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Prospective MBAs May Face Tougher Applications

With Harvard’s and Stanford’s b-school applications out, admissions experts predict more major changes.

MBA hopefuls may need to allot extra time for their business school applications this year.

The MBA application season typically kicks off when Harvard Business School releases its essay requirements, which it did in late May. Other top-ranked business schools usually follow over the coming weeks, with most of the applications going public by August. Even this early on, business school admissions experts are noticing unprecedented changes. 

Harvard now requires two essays rather than four, and it added a "reflection" essay, which is due 24 hours after the interview (for those selected). Stanford University's Graduate School of Business also trimmed its required essay count from four to three, and it dropped its combined word limit for the essays from 1,800 to 1,600. Columbia Business School, meanwhile, now asks applicants to write an essay response to its promotional video, Community at Columbia, in addition to its standard essays. 

That's already enough to convince Scott Shrum, director of admissions research at the admissions consultancy Veritas Prep (which writes a medical school admissions blog for U.S. News), that it's going to be a "big change year." 

Top schools tinker with their applications every year, but Harvard's changes are the biggest that Shrum has seen in the last decade. "The more a school changes its application from year to year—that tells you that whatever they were getting previously, they weren't happy with," he says. 

The changes are "somewhere between tweaking and radical," says Dee Leopold, Harvard's managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid. But Leopold balks at the suggestion that the university is displeased with the results of changes in past years. 

"I can't possibly imagine how that would be a construct from this," she says. "It's more in the spirit of continuous improvement. We never rest on our laurels and think that we have nailed this process." 

[Learn how to define your MBA goals before applying.] 

Leopold also scoffs at the suggestion that business school admissions officials might be slicing word limits to ease the burden on an already overextended staff. "I would laugh out loud," she says. "None of this seems to portend less work for anyone on our team. We're in this intensely." 

Just as she believes the new format doesn't help Harvard staff cut any corners, Leopold also thinks the new application—despite its abbreviated nature—will be tougher for applicants. "Wasn't it Mark Twain who said, 'I'm writing you a long letter because I didn't have time to write a short letter,'?" she says. 

But Matthew Long, a University of California—Davis alumnus, is convinced that shorter essays will free up his time. 

"Since each application will take less time than it would have previously, I will respond by applying to more schools than I otherwise would have," says the Boston-based business analyst who plans to apply to 10 business schools this fall, including Harvard and Columbia. 

[Read 6 tips for getting to the heart of MBA applications.] 

Essays have traditionally been the most time-consuming part of b-school applications—with the exception perhaps of studying for the GMAT, says Shrum, of Veritas Prep. Shrum doesn't want to tell applicants that essays are no longer important, but he does think schools are blurring the line between essays and interviews. 

Shrum advises applicants to avoid the "questionable advice" he's been hearing from certain MBA coaches, of treating Harvard's reflection essay as an opportunity to cram in things that applicants forgot to or couldn't bring up in the interview. 

"I think the more effective use of that essay is going to be, 'In the interview we talked about A, B, and C. I've been thinking even more about C since the interview, and I want to tell you a little more about it,'" he says. 

[Check out tips for preparing for an MBA interview.] 

But Harvard's Leopold describes the reflection essay as a "gift" to applicants, which gives them the last word. "After you've been through 30 minutes, who hasn't walked out of an interview saying, 'Oh, I wish I had said this.' Or 'I wonder if I could have another chance to say this or something,'" she says.