If you studied the humanities in college, Harvard Business School doesn’t just want you, it needs you.
As director of admissions Dee Leopold told Quartz, Harvard’s case method—where students examine real-world business examples from all angles—benefits from a multitude of perspectives. If everyone in the class has a background in finance or engineering, the group suffers.
Scholars of the humanities are comfortable with problems that don’t have just one correct answer, Leopold said.
“They’re used to managing ambiguity,” she said. “They have an ability to think broadly, an ability to take a stand, and yet know there are other approaches.”
Leopold, who earned an MBA from Harvard in 1980, is stepping down this year after 10 years as director and more than 30 years in the admissions office. Over the decades the admissions process has become much more transparent than when she applied, Leopold said, with a wealth of statistics about the admitted class available online. That transparency comes with a price: Potential students who could benefit from an HBS education—and from whom HBS could benefit—see the average test scores and careers of admitted students, and choose not to apply. The result is a more homogeneous applicant pool. Last year, 81% of admitted students had a background in business, economics, or the STEM subjects.
Humanities education has been under attack in recent years, with politicians from Barack Obama to Marco Rubio scoffing at the contribution of art history or philosophy majors, and state universities systems prioritizing STEM subjects (those related to science, technology, engineering, and math) at their expense. Tech billionaire Vinod Khosla recently published a jeremiad on Medium attacking the liberal arts and calling for science-based learning instead.
While Leopold wants French majors in her MBA program, they still need to do the work.
“You can’t come and be quant-phobic, or think someone else will do the math for you,” she said. But you don’t need business experience. Neophytes who need a primer in the language of finance can get up to speed on Harvard’s online platform, HBX, before their first class. This year, 140 took the online course.
The odds are still daunting. Harvard’s MBA program gets about 10,000 applicants each year for a class of 935, and it costs almost $100,000 per year to attend, including tuition, housing, books, meals, and health insurance. The payoff? The median annual salary for a 2015 graduate was $130,000, with many graduates receiving signing bonuses of $25,000 or more.
What Leopold wants are students with leadership potential, who are curious about the world, and can navigate complex, nuanced issues.
”These are essentially human problems,” she said. “You can learn how to do accounting. But it takes judgment to do what we do here.”