Admissions Tips from Harvard

In an online chat, Harvard's director of MBA admissions answered questions from potential applicants. Here's a transcript of the session

Changes are afoot in the admissions office at Harvard Business School. When the new application season kicks off in July, candidates will have choices about which essay questions to answer—two required core essay questions and a choice of three among six other essay topics—explained Deirdre Leopold, executive director of MBA admissions and financial aid at HBS, at a recent BusinessWeek live chat event. In addition, a new Web site, set to launch in July, will include podcasts from the admissions and student services staff and faculty. Leopold herself will be writing a blog to keep everyone posted on what's new on campus. The B-school also plans to let applicants know when the bulk of interview invitations go out.

Besides making these announcements, Leopold (HBSDeirdre) also fielded questions from BusinessWeek reporter Francesca Di Meglio (FrancescaBW) and an audience of prospective students at the chat. Here is an edited transcript of the Q&A part of the event:

businesschat: What does Harvard look for in a candidate?

HBSDeirdre: We're looking for an assortment of leaders, all of whom can thrive in a demanding, fast-paced, highly verbal academic environment. Our classroom experience is quite different from traditional academia; students need to be fully present and engaged and ready to contribute. There are no opportunities to be a bystander. We're looking for people who, at every opportunity, have chosen to be givers vs. takers and don't sit by and wait for others to take the initiative.

FAMUCEO: If you are applying with more than one work experience, would HBS like recommendations from supervisors at each workplace?

HBSDeirdre: That's certainly a good plan although by no means a hard and fast requirement. We understand that you may not have complete control over access to supervisors you've worked with in the past. Make your best judgment call about what's feasible and will give us a clear picture of how you have spent your time. We are very understanding of constraints!

kentm: Should I consider attending an executive education session at HBS before applying?

HBSDeirdre: No. Executive education is for candidates at a different career stage and is predominantly company-sponsored. This would not be considered preparatory for the MBA program.

FAMUCEO: In what ways do you anticipate grade disclosure affecting the culture of HBS (see, 12/16/05, "Harvard: No More Grade Secrets")?

HBSDeirdre: Let's clarify what "grade disclosure" means. Students earn their grades at HBS, and we believe that they should be in control of how and when they are used. At no point does grade disclosure mean that HBS is releasing grades to employers or anyone else. The change in policy merely puts control in the hands of the students. This was a long-standing policy which was changed to a more restrictive policy for a period of five years and then reviewed.

Reports from the classroom are that the culture is unchanged. The case method encourages and supports a high level of collaboration in the classroom. Additionally, we are selecting people for whom collaboration is highly valued.

PeteN: What are HBS's admission yields? Do you expect the yield to stay flat this coming year or to increase or decrease?

HBSDeirdre: Historically, our yield hovers around 90%. I expect this year to be similar.

Anzhansen: What is the teaching method at Harvard B-school?

HBSDeirdre: HBS uses the case method—or participant-centered—model of learning. Cases are stories about real companies with real people with real problems.

It is our belief that, in real life, the critical task of a leader is to make decisions—with imperfect information, too much or too little information, and under time pressure. Our students have daily opportunities to practice this pattern of assessing problems, analyzing them, and then deciding what action to take.

kentm: My GMAT is 640 (low quantitative). Does HBS have a cutoff?

HBSDeirdre: [It] depends entirely on the strengths you present in the rest of your application. For example, a strong academic record from an engineering major who is doing lots of analytical work on the job is of much more importance than that candidate's GMAT score. Every application is reviewed in its entirety. We are admitting candidates, not scores.

ramtelecom: What do you, compared to previous admissions directors, look for in new HBS candidates?

HBSDeirdre: I have been thinking a lot about leadership and how to both define and identify it. I think there's a danger in thinking that there is just one model of a leader—someone who is larger than life and always out in front—who should be at HBS. I prefer to think in terms of an assortment of leaders, some of whom gravitate to traditional leadership roles in an established organization, some of whom like to start things and get them up and running, some of whom motivate small groups, "thought leaders" who provide the unexpected and provocative way of looking at a problem. One of the most exciting ways of thinking about diversity in the case method classroom is on the dimension of leadership styles—bringing together all these folks and hearing how they tackle the real life problems in a case.

amriyer: How does Harvard view admissions consultants and people who use their services in their applications?

HBSDeirdre: We understand that coaching and advisory services play a big role in the current culture (see, 5/24/07, "A Booming Business in MBA Coaches"). While it's understandable that candidates are trying to seek any information that may be helpful in gaining admission to business school, I would strongly advise that this be limited to self-discovery and exploration of career goals vs. giving anyone else an opportunity to be your voice and tell your story. The business school admissions process is not an essay-writing contest. The essays should be your opportunity to answer some thought-provoking questions and, in the process, find out something useful about yourself. The rest of your application—your academic record, work history, outside activities, and recommendations—are unique to your experience.

PeteN: If you had to rank the different admissions criteria in order of importance, what would the order look like?

HBSDeirdre: No single criterion is "the most important." We are trying to assemble a class of diverse experiences and backgrounds. All of the candidates we admit will be able to be strong contributors to the case method, both in terms of their analytical foundation and their habit of leadership.

kentm: My math course experience is limited to college stats and some econ classes. Should I take a calculus class? Are there math courses you expect most applicants to have?

HBSDeirdre: Sounds like you have a basic quantitative foundation, although it's hard for me to make a definitive statement without seeing the specific classes. Calculus is not required for admission; however, a core evaluation criterion is a solid analytical and quantitative foundation. If I were to suggest coursework, it might be in the "language of business," as in financial accounting.

sendo: What kind of qualities are you looking for in international applicants?

HBSDeirdre: We don't view international applicants as being in a separate pool. All candidates are evaluated on the same criteria.

We find that our international applicants offer the same measure of diversity of work experience and leadership styles as those from the U.S.

littledhc: I want to know if taking the GMAT exam multiple times is frowned upon and if a lower score in a previous attempt reflects negatively on an HBS application?

HBSDeirdre: We look only at the score that you report in the application.

FAMUCEO: What would cause an applicant to be offered a place on the wait list without having an interview first?

HBSDeirdre: We try to compose a wait list after each round and sometimes simply don't have the capacity to interview all applicants before making that decision. All candidates ultimately offered admission will have been interviewed—hence, wait-listers may be invited to interview at any time.

jmwass: Are applications looked at any differently if one is applying for a joint degree either at Harvard Law [School] or the Kennedy School [of Government]?

HBSDeirdre: Candidates need to be admitted to each school independently. We do ask a question about "why" the joint program and how it will benefit you personally and professionally.

ramtelecom: How many applications did you receive this year?

HBSDeirdre: About 7,400, up about 11% from last year.

saukumar: What is Harvard's take on married couples applying together to the MBA program? Do either of us have to indicate in our application that we are applying together?

HBSDeirdre: Each candidate is reviewed independently. We do have several married couples entering this fall!

RajeshG: Is HBS interested in only outstanding candidates like Olympic players, consultants from BCG and Bain, etc.? Do "ordinary" applicants stand a chance?

HBSDeirdre: I think there's a fair amount of distance between an Olympic athlete and "ordinary," whatever that may mean! We're looking for candidates who have consistently tried to achieve their best in any situation, and this can be from a vast variety of backgrounds and paths. We are very interested in seeing what individuals have done given their opportunity sets.

PJC2007: How re-applicant friendly is HBS? I have heard and read that chances aren't good the second time around.

HBSDeirdre: There's absolutely no stigma in our application process against re-applicants. When an application is read by the admissions board, previous status is unknown. However, if a re-applicant is invited to interview, we may choose to include the previous application in our preparation for the interview.

gsach: Is it true that HBS looks down upon applicants coming from the restaurant industry?

HBSDeirdre: We'd love to see more applicants from lots of industries. It would be a mistake to see a profile of our entering students' backgrounds and view that as a template for the future. Diversity of experience is very important in the case method model—we're trying very hard to be as broad as possible.

cmrMBA: How creative can applicants get with their essays? I've heard you look for essays that "stand out," but I wonder if there is a line you don't want to cross.

HBSDeirdre: As I said before, our process is not to find the most unusual or striking essays—it's to use the essays to try to get to know the candidate. Use the essays to tell us about the real you, vs. trying to get our attention.

Paradosso: When evaluating CVs, do you take into account the differences in education cycles among countries? Should one convert his academic title to the nearest U.S. standard or maintain the original?

HBSDeirdre: We have students from about 70 countries. We're well-versed in understanding the differences in international academic systems, so don't worry about trying to translate for us.

businesschat: I have 15 years of work experience and want to do my MBA now. Is too much experience a problem for getting admission?

HBSDeirdre: This is an important question: Whether you have 15 years of experience or two, think about whether the MBA is going to add value and be a significant transformational experience. For many candidates, two to three years is just right; for others, they are "ready" after a much greater number of years of experience. There's no right time.

deanchoi: My background is in advertising/marketing/media, and I'm looking to get an MBA to become a more well-rounded professional and learn finance, accounting, etc. The last time I took anything remotely related to finance was Econ 1 my freshman year. Should I take some classes at a [junior college] before I apply? I heard with the case method there are steps I can take to better prepare myself.

HBSDeirdre: I would definitely advise some exposure to financial accounting and/or finance as both actual preparation and for you to assess whether you enjoy speaking the "language of business" and will thrive in an MBA program with a first-year required curriculum.

PeteN: Other than the brand-name reputation and the case-study-only approach, what are the most distinguishing factors of the HBS program?

HBSDeirdre: I'd focus on the case method learning model, the required curriculum which gives all students an opportunity to get a solid grounding across business disciplines, and the distinctive nature of faculty interaction with students in a very high-quality teaching environment. Faculty at HBS can't rely on prepared lectures since the case method is organic and continually evolving. One-third of the cases in any given course are brand-new every year, and that's a critical way of being on the cutting edge.

In addition, one-third of the cases used are about international organizations, in large part due to the network of five HBS global research centers. There are significant opportunities available for HBS students to be global, both here and abroad.

Unlike many schools, we are a residential campus, with 33 buildings on 40 acres. About 80% of students live on campus, which makes for a close-knit community experience.

ratitehri: I had taken the GMAT in November, 2002. Is my score valid for applying to Harvard this year?

HBSDeirdre: In the next application cycle, scores from January, 2003, and on are valid (see, "GMAT Prep").

FAMUCEO: Could you discuss HBS's increased emphasis on learning teams?

HBSDeirdre: Learning teams are a way of giving students the important opportunity to work together in small groups of six to eight. While our core unit is the 90-person section, we were looking for a way to replicate the diversity in the entire class in a small unit. Learning teams function both as study groups and as project teams with specific academic assignments throughout the first-year curriculum.

nvassall: What are the pros/cons of applying in each of the admissions rounds?

HBSDeirdre: I think it's fair to say we view rounds one and two as very similar and are looking for roughly an equal number of candidates from each of these rounds, so choosing between these two is largely a matter of personal preference. When can you devote the time to the application process?

I would say that round three is essentially used as a "shaping" round—looking for candidates who round out the profile of the class.

nvassall: What constitutes a great recommendation?

HBSDeirdre: This is a frequent question and is both easy and difficult to answer: Choose someone who knows you well, can point to specific and relevant situations, and who is enthusiastic about your desire to go to business school. Make your best judgment call about who that is, and don't worry about their titles or connections.

peguy123: How much are applications to HBS up this year over last, and how much will that decrease the acceptance rate by? Do you expect the trend to continue?

HBSDeirdre: Applications were up about 11% this year. We expect class size to stay the same in the near future. As always, we are not good at predicting the applicant pool in the future!

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE