HBS Aims for Efficiency and Relevance in Reforms to Application Process

by on November 3rd, 2012

This year marks significant changes to the HBS application process. The Admissions Board has whittled down the essay portion to two prompts, giving applicants just 800 words to make their case on top of the traditional resume and recommendation components. The candidates selected for an interview, which have about a coin toss’ chance of admission, are now allowed (required) to “have the last word” by submitting a post-interview reflection in the 24 hours following their conversation with the admissions officer. These innovations have prompted some anxiety among applicants, but the Admissions Office believes the new process achieves the same end in a more efficient and productive way.

To learn more about the motivations and aims of the recent reforms, the Harbus invited the Dean of Admissions, Dee Leopold, to interview in Dillon House.

Harbus: What are the desired effects of the changes to the admissions process?

DL: We hope to have more people consider applying by minimizing the written application as an unnecessarily daunting hurdle. We are looking for leaders who make a difference, regardless of academic or professional background. While this isn’t a broad-scale effort to increase the number of applications we receive each year, we want to make sure the initial application doesn’t deter good candidates from applying in the first place. In that sense, we are trying to make it easier to apply to HBS.

Harbus: The changes reduce the total amount of written material reviewed by your team, as the initial application is significantly shorter and the additional reflection assignment applies only to the small pool of applicants who are interviewed. Is the new process an effort to reduce the man-hour burden from your end?

DL: Not really. We have a lot of reading and thinking to do in either case and we want to give each application the attention it deserves.

Harbus: Are you trying to change the end product of the process, that is, the kinds of people you admit?

DL: We are still looking for people we think will enjoy and thrive at HBS while adding to the learning experiences of their peers. Believe me, we have plenty of information in the written application. It’s enough to decide whether to invite a prospective student to interview. For those we select to interview, the preparation process on our side is the same as last year.

Harbus: With less written information on each applicant, it’s logical for some to think that the interview will be given more weight in the final assessment. Does the new process give more importance to the interview?

DL: The interview has always been the keystone of our approach, but it will not increase in importance this year. After the interview, the application is reconsidered as a whole and the complete package is discussed again during final decisions.

Harbus: As for the post-interview reflection in particular, you have said you want to give interviewees a final chance to make their case and put into writing what they feel didn’t come out right in the interview. Why do you think this final assignment will be useful in your decision?

DL: Essay writing is not a skill that is very relevant to the business world. Professionals today express themselves in email messages rather than essays in the formal, traditional sense. Suppose the applicant were asked to recount the highlights of a meeting in an email. What important things happened? What went well and what didn’t?

Harbus: The use of admissions consultants is a topic that is frequently discussed in the realm of business school admissions these days. Some see the post-interview reflection, which is due 24 hours after the interview, as a means of limiting the influence of these admissions consultants and therefore evening the playing field for applicants who haven’t hired one.

DL: I believe that it will be very obvious if the reflection was crafted before the interview was actually conducted; in that way we will know if the assignment was completed with outside help. The use of consultants is now part of the admissions landscape, but I don’t know if they help or not. To say that a hired consultant increases chances of admission is to attribute undue causality. No one really knows why they are admitted to HBS.

Harbus: Do you see this as a sea change in how your team goes about admitting students?

DL: We see this as an experiment. We are always tinkering with our process and don’t see this as a transformative set of changes. In 2004 we required the interview as a precondition of acceptance and kept that change. Eighty percent of applicants invited to interview will come to campus to speak with our admissions board members. It’s a big trip for many people. For some it’s a first trip to campus, to Boston, or to the United States. We believe all our interviewees are good candidates but can only admit half of them, so we aim to make their HBS experience as positive and informative as possible.

Harbus: Besides the interview, what else do you have planned for on-campus interviewees?

DL: We are expanding our on-campus interview day programming and hope for applicants to stick around for a day or two to learn more about what life is like at HBS. On top of the traditional class visits and campus tours, faculty and career professional development panels, as well as presentations by RC curriculum head Rawi Abdelal and yours truly, will be available to interviewees and their families. We are also giving applicants more chances to interact with current students. The idea is to center the interview experience around Spangler Center in addition to Dillon House so that current students will spot the red interviewee folder and engage applicants on campus. My hope is that current students will serve as good ambassadors for their school.

Harbus: Thanks for speaking with us Dee. We are reaching the end of our allotted half hour, but one last question. Can you recommend something to me?

DL: How the tables have turned. I suggest that you be on your best behavior in the coming weeks. Make me proud!

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