Category Archives: MBA Adcom

Listening to HBS Adcom, and other MBA Admissions Committees too

It’s important to listen, to really, really pay attention when Adcom talks, because they do tell applicants everything they need to know.

Below are extracts from an interview with Deirdre Leopold (57) executive director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School, recently published in the Boston Globe. It’s low on the usual general exhortations, and high on real guideposts for meeting their expectations and beating out other applicants.

Note the key points (broadly true of the other top programs too):

1. Guiding selection principle is ‘leaders who will make a difference in the world.’ Now this could be a platitude, but it’s not. They really mean it. It can be any difference, but it must be some difference. If you’re just going to be another banker or another consultant or another PE portfolio manager, or even just another venture capitalist or entrepreneur, that’s not making a difference in the world. You can be any of these things, or something else, but how will you leave a different world behind you?

2. Qualities – Curiosity, initiative, sense of purpose, energy, self-awareness, a real sense of others, an ability to engage in a community, a moral compass, ‘givers’ rather than ‘takers,’ not bystanders but active participants. This is not a full list, but it’s a great starting point for an application platform.

3. Transformational experience of the (HBS) MBA, and who appears receptive to it. As Leopold says: ‘Do you want to possibly have your plan completely turned around, find out things that you didn’t even know were possibilities for you?’ (This is why the HBS goals essay is optional, because they want to significantly expand your horizons!) If you are not ready for transformation they don’t want you.

4. The case method, and knowing what it actually, specifically offers. As Leopold explains: ‘Leaders operate in gray areas… (the case method is) developing the judgment to know which tool to use when, to be comfortable in uncertainty, to be able to make decisions day in and day out with imperfect information, not enough information, never enough time.’

5. Endorsement for MBA admissions consulting, recognizing that (a) executives and all of us use consultants widely in and throughout our lives and careers — it’s part of being fully actualized and competitive in our society; and (b) many candidates are unfamiliar with b-school culture, therefore disadvantaged when applying, and they can legitimately overcome this. (And she says: ‘there is no such thing as a reputable consultant who will write business school applications,’ which of course MBA Studio and other reputable advisors do not do.)

Here is the extracted interview text:

What does HBS look for in its candidates?

Our mission is to educate leaders who will make a difference in the world. So we’re driving back to that guiding principle. We’re looking to compose a class of talented leaders who come from many different backgrounds but share some common qualities. And those qualities might include curiosity, initiative, sense of purpose, energy, self-awareness, a real sense of others, and an ability to engage in a community, and a moral compass that points true north.

What kind of candidates do you actively avoid?

Think of the qualities I described, and think of their opposite. We want people who can come here and believe that they are as invested in their classmates’ learning as they are in their own. We’re looking for people who, over the whole course of their lives, have been givers versus takers, who are not bystanders but active participants.

Some applicants hire admissions consultants to try to game the system. Can you detect an application that’s written by an admissions consultant?

The written application is only one part of our process. We start with a written application, but we interview every applicant who is ultimately admitted. So we are not reliant only on a written application. I think we’re in a culture now where consultants are hired to do a lot of different things. We understand that some people – particularly those who do not work with people who have gone to business school, who do not have expertise in this admission process – we understand that seeking out advice is natural. But there is no such thing as a reputable consultant who will write business school applications.

If a young executive is already on the corporate fast track, do you recommend that he or she come to Harvard Business School?

If they’re thinking about Harvard Business School, which is truly a transformational experience, I’d ask that person: Do you want to be open to that change? Do you want to find out different ways of doing things? Do you want to possibly have your plan completely turned around, find out things that you didn’t even know were possibilities for you?

What do students learn at Harvard Business School that they can’t learn at a Wharton or a Stanford?

I’m only speaking from a point of expertise about Harvard. It’s where I went to school, so I’m speaking as an alum and also as an admissions director. The case method, which is our pedagogy, is truly distinctive. We’re educating leaders to be effective. Leaders operate in gray areas. It’s not about the specific analytical tools you have in some imaginary toolbox. It’s developing the judgment to know which tool to use when, to be comfortable in uncertainty, to be able to make decisions day in and day out with imperfect information, not enough information, never enough time, and to be able to take a stand and to be able to communicate it to others and to bring people along with you.

HBS Adcom is answering applicants’ questions every day until the R1 deadline. Answers so far…

Deidre Leopold, Harvard Business School’s Managing Director of Admissions and Financial Aid is answering applicant questions at the rate of two a day on the HBS ‘From The Director‘ blog, until Harvard’s Round 1 deadline on October 1.

The following are the questions that have been selected so far, and HBS Adcom’s answers:

September 25, 2009

1. Are you reading applications now?
No. We don’t begin until the night of October 1. That’s when we print all applications and begin review. So our process is not “rolling” in a classic sense. That said, I would advise NOT waiting until the final moments before the deadline to submit because the server will probably be backed up and you will be very anxious.

2. When can I visit a class?
The online scheduler for class visits is available now. Class visits begin on Monday, October 19. Whether you have visited a class or not has no bearing on our consideration of your candidacy. However, here’s (yet another) plug for our video filmed in the first year classroom.

September 24, 2009

1. Must applications for the MPP/MBA Program, or other joint degree programs, be submitted separately?
Yes. In order to participate in a Harvard joint program, you must be admitted to each school independently. HBS offers five joint degrees with four Harvard schools.

2. May I scan an unofficial transcript into the application?
Yes. After admission, we require the official transcript to be sent to us.

September 23, 2009

1. Do you expect applicants who are working in consulting to include actual client names in their resumes and essays?
No – even though applications are confidential and not reviewed outside the Admissions Board, please don’t do anything that violates confidentiality policies of your organization. Use general language such as: “For a client in the energy industry, etc. etc. etc.”

2. I know that you need GMAT/GRE results in order to submit an application and that AWA/Analytical Writing scores can be added later…but what about the TOEFL or IELTS?
If you are required to take the IBT TOEFL or IELTS, you must have results to report or else we will consider your application incomplete until scores are reported. If you do not submit an IBT TOEFL or IELTS score by the Round One deadline of October 1, your application will not be considered until the next round.

September 22, 2009

1. Do you accept the GMAT or GRE total score in the application without the AWA or Analytical Writing score?
You must have a GMAT or GRE score in order to submit an application. If you haven’t yet received your AWA or Analytical Writing score, that’s fine. We will add it to your file when it arrives.

2. Is it OK to write about accomplishments that are not recent?
Every year, many successful candidates write about things that happened quite a while ago. It’s probably not a good idea to have everything you write about be from your childhood – we would wonder if you were moving forward or fixed in the past. As always, we encourage you to use your best judgment and remember that this is an application to business school.

September 21, 2009

1. What should I enter on the application for GPA if my university doesn’t use a 4.0 grading system?
Don’t enter anything. Don’t convert your grades to a 4.0 system. We review all transcripts and are familiar with a wide variety of grading systems.

2. Are essays read in consecutive order?
Not always. Each Board member may have his/her own way of approaching the written application. Speaking for myself, I often skip around with no particular pattern. If I start with an essay that seems to be building on a theme in another essay, I just go back and catch up. Not a problem. I can reassure you that all essays are reviewed!

Do You Have Any Questions? Submit your questions via email to and put “Questions for the director” in the subject line.

‘I’m unemployed, does this mean my MBA application will be dinged?’

In normal times the answer to this question is ‘yes.’ Unless there is a compelling no-fault reason you are unemployed, or you have just sold a company for a few million bucks, your unemployment will count against you. In a situation where 3 in 20 are admitted, it’s going to be hard to be one of the three.

But these are not normal times. Lots of people have been squeezed out of the job market due to the Credit Crunch and resulting recession. If you’re one of them, Adcom will understand that. The emphasis then shifts to how you have responded: (a) what have you done with your time, and (b) how has the experience changed you? How have you grown? Unemployment often forces on us a period of life-stocktaking, where we have the breathing space to reevaluate our goals or at least ask ‘what do I really want to do next?’ Adcom is interested to see if you can do this ‘personal work,’ and what your answers are.

Keep in mind also that the average senior executive — your role model in your MBA aspiration — will face periods of career upheaval. Showing you can cope with this is a mark in your favor. For a sense of what others are doing and thinking, and particularly how to reflect on this kind of career bump, see the Wall Street Journal blog ‘Laid off and Looking.’

Also see The Rose Report, written by Rose Martinelli, Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions at Chicago Booth GSB. I’m a big fan of this blog which really walks the walk in making the admissions process transparent. This is what Rose has to say on whether unemployed candidates will get into Booth this year:

“The simple answer is yes! Many people have been displaced over the past year through no fault of their own, and finding a new job in their target industry/function has been equally difficult.

So what can you do? First, take stock of what you have learned about yourself during this time. For many of you, this may have shaken your confidence and impacted what you want to do with your life/career going forward. Help us to understand this in your application. Second, let us know what you have been doing with your newfound freedom and what motivates you. Are you taking classes, volunteering your services, traveling, etc.? There is no right or wrong activity… Again, help us to understand your choices and motivations. As you’ve probably learned by now, we’re so much more interested in how you have coped with these surprises and what you’ve learned about yourself.”

Footnote: back in June I posted an article here about the humanities-based diversity of Adcom’s own career backgrounds, and how this should affect your approach. Martinelli fits this mold too. She received undergraduate and master’s degrees in vocal performance from Northwestern University, and spent 15 years as a professional opera and concert singer before doing an EMBA at Chicago Booth.