Harvard Business School's decision to require only one admissions essay will have many applicants terrified. But for truly exceptional candidates, standing out from the pack just got a little easier.

By Justin Marshall

You can’t talk your way into Harvard Business School anymore.

According to Evan Forster, co-founder of Forster-Thomas Educational and Career Consulting, that’s the main takeaway from HBS’s new application requirements, announced in a blog by Dee Leopold yesterday and reported by Poets & Quants’ John Byrne.

The most significant change to the application is that there is now only one essay question required of candidates for the class of 2016, a dramatic change from just two years ago, when the school required four essays. The school has also reduced the number of recommenders from three to two, and moved its round one deadline up a full week to September 16.

So what is the new HBS essay question?

You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?”

Forster, for one, is happy about the move to just one essay, because it takes the emphasis away from writing and puts it where it belongs: candidacies.

“I’m really excited about this change. It backs up everything we’ve always known about b-school: It’s a place that develops great leaders, not great essay writers,” Forster said. “By cutting the requirement down to one essay, they’ve leveled the playing field. They took away the writing crutch. They’re really going to be evaluating you more on who you really ARE, not on who you SAY you are. Candidates can’t just talk the talk anymore. They have to walk the walk.”

Forster also feels that that gives Forser-Thomas an edge.

“Forster-Thomas has never been an essay mill. We don’t help undeserving candidates sprinkle fairy dust on their essays as a quick fix. We’ve always been about building candidacies. We give our candidates a Leadership Action Plan and help them find ways to make a difference in the world. That’s actually HBS’s mission statement—educating leaders who make a difference in the world. Their new approach to essays shows that the HBS admissions committee is actually on board with their own school’s mission.”

Forster-Thomas cofounder David Thomas agrees with this assessment. But he disagrees with Leopold that reducing the number of essays will bring candidates any relief. “Both this year and last, Dee Leopold has suggested that candidates are too nervous about writing essays. And she seems to think that by reducing the writing requirement, she’s making people worry less about them. But the truth is people are more nervous. I’ve already gotten calls from candidates who are freaked out that they only have one chance to tell their story. And since there’s only one essay, you have to get it right. So in many ways, it increases the pressure.”

Another significant change regarding the essay is that there is no word count. “That’s it. No word limit,” Leopold writes in her blog. “Use your own judgment as to how much you tell us. We have neither a ‘right answer’ nor a ‘correct length’ in mind … I also think that removing the word limit brings this process closer to the way things work in the Real World—always our goal.”

While many candidates might be relieved to not be limited to 400 words (the previous word limit for most HBS essays), Thomas says that having no limits can be a dangerous thing: “This is called ‘Dee Leopold giving you enough rope to hang yourself.’ You still need to show discipline and restraint and purpose. Type-A, top-level candidates have a compulsion to fill the space they’re given, and being given unlimited space is the most painful and cruel thing you can do. There is a happy medium, which is what we’ll help our candidates find.”

One thing Forster and Thomas are both very much in agreement about is that, regardless on how many essays HBS has, the best responses all have a few things in common.

“How do you answer the HBS essay question?” Forster asked. “The same way as always: By showing you’re a cultural fit with HBS. You can say whatever you want: discussing a professional accomplishment, talking about a family member, or describing an act of leadership. But you have to filter that through the lens of why that makes you a fit with HBS’s community and culture—a place for people who strive to have an impact.”

“The words have changed, but the song remains the same,” Thomas concurs. “It just reinforces what I’ve been saying for years: the essays are not about WHAT you do, but WHY and HOW you do it. They’re going to find out what you did through your resume, recommendations, application form, and stats. Essays aren’t a chance to repeat all your accomplishments, they’re an opportunity to express why and how you achieved them.”

Rather than focusing on the changes to the essays, however, Forster believes the single biggest thing candidates should be asking is if they’re ready to apply this year.

“With fewer essays, HBS isn’t going to get distracted by a bunch of pretty words. They’re just going to be super-focused on what you’ve actually done. That means what people are doing in their lives is going to be more important than ever. And since you can’t put together a candidacy overnight, people need to be thinking about their candidacies—and creating them—long before they apply.”