Pity the Harvard Business School managing director of admissions for the MBA program. Dee Leopold has the overwhelming task of sorting through a mountain of fantastic applications to identify the stellar among the great.
If that sounds like a problem you’d love to have, consider that Ms. Leopold is in the unenviable position of second-guessing herself at times. After all, it’s easier to separate the wheat from the chaff than to separate wheat from … more wheat.
Harvard Business School gets about 9,000 applications yearly. The toughest challenge for the admissions committee is tackling a shortlist of about 1,800 to accept around 900.
“This process isn’t perfect,” Ms. Leopold says in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. But this being Harvard, the push never stops to improve it.
The admissions committee does this in part by rethinking, and finessing, its questions.
Here are two of their newest questions — one for applicants and one for references — that staffing experts at The Bagg Group recommend when interviewing candidates for jobs.
1. What have you done well? What do you wish you’d done better?
This is an essay question for Harvard MBA candidates. At The Bagg Group, where we interview hundreds and hundreds every year to identify the very best applicants for full-time positions, contract work, and part-time placement, we believe this question also works well in a face-to-face.
All of us have things we could have done better. This question reveals whether the candidate is able to admit room for improvement — and learn from experience.
The Harvard admissions committee uses this question to help screen out arrogance, among other things. “We’re looking for confidence, with humility,” says Ms. Leopold. So are we all.
2. Harvard asks references, “Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant.”
At The Bagg Group, we like how this question prompts the reference to provide a well-rounded perspective of the candidate.
It also reveals how well the reference actually knows the candidate. As Ms. Leopold puts it, “We don’t run around giving constructive criticism to virtual strangers.”
Staffing experts at The Bagg Group also concur with Ms. Leopold that the best recommendations use lots of verbs. You get a more in-depth picture of a person when you hear that “she/he did this…and did… ” instead of just being given a list of adjectives that describes them.
Ms. Leopold estimates she spends at least 30 minutes on every one of the 1,800-plus applications that make the shortlist. That adds up to more than 75 days, working 12 hours non-stop, just reading applications.
It’s not surprising to us. Sourcing great talent takes an enormous amount of time. That’s why HR departments rely on dedicated teams of staffing experts like us to help – if they didn’t, they would hardly have time to breathe, let alone get through the myriad of other activities they need to do.
As for Ms. Leopold, she adds, “I kind of go into hibernation after interviews. By the end of that period, I need a chiropractor.” That too is a good strategy.