Tag Archives: Director of MBA Admissions

Learning about MBA admissions from Dee Leopold, HBS

This is an oldie from the files, but as true now as it ever was, showing how it’s important to pay close attention when Adcoms give tips because they do tell applicants everything they need to know.

Below are extracts from an interview with Dee Leopold  Executive Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Business School, published at the time in the Boston Globe. It’s low on the usual blah, and high on real guideposts for meeting Adcom’s expectations and beating out other applicants — and everything here is true of other elite b-schools.

The key points:

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 sought are: 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.

MBA Adcoms: Do You Know Who You Are Talking To?

To be a successful MBA applicant, one key thing to get clear on is who you are talking to when you write MBA admissions essays.

Getting your head around who your reader is, is a crucial part of creating a winning communication and therein getting admitted.

One iconic profile is revealed in this now-somewhat-classic introduction to a Business Week interview with then-UCLA Anderson Director of MBA Admissions (now UC Irvine Paul Merage School of Business Director of Admissions) Mae Jennifer Shores. See: UCLA Anderson: Admissions Q&A – BusinessWeek.

“The Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions … says she ended up an admissions officer the way most people do—unintentionally. She went to Russia to teach public policy, but was assigned to teach negotiations at a business school at the last minute. After two years, she wanted to continue her Eastern European stay and almost took a job teaching in Kazakhstan. Her graduate school loans, however, forced her back to the U.S. There, Shores’ international and business-school experience eventually led her into the admissions department.”

Every MBA admissions officer is different of course. But what they have in common is that it is unlikely they planned and studied for this career. Most come to it “sideways.” They typically have broad interests, are people-focused, and are good communicators. They have lived life in more than one industry and often more than one country. They are generally not business trained, although many have some background in HR or marketing.

This makes the MBA application essay writer’s job harder and easier. It’s easier to engage an interesting person. Almost anything topic you raise will be “valid” for them.

But it’s harder if all your stories are highly technical, or closely work-oriented or if your ability to reflect deeply and persuasively on your life and career path is limited. You’re not going to interest the likes of Mae Jennifer Shores unless you can extract the human interest and personal journey from your life story.

The business school campus visit, and how the HBS Director of Admissions writes about it

Keeping up with Adcoms’ blogs as I do (and I suggest MBA applicants do too) my eye stopped on this recent post by Dee Leopold, Director of Admissions at HBS.

It offers two things: First it clears up some of the shibboleths of who’s noticing what in your b-school visit and how it is weighed in admissions. (What is true of Harvard is broadly true of other schools too.) Second, just as important, it’s worth noting as a writing sample. Here’s the text:

“Lots of questions on the road from prospective applicants about visiting schools.

Answer: We always welcome visitors to campus. It’s beautiful here and we have lots to show you. Do you need to make a pilgrimage in order to send a signal to the Admissions Office? Absolutely not. Visiting campus has absolutely no impact on how your application is reviewed. It may have a gigantic impact on how enthusiastic you are about US – that’s where the value-added comes into play.

Are we going to ask you to sign-in to an information session? Yes. Do we use that list in the evaluation process? No. So why do we ask you to do it? To track whether these sessions have any impact on whether an attendee chooses to apply to HBS or not, i.e. standard market research. If we found out that no one who attended an info session chose to apply to HBS, you’d better believe that we would make some changes!

When may I visit classes? This is the tough question. For those applying in Round One, it’s not possible to visit a class before the October 1 deadline. Why? Our first year students begin classes in early September. Our first priority is for them to get settled into the classroom. We have limited seats designated for visitors in each class – and we could fill them every day of the year. The faculty likes for the first few weeks of the first semester to be “students only.” We rely on the students in sections to be hosts for our visitors – and they really aren’t ready to do that right away. Class visits will begin in mid-October; information about the sign-up process will be posted on our website.

Applying to business school(s) is expensive and stressful. The last thing you need is to make it a scavenger hunt in which you need have “visited campus” checked off the list.

So…the message is: We welcome you to visit HBS – but don’t think of this as a “command performance.”

The takeaways and more:

(a) Visiting is good because it will create in you a much sharper appreciation for the school and its particular form of MBA offering. It will help you refine your list of target schools, and make your applications essays more naturally enthusiastic and therefore convincing. But visiting is not a formal requirement and is not weighed by Adcom in deciding whether to admit or ding you.

Where possible, register your visit with Adcom. Note that campus visit programs only start when MBA programs begin (after Labor Day) and some programs like HBS delay class audits to allow new MBA cohorts to bed themselves down without distractions.

Use your time with admissions and/or school marketing reps wisely, that is, to ask pointed questions about particular aspects of the program or the school that are relevant to your career progress, so that you come away with specific information that will help you make the right school-choice decision, and then help you motivate this convincingly in your essays and interview.

By the way, the formal visit program will only take you so far. To go deeper into the school’s culture, get talking to students. If you walk up and say “Hi, I’m a prospective applicant, may I ask you about your experiences at this school so far …” it is likely you will get a friendly and informative response.

(b) I’m aware it’s dangerous to offer HBS blog text as a writing model because applicants will mimic this style. Do NOT do this. But it has elements worth noting. It’s informal-formal, like recorded speaking. There are no mistakes, but the copy is not stiff and overly “written.” In this way Dee comes across like someone you’d like to meet. Also note the the rhetorical question-and-answer style. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it is a superb device for getting information across quickly and clearly. Overall the text has a crisp, to-the-point feel, but it is not rushed or clipped.  Your MBA admissions essays are not a blog, but information-laden crispness that suggests you are worth meeting is exactly what you are looking to achieve.