Inside HBS Admissions with Brit Dewey

The Harbus sat down with Brit Dewey, the Managing Director, MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at the Harvard Business school to discuss the school’s perspective on the admissions process, and the affect that external influences such as the economy and Affirmative Action litigation will have on the processes.

The Harbus: The woes of the job market and the business economy have been widely publicized for the last couple of years; quantitatively, how has the economy affected the amount of applications this year (compared to last) and how has the economy changed, if any way at all, the types of applicants, HBS is looking for?

Brit Dewey: If I look back over past two years, we have had each year a record number of applications to HBS. Quantitatively, for the class of 2003, we came in at 8,893 applications. Last year’s class came in at 10,382. You asked whether much of the increase in applications, from year to year, can be attributed to the economy. That’s certainly true, but I hope some of the increased marketing we have been doing as well as the economic situation have led more people to apply. This year we are still in the game but we don’t anticipate that we are going to exceed last year’s levels. When the dust settles, we will end up some where in between the class of 2003 and the class of 2004. But I think an important point is to focus rather than on the number of applications, on the number of qualified applicants we get each year.

I would have to say the economic factors really don’t change the types of applicants we look for. We look for three things in applicants. Whether in the bull market, or in the bear market, we for looking for leaders that want to make a difference in the world.

In our criteria, we also assess an applicant’s academic ability. We also try to identify a candidate’s personal characteristics, basically what makes them successful. However as the economy goes, while it doesn’t necessarily affect how we look at an application, it affects the situations and opportunities that candidates has had prior to coming to Harvard Business School, and perhaps what they want to do immediately, not long term, out of HBS. But it really doesn’t change what we look for as far as our process.

The Harbus: Dean Clark mentioned earlier in the year, in his round to meet with each of the RC sections, that overall, the school planned on admitting younger students than have traditionally been admitted to into HBS. What brought on this change in perspective, and how do you expect it affect the HBS community and learning experience?

BD: I think what you are referring here to is an initiative that the school and admissions has had for the past few years called the “Early Career Initiative”. [What we noticed] happened over time is that the conventional wisdom became that you shouldn’t consider applying to an MBA program unless you had been out in the workforce. As a result, [people who have just graduated from undergrad or have 0-3 years experience] were increasingly holding off on their decision to pursue an MBA, which is quite different from the decisions to go to law school or med school or the [other] schools you can join after undergrad.

What we are really interested in is the quality of a candidate’s experience and again the strength of the candidate with regard to our three criteria. There are some fantastic people that may not be applying who are college seniors, for whom HBS transformation experience is what would be best for them at this stage in their career and they have much to contribute to the classroom.

So what we want to do with the Early Career Initiative is to be quite aggressive in saying that it’s up to you to decide when the right time for you to apply to an MBA program. We want to be clear in our messaging that there is no years of work experience requirement to apply to Harvard Business School necessarily, because I think there are some schools out there that do have a requirement.

How do I think it will affect the HBS learning experience? We are absolutely fitted to an outstanding learning experience here with diverse perspectives, backgrounds, interests, and experience bases. So I have no doubt that with the Early Career Initiative here that the learning experience in the community will be as strong.

The Harbus: You mentioned that missing segment, what are you doing tactically to attract younger students compared to what we have in the past?

BD: One of the things that were doing this is year is that we have made contact with 43 college [U.S.] campuses, and we have admissions staff go around the country to meet with students, host information sessions on a college campuses, meet with college counselors and [campus] placement groups, and most of all, we are in touch with who we would call influencers. So it might be a dean of students, it might be the head of the economics department, or an academic advisor – there are folks in our community who have said, hey when I went to X, Y, or Z school, these folks were mentors who helped us think about what we wanted to do when we grew up.

So we are trying to figure out who these folks are, and visit these campuses and plant the seed early so there might be some people that decide, that, applying to Harvard Business School now makes a whole lot of sense. There may be many more people who might say I want to do this or that right out undergrad, but I know what Harvard Business School is looking for and I’ve got a sense for what this experience might be about for me and I can factor that into my planning as I think through my experiences and opportunities now while I’m at school. Then after school, as they find out when the right time for them to apply to HBS is, they are much stronger applicants because know what we look for.

The Harbus: Given the quality of applicants, how does the admissions board determine if an applicant will receive an interview? Also, what does the admissions board expect to glean from an applicant interview – and how is that information is distilled into an admission decision?

BD: I’m glad you asked this question because since I’ve been director, and this current class [2004] is the second class that I’ve admitted, we have made a decision to interview every candidate that will be offered admission to HBS. We are not interviewing everyone who applies, but we will interview every candidate who eventually will be admitted.

With that said, basically the way the process works, someone submits the application, and the application is reviewed fully by members of the admissions board. So of the thousands of folks who apply and any admissions round, we review those applications then we make decisions to say, out of the applications from this round, these are the strongest candidates. Then we will invite those candidates for an interview invitation.

The thing I want to highlight about interviewing is, as you know from having applied, the application is an incredibly robust information source, so there is a lot of information there. The people that interview know that information. They have read through your essays, they are familiar with your resume activities, and so when we have an interview with someone, it’s really continuing the discussion about the information that has been presented in the application.

The interview is an opportunity to further the conversation, to further the insight, to get deeper into understanding the candidate, and to answers questions that have as we have gotten to know you. [We determine interview success] as, were you able to have a dialogue? Were you able to get additional insights based upon that conversation that happens either face to face with an admissions officer, face to face with an admissions board member as we travel around the country, whether it’s with an alum, or whether its over the phone. We take that added insight into account, and then we have a broader and deeper set of information to consider about you. That makes
us that much more informed as we consider your candidacy.

The other thing I might add on interviewing is one of the reasons I felt it was important to interview everybody who we admit is it’s not only helpful for us to have a more robust sense to who you are when you apply, but also I think it’s really important for anyone who considers coming to the Harvard Business School to have met someone from the HBS community. I want for folks to have a touch point with us and to be able to ask questions about who we are. We go down that path a lot once people are admitted with admission weekends and different types of activities, but for me, I want everyone who is seriously considering us and everyone we think is a strong candidate to have that connection as well.

The Harbus: For the first time this year, HBS only accepted online applications. What drove this decision to change from both paper and online to just online applications, and how has the transition been operationally this year for HBS admissions?

BD: This is something that we have focused a lot of time and effort on [including] building the infrastructure and doing all of the work that is necessary to actually be able to deliver an on line applications. I think the real driver here is, first and foremost, we thought it would be better for applicants. In regard to customer service, ease of use, we just thought that an online application was an easier and better, and a more streamlined way to go through the application process. So again, this year, you can upload your application, your essays, you can attach your resume, you provide all of the extracurricular, community service, work experience information, there is an online recommendation form so your recommenders can submit their recommendations on line.

Also there have been tremendous benefits for us operationally, in terms of having all of the data in one place, submitted at one time that we can receive and process. We have an information system database, [and it’s] great to have all of that information and be able to gather it in a centralized place. The school has been fantastic in investing in student information systems, which helps the evaluation process move very quickly. One of the things we would like to do next year, of course is, we would like to further improve the online application. But I think one of the things specifically we are working to improve is the recommendation interface. Also, the whole product can definitely be improved as far as ease of use and clarity of information.

There has been a lot of attention placed on Affirmative Action and the University of Michigan’s admission process. Our very own President Bush and several others have been outspoken against Michigan’s practices while several large companies have filed counter-briefs stating that diversity in education and in the workforce is mandatory for a competitive U.S. economy. HBS has been an outspoken proponent of diversity stating [according to the HBS website] “diversity among the student body is a foundation for the HBS experience-both in and out of the classroom.” How does the admissions board currently manifest a diverse learning community through applicant decisions? And, how will the court’s decision on Affirmative Action affect HBS’ admission policies in the future?

BD: Let put this in a broader context regarding the wider university.

Right now, Harvard University will be submitting a brief in support of the principle of taking race into account as with many factors to consider as part of a well balanced, individualized admissions process. As part of this submission we are also inviting other Ivy League schools and other schools to join us on the brief.

It is Harvard business school’s belief that [diversity] is incredibly important to us as a community. The admissions board spends a lot of time and effort to speak to applicants from many types of different backgrounds and experiences in the U.S. and abroad. What we have tried to do, is in order to help us have a diversity of voices in the classroom, is invest our energies to marketing and outreach to make sure that we have a very strong pipeline of applicants because the selection process remains neutral; regardless of where you studied undergrad, to where you come from geographically, we are selecting the strongest candidates individually based on our three criteria.

For example, on this past Thursday and Friday [1/30, 1/31] we hosted a prospective student day event that brought about 130 underrepresented minorities, some of which were admissions candidates. We also do a program called Summer Venture in Management which is a week long program for college juniors, who get Harvard Business School and business in general on the screen early in their careers.