What Harvard, Haas and Other Top Business Schools Want to Learn About You

What Harvard, Haas and Other Top Business Schools Want to Learn About You

The online community of MBA applicants has been buzzing in the last nine months with discussion of changes to the admissions process at many of the world’s top business schools. To assess the impact of these changes, and better understand what MBA admissions are looking for in their applicants, Pete Johnson, former executive director of Admissions for the full-time program at Berkeley-Haas, and now colleague and advisory director at Fortuna Admissions, and vice president of Student Services at Central European University in Budapest shares his perspective. He emphasizes the importance of self-reflection, which will prepare both for the MBA and beyond.

“The decision by Harvard Business School to reduce the initial essay component to two 400-word essays on something you did well and something you wish you had done better has left some potential applicants feeling concerned that they won’t have sufficient space to share their achievements, potential and future plans with the school. The introduction of a “Team Based Discussion” at Wharton has also raised anxiety levels, despite the chance to demonstrate communication skills and style of engagement in a group context that is comparable to the MBA experience itself. Other schools are experimenting with Powerpoint slides, video interviews, tweet-style essays and more.  These changes in the application process have led many applicants to seek advice from friends, mentors, and admission consultants.

Directors at leading business schools recognize the desire of admissions teams to experiment with the components of the application, usually aiming to better understand the personality and potential of each applicant. Introducing a new essay or changing the interview format is not intended to raise the stress levels of the candidates, but to encourage introspection and candid self evaluation that will allow readers of the application to understand why a candidate considers the MBA experience critical for their professional goals and how it will be a transformational experience for them.”

At Berkeley-Haas, Johnson and his team used both a long essay and a number of short answer questions that were designed to give each candidate the opportunity to give us a sense of what was important to them, why business school was the next step, and how they would fit with the culture and program. At the end of the application cycle each year, they would discuss the responses they had read, and they changed or substituted questions when they felt they were not getting at the information they needed.  Other schools have developed the methods they believe will help them to best assess these issues, whether they include a Powerpoint essay, a team interview, or Harvard’s “something you did well and something you wish you’d done better” questions. Although potential applicants may feel that is 800 words is too limiting, remember that succinct communication is highly valued in business and in business schools.

“Admissions committees get value from short answer questions and essays. They’re not just a pro-forma exercise. It has always been known that some candidates get extensive editing assistance or may have presented the work of others as their own, but this is often revealed in the interview when a candidate is asked to clarify or elaborate on a response from a short answer question or essay. Successful candidates can articulate their own personal narrative and demonstrate ownership of their own story.

Admissions directors are understandably concerned that many MBA applicants are over-coached or too heavily influenced by the wealth of advice that they find in MBA chat rooms or by using MBA admissions consulting firms such as Johnson’s. They point to essays that are at best lacking in authenticity, at worst a failed attempt to write what the candidate thinks the admissions committee wants to read. From the thousands of applications the team at Fortuna Admissions has read at Haas, Wharton, INSEAD and other top schools, it is true that a great number of essays fail to resonate, or do not reveal the true stories that have made the candidates the persons that they are.

Of course business schools are frustrated with cosmetic rewrites, manufactured profiles, and techniques intended to help applicants  “game” the system.  But at Fortuna they believe that good admissions consulting should provide a coaching experience that helps candidates to use the application process itself as an opportunity for self-discovery and development, not just a tool to get in. Holding a mirror to the candidate, guiding him or her through a process of self-reflection, will help to refine the way they present themselves so that they communicate their unique story, experience and goals in an authentic way. It is that self-reflection that ultimately allows the MBA admissions committee to understand how admitting this particular candidate will enrich their school community.

In many ways this step prepares candidates for what they can expect at business school, where they will be supported and coached as they develop leadership skills, discover new abilities, polish resumes, sharpen cover letters, and practice networking – all in preparation for the next step in their career and beyond.”

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