Category Archives: MBA Interviews

Harvard’s New Essay Requirements and What It Tells Us About the MBA Admissions Process

by Jessica Nitschke

As Cecilia mentioned in an earlier post, Harvard Business School has radically changed the essay requirements of their application. They have reduced the number of initial essays from 4 to 2, narrowed the focus of these questions, and added a new, post-interview essay that they are calling “Have the Last Word,” in which the applicants are required to submit a written reflection within 24 hours of the conclusion of the interview.

In terms of actual number of words you as the applicant have to sell yourself, the HBS application has gone from 2000 words last year to 800 words this year, at least for the initial essays (more about the post-interview, “have the last word” essay below). Plus, admissions has thrown out more traditional questions like “Why do you want an MBA?” and “Talk about three setbacks” in favor of something more introspective: “Tell us about something you did well.” There has been a fair amount of speculation about what prompted these changes as well as concern about the challenges these changes they might present to candidates in trying to tell their story and sell themselves.

As to why HBS implemented these changes, the explanation is pretty straightforward. If the admissions office believed that having four essays – covering a broad swath of topics: various accomplishments, setbacks, reasons for getting an MBA, and anything else you feel like mentioning – was useful in deciding which candidates to interview, they would have kept them. They didn’t. They cut the number of words students can use to less than half the original. It’s clear the traditional essay requirement wasn’t working any longer.

Why is this? Well, there are several reasons. An essay on why you want an MBA is likely to just mimic what you’re going to say in an interview – why should the essays and interviews be simply duplicates of one another? Many have also pointed out that limiting the number of pre-interview essays and requiring an immediate, post-interview essay is an attempt to eliminate fraud and deception in the essay-writing process – both cases of outright ghostwriting as well as excessive editing or rewriting by outside professionals.

But beyond this, there is a larger dilemma with the MBA essays from the perspective of admissions. Even students who do not use a coach or counselor will often seek out models or guides for how to craft the “right” essay. There are no shortage of examples and templates online – if you haven’t already, just google “mba essays” and prepare to be overwhelmed. The rhetoric of a lot of these websites, regrettably, implies that there is a specific “winning” type of essay, thus implying (incorrectly) that an essay that doesn’t conform to its template or example will doom an application.

The result is thousands of cookie-cutter, formulaic essays, as applicants attempt to conform to what they think is the one, “right” way to present oneself. But the more similar applicants’ essays are, the less useful they are as a means of judging who truly is a good fit for the school. Essays were introduced into the application process as a means of allowing the students to explain who they are as individuals, rather than as just a set of data. But if everyone writes basically the same essay – slotting in their career data or their extracurricular achievements into an established template – then the essays aren’t really much more useful in expressing who you are as an individual than a GMAT score.

With their new essay questions, it’s clear that HBS is trying to cut through the conformity and guide applicants into really expressing who they are. Take the new question – “Tell us about something you did well” (replacing “Tell us about three of your accomplishments”). The new question is more introspective – it’s still a question about an accomplishment of sorts, but it’s asking for more context from you as the applicant, putting emphasis on your worldview and your perspective – not simply an elaboration of your resume. They’re asking you to think carefully about how well you know and understand yourself.

Harvard’s search for the thoughtful, self-reflective and authentic applicant is most clear in the “Have the Last Word” essay, which, in my opinion, is a brilliant move on Harvard’s part. In addition to bringing out a more honest, less polished and less rehearsed side of a candidate, it is a test that is more similar to the kind of communication and writing you have to do in both the MBA classroom and the real world.

But this new essay should be especially welcomed by prospective MBA applicants. While such an essay, with its 24-hour time limit, might seem daunting at first, I think applicants will find it a much, much easier and more worthwhile exercise than answering an essay prompt as vague and difficult as “Ask a question you wish we’d asked” (essay question #4 from Harvard’s old application). Why? You get to respond to something real (30 to 60 minutes of interaction with an actual representative of Harvard) rather than something abstract and hypothetical. I don’t think I know a single person who hasn’t had something thoughtful and meaningful to say immediately after an interview experience.

For applicants to any program, Harvard’s changes to the essay portion of their application is an important reminder of something that Reve has been stressing for a long time: as you look for guidance, models and inspirations, and as you write, fret, rewrite, edit, and fret some more, don’t make the mistake of editing yourself out of your essays.

Jessica Nitschke is a counselor at Reve. Originally from Michigan, she has a BA from the University of Chicago and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. She has taught at Berkeley and is a former faculty member at DePauw University and Georgetown University. Most recently she was living in Tokyo, Japan before moving to Cape Town, South Africa.

Cornell Johnson School Information Session (July 23, 2011)

This is the second in a series of information session reports written by our correspondent during his attendance at the MBA Tour’s July 23rd event in New York City.

Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management

Cornell was represented by Christine Sneva, Acting Director of Admissions and Financial Aid.

Sneva talked about meat and potato topics like “experiential learning” that goes beyond case studies and immersion programs. And she talked about areas of study including finance (and how Cornell has a trading floor on the premises, which I thought was very neat), sustainability, and entrepreneurship. (At which point she said either you’re an entrepreneur or you’re not, and if you don’t understand that, you’re probably not.) She talked about dual degree programs. And then–


This was only my second information session of the morning and I already was starting a bit of eye rolling. So every school prides itself on academic quality and community. She talked about how the Cornell community is tight knit, that students mingle with faculty in social events. There’s even a place for social gatherings, called Sage Hall. Because Cornell is in Ithaca I just picture people all hanging out locally on campus simply because there’s nowhere else to go. At NYU I imagine students probably have their own friends outside of school and socialize with them. Professors may be working at night (this is speculation on my part.) At Cornell people tend to live and work in one general area. Someone in the audience actually brought this up. He asked why on earth anyone would want to go to school in Ithaca. (OK, those are my words but he basically asked this question, just a bit more diplomatically.) Give credit to Sneva, who was prepared for this question. For one, it’s a beautiful campus. The classes are smaller and Cornell makes it a point to keep classes smaller rather than bigger. Then she launched into her spiel about the vast alumni network of Cornell. I wasn’t wholly satisfied by her answer and wasn’t convinced as to why I would potentially want to spend two years of my life in Ithaca but to her credit, she did not make a hard sell. Ithaca is not for everyone. (Side note: Cornell undergraduate alumni, whom she referred to as “Cornellians,” appear to have an edge in the admissions process because they, like no others, are intimately aware of what it’s like to live and study/work in Cornell.)

What reached me about this information session in a way that NYU did not was how Sneva talked about Cornell looking for leaders that will influence their organizations. If Cornell is successful in enrolling such people, I get the sense that Cornell is not populated with people who just want to make riches. I liked this criterion. And in speaking about alumni, she talked about “passion” and “legacy”–because after graduation these students, now alumni, will represent the Cornell brand. I found this appealing as this should make for a stronger network.

She then went into the application. The resume is very important. The essay is important. Why Cornell Johnson? Why an MBA? This was all quite conventional advice but this tidbit was gold: ONCE YOU MAKE IT TO THE INTERVIEW, 90% OF YOUR DECISION IS BASED ON THE INTERVIEW.

To me this was a bombshell because it would probably encourage me a little and scare the hell out of me a lot. So the weeks and months of preparation and essay writing and GMAT taking have brought me to this place. And the future course of my life boils down to this 45-minute conversation. Wow.

Actually, I think it’s good to know this because then it means, as an applicant, I’m close. She gave more information and advice. The nature of the interview itself is spontaneous, conversational. There are no staged questions. Show enthusiasm. Do your research. Visit the school (especially for New Yorkers, who are at least in the same state.) She mentioned the Cornell Club in midtown and buses that go to Ithaca.

The evaluation covers three areas:

1. Academics

2. Career decision-making and self-efficacy. This means one’s belief in one’s own ability. (She added, to my amusement, that this was probably “through the roof” for the people in this audience.)

3. Leadership and community.

They’re looking for people who are easy to talk to (extroversion/introversion doesn’t matter but outliers are obvious. In a small class, it’s easy to tell who sticks out.) Is the applicant proactive? Connects with people? Has a good sense of the school?

When the Cornell information session ended I felt that I had some sense of the school, and a positive one at that. I’m still not sure I’d want to study in such a remote location but at least now I’d be willing to look into the school, which I previously hadn’t considered before. On that level, at least, I think this session was a very successful one.

New York MBA Conference: How Admissions Decisions are Made

The MBA Tour sponsored an all-day MBA fair in New York city on July 23, and we sent our local correspondent to cover the scene:

I arrived at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown at 8:50AM and there was already a line of about fifteen people waiting to get their name tags. By the time I made my way to the front of the line, checked in, and put the lanyard over my neck the Admissions panel at 9AM had started so I sprinted up the stairs to the big Broadway room, which seated around a hundred people. It was mostly already full.

At the front were a panel of three women; I couldn’t see their names because of where I was seated. They had already started talking about the GMAT. I heard one of them mention as a resource. One said that the GMAT is a good indicator of how a potential student would fare in the core classes but not necessarily the MBA program as a whole. (After having sat through numerous information sessions later on I get the sense that  the schools really just want to make sure you can handle the quant classes in the core.)

The rest of the panel consisted of segments on the essay, letters of recommendation, the resume, and the interview, followed by a Q&A session that I’ve incorporated into their appropriate categories.

The Essay

The members of the panel kept using the refrain “but check with the school” so what they were saying was very general. They offered some basic tips like check the maximum number of words, check your grammar and spelling, and be sure to put the (right) name of the school.

Here’s what I thought was a useful tidbit, on optional essays. You don’t get extra credit so if you don’t have something compelling, skip it. You can, however, also take this opportunity to explain low GMAT scores or tell your personal story. One of the panelists brought up an essay by a student who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. But if you don’t have anything compelling to say, this is just more for them to read.

Letters of Recommendation

Ask for letters as soon as possible. Aside from choosing your writers, you really have little control over this part. Prep your writers–give them your resume. Tell them why you want an MBA. And if your school is asking for a recommendation from your supervisor and you’re uncomfortable with this (as you intend to leave the company), explain this to the admissions office. In terms of whom to ask to write on your behalf, this panel and representatives from the schools whose information sessions I attended later on all echoed the same thing: choose people who know you well, not just people who have a high status and rank. In one example given, one high-ranking executive wrote a one-sentence letter of recommendation (though shame on him, I say.) Another piece of instruction I kept hearing is that the admissions committees want recommendations from people in the workplace. This makes sense; they want to know what you’re like in action. So should you have  professors write letters for you? Only if you’ve worked with them. And what if you’re an entrepreneur? Since you don’t have a supervisor, seek letters from clients, vendors, etc. One last thing they mentioned: If the letters are to be submitted electronically, let your writers now. And make sure they use the (right) name of the school.


Don’t merely provide a listing but really highlight what the school’s interested in. Know the emphasis of the program–what is your target school looking for? Do you have strengths you can offer to the school?–and the profile of the students. Show results. Show special special projects. Show that each year you’ve taken projects out of your comfort zone. Do you have cross functional work experience? Or team oriented projects and collaborative experiences? The more of this you can demonstrate the better.

In college, what did you do in addition to studying? They want to see well-rounded individuals. Include activities. What was meaningful to you? What were one or two that really excited you? And did you work during school to support yourself? If so, include this as it shows maturity and depth. Include interests, outside work, work at non-profits, sports, travel–they want to see the total person.

Other bits of advice:

– Make sure you can explain gaps in employment on chronological resumes.

– If you have different career paths, address them somewhere.

– Check page numbers. If they say two pages, they may automatically throw out your third page.

– Don’t include your high school. No one cares.

And one general takeaway: The admissions committee wants to know if you have strengths that fit the school. Don’t make them have to search to find out what they are. Make it easy for them.

The Interview

So you got an interview. Congratulations!

From the moment you step into the school for the interview until you leave, everything will be fair game for your evaluation. First impressions are important. This includes not just your professional appearance but how you greet the admissions staff upon arrival. Word gets around among schools, so don’t be rude to the receptionist.

How to prepare:

– In terms of research by now you should have done more than just visit the website. Hopefully you’ve spoken with alumni and even visited the school.

– Call ahead to see if the interview is a panel or one on one meeting. If there are other candidates present you will be observed on how you interact with them.

– Review your application before your interview as they are different between schools.

– Be prepared to conduct a conversation.

– Show your intellectual ability about your sector. Be current on recent events in your sector (read The Economist, The Financial Times, etc.)

– Think about what you want to talk about. What can you contribute?

– Don’t repeat what you’ve already written about (in other parts of your application.)

– Be prepared to talk about weak points.

– Show energy and enthusiasm about their school.

– For international students especially, your communication ability is important.

In the following Q&A session questions fell into the above categories so I’ve already incorporated them here. One question of note was when to apply–in round 1, round 2, etc. While of course earlier is better, especially if you’re applying for scholarships, it is less about the rounds than when you are ready. Apply when you have the best application to present yourself.

Will follow up over the coming two weeks with summaries of some of the individual school presentations.

Dartmouth Tuck School of Business 2009-10 Deadlines

Tuck has not yet released its application materials/instructions for the coming season but they did post their deadlines. Please see below for some important information about interviewing, especially if Tuck is a top choice for you:

Deadlines (17:00 EST)

                                      Application                           Applicant-initiated Interview to be Completed

Early Action                10/14/09                                 10/14/09

November Round     11/11/09                                  11/11/09

January Round          1/6/10                                      1/29/10

April Round                4/2/10                                      4/2/10

What is Early Action?

According to Tuck’s website, Early Action is a good option for reapplicants or new applicants who consider Tuck a top choice. Applying by the Early Action deadline allows you to find out your decision in December but does not obligate you to attend; you’d still have until January to make your final decision should you be accepted. To hold your space in the class, though, you will need to submit a $3,500 non-refundable deposit.


Tuck offers all applicants the chance to sign up for an on-campus interview by the stated deadlines. Spaces fill up quickly, so you should schedule an interview as soon as you decide you want to apply (and appointments need to be scheduled at least 5 days before you wish to conduct the interview). If you are unable to schedule an on-campus interview, the admissions committee may extend an interview invitation after reading your application. In this case, though, there is no guarantee you will be granted an interview. This puts international applicants in a tough position, I think, because it is much more difficult to fly to Hanover if you are overseas. Schools are supposed to treat applicants equally but if Tuck is a top choice and there is some possibility that you could go to Hanover to interview, I would encourage it.

Application instructions and materials as well as interview sign-up will be available in August (mid-August for application and late August for interview scheduling).

Common MBA interview question #2

Tell me about a leadership experience.

This question has a number of variations as well:

Tell me about your most significant leadership experience.

Tell me about a recent leadership experience.

Tell me about a leadership experience that has impacted your leadership style.

Tell me about your greatest accomplishment.

Tell me about a failure.

Tell me about an ethical dilemma.

And so on.

My point here? First, leadership is broad and encompasses a number of topics. I include failure and ethics because these too are part of being a leader. Two (my main point for the purposes of this post), all these questions are asking you to tell a story. The question and thus the required structure for the response are different from the earlier question “Walk me through your resume” (see Jan. 17 post).

Whenever you tell a story, you’ll need to do the following:

1. Introduce the setting: What is the situation? What is going on? The interviewer will need a little background information in order to understand what you are about to tell her.

2. What is the task that is facing you?

3. What actions did you take to deal with this challenge? Try to go beyond just listing actions (“First, I did this…second, I did that…”) which can make you sound robotic. Mention why you made certain decisions, show what was going on inside your head.

4. Tell the interviewer the result. What happened at the end? Was there an impact?

MIT Sloan uses the acronym “STAR” for this method where

S = Situation

T = Task

A = Action

R = Result

You’ll probably recognize that this is the same format you used for writing your essays. Telling your story in this way will allow your interviewer to visualize your actions and behavior and, most importantly, your skills and attributes.

Would you like to practice interviewing? Contact us at


Common MBA interview question #1

Congratulations to those who applied in the second round! January 15 typically marks the end of the peak MBA application season. However, just because you’ve submitted your applications, your work doesn’t quite end yet as you probably know. Now is a good time to turn your attention to interviews, even if you don’t have one scheduled yet.

Interviews for international applicants are not just about good English; you will also be evaluated in terms of poise and confidence, which take time to develop. Your interviewer will not be recording every grammatical mistake or word you utter; rather, she will try to get an overall sense of your personality and communication ability to see how well you might fit in at your target school.

For the next few weeks, I’ll go over some common interview questions. This week, let’s start with a common interview opener:

Walk me through your resume.

While many Japanese applicants aren’t familiar with this expression, they are able to guess from context what this question means. If you get this question, you are basically asked to take your interviewer through your resume, giving an informative but succinct summary of your career progression. You will focus not on reading the resume or explaining every detail but highlighting the main points in your career growth.

Different people have different advice as to how to approach this question, but my personal preference is to use the outline below, which follows a chronological rather than reverse-chronological sequence as used in your resume. My reasoning is that “Walk me through your resume” is really the same as “Tell me about your career progression” in which case – when you are speaking – it feels more natural to tell your story from past to present than from present to past. If you are afraid this might confuse your interviewer, you can simply say, “Okay, I’d like to start with my university experience.”

Recommended approach:

1)    Start with your university experience. Mention anything you believe is worth highlighting – perhaps you were very active academically, or maybe you were the leader of a sports team or school organization. (e.g., “I graduated from XYZ University in 2003 with a major in political science. I was very interested in international relations and was active in …”)

2)    Proceed with your career, starting with your first position. Mention briefly what your responsibilities were, any significant contributions, and why you moved to your next position. (e.g., I started in the accounting department where I xxx and was able to contribute to xxx. Seeing my efforts, I was promoted to xxxxx in two years…”)


Remember that the main point of this question is to give the interviewer an idea of how your career has progressed since university. Highlight the most important points by briefly mentioning them only and save the details for other questions that your interviewer will likely ask you.