Harvard Biz School to Wall Street: Rejection!

December 17, 2010: 3:14 PM ET

In what may be a marked appeal to diversify its ranks and soften its image, Harvard Business School sent out several surprising rejections and wait list notifications to candidates from some of the most prestigious financial firms in the world.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

(poetsandquants.com) -- Several high-performing private equity and financial stars were dumbfounded, outraged, or just perplexed to be rejected or waitlisted when Harvard Business School released its round one decisions on Dec. 14.

Earlier this week, when Harvard notified applicants in its first admissions round whether they would be accepted for its 2013 graduating class, some of the most highly qualified applicants from the worlds of finance and consulting were turned down for admission or put on waitlists.

Sandy Kreisberg, founder of hbsguru.com, and an admissions consultant in Boston, says that, based on his database of clients, which includes more than 50 applicants who were interviewed as part of Harvard Business School's first admissions round, it was the worst year on record for high-powered private equity and investment banking superstars, especially from powerhouse firms. Those firms often have acceptance rates near 100%, but in the first round, many were below 50%. "It's a small but obsessively-followed cohort," said Kreisberg.

A New York-based admissions consultant, who asked not to be identified, with four first round Harvard Business School applicants as clients, all with financial or consulting backgrounds, said that two were rejected outright while another two were put on the waitlist.

If these limited observations prove widespread, it would represent a dramatic shift in the composition of future Harvard Business School. For the class that entered Harvard last year, students with backgrounds in the military, non-profit and healthcare sectors total just 17%. MBAs with work experience as consultants come to 22%, while those with finance backgrounds, including private equity and venture capital, total 32%.

"This move away from powerhouse firms is either a 100-year 'drought,' as it were, or the visible hand of new policies hinted at by Dean Nohria in his public remarks," said Kreisberg. "My bet is the visible hand."

Just two months ago, Harvard's new dean Nitin Nohira was making what he thought was an important point about Harvard's MBA students on a National Public Radio show in Boston.

"People think we only turn out MBAs who become consultants and investment bankers," said Nohria, "but the reality is that we have people who go to work in social enterprise and in small business. What people want of us are leaders who can contribute to all these different types of organizations in society."

Tom Ashbrook, the talk show host of WBUR's On Point, quickly interrupted the dean. "That's great and it sounds sweet," he sarcastically told Nohira, "but more than half of your grads go into consulting and finance." Ashbrook then went on to quote the school's own career services statistics to prove his point.

Nohria changed the topic.

For admission consultants and others who read Harvard's tealeaves, the feeling is that Nohria is changing the profile of the traditional HBS class. Several admissions consultants say the new dean appears to be favoring applicants from healthcare, the military, government, and non-profits over those from such financial powerhouses as Goldman Sachs (GS), KKR (KKR), and Blackstone (BX).

The reason: to increase the odds that a higher percentage of future MBAs go into more politically correct fields such as social enterprise, entrepreneurship, and health care, and are more likely to avoid Wall Street.

Deirdre Leopold, Harvard's director of admissions and financial aid, may have been preparing candidates for the shift when she in an email she sent to candidates who had been interviewed for admission the day before sending out admissions decisions.

"If my job were to rank order candidates from high to low in order of individual strength, whatever that might mean, different decisions might be made," Leopold wrote.

Asked to comment, Leopold said by email, "Delivering a class with as much diversity as possible -- with a common bond of high academic achievement and potential -- has always been the promise we make to our students.

"It's simplistic to assume that the place where young people worked for a few years is the only -- or most important -- 'tag' that they wear in our application process. Speculation notwithstanding, it's not the way our process works," Leopold added.

Also from Poets&Quants:

Top 100 MBA Programs in the U.S.

Top 50 MBA programs outside the U.S.

Wharton overhauls MBA program

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About This Author
John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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