Ready, Set, GOtcha!: Harvard Kicks off the ’12 MBA Admissions Season with a Game-Changing Twist

It’s here. The 2012-2013 MBA application season has commenced. I must say, it seems to have come a bit soon. I was expecting for the first applications to be opened sometime in July–I was totally prepared for that; but MAY? Not so prepared–emotionally, at least.

Apparently, I missed a fairly conspicuous memo because it seems common knowledge that a few schools get things started in May each year. I guessed I also missed the note that HBS tends to open their application first, which they did just yesterday.

It’s surreal in a way. I’ve invested several months into  GMAT prep and still have a month to go before my actual exam date.  I guess I was hoping that I’d be done with all my prep before the apps went live; so much for hoping.

And, like a curious cat, I just couldn’t help myself but to go into my HBS app and begin filling out the basic information; actually, I spent an hour on it (that should have been used for GMAT time).

One thing that has the MBA applicant world in an uproar right now is how HBS has changed the format of its admissions process. Just in case you are not yet aware (or are still in disbelief and need a double take), here are the facts:


* The essay portion of the new HBS app has changed from 4 essays of 2200 total words to just 2 essays (initially) of 800 total words (3/1200 for 2+2 applicants).

* The standard (legendary) 3 accomplishments/3 set backs headliner essay has been nixed. It has been replaced with two very “Stanfordy” introspective probes: 1) Tell Us About Something You’ve Done Well  2) Tell Us About Something You Wish You’d Done Better (I’ll make sure to have a hookah nearby when writing those)

* If you make it through an HBS interview (the obvious prerequisite to this is winning an interview invite in the first place–an honor traditionally bestowed on ~ the top 20% of applicants), you will have a 3rd (or 4th) and final 400 word essay: Tells Us About Something  You Wish You Had Said/Had the Chance to Say (or something like that) during your interview–due electronically within 24 hours after the interview itself (pressure!).


Over the past day or so there has been a good deal of speculation about HBS’ new manifesto and the probable reasons behind it. Here is a sample of that spectrum of opinion:

disclaimer: these statements are not supported by mbaover30, nor are they necessarily opinions shared by mbaover30 (unless otherwise confirmed on this blog).

  • HBS may be attempting to drive more applications to increase their selectivity and secure their #1 spot.
  • HBS has abandoned “leadership” for “disruption” (one of my more recent pet peeve buzz words) as the shining quality of a good fit for its program.
  • HBS may be attempting to drive more applications to make more money off of MBA applicants.
  • HBS is becoming more stats (GPA/GMAT) driven and seeks to distill high stat holders earlier in the admissions process.
  • HBS is making these sweeping changes for the sake of making a claim on “innovation leadership”.
  • HBS is simply trying to generate headlines.
  • Applicants who are “on the bubble” or nontraditional will have their dreams deferred as they walk the plank this admissions season (and  henceforth @ HBS).
  • HBS is aggressively going after candidates with backgrounds in STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) and is looking to distill them earlier in the admissions process.


So here’s my $0.02 (actually, more like $0.03 and a hay penny):

Of all of the assertions above, I find myself most in contention with the opinion about HBS looking to gain more money (from more apps) out of this. First off, HBS is the last MBA program that can be described as strapped for cash. Additionally, if they really wanted to raise, say a cool mil, why read hundreds of extra applicants when they can just accept ~10 more students?

I also doubt that this change signals a move to focusing more on GMATs and GPAs. Not only does HBS already have one of the highest median GMATs @ 730 (2nd only to Stanford’s 740; although several schools have higher average GMAT’s), but the brand and prestige of the program is strong enough where they don’t have to be obsessed with GMAT scores because they have nothing to prove. They’ll also get thousands of 700+ GMAT applicants regardless; so again, there is no pressure on this program to attempt to bump its GMAT stats; ditto for GPA stats.

I agree somewhat with the opinion of HBS looking to generate headlines; however, I am 99.9% sure that isn’t what’s driving the change. Besides, how can a business program be considered worth its salt if it can’t generate a buzz? Isn’t that one of the things that it is supposed to teach its students?

I can see a smidgen of interest in maintaining a stronghold on the #1 ranking; though, I also don’t think HBS was ever in much danger of that anyway.  Besides, rankings vary depending on who’s publishing them and no previous sub #1 ranking has put a kink in the armor of HBS. I doubt they’re loosing sleep over anybody’s ranking of them.

My personal opinion about this change is  that it is probably focused on two things:

1) Strengthening HBS’ stake/brand within the entrepreneurial space.
2) A process improvement to make it simpler and easier to whittle the field of applicants down to those who the school is most interested in–faster.


I mentioned in a previous post that IMO all of the top schools were scrambling to solidify their name as innovative, entrepreneurial leaders (hence the eruption of business plan competitions over the past 5-10 years). Entrepreneurship has become (and will continue to define) the gold standard that determines which MBA programs matter most, and why. I see this as less of a knee jerk reaction and more of another step in methodical, carefully executed strategy at Harvard to push itself to the forefront of innovation and entrepreneurial leadership.

The new questions have taken the focus off of what you’ve done and how you’ve done it and have instead placed that emphasis on who you are and what makes you tick (not that what you’ve done is no longer important; but they can get that from your resume and app; no need to rehash the same facts with a short shorty on the essays).


One way in which I feel this process change is brilliant is that is allows the HBS ad com to get through more applicants in the same amount of time. This not only makes their job easier, but gives them a greater ability to really focus on the applications that they find most compelling. And to paraphrase the words of MBA admissions consultant Sandy Kreisberg in a recent Poets and Quants interview, Dee Leopold and her team know exactly what they are looking for in an applicant. They’ve gone through over 100k applicants over the years and don’t need a dissertation to find what they’re looking for (“it don’t take a whole day to recognize sunshine” — Common, The Light).

Leopold has also been quoted as saying that basically she is well are of  (read: has intended for) this change being disruptive to the role of admissions consultants in the admissions game.  For one, the two concise essays that are now being asked for give consultants less to work with–and less power to sell applicants on their ability to help them tip the scales in their favor (though I personally feel that admissions consultants are still quite useful–I’ve gotten a ton of value out of their free advice and books alone).

The main wrench in the impact of an admissions consultant is the essay that is due within 24 hours of the completion of the interview. This is the HBS ad com’s pretty obvious attempt to “peel back the onion” and see who they are really getting. If it were logistically feasible, I’d bet good money that they would ONLY do the interview and the post-interview essay.


It has been said that these news changes will hurt nontraditional applicants like myself as well as those who  may be “on the bubble” academically and/or professionally based on some weakness in their applicant profile. I think it could go either way, depending on your ability to sell yourself–and depending on whether or not what you are selling is something that HBS actually wants to buy.

I think that applicants of any kind who can effectively establish clear brand differentiation within those 800 words will actually be MORE memorable than in the previous process; especially given the fact that the ad coms eye balls won’t be rolled back into their heads from reading and decoding 2200 words per applicant.

Additionally, those who successfully “make the first cut” and get an interview will have their usual advantage if they interview well; this is another opportunity for nontraditional and/or bubble applicants to make a strong case for why they (we) deserve a spot–if they make it that far. And finally, the after-interview essay could be turned into a major coup for those who understand their stories extremely well and are adept at selling  them–without  help from an admissions consultant.

Either way, this will definitely be an admissions season to remember. I just hope I make it through it all with my sanity in one hand and an acceptance notice in the other.

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About mbaover30

Wharton MBA and admissions expert

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8 Comments on “Ready, Set, GOtcha!: Harvard Kicks off the ’12 MBA Admissions Season with a Game-Changing Twist”

  1. cheetarah1980 Says:

    Hmm, I don’t see Harvard moving in Stanford’s direction at all. The essays have always been known to be huge at Stanford. Applicants basically need to bleed all over their essays. With the move to two essay questions Harvard is sending the message, “The essays really aren’t that important so we don’t wanna read all that stuff anyways.” I find those questions to still be very accomplishment based vs. introspective/perspective based. You’ve got one shot to impress them with an accomplishment and one shot to show you have the self awareness that you’re not perfect. Nothing in there allows you to discuss what really makes you tick. I don’t know. I think HBS is definitely sending a message, but it’s definitely not the touchy-feely kumbai – ya message that’s Stanford’s stock and trade.


    • mbaover30 Says:

      Cheetarah1980, you bring up a valid perspective that is definitely food for thought. Deidre Leopold (HBS Managing Director of Admissions) has stated numbers times that she feels that essays play to large of a role in admissions. She also seems to have some level of aggravation with admissions consultants (as do most Adcoms). I think you’re right; though I still maintain that the introspective nature of the questions bends at least this portion of the app slightly away from the traditional “expound on how great you are” and conspicuously toward the more woo-woo/West Coast emphasis on self awareness and reflection.


  2. ff Says:

    Hi there,
    a friend sent me a link to your blog since I’m also an over 30 applicant.
    As you, I kept notes of my voyage (but not quite as extensively).
    You can read my posts here:
    Since I’m sitting in Europe and I’m not eager to work in the US, I targeted the top European B-schools: IMD, INSEAD and LBS.
    I’m happy to report my effort were successful and I was accepted by 2 of these 3 programs. 🙂
    The only comment (which I also read elsewhere on this blog) on your journey is that I think you are targeting too many schools. But of course I’m not you. So if you are happy with it, go for it. 🙂


    • mbaover30 Says:

      Thanks ff and congratulations on your success! I have 9 schools on my list at the moment because I am still in the final stages of my research; however, that may end up being closer to 6 by the time its all over. We will see. I’ll definitely check out your blog, and don’t forget to subscribe!



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