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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The MBA Admissions Process: Giving Eyesight to the blind

The MBA admissions process seems straight forward initially. Take a standardized test that is scored out of 800 (called the GMAT), write some essays, fill out your career background, harass you superiors into signing their names on the letters of recommendations which you will probably write yourself, and launch yourself into the alternative universe of value-added, leveraged synergies of capacity building, gap analysis of MBA’s. However, working with friends and clients on their applications, has made me realize what a bewildering process this can be.

Despite the title of this post, I don’t see myself in biblical role (although it would be cool to be able to wear white robes, sandals, and grow my beard and hair down to my shoulders). I do see my role as more social worker as I help others access knowledge that can advance one professionally or personally. This is some form of empowerment. Admissions consultants tend to be viewed as bottom feeders, writing essays for the client or flattering applicants for more business (“Sure you get a chance to get into Wharton”). In reality, we level the playing field for applicants who don’t work in industries that send a lot to MBA programs and don’t have friends who can’t explain the process to them. Just like social workers help clients access resources that they can’t gain themselves, I help clients understand the MBA admission process and make it an understandable process. Now, I’ll stop pretending that I am doing some deities’ work.

My work with a friend of a friend who is an architect interested in an MBA underscored how oblique the MBA application questions can be. Her career called for showing her design talents but how would that go over in a more conservative MBA environment? It was safe for her to understand the standardized test was important but what about the other parts of the application? Is it the essays, recommendations, visits to the school, or business background? How much math do you need to meet the threshold? What about the structure of the resume and content? For the interview, are you asked questions about your favorite investment strategy or what Civil War general would you most like to face in battle? Here are some of the reasons why the MBA admission process can be so daunting:

It’s a trade degree without a license: An MBA is a professional degree that is designed to teach you a trade. However, it is one of the few professional degrees that does not license or certify you to practice that trade. Anyone can do business so an MBA just teaches you how to do business better (in theory). It teaches a body of knowledge that is intended to be developed enough so that it can be successfully applied. It does not intend to teach a body of knowledge that will be researched further or for its graduates to follow and perfect this body of knowledge.
Since it’s a trade degree that doesn’t license you to do anything, how do you know that you even need one, let alone how do you demonstrate that you need one to an admissions committee? That’s an important thing to know as every program asks you why you want an MBA in some form or another.

No barriers to entry yet very high bars to hurdle: If you’re a really good yakhereder that developed a process improvement to help baby yak’s nurse and did a business plan to sell yak milk over the internet, can you get an MBA? Looks good, but have you taken any math classes? How about volunteer experience? Did you visit the schools or talk to alumni? Why not a masters in animal husbandry? How many years of yak herding experience do you have? Is 2 years of experience too few or is 6 years too many? Does your background add diversity or was the spider monkey breeder who was admitted last year sufficient? Any career background can get admitted but it is difficult to gauge how much background you need to hurdle over the requirements for math, extracurricular activities, school visits, or other factors that could impact your application. It's also difficult to determine which of those factors are really important (the important factors are GMAT and grades to show you can handle the academics, then work experience, quality of it, essays, and extracurriculars roughly in that order. Everything else is lipstick) As a result, everyone has a shot but it’s really hard to tell if you are really a good candidate.
Oh, if my example helps, if the yakherder can get a 680 or higher on the GMAT or did well academically in a prestigious school, they are in. A funky career background with demonstrated success must be paired with proven academic skills for a likely admission. Otherwise, no admissions officer wants to advocate strongly for the guy who might still use an abacus in class.

Admissions officers have to guess: This is paired with the last example where admissions officers truly don’t know if you have a decent chance of getting in without seeing your complete application and really no one else does either. Except for the letters of recommendations, it all really might matter. While we would like admissions to draw a stronger line in the sand, they really can’t. A candidate only might have finally broken 400 on the GMAT since they just filled out all choice C’s out of desperation but what if they taught capitalism to their hunting and gathering community that previous relied on bartering sheep ankle bones? That’s why an admissions officer can’t say that there is no chance of being admitted without a GMAT that is at least high enough that if it were a credit score, you would be approved for a subprime loan.

As for the friend in architecture, I told her that you can never go wrong with a conservative appearance but there are plenty of opportunities to blow it if you get funky. That’s probably true for any part of your MBA application.

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