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Admissions Director Q&A: Jana Kierstead of Harvard Business School

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In this edition of our Admissions Director Q&A series, we welcome Jana Kierstead, Executive Director, MBA and Doctoral Programs at Harvard Business School.

Jana brings over 25 years of experience to this role, with more than 20 years dedicated to leadership in business education. In her role as the Executive Director, Jana leads a team of over 120 full-time professionals who manage the student experience from admissions and financial aid, to student life and career services. In 2013, Jana was selected to lead the School’s online learning initiative, Harvard Business School Online (formerly HBX). In that role she collaborated across the school to shape the initiative and lead Harvard Business School’s online learning program as the landscape of e-learning continued to evolve. Just prior to assuming the role of Executive Director of the MBA Program in February 2012, Jana oversaw the MBA Career and Professional Development team at HBS. Under her leadership, the group created a broad portfolio of career development, recruitment programs, and global engagement opportunities for HBS students and maintained strong recruiting relationships with hundreds of global organizations.

Before HBS, Jana worked in the private sector as a director at A. T. Kearney’s media and entertainment executive search practice and held management positions with CBS Corporation and RP Companies. Jana earned an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. She currently serves as a Trustee for the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital–Needham and an Overseer for the Museum of Science, Boston.

Read on to learn more from Jana about the MBA program at HBS and what to expect in the coming admissions season when it comes to interviews, exams, and more.

Jana Kierstead, Executive Director, MBA and Doctoral Programs at HBS

Clear Admit: What is the one aspect of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?

Jana Kierstead: Campus has become an exciting hub for discussions and research on the role of business in addressing societal challenges. HBS’s Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society (BiGS) brings together a community of scholars, students, and practitioners to examine those areas where business and society interact (and occasionally collide). This spring we integrated a new two-day course, the Social Purpose of the Firm, into the first-year MBA curriculum which asks students to tackle the question: What’s more important— purpose or profits?

CA: Walk us through the life of an application in your office from an operational standpoint. What happens between the time an applicant clicks “submit” and the time the committee offers a final decision?

JK: After the Round deadline, each application is thoroughly reviewed by two different members of the Admissions Board. During our intensive reading period, our focus is on getting to know you as an applicant. We consider the application as a whole and look carefully at every aspect of your application, including your job history, resume, recommendations, academic background, and essay, to gain a comprehensive understanding of who you are.

CA: Could you tell us about your interview process? Who conducts the interview (students, admissions officers, alumni) and what is the nature of the interview (resume-based, application-based, behavioral)? Will your admissions interviews be in-person or virtual for the 2023-2024 admissions season?

JK: Interview invitations typically come about four to six weeks after the initial application is submitted. There’s usually a little bit of time between when those invitations go out and when we start interviewing, so you have time to arrange your schedule and pick an interview slot that will work for you. You will have the option to interview virtually, in-person on our HBS campus in Boston, or in-person at a domestic or international location.

An HBS interview typically lasts about 30 minutes, is conducted by a member of the Admissions Board, and is intended to get to know the candidate better and to imagine that person in our community. We on the Admissions Board look forward to the interview stage because we finally get to meet the candidates in person who we’ve been excited to learn more about over the past several weeks. When we prepare for an interview, we read the whole application so that we can ask meaningful questions that go beyond the surface level of what’s on your resume. We want it to be a conversation. Immediately after an interview, we’ll write up our notes and put them in your file.  

CA: How does your team approach the essay portion of the application specifically? What are you looking for as you read an essay? Are there common mistakes that applicants should try to avoid? What is one key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write?

JK: Our primary goal in the essay is to get to know you better– the decisions that you’ve made, the motivations that you have, or any formative experiences. The best place to start is just reminding you of the prompt for the essay: “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the HBS MBA program?” 

Focus on the words “what more.” The most helpful essays build on the rest of the written application or share new information. The best advice we can give you for the essay portion is to give yourself some time and some space to really reflect. Make sure that the essay is about you. After you’ve written your essay, ask yourself, could this essay also describe someone else? If so, it probably isn’t personal enough to add to your overall application, and you likely need to do some more introspection.

CA: What is your testing policy? Do you offer exam waivers? Why or why not?

JK: A GMAT or GRE score is required to submit a complete HBS application. A standardized test gives us one indication of your verbal and quantitative agility; both are important for thriving in the HBS MBA program and in the case method. However, keep in mind that we evaluate test scores in the context of all the other parts of your application and consider every element of your background and experience to get to know you as a whole person. You can see from the class profile that we admit students with a wide range of GMAT and GRE test scores. 

We are entirely agnostic about the GMAT or the GRE—please take whichever test suits you best. For the 2023-2024 application cycle, HBS will not accept the GMAT Focus exam for Round 1 and Round 2; we plan to accept the GMAT Focus for 2+2 applications. For the 2023-2024 application cycle, we will accept the new, shorter GRE exam (offered beginning September 2023). 

CA: Tell us briefly about two popular courses at your institution.

JK: All of our first-year MBA students enroll in the same core set of classes, known as the Required Curriculum, so in a sense these are our most popular courses on campus. One notable first-year course is Technology and Operations Management (TOM), intended to help students understand the design, management, and improvement of operating systems and processes. Students can follow up TOM with a popular elective course like Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise. 

Our MBA students choose from over 100 electives to build their second-year schedules, and many also take advantage of shorter courses or field opportunities. One popular option is the Immersive Field Courses (IFCs), on-the-ground classes that provide students with a deep dive into a particular business problem or question, culminating in an off-campus (and often international) immersion during the January term. One of our IFCs this past year, Italy; Capitalism – Past, Present, and Future, explored the role of Italy in the birth of modern capitalism.

 CA: Is there anything else you’d like to highlight about your MBA program or admissions process?

JK: We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of our expanded financial aid policy: beginning in fall 2022, 10 percent of our student body – those with the greatest financial need – receive full-tuition scholarships. Based on extensive research, we understand that financial concerns are the number one barrier to pursuing a full-time MBA. And it makes sense: an MBA is a big investment that continues to pay off over the long run. We encourage all prospective students to learn more about our need-based financial aid process (but don’t worry, you don’t need to apply for financial aid until after you’ve been admitted).  

Christina Griffith
Christina Griffith is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She specializes in covering education, science, and history, and has experience in research and interviews, magazine content, and web content writing.