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Clear Admit’s Graham Richmond Weighs in on Harvard Business School Application Changes

The business education media has been abuzz following the announcement yesterday that Harvard Business School (HBS) will change its application requirements in the year ahead. Bloomberg BusinessWeek, PoetsandQuants, the Financial Times and others all featured articles conveying the news and reactions to it. Both Bloomberg BW and P&Q consulted Clear Admit co-founder Graham Richmond to get his take on what the changes mean. 

Most notable, Richmond says, is HBS’s decision to make the essay an optional portion of the application, which sets it apart from virtually every other top MBA program. “I cannot think of any that have zero required essays,” he told Bloomberg BW.

Indeed, HBS Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Dee Leopold did share yesterday that HBS may admit candidates who do not submit an essay (because they feel the rest of the file speaks for itself). Richmond doesn’t think very many candidates will fall into that category though.

“My suspicion is that the vast majority of qualified HBS applicants will feel that they have more to offer than transcripts, data forms, test scores and recommendation letters and will therefore make use of the optional essay to further describe their personal background, leadership profile, professional aspirations and desire to join/contribute to the HBS community,” he told P&Q.

The fact that there is no word limit on responses to the new essay question means that applicants can use the space to convey whatever message they think may not otherwise be represented in their application, Richmond told P&Q. “That said, given that HBS is describing the evolution of their essays as one that streamlines the overall application by reducing word count (and avoiding an essay writing contest), one could reasonably interpret the school as looking for something less than last year’s 800 total word count,” he continued.

As for HBS’s other changes to the application process – reducing the number of required recommendations from three to two and moving the application deadline up by 10 days or so – these are not as significant, Richmond says.

Requiring just two recommendations simply puts HBS in line with the vast majority of other leading MBA programs, making it easier for applicants who are considering other programs to also apply to HBS. As always, HBS requires that the recommendations come from current or former direct supervisors or from someone the applicant worked closely with at an extracurricular organization. The goal, Richmond told Bloomberg BW, should be to select recommenders who “are in a position to judge the candidate’s managerial skills, leadership qualities, emotional intelligence and intellectual firepower.”

Likewise, moving the deadline up from September 24th to September 16th isn’t a major change in Richmond’s view. “This generation of applicants (the ‘millennials’) has been anxious to start the process earlier and earlier each year – and we see that first hand at Clear Admit, where we have had a high volume of inquiries in months (like March, April and May) that used to be fairly quiet historically,” he says.

Bottom line, Richmond believes that essays can add value to a candidate’s profile and that using HBS’s “optional” essay will give applicants a way to differentiate themselves. “Not every applicant who will excel in business school is going to ace the interview process or have the absolute best letters or recommendation, GPA or GMAT score – but many applicants have incredible experiences to share that don’t fit into the confines of the application forms and really lend themselves to the prose format of an essay,” he says.