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Why Harvard Business School's Application Is Much More Informal This Year

Richard Feloni
Harvard Business School Baker Library
Harvard Business School Baker Library

Wikimedia Commons/chensiyuan

Harvard Business School's Baker Library.

If you're applying this fall to the Harvard Business School Class of 2017, don't try to force an air of professionalism and gravitas.

Be candid. HBS wants to get to know you.

This year's application is a bit different from last year's, and quite different from what it was several years ago.

First of all, there's only one essay. Not only does it lack a word limit, but it's also optional.

The school began this practice last year, the Wall Street Journal reports, as a way of keeping the application screening process as efficient and to the point as possible.

HBS brought the essay requirement down from six to four in 2009 as an increase in applications trended upward. Harvard tells the Journal that it had 9,543 applicants vying for one of around 900 spots in the Class of 2016.

And, as another Journal report points out, this year's application is the debut of HBS' cool new persona.

You can see the conversational approach in the essay prompt:

• You're applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores, and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?

There is no word limit for this question. We think you know what guidance we're going to give here. Don't overthink, overcraft, and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don't know your world can understand.

Those applying for a joint degree program with another Harvard graduate school need to write an additional essay, but it only needs to be a maximum of 400 words long.

Dee Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at HBS, tells the Journal that the switch to informally voiced instructions is reflective of how she and her colleagues conduct interviews with applicants. "Why be stuffy and formal if we don't have to?" she says.

HBS says that it's an attempt to get every applicant to follow instructions carefully and lower their guards. The Journal also notes that HBS scored second-to-last in a recent AIGAC survey asking elite b-school applicants how well they were able to express their personalities in the application.

Students who make it past the initial round of screening will be invited to an interview, which is crucial for determining if they get accepted. They then have 24 hours to complete a brief essay about the conversation, an exercise meant to test if the skills they exhibited in the application after months of preparation translate to a quick turnaround assignment.

Harvard's transition to an application with minimal writing and a relaxed tone is indicative of a trend across elite business schools largely in response to a growing increase in applicants, the Journal reports.

Columbia Business School, for example, asks applicants to summarize their post-MBA goal in 75 characters or less, and Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management has applicants answer two questions with minute-long recorded video responses.

The first round deadline for the HBS Class of 2017 is September 9.

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