidates.

Question: Are there any different expectations in terms of re-applicants?

Leopold: I think we are a pretty re-applicant friendly school. You are read clean, as if you had not applied in the past at the written application stage. We do ask you to indicate whether you have applied in the past. If you are invited to interview, that’s when your older application is coupled with your current application. If you were interviewed in the past, you will most likely not be interviewed by the same person who saw you the first time.

In terms of recommendations, this is just my advice, and we are sitting around with six people here [members of the admissions committee]. This isn’t policy or gospel, but I wouldn’t submit exactly the same recommendations word for word. It’s fine to have the same people, but I think it shows a little bit of investment on your part and certainly on their part, in terms of how has this person developed or changed over the past year; what have the interactions been like? We want to see that. We want to see that there has been some investment, other than simply dragging out the old application and submitting it again.

Question: With the new application, should the resume be more elaborate?

Leopold: No! We’re not trying to shift to the eight-page resume. I truly believe that a resume for someone at your career stage should be one page. I’m sure there are exceptions to that but I think that that would be a smart guideline to follow.

Question: Do you have any recommendations about how the board looks at international applicants?

Leopold: We have a deep and strong admissions board that has seen applications from many countries and many schools. When you come in the door as an applicant, our way of sorting first is by the industry in which you work, not the country from which you come. We like to start with things you have chosen, not by chance. That’s our first organizing principle. No, it’s not as if we are deciding how many students we would like from a certain country. There are no targets or quotas.

Question: Does your career and professional development office work with admits before school would start?

Leopold: No, we like to think that once you’re admitted you are now in a zone. Rest up and get ready, it’s going to be an exciting, thrilling ride here. Trying to explore career options and trying to hash out who you are really begins when you are a student here. There are some exercises that you do as an admit that we are going to deliver online. We have the ultimate career exploration guru, Tim Butler, here, and he has developed a self-assessment tool, which is pretty amazing. But there isn’t let’s start the career resource before you become a student.

Question: Can you talk about how the financial aid process works?

Leopold: This is important because sometimes when I’m talking to brand new admits and I say, “Congratulations!” Sometimes they say, “but I didn’t get a fellowship.” We’re not the school that does that. Our financial aid is, as I said, need-based. After you are admitted, you tell us about your financial situation. We’re going to see your tax returns. Our financial aid staff comes up with a package for you. It’s going to be a two-year package. You will know what your first year will look like and your second year. It will include loans and will include, if you are eligible, fellowships. We do not have merit fellowships where we say, “Congratulations, Jane, you’ve been admitted and here’s $60,000 because we like your GMAT score. We just don’t do that. We are need blind when we do our admissions offers.

Question: Can we talk about the GMAT and GRE?

Leopold: I know everything is changing. Your GMAT score is good for five years, period. So if you’ve taken the old GMAT within the past five years, it’s good. We put dates up on the website as to what is the last test date we will accept in terms of that five-year period. GRE, same thing.

There isn’t a cutoff. We are looking at sub-scores. The GRE and GMAT play different roles for different types of candidates. Let me describe that to you. If we are looking at a candidate who is a strong engineer, has taken tons of math and is working with numbers and analytical stuff all day, I don’t think we need to pay terribly much attention to what their GMAT Q scores are. We want to look at their GMAT verbal score because maybe they are not having practice in terms of writing and in terms of reading long passages at work.

So we want to make sure there’s a level of comfort there. The absolute flip side would be for someone who had not had any quantitative work in college or had not had any analytical or quant work on the job. We are looking underneath the score, and we are looking case by case.

You’re going to self-report the highest score, and that’s how the admission board is going to see it. We are going to see your total GMAT history but we are going to look at primarily your highest score.

Question: If I am regular applicant and I want to submit in June do I receive any special treatment?

Leopold: We don’t do anything until the deadline, Sept 24. Then we look at everything; as soon as that deadline passes, it is game on. All the applications are printed and distributed. Also, there is no correlation whatsoever between when you submit your application and when you are invited to interview. You can develop all sorts of theories about when you are invited to interview. It is not derivative from your zip code, your application number, the time you submitted, your mother’s maiden name. It is really simply how we are moving through applications, which can vary from year to year.

Question: How specific do you want us to be in our post MBA goals?

Leopold: In this year’s application, there will be a question about why do you want an MBA? We hear over and over again that this is an opportunity for you to focus. We would like you to have thought seriously about the why. That’s a lot different than saying I want to be at the XYZ corporation on June 1, 2035. We are not looking for a long-term map of your career.

We are looking for what is driving this decision to get an MBA. What excites you? How do you plan to use this degree at some level? No one’s going to hold you to it. But it will be an excellent guide post when you do. This place can be an amazing candy store. There are so many things going on, so many options, that I think coming in the door it’s nice to have a little bit of focus at the starting point.

Question: Is there a limit on age? And how does the 2+2 candidate compare in terms of experience?

Leopold: Is a 2+2 person at a disadvantage? No, I cannot imagine. As I said before, there is no right time. Keeping in mind that there are no 2+2 people coming from college right to HBS. There are 2+2 people who come right after college. There are people who’ve done a third year, and we’ve approved one fourth-year student. This is a small group of people who we get to know very well.

Whatever plan they come up with that we think is thoughtful and makes sense, we’re here to make that happen for them. In terms of the regular applicant pool, you’re not going to get in without full-time work experience after college. Two years is right for some people. Probably the mode right now is four years of work experience. There are many people here who have more than five years. There are certain paths that we find very attractive, like the military. Almost all of them have at least five years of work experience. Do we encourage them to go AWOL in order to come here? No, I don’t think so. There are people who have changed careers.

Try not to get hung up on thinking there is a magic moment that is going to be right for everybody.

Question: Can you explain the work experience part of 2+2 in more detail between college and coming?

Leopold:It’s not as if we are going to arrange a job for you. The 2+2 people tend to be the most exciting experiences for us as an admissions board to meet because they are full of ideas. We have 2+2 people who have started businesses, who have gone to very cool, under-the-radar companies, who have joined startups, or have gone to heavy manufacturing, They have done some traditional things. They have gone to consulting, Some have gone to banking. But they are simply very interesting people.

Some have actually done two jobs before they come here. They might have done a couple of years of something traditional and they might have said, “You know what? I’m going to go out and start my own business.” We had somebody who just finished his first year and his whole goal is to run summer camps. I remember talking to him as he was being interviewed, and he wanted to do an internship at an advertising agency because he knew he would have to do marketing. He’s spending this summer doing an online retail startup. But he said his goal is still to do the camp thing, so I would say that some people have a collection of experiences by the time they come into the program.

Question: What is you’re missing part of the application?

Leopold:You are responsible for making sure that the application is complete. It’s up to you to make sure that everything is in. As you experience the online application, you’ll know that. This is not going to be a mystery to you as to whether your recommenders have submitted or not. Do not expect us to be calling and making sure that everything is in.

Question: How are different company brands viewed? Are they rated?

Leopold:No. I say this with affection, but sometimes I think you assume a level of method here that is really excessive, if I put it back to the goal is to have as diverse a class as possible, you might see that there’s X number of people from brand X firm so you say that must be all they are looking for. Well be careful, because you will not do well on the GMAT if that’s how you draw conclusions from data.

Our goal is to have as many different companies and industries represented whenever we can. This is certainly no big secret: There are certain industries, even certain companies, where it’s built into the system that people go to business school. This is not like medical school, where this is a certifying credential in order to practice business. There are many consulting firms and investment banks. So we are embracing many many industries and companies. But we cannot necessarily go out and find large pools from every place. We encourage them. We hope you find us and if you work at a company that is making a product and you are wondering about whether you are going to get to HBS from there, ask if we can come and do a presentation. We’ll be do glad to do more presentations, to more companies. Just invite us.

Question: For the essays, should the examples be professional or personal?

Leopold:That’s a good question. Aaaah. Keep in mind that you are applying to business school. There are some things that I really wish I didn’t know sometimes. We are all smiling; but we all love what we do. Keep in mind who your audience is, what your objective is. It doesn’t have to be cut and dried or in code. Don’t get too personal unless you really believe it is salient to the questions we are asking.

Question: How important is your GPA?

Leopold:Your college record is important. Your GPA is just a number. When we are looking at this, we spend an awful lot of time looking at the courses you are taking. I think you’d be impressed with how much time we spend talking about this and keeping current. We have visited a lot of schools now with the 2+2 program. We learn a lot about a lot of schools. We also learn a lot from interviewing people. We’ll ask, ‘What was the type of class you took?” What was this department like at school X?

We are building our own knowledge base through the interviews. We are going to look at the courses you’ve taken. Have you challenged yourself? Have you taken some risks? I would hate to think that people would be simply courting the perfect GPA and not really maximizing the opportunity to take some risks. You will certainly take some risks in business school in the case method. You’re going to be asked to take stands on things in which you cannot possibly be an expert on. An appetite for risk in terms of challenge is very attractive in a candidate.

Question: As an entrepreneur, working in a family business, how would you recommend finding recommenders?

Leopold: I’m first going to answer a different question. One of the things we’re going to do, we’re going to the website and we’re going to check on it and try to learn about it, especially if we are preparing for an interview. We are going to rely on the website to get some information about the company. If your company is so small it doesn’t have a website to get some, you are going to have to find some way to communicate to us information about the company and that can come from a recommender.

A lot of this is your first exercise in judgment. We need to understand what you are doing. You figure out how to tell us within the constructs that you’ve been given. You’re smart; you’re creative. Find a way for us to understand what you are doing. If you are working for a startup, or family company, you should be able to give us a fairly clear sense of not just what the company does but what you do.

Please give us some feedback, we do hope it’s been helpful. We do hope you come visit.

Happy application season.

Goodbye from Dillon house!


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