Behind the Scenes at HBS Admissions
From time to time, we like to shine a spotlight on the high-caliber professionals on the consulting team at Stacy Blackman. Enjoy the insights that Geri shares here from her time behind the scenes at HBS admissions.
During her seven-year tenure at Harvard Business School, Geri evaluated applications and interviewed MBA candidates from an array of academic, geographic, and employment backgrounds. She also traveled globally, representing the school at outreach events to raise awareness for women and international students. In addition to working in MBA admissions, Geri spent time in both the Career and Professional Development Office as well as the digital education arm of HBS.
We hope you enjoy this Q&A with Geri, who gave us the inside scoop on what it was like to work on the admissions team at Harvard Business School.
What did you enjoy most about evaluating candidates while in HBS admissions?
I had the privilege of meeting the brightest and most diverse set of people from all over the world, doing things I could never have imagined. I learned about new cultures, passions, and jobs and met people I would likely never have met under any other circumstances.
The candidates were almost always dedicated, hard-working, and devoted to whatever they focused on. I was allowed an “inside” look into people’s lives—the challenges and the triumphs. I was often amazed not just by what people accomplished but by what they overcame.
What was the least enjoyable aspect of the admissions role?
The toughest part of the role was knowing that we would have no choice but to deny admission to a large number of extraordinarily intelligent, fascinating, and worthy people. There were simply only so many seats to go around.
What type of relationships did you have with admissions officers at other M7 programs? Did you share stories, trends, etc.?
The admissions teams from the M7 programs would meet a few times a year. Sometimes we would share best practices, talk about new tools (usually around application management), and review the upcoming MBA outreach events. We would certainly talk about trends we were seeing in the applicant pool (of course, only in aggregate, no names.) On an ad hoc basis, we could always reach out to our counterparts if we wanted to connect on anything.
You were in the position during the surge of application volumes during an economic downturn. How did the economic downturn influence your work? How did the admissions office adapt?
It was definitely a bit crazy! While the application numbers surged, the number of seats in the classes remained the same, so it certainly made it more challenging to select the class. One of the things we considered while reviewing the applications was whether or not the applicants were applying because they had limited job options or because getting an MBA was an intentional part of their larger vision. Logistically we also had to review a larger number of apps, so we had to be very good at managing our time.
Did admit decisions, such as percentage by gender, diversity, industry, nationality, function, “in the news” employers, or other variables, change over your tenure at HBS? Is it always evolving based on HBS priorities, or is it fairly similar from year to year?
The class demographics certainly shift over a period of time, sometimes driven by HBS priorities. For example, based on faculty feedback (seeing a lack of flexibility in thinking from students who had been working for many years), the school began to experiment with admitting people with fewer years of work experience. This ultimately led to the 2+2 (deferred admit) program.
External factors can also drive demographic shifts. Over time, some industries swing towards or away from valuing/hiring MBA grads. Additionally, some industries “get hot” for periods of time, and more people want and need an MBA to enter those industries.
HBS looks for a Habit of Leadership. What were some of the memorable ways you saw leadership stand out in MBA applications during your time at HBS?
The interesting thing about recognizing a “Habit of Leadership” is that it can be demonstrated in various ways. Of course, there are the more typical examples: the president of your class or the captain of your team. And those are certainly great and worthwhile. But it can also show up in less formal ways, without a title. You could have organized and managed a holiday gift drive or started a new service trip with your friends.
How about community citizenship or personal qualities? How did HBS admissions weed out the tough or arrogant personalities?
This is one of the reasons that HBS began to require an interview as part of the application process. It’s really hard to hide an arrogant or entitled personality for a full 30 minutes. It would often rear its head at one point or another. One thing to note is that every school employee an applicant interacts with could have input into their candidacy. Even those that may “just” be sitting at an event table or at a reception desk.
Is it much harder to stand out from oversubscribed industry pools of finance or consulting? Does it help to come from a feeder firm?
It can be challenging to stand out coming from an oversubscribed industry. Given the sheer number of applications and the fact that the work experience is largely similar, it can be tough to demonstrate how you differ from someone else. On the flip side, though, you have a leg up in some ways as well. The HBS admissions board knows exactly what you do and what skills you bring to the table. You have less convincing to do on that front.
They also know you made it through a rigorous application process to get the job. So, you’ve been vetted in a way. Lastly, the oversubscribed industries often make up a larger percentage of the class, so there are also more seats available for those people to fill.
Can you share any memorable examples of path-less-traveled candidates? Is it true HBS admissions loves a great story?
I believe it’s true that all people, and therefore all admissions boards, love a great story. It’s a way to bring life to your application and show the realness of who you are during what can be a dry process. I recall a story of an applicant engineering a soccer ball that could be kicked around and then used to provide electricity for a short period of time. He wanted to bring this technology to underdeveloped areas in Africa.
However, it’s important that the stories you tell are genuine. It can often show through when it’s been fabricated or forced.
The main impetus for starting 2+2 was to attract students who would never apply to b-school. Were there any growing pains or reservations about attracting college seniors? Any issues with integrating early career students into the HBS student class once they matriculated?
I was closely involved when 2+2 was launching, so I remember this time well! The main reservation was that students with only two years of work experience would not have enough to contribute to the classroom and that the classroom discussion (and their fellow students) would suffer because of it. Fortunately, this did not turn out to be the case.
The 2+2 group of students are stand-outs—they are the type of people who can hold their own in the classroom. And interestingly, while we were concerned about integration, the 2+2’ers reported that their classmates didn’t even know they were 2+2!
Did you collect feedback in your role about why a candidate declined HBS for another program, such as Stanford or Wharton? Or was that very rare to see an admit decline?
All the admissions teams are a bit obsessed with the declines and where they land! This info was certainly collected from the candidates. And while each school might try to address the “why’s,” it often came down to fit (the candidate has family from the region), or weather (the candidate hates the cold—that’s when we would tell them about the underground tunnel system on the HBS campus).
Sometimes the decision was related to the focus of the curriculum or the job/company prospects post-graduation. And those are wise things to consider when making a decision (if you’re lucky enough to be admitted to multiple schools.)
What’s the approximate percentage of applicants invited to interview, and then the percentage of interviewed candidates ultimately admitted?
I don’t recall the percentage of applicants invited to interview, but typically about 60% of the interviewed candidates are admitted. So, once you get to that stage, you’re halfway home.