Analysis of HBS’ Big Essay Changes for 2012/2013

Harvard's new essays questions and application process (timing) represent the continuation of a theme at HBS – namely, the program's desire to matriculate an even greater diversity of student.  Previously, we have seen this through HBS' introduction of the 2+2 program, as well as the acceptance of the GRE.  The 2+2 program is designed to seek out the best and the brightest from the youngest of potential applicants – undergraduates.  The GRE is an exam whose test taking pool is approximately 50% female.  If you look at Harvard's numbers over the past few years, you can see that demographics are trending younger and more female.  This is something that most applicants to HBS already knew.

With the introduction of two (seemingly) open-ended questions (, Dee Leopold  is casting an even wider net than in year's past.  There is wide speculation (and evidence) that Harvard's "new" Dean (Nitin Nohria) is driving this diversification, signing off on a somewhat revised and unconventional admissions process.  These revisions have raised some early eyebrows since their introduction earlier this week.  However, based on Dee's past performance as the head of admissions, one has to give her the benefit of the doubt.  And if you can't do that, well then don't apply to HBS.

So what can we infer from these changes?  That Dee Leopold has a pretty good filter at this point. She has plenty of consulting and banking resumes on her desk.  The minute she sees one, she pretty much knows the song and dance.  It's a GMAT and GPA numbers game at that point.  Where she is placing her bets (and increased time) is going to be on the increased number of non-traditional applicants that (hopefully) come across her desk.  Dee Leopold wants to get through them early and often.  I won't call this churn and burn, but the number of applicant inventory turns is definitely going to increase.  I don't think HBS' 20% interview rate is going to increase, but I do think that Leopold and company will have their hands full interviewing from the larger applicant pool.  I bet this is a reason why HBS built an extra week or so into the application process by moving the round one deadline into September.

If we put on our industrial engineering hats, we would question the introduction of a third essay so late in the application process - especially one that requires a 24-hour turn-around time.  Conventional wisdom dictates that any efficient vetting process would require as much information up front as possible.  Of course front loading the process reduces the prospective applicant's willingness to even start the application – especially if that prospect is already sitting on the fence as a nontraditional applicant.  All in all, Dee had to weight the impact of lesser information up front against the benefit of greater applicant diversity.  In reality, what's the impact of lesser information?  Again, Dee has been doing this long enough to know (with a high degree of certainty) what she will be getting glancing at an applicant's resume or datasheet (so make sure you get your CV just right.)  Let us face it, there are only so many unique snowflakes in this world.  Bottom line - Dee is not worried about what she has been seeing the last few years, she is worried about what she doesn't even have a chance to see.

The final "24-hour" essay still remains a little bit of a red herring for this admissions consultant.  The accelerated time element does not indicate some sense of urgency on the admissions committee behalf, but rather it elicits an applicant's ability to process real-time information and work under pressure.  It's a "think on your feet" self-awareness exercise - a way to measure your ability to understand how you were perceived during the interview; ultimately delivering to your audience (the interviewer and by proxy, admissions committee) something they believed was lacking in the interview and overall, something that remains as an outstanding x-factor in your profile.  Given HBS' recent trends, I would consider it a test of your women's intuition.