Relax: HBS' 3rd essay really just a 400-word chill pill

HBS MBA student enjoys light lunch while observing OWS festivities. (Photo:

HBS MBA student enjoys light lunch while observing OWS festivities. (Photo:

Today the MBA-journalism website Poets & Quants published an article that was more or less a summary of a recent blog post from Dee Leopold, the managing director of admissions and financial aid at HBS.  In it, she tries to better articulate HBS' much-discussed new "post-interview" assignment.  In a series of emphatic points, she takes great pains to tell applicants the following:

  1. Relax
  2. This is meant to emulate the Real World (capitalizing these words was not our idea, by the way)
  3. Admissions consultants are NOT ALLOWED

All three of these points are sort of ridiculous and we will take them in the order presented above.

First, relax.  Ha!  These are people applying to Harvard Business School.  Surely Dee has encountered this type once or twice before.  Does she really think saying "don't stress" is going to allow HBS applicants not to stress?  These candidates ask 25 of their friends, relatives, and co-workers to review their essays.  They have their application data (much of which is purely for reporting purposes) proofread time and again.  They want to get involved in their own letters of recommendation so that they are *perfect.*  These are not the kind of people who are just going to relax and rip off a quick email after the interview is over.  There's no higher stakes game in admissions than applying to a school like HBS, so anything included in that process is going to be treated as such - high stakes.  That means tension, pressure, and anxiety.  No matter what the school says.

Second, this whole Real World notion.  Do people send emails after interviews in the Real World.  Yes, of course.  In fact, most candidates should already be doing that.   But since when is the application process' primary function to mirror the Real World?  If that was the case, candidates would have specific qualities and traits they would be told were required of "the position" (an HBS student), they would be pre-screened purely on resume, and then brought in for multiple, escalating interviews until they "get the gig."  Of course, it doesn't work that way.  And it can't!  Now, if we're misunderstanding the meaning of this whole Real World analogy, and it's supposed to suggest, "Look, you are going to have to send emails in the Real World, so we're going to measure your ability to do so," well, then that is kind of hilarious.  Even so, there's a precedent for this in things like the resume (half the reason schools want to see a resume is to see that you can successful put one together, so they can put one in their Resume Book that fall) or an assignment like Booth's famous PowerPoint essay.  It seems a little paternalistic to tell an "elite" MBA applicant, "hey, we want to make sure you can write an email or put together a PowerPoint presentation," but more power to the schools if they want to do that.  News flash though: people are going to want to get those things perfect.  You don't just toss together a PowerPoint presentation for Booth, nor will people want to just toss an email together for HBS.  Going back to Point 1, this would ask applicants to completely throw out all emotion, instinct, tradition, and history inherent in this process in order to just let it rip.  Not going to happen.

Third, this somewhat obnoxious in its attempt to block admissions consultants.  There's a part of the piece - not in Dee's words but in the author's - that suggests consultants are having their clients "hold back" material from the essays so they can write about in the post-interview assignment.  Hold back?  There's a mere two questions, totaling 800 words.  The applicants are already "holding back" just about their entire life stories!  HBS is not asking "Why an MBA?" (the lone question, to our mind, that has always separated the very responsible nature of the MBA process from the Wild West of law school applications - cut to about a million unhappy lawyers and out of work law school grads going, "oh yeah, I guess I wasn't ever asked why a JD...").  HBS is not asking "Why HBS?" (even though HBS has long wrung its hands over applicants applying to Harvard for "the wrong reasons").  It's not asking about the applicants upbringing.  Values.  Passions.  Vision.  It's asking almost nothing!  You don't have to do a lot of holding back to still have plenty you can talk about (in the interview) or write about (after).

Which brings us to the ongoing discussion of how to handle this whole thing.  A smart consultant would advise a client to of course have some powder already jammed into that gun.  Who would hop on a plane and fly to Boston with zero notion of what they want to say to this most powerful of schools?  You'd have to be borderline insane to just flow with the action.  We'll say it right here: yes, we have advised our clients to do some brainstorming on the front end and to even get some thoughts down on the page.  It only makes sense.  When you have the pressure of this process, combined with the logistics of travel, combined with the desire to get your voice through to the school in question ... why wouldn't you think about this stuff months in advance?  Of course you would - the stakes are too high to just bury your head in the sand.  And what's funny is that we are the consulting firm that Dee would probably most agree with philosophically.  We challenge our clients to be completely authentic, to search within, to avoid cliche.  We stay completely hands-off on letters of recommendation, valuing authenticity over perfection.  We say "don't worry so much about this" about a thousand times to our clients.  And even we can't pretend that applicants won't stress about this, or want to work on it, or at least *think* about it.  It's almost negligence if we tell them "just deal with it in the 24 hours after it happens."  But hey, they can make oodles of grammar mistakes! So I guess we're all off the hook.

The truth of the matter though is that now this diatribe is out there (and so is ours, too, we guess).  So will we continue the measured approach described in the previous paragraph?  Probably not.  What the messy and ill-conceived "post-interview assignment" has become is a vetting instrument designed to measure how "coached" an applicant looks in 400 words.  The messier and crappier the email that follows the interview, apparently the better it will be.  Because at least no one will have thought about it, looked it at, or - heaven forbid - edited it.  We're going to have no choice but to tell our clients: sorry, we're out on this one.  Any involvement from us now hurts their chances to succeed, because we can't risk a piece of writing being "too good" or anything (now we're starting to sound like an Aaron Sorkin character in "The Newsroom.")

In the end, this will be much like Wharton's highly publicized switch to behavioral interview (accompanied by the leak of a super amateur presentation to alumni interviewers) two years ago - something to just shuffle through without upsetting anyone along the way.  Kind of a shame, really.