For Applicants and Administrators, Admissions Changes are a Win-Win [Opinion]

The truth about the admissions process here at HBS is that most of us never give it another thought after we navigate it successfully.  While our friends looking to follow us here seem to think we have some special access to admissions secrets, we usually know less than what is publicly available since we no longer have any stake in the process.

But we should pay more attention, simply because admissions is a big part of everyday life here at HBS.  Our HBS experience is largely dictated by Dean Leopold and her team, by virtue of the fact it determines who we interact with during our time here.  Especially because the case method pedagogy is founded upon the belief that we learn from each other more than we learn from our professors, admissions is important.

That said, many students don’t realize that the admissions process for the Class of 2015 will bear little resemblance to that experienced by the current RC’s and EC’S.  Put concisely, the application’s essay portion has been distilled from four essays that allow for a total of 2,000 words to a two-question application giving the applicant only 800 words.  A new component gives interviewed applicants a chance to “have the last word” by submitting a “post-interview reflection” within 24 hours of their discussions with admissions representatives.

While I might be a bit biased, I believe that the admissions process I went through in 2011 worked.  It achieved a desirable end-state by selecting what I think is an extraordinary group of people that have optimized my experience as a member of the Class of 2013.   But I think that the process as I knew it can be refined to achieve a similar end state in a more just, useful, and efficient way.  This is just what Dee and her team did.

The shortened essay component makes the application more useful for both the administration and the applicant.  Essays with open-ended time allowances and liberal word limits favors applicants with the most resources (time and capital) to spend.  In particular I’m worried about the advantage given to those who pay consultants to help them craft their life stories into eloquent and memorable writing samples.  I would imagine that this ridiculously expensive practice makes it difficult for the admissions office to distinguish between genuine, insightful essays and those that were manufactured by third parties to appear that way.

Some critics of the circumscribed essay portion assert that non-traditional candidates will suffer from lack of space to explain their backgrounds to admissions officers who might be less familiar with their industry or firm than they would be with a candidate from Goldman or McKinsey.  I say, cut the crap.  As a newspaperwoman, I am a fan of concise writing.  Eight hundred words, almost twice the length of the Gettysburg Address, leaves more than enough space for an applicant to reflect thoughtfully on relevant experiences.

The new prompts give Dee the information she needs more efficiently, condensing the unnecessary components without losing anything relevant that can be found on the applicant’s resume.  From an internal operations standpoint, the process becomes much more efficient.  The admissions office continues to devote the bulk of its resources to the interview, which is the ultimate determinant of a successful application.  The amendments don’t change this; they simply minimize overall application reading hours by giving extra words in the post-interview reflection only to the subset of applicants invited to interview.  This focuses the office’s attention on the serious contenders, where it matters the most.

Beyond the process points, the new application substance better complements the new and traditional components of the HBS value proposition.  This year’s three-part process more closely reflects the case method, the Old Faithful of HBS.  Upon arriving at HBS, professors will tell you that the case method relies on a three-part learning cycle; students prepare for class by reading the case and answering assignment questions, they discuss the case with their peers in class, and then they reflect on lessons learned.  The intention of the post-interview piece is clear, but it remains to be seen if candidates without HBS thought conditioning will be able to understand and execute in the way the admissions office would like them to. Whether the post-interview reflection is more of an ambitious pit-dive or a thoughtful lunch discussion among section-mates is certainly up to the author.

The post-interview assignment also conveys to prospective students a newly predominant theme of the HBS curriculum – reflection.  Emerging from the short tenures of both Dean Nohria and FIELD, written reflections of classroom exercises and assignments have become a regular part of the curriculum, especially in the RC year.  As HBS aims to transform its branding from a business school to a leadership school, the theme of the day is “know thyself”.

At the end of the day, these changes won’t likely make a significant different as to who is admitted and who is not.  But it’s time that the process was updated to convey the needed information in a more relevant way that reflects the school’s priorities.  It remains to be seen how it will all work out and whether these changes will become permanent for classes in years to come, but it’s nice to see the administration demonstrating the same kind of bold innovation that it looks for in its applicants and students.