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MBA Insider: Admissions Q&A

Admissions Q&A: Harvard Business School

(Corrects reference to second module in Harvard's field immersion course in sixth paragraph and clarifies that the module is offered in 14 cities.)

Harvard Business School is buzzing with excitement, says Deirdre Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at HBS. With fresh talent in leadership roles, including Dean Nitin Nohria, who took on the position in July 2010, the school is renewing itself. For starters, it is inviting rising undergraduate seniors to apply throughout the year, rather than only in the summer, for the 2+2 Program, which offers new college graduates a guaranteed berth in an MBA class after working full time for two years. In addition, the school is launching a new, required course for first-year MBA students, which is designed to have them work in small groups and roll up their sleeves for hands-on projects.

The school also wants applicants to know that anyone, regardless of his or her financial standing, can apply to the HBS MBA program. Harvard has students apply for financial aid after they get accepted, and generous alumni share their wealth, says Leopold. “As alumni look back on their experience at this school, they want to make sure that the very best candidates, regardless of where they come from economically, have access to this place,” adds Leopold, a 1980 HBS graduate who has worked in the admissions office ever since. “Therefore we have a significant pool of resources to draw from for need-based financial aid.”

Stressing that great thought and care go into the admissions process, Leopold, who became admissions director in 2006, says her team takes a holistic approach to applications and never relies on any formulas or point-based systems in making admissions decisions. Her best advice to candidates, she adds, is to be themselves. The big secret, Leopold says, is that Harvard wants to accept candidates. “It’s no fun to say, ‘No,’” she adds. “It’s fun to say, ‘Yes.’” Recently, Leopold discussed new programs and what it takes to get into HBS with Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.

What’s new at Harvard Business School?

We have an exciting new course that is going to be required of all first-year students. The course, Field Immersion Experience for Leadership Development (FIELD), has three modules and is going to run continuously throughout the first year. It is meant to supplement our signature pedagogy, the case method, and it gives our students a chance to work in small groups to put into practice the things they’ve been discussing in their case-method classrooms. In the first year, our class of 900 is divided into sections of 90. FIELD is a way to get people working in small groups of about six, which will constantly evolve so you won’t be with the same group of six for the entire year.

The leadership module will allow small groups to work closely with faculty to explore their reasons for being at Harvard Business School and try out some of the things they have been advising our case protagonists to do, like giving and receiving feedback. They’ll consider questions, such as, “How do you lead?”

Module two is a way to get our students into the real world. We’ll be going to 14 different cities in 11 countries, all of which are emerging economies, to perform a product development exercise. Countries will include China, South Africa, and Vietnam, among others.

The third module is an integrative exercise in entrepreneurship. Our students are actually going to start little companies with real customers and resources. This is meant to be an integrative exercise that puts together all the things they’ve learned across the 10 [other] required courses. The students will be responsible for customers, marketing, etc., and they may fail. This will be enhanced by a new building on campus, the Harvard Innovation Lab (iLab), which is going to have space available for students to work in unusual configurations, unlike a traditional classroom.

How would you describe the HBS culture?

The culture is driven by collaboration. We’re choosing people who have succeeded by collaborating with others. We’re meeting all of them before they are accepted here. We really do feel that in our selection process we are doing our very best to get to know them as people. It’s intense but by no means competitive. We’re taking people who really want to make a difference in the world and giving them the experience of a lifetime. The campus is beautiful. The resources and the facilities are second to none. The faculty members are here because they are dedicated to teaching while still being leaders academically in their respective fields. It’s an environment I’ve never experienced before, in which we are taking people who have a great aptitude and ability for doing analytical work and are talented leaders, yet all of them have a pattern of being engaged in the communities in which they have been members.

Who is the ideal HBS student?

I think of it differently. I think my promise and my challenge is to deliver a diverse class each season. That’s the promise we make not only to our dean and faculty but also to each student. The class will be diverse. People will come from as many different backgrounds and perspectives as possible. They will share common qualities. They will all be leaders. They will all be strong analytically. They will all be actively engaged in communities. I hope they all have the qualities that we value here and beyond: being good people of sound character, curious, generous, strong but humble.

What makes HBS unique?

We have a signature pedagogy of the case method with a faculty that is committed to teaching in this particular environment. We have scale. We have 900 people in each class, and scale is a tremendous advantage in a business school. While you certainly can get to know people very well through our section construct and residential campus, scale gives each student the opportunity to find others who are excited about the things they might find engaging. For example, if you want to work in energy in South America, we can find a significant number of people in our class who share that passion.

How can applicants stand out?

Let go of that natural desire to stand out. Instead, answer the questions clearly and cleanly, and let selection happen. I think the challenge for applicants should be how to tell their story, not constructing or crafting an application with the goal of standing out.

How does the interview process work?

After we review the written application, we choose a subset of people we would like to invite to interview. Those are the group from which the admissions offers are made. The interviews are important but not determinative. Everyone who is admitted has been interviewed. All our interviews are conducted by members of the admissions board, and what we like about that is it gives us a chance to meet with a lot of candidates.

What is the range for GMAT, and what role does it play in the application?

We accept both the GMAT and GRE. Our GMAT range is not something I think about a lot. It’s 490 to 790 right now. The GMAT is an opportunity for our applicants to take on the challenge of a standardized test. I don’t think people walk into a standardized test without any preparation. It’s part of the overall mosaic of how we look at a candidate. If someone has not had the opportunity in their undergraduate work or work experience to demonstrate they are strong quantitatively, a strong quantitative score on the GMAT can be a way of telling us that, “Yes, I can do quantitative work quite well, thank you.”

What role do the essays play?

It’s not an essay writing contest. I feel like the essays are a lightning rod of anxiety for candidates because they feel it’s the element of the application that is most within their control. You can’t go back and redo your undergraduate record. Your job is your job. And your recommenders control your recommendations. The essays feel like that opportunity to tell your story, but it doesn’t overwhelm or dominate any other part of the application. It all just fits together.

Who would you recommend students turn to for recommendations?

People who can answer the questions we’ve asked on the recommender form, people who really know the candidate, are the best ones to write your recommendation. We ask recommenders, for example, to describe a piece of constructive advice they’ve given to the candidate. If you don’t know someone well, it’s unlikely you’ve given him or her constructive advice.

What are some of the biggest mistakes people make on the application?

Trying to craft an application that is designed to tell us what they think we want to hear vs. simply thinking of how they can tell their story [is a big mistake]. It’s overcrafting, overthinking, overwriting.

What have you done to promote diversity?

There are easy-to-see metrics, such as the percentage of women and internationals, which you can put in a profile. Our class is 39 percent women and about one-third of the class members are non-U.S. citizens, although it’s getting harder and harder to identify students by their passports. Our American students often have extensive exposure internationally through school and work, and our international students have often spent significant time in the U.S.

Prospective candidates sometimes get stuck on the kind of diversity based on where they have worked. Sometimes, they overemphasize that as the primary tag by which they will be identified. At Harvard Business School, with the pedagogy of the case method, the kind of leader you are may also be an interesting element of diversity. For example, we have people in our class who have been president of the student body, who have great skill and patience for hierarchy; entrepreneurs, who are excited by getting things up and running and wouldn’t want to be president of the student council; those who are magnificent at getting a small, dysfunctional team to work together; and thought leaders, who can come into a room with an unusual perspective and change the course of a discussion. When you get that kind of diversity into a case method discussion, you’re guaranteed to get the kind of results we strive for, which is that at the end of a class you say, “I never would have thought of it that way.”

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