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Post- 1st Round Reflections: Harvard’s Admissions Essay Changes

Posted by Chioma Isiadinso

First round applications are in and the jury is out on HBS’ new essay questions. Some students were relieved by the rather dramatic cuts in word volume. Others wished for more space to share.

In May, Harvard Business School set the MBA world abuzz with a revamped version of its application.

Admissions Director Deidre Leopold outlined a new application with major changes in the writing components.

Instead of the previous four essays, Harvard only posed two questions: “Tell us something that you did well” and “Tell us something you wish had done better”.

The changes also called for an email reflection to be sent shortly after a candidate’s interview, should an applicant reach that stage.

In all, HBS cut 800 words from its written component. The previous application asked for four questions totaling 2,000 words. The new version demands two 400-word essays and one 400-word reflection.

Leopold told Poets and Quants that the changes were intended to reflect Harvard’s improved MBA curriculum, which focuses on honest introspection.

Leopold also expressed her firm belief that “admissions is not an essay writing contest” and argued that more time and energy should be spent on the interview component.

Following the announcement of these changes, this year’s HBS applicants waded into uncharted territory. Only now, as first round applications wrap up, are we beginning to get some sense of the effects of the HBS changes.

Seeing the reduced word count, I think many students breathed an immediate sigh of relief, assuming that fewer words meant less difficulty.

However, in the past few months, I believe that many applicants have discovered the opposite: a lower word count pressures the applicant to make a large impact in a small space.

Succeeding under that pressure demands concise, honest, and thoughtful writing, certainly not the walk in the park that some students imagined.

Indeed, this is probably the biggest effect of the HBS changes: a clear demand for power without ostentation.

Under this model, fancy writing will not thrive, canned or generic essays will not thrive.

The most successful essays will be thoughtfully conceived, concisely narrated, and built around an honest portrait of the applicant.

As is the case with most HBS actions, Harvard’s changes to its application have significant bearing on larger attitudes towards MBA admissions.

In the next few years, we will likely see more schools reduce essay components and shift towards a more no-frills approach.

In fact, that no-frills approach extends well beyond the admissions process. Frills don’t tend to hold up in economically lean times- it is substance that carries the day.

HBS and its competitors are continually trying to model the professional world on their campuses, to give students a real- often brutally honest- picture of the business world.

In calling for substance over style in their written application, Harvard is heralding a more robustly realistic approach to the MBA, and applicants would do well to pay attention and respond with equal frankness.

Feel free to email us for help with your Harvards Admissions and other schools’ admissions essays.

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