The Early Verdict On HBS’ New App

by on September 30th, 2012

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

Harvard Business School’s round one application deadline ended yesterday, but MBA admission consultants are saying that their clients felt a mixture of relief and frustration by the school’s decision to cut its required essays in half.

In the aftermath of Harvard’s round one deadline on Sept. 24, a survey of leading admission consultants by Poets&Quants found that some of the nearly 3,000 applicants who filed in round one even felt cheated by this year’s revolutionary changes in the HBS application process. MBA admissions consultants are in a good position to gauge market reaction to the application changes because anywhere between 30% to 50% of Harvard’s candidates are estimated to gain the help of a consultant during their application process.

Dee Leopold, managing director of admissions and financial aid, announced last May the most significant changes to Harvard’s MBA admission policies since 2002 when the school required interviews for all admitted candidates. Harvard cut 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 had to turn in just two essays, for a total of just 800 words (see Behind Harvard’s Big Admission Changes).

The two questions that form the basis of the new essays also were more direct and simple than the previous menu of questions. Harvard asked candidates to “tell us something you’ve done well” and to “tell us something you wish you had done better,” both in no more than 400 words.

Changes made to make applying to business school less an essay writing contest

Leopold partly explained the move by saying that essays had 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 told Poets&Quants. “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 (essay) hurdle.”

Initially, some applicants were relieved to hear they had only two essays to write this year, explained Linda Abraham, founder and president of “Others were frustrated because they felt they couldn’t really tell their story,” she added. “And sometimes the relief combined with a feeling of being cheated and overly constrained in the same individual.”

Most applicants frustrasted at not getting a chance to fully describe themselves

Sanford Kreisberg, a prominent admissions consultant known as HBSGuru, said he had spoken to more than 150 HBS applications during the run up to the round one deadline and found the majority of them frustrated by the changes. “The new application is not going to change any outcomes, for the most part but it does change the user experience,” said Kreisberg. “Most applicants I’ve spoken to are frustrated at not getting a chance to fully describe themselves, and they submit without feeling a sense of closure and earned exhaustion, which is what you should feel,” he added. “They just don’t feel like they got to show HBS who they are. This was not a problem last year when you got to tell seven stories which often tapped out most applicants.”

Several other prominent consultants agreed with Kreisberg. “If I could offer two words, they would be ‘limited’ and even ‘robbed,’” said Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission. “Great candidates have a lot to say and Harvard’s essays no longer allow them to say it all. The uber-achievers don’t want to offer just a few pieces of their personalities and experiences – they want to fan out all their feathers. I certainly don’t blame them for being frustrated.”

An attempt to use other parts of the application to make the case

The cutback in essays caused some applicants to attempt using other parts of the application to tell a fuller story. “Some of our clients initially felt constrained by the reduced number and length of essays,” conceded Dan Bauer, founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange. “Then, we helped them discover additional ways to convey their unique candidacies. They used the resume to express leadership and teamwork, recommendations to confirm analytical ability and reveal core values, and application questions to describe tangible impact.  And the upcoming interviews — and third essay — represent ‘wild cards’ that our clients will use, thoughtfully and strategically, to really personalize their case for admission.”

The new format forced applicants to be more strategic about what info they shared with Harvard

Chioma Isiadinso, founder of EXPARTUS who was once on the HBS admissions board, echoed Bauer’s remarks. “This new format forced clients to really be strategic about the information they presented in different parts of their application.” she said. “It called for more engagement with recommenders to ensure that the right egs were being highlighted as well as greater scrutiny on resumes and the online application. Overrall, clients were apprehensive about the new essays but once they began working on them most of their fears were allayed.”

Kreisberg said most of Harvard’s applicants “spend hours agonizing over which stories to feature and feel that their fate depends on this (story) versus that (story). I sympathize with them. The process is important to applicants. I also believe, that while shorter, these applications are not as much fun to read for the adcom.”

Ultimately, the cutbacks may have done little to reduce the anxiety associated with applying to a highly selective business school. “In the end, everyone was relieved that it was shorter. But there’s still a tendency to underestimate the amount of work it takes to put together an entire application, 800 words or 2,000 words,” said Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions. “Plus, managing three recommenders is a project management exercise in itself!”

Less really can be more

David Thomas, co-founder and educational consultant at Forster-Thomas Inc., had a slightly different perspective. ”At first,” he said, “most candidates were frustrated that HBS only has two essays this year. They worried that it wouldn’t give them the opportunity to showcase as many accomplishments, or demonstrate how multi-faceted they are. Our response is that we’d love there to be more essays, too. However, great admissions essays are not about showing what you’ve done, but rather how and why you do things.  And for that reason, we love these two questions—they give candidates the perfect opportunity to differentiate themselves from their peers by demonstrating sophisticated insight, depth, and maturity—rather than hitting the Admissions Board over the head with more facts about accomplishments. When we explained it to them that way, our candidates embraced the intent of the essays and pretty quickly got on board.  As long as you know what to do with it, less really can be more.”

Not every consultant saw dissatisfaction with the Harvard changes. “I think that the clients took the changes in stride,” says Stacey Oyler of Clear Admit.  ”After the initial surprise, they focused on sharpening their message and telling their stories with the two essays and their resume.  It took some fine tuning, but I think most are happy with the applications they crafted.”


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