A Talk with Harvard's Admissions Director

Brit Dewey, along with second-year student Deana Menkes, with advice on how to present yourself in the application process

Harvard Business School (No. 3 in BusinessWeek's latest B-school rankings) received a record-breaking 10,382 applications for the current first-year class. Admissions director Brit Dewey -- an HBS alumna herself, class of '96 -- had to sift through that huge pile to put together the Class of '04. She and second-year student Deana Menkes recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online management-education reporter Brian Hindo about what Harvard is looking for in MBA applicants. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: Harvard Business School applicants must submit their applications online. When you receive an application, how is it evaluated? What gets looked at first, and by whom?

Dewey:

The application has several components -- transcripts, recommendations, essays, the résumé, the description of work experience, outside activities. All of that is in the application, so it's reviewed by a member of the admissions board.

It gets reviewed again by another member of the admissions board. Then, for the strongest candidates, the evaluation process can include an interview. We take [the interview] into account and make the final decision based upon all the information that we have from each of the reviews.

Q: Is there a specific process, or are members of the admission board able to vary the ways in which they review people?

Dewey:

People have different styles. But what we're trying to do is look at all the information in the application in order to get a strong sense of who the candidate is and the strength of that candidate on three things.

The first is academic ability. We look at transcripts, the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), rigor of work experience, and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), if applicable.

Second, we try to assess the strength of a candidate's leadership experience. That can be from outside of work, in informal or formal roles.

The third criterion is your personal qualities and characteristics.

Q: And that comes out in the interview?

Dewey:

From essays, recommendations, through the applicant's voice, perspective, and insights. Also from the interview, if we do one.

Q: HBS interviews all admitted candidates, with the help of about 80 alumni interviewers. Do you have sense of how much of your applicant pool gets interviewed?

Dewey:

We don't have a target for how many people to interview each year. So it really depends on the quality of the applications. As we review the applications, we determine who are the strongest candidates, and interview them.

Q: So last year, what percentage of applicants got an interview?

Dewey:

I don't know off the top of my head. But of those who were interviewed, I'd say at least half were offered admission.

Q: Leadership gets a distinctive emphasis at Harvard Business School. What qualities does a leader have in the admission committee's eyes?

Dewey:

We could talk at length about this. I don't think there's one set definition of a leader or of leadership. But certainly I think that there's an element of initiative -- desire to have an impact on the communities that you're involved in. Motivation. Empathy. Sense of humor.

Q: Deana, what stands out to you about the leadership qualities that you see in some of your classmates?

Menkes:

Leadership isn't something that's always exhibited in a professional environment. I've been able to interact with folks who have experience in leading hikes up the major mountains of the world or have taken active roles in nonprofit organizations or even started them up. The application of leadership skills is not always just in the workplace.

Q: Many applicants to Harvard Business School come from consulting and banking, where it's typical to enroll for the MBA as early as two years after undergrad. How can these types of applicants demonstrate leadership?Dewey: People often think that leadership equates to having had a formal leadership, such as managing a division, managing a team, having had direct reports. I think of leadership as much broader than that.

I see and read and talk to people about great examples [of leadership] in a context where they aren't leading the deal, the case team, or the project. But when they're faced with challenges, and have to work with other people and be strong individual contributors, they do it very effectively. They have some tremendous insights about why they've been successful and how they could be more effective.

They also have been in situations where they've had role models who were both successful and less successful leaders. Those have been great learning experiences for them and have helped them develop their capabilities.

Q: Another element you stress on your application is essays, seven of which are required. You ask applicants to describe an ethical dilemma they've faced. How long has HBS been asking that question?

Dewey:

We have asked that question many times in the history of Harvard Business School. We ask people to talk about these dilemmas to get a sense of their values.

We also want to hear from recommenders about a candidate's ethics and behavior in the community. That's new for us -- specifically asking a question to a recommender: "Please comment on this person's character, conduct, and how they are as a member of your community."

Q: Has anything you've heard from recommenders surprised you?

Dewey:

One of the things that has pleasantly surprised me is that recommenders say they're happy we've asked that question and flagged ethics as something that's important to us.

Q: Given that we've seen so many examples of ethical lapses in the business world of late, are applicants reacting differently to this question than they did in years past?

Dewey:

I certainly think that given recent experiences, there might be more for people to think about. But each candidate answers differently. Ethical dilemmas can exist one-to-one, or on a one-to-very-many, organizational level.

We're really not looking for a right answer. We want to learn about how people think about the question.

Q: Deana, some B-school students say they're interested in learning about ethics as an important part of the MBA degree but that when they get out into the real world, it's hard to apply those lessons. Do you and your classmates get the sense that ethical values will be hard to implement practically?

Menkes:

As for implementation, I don't think the dilemma confronts an MBA any differently than it confronted us before we joined business school. From that perspective, [ethics instruction in B-school] maybe gives us some additional insight into handling ethical dilemmas and hopefully some additional tools for managing situations.

The case-study method [puts us] into situations in which we've had to confront such issues head-on and think about a manager's dilemma. So I would hope that going forward, we would approach this situation by creating a new openness within our organizations.

Q: How is the application volume this year?

Dewey:

We're still receiving applications, so we'll see the net results in the middle of March when we get our last round in. We've just had two consecutive years of record applications to Harvard Business School. At this point, I don't see us exceeding last year's level. But I think it's quite likely that we'll come in somewhere between two years ago and this past year.

Q: Are you seeing more applicants from any particular industries?

Dewey:

It depends on the time period you look at. One of the things we're pleased about is a sharp increase in the number of folks who've applied to us from social enterprises. From consumer products, health care, and biotech companies, as well.

Also if you talk to Matt Merrick, our career-services director, we have seen, with the class that graduated, more students going into areas like health care, biotech, and marketing (see BW Online, 8/1/02, "A Tough Job in a Tough Job Market").

Q: Is that a result of efforts on your part or something that happened because of other issues, like the economy?

Dewey:

Certainly economic issues always shape applicant pools. But one of the things that we've tried to stress is the breadth of application of the MBA degree to many different industries in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. [We stress] that many candidates from different industry and educational backgrounds come to Harvard Business School.

Q: Is it harder to gain acceptance in the third and final application round than it is in the first two rounds?

Dewey:

There's no significant difference in applying for round one, two, or three. That said, most of our applicants apply in the first two rounds, and we take most of our admits out of the first two rounds. But there are always some fantastic candidates who apply in the third round and who are admitted.

The one thing, though, that we do say to folks who apply in the third round, is to be aware that there are logistical challenges to being admitted in third rounds.

One, if you're an international student, we need to admit you, have you line up your financing, and have your visa issued, all in order for you to get to campus in the summer. We want to make sure that we have enough time to go through that process, and sometimes it's really tight for folks who apply in the third round.

The second point is that at Harvard Business School, many folks want to live on campus. That, I think, is one of the best things about the HBS experience -- we're a residential community, and we value that. If you apply in the third round, you'll miss some deadlines for getting into dormitories or affiliated housing at HBS.

Q: Where else do HBS students or applicants apply to?

Dewey:

HBS applicants apply most frequently to Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg, and Columbia.

Q: HBS's yield rate was exceptionally high at 89% last year. Where did the other 11% go?

Dewey:

The majority of folks who didn't come to Harvard Business School went to Stanford.

Q: What common mistakes frustrate you as an admissions officer when you read them time and again?

Dewey:

First and most important, a candidate who hasn't taken the time to think about where they've been, where they want to go, and how Harvard Business School fits into that. The types of things on which we're asking you to comment on the application aren't just what your experience has been, but what are your insights?

It takes a lot of time and reflection to tell us your story. I think that there are candidates who spend too little time trying to understand themselves and why Harvard makes sense. People who haven't done their homework...aren't able to explain to us all the dimensions of who they are.

Q: You mentioned that you want to hear the applicant's voice in the application. Do you have any tips to make sure that voice comes through?

Dewey:

Sure. The best way possible, by definition, is be yourself. That's what we're looking for. We want a sense of who you are. We may meet you [in person] if we invite you to interview, but when we're reading the application we're also trying to "meet" you, to really understand you.

Take the time to reflect and to write your essays in your own voice, from your own perspective, and share that with someone who knows you really well. Have them read your essays and react. They know you well. They can they say, "Yes, that's you."

Q: Deana, what unifying traits do you see among HBS students?

Menkes:

There are a range of attributes. My colleagues are driven people, generally, in all aspects of their lives. I also think that they're very giving people. A lot of sharing goes on, a lot of cooperation, and teamwork.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you when you started attending classes at HBS?

Menkes:

The community itself. Every place on campus is like a student union, with peers constantly milling around, chatting in the library, chatting in the beautiful facilities of the cafeteria.

On a grand scale, what probably surprised me is how willing folks were to help students like myself who maybe had a less extensive business background before coming here. They give of their time, at any time during the day, to discuss a case or help with some dilemma, or even with personal issues.

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