Reflections on an evening with the Harvard Business School Admissions Director
Last night at the high-ceilinged corporate offices of the Gap in San Francisco, Dee Leopold, head of the Harvard Business School admissions committee, held court with about 150 eager and aspiring students. Dee is particularly impressive, not only because she is head of admissions at HBS, but because she has been in this position for nearly 20 years.
The messages were clear, and she laid out a very specific lesson plan for potential applicants.
Dee talked about the three ways the applications board looks at a candidate: leadership, intellectual capability, and social/non-profit contribution.
Leadership, she said, can be as individual as each person applying for admission to the program. Some people are president of every club, some are great with small groups, and some are thought leaders. It’s something that is unique to the individual.
Intellectual rigor and curiosity are easier to pin down. At Harvard, which uses the case method, each student, no matter how “smart,” needs to be able to contribute intelligently to the discussion. In Dee’s words the admissions board members are looking for “givers vs. takers.”
As for non-profit and community activities, Harvard, like every business school, wants its future leaders to be part of making the world a better place. That’s fairly straightforward – they want someone who has shown a pattern of engagement.
Years of work experience: The trend of average years of work experience has been falling from about five years to three years. The numbers work out so that about half the entering class will have more than three years’ experience. At an entering class of over 900, that’s 450 students – a sizeable pool. Two years of work experience is the minimum, as evidenced by the new 2+2 program, which requires students to work for two years before entering the MBA program. In the class entering in 2009, only two students came straight from college out of an entering class of over 900.
Recommendations: Like all schools, they want recommendations from someone who knows you well. Dee specifically said she wanted the recommender to be someone more experienced than the applicant. For Harvard, peer reviews are out.
Even if you’ve been to a class on campus to watch student engagement, Dee suggested that the “Inside the Case Method” video should be required viewing for all students thinking of attending HBS. Download it, watch it, and think about how you, too, can contribute in that environment.
Finally, in putting together the application, the admissions director reminds students to “execute cleanly”. I interpret that as: no typos, keep to the word limits, fill the forms out right. You know how to put together a professional package. There’s little room for error.