How do you get into Harvard Biz School?

April 17, 2012: 10:28 AM ET

You likely need stratospheric GMAT scores, that goes without saying. Dean of admissions Dee Leopold discusses the softer qualifications she seeks in a successful candidate.

By David Whitford, editor-at-large

Dee Leopold, Harvard Business School's dean of admissions

FORTUNE -- Have you thought about what it takes to get into Harvard Business School these days? Stratospheric board scores, that goes without saying. Harvard receives over 9,000 applications for 900 spots, and the average score on the GMAT for the applicant pool -- the applicant pool -- is over 700.

So how does one stand out? Dee Leopold, who earned her Harvard MBA in 1980 and has been working at the B-school for many years, the last six as director of admissions, offers some clues.

Leopold has tricks she uses to put nervous applicants at ease during their final hurdle, the mandatory interview. She'll tell them, for instance, that she's going to check her email, and invite them to jot down three or four questions she can ask them when she's finished. Once, when faced with a particularly anxious interviewee, she tossed him what she thought was a softball question: "Let's pretend it's New Year's Eve and you're making a list of resolutions of what you're going to be better at this year…."

It didn't help. The poor guy sat there, miserable. Finally, he said, "I'd really like to be more organized."

"Okay," Leopold says she was thinking, "Where am I going to go with this?" She asked him for an example.

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"I thought I'd packed really well for this trip," he began. "But I got to my hotel late last night, 10:00 on a Sunday night in Boston. I unpacked, and I realized I have a 9:00 Monday morning interview at Harvard Business School and I don't have a shirt."

Leopold perked up. He was wearing a shirt now. Clean and white and neatly pressed. "What did you do?"

"I put on my fraternity tee-shirt," he said, "made a sandwich board that said 'Will barter for dress shirt,' and went out on the street."

Accept! "That's exactly what you want in real life," Leopold explains. "Somebody who's going to figure it out. No fuss, no fanfare, that's it."

That applicant was barely 20 years old. He came in through Harvard's "2+2 Program," which sets aside about 100 slots in every class for college juniors who agree to postpone their enrollment until they've finished school and worked for two years.

Like most top-tier B-schools, Harvard has long preferred that its MBA candidates arrive with at least some job experience. It stopped accepting students straight out of college a decade ago. But according to Leopold, Harvard was losing too many fast-track candidates to law schools, public policy schools, and Ph.D. programs. The 2+2 option was conceived as a way to "get on a college campus and attract a crowd," Leopold says. "We could then talk about this degree that doesn't open one door, it keeps many doors open. We don't want you to come now. But what if you think about it now?"

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The students Harvard wants to attract most through 2+2 are "STEM people -- science, technology, engineering and math. People that don't know a lot about business, but they're going to end up in business, and they're going to be really good at it because they know how to do things, make things, think through things." Start with that, Leopold says, add what Harvard can teach -- business know-how, collaborative skills, the art of persuasion --and "it's like having a backhand and a forehand."

Leopold and her colleagues promote 2+2 with visits to about 60 college campuses a year, not all of them traditional Harvard feeder schools. ("We love Kettering in Flint," the former General Motors Institute, known for its engineering school and co-op program) If anything, the program has been too successful in recent years, giving rise to a predicament Leopold describes as "squirrels at the bird feeder."

The squirrels in Leopold's analogy are "people who've known they want to be investment bankers since they were in diapers," and see 2+2 as a shortcut. Not that Leopold has a problem with investment bankers. ("Some of the most generous and kind classmates I have are on Wall Street. Therefore I would never, you know, geez….") It's just that, well, cute as they are, squirrels are aggressive, Leopold says. They crowd out the songbirds. Then she tells one more story.

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"It happened downstairs in the admission office," Leopold says. "Everybody congregates down there. They're all nervous. They're all thinking this is worse than the dentist's office. I go down to pick someone up and bring her upstairs for an interview. And this other young woman I was watching from a distance, she stops halfway up the stairs and says, 'Wait, I need to go back downstairs.' She had told the person sitting next to her that she should just go up the stairs at 3:00. She said, 'I have to tell them no, someone will come and get you.'

"Those are the things that really get me," says Leopold. "Wow, when you're so young and self-absorbed and you can already think about somebody else, that's, like, really beautiful." Accept!

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