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Monday, December 15, 2008

MBA School Admissions tactics: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

With this post, I am going to do 2 new things. Talk about the business school's role in the admissions process (I will try to leave applicants alone) and not make any animal husbandry jokes.

MBA programs are typically market focused with regards to their applicants and have adjusted their application process over the years to get the type of class and caliber of student that they want. Some practices are very successful and some have not produced the results that the schools anticipated. While helping clients apply to some of the top MBA programs, there are some parts of the application that I emphasize as important and some that I tell them should worry them as much as a member of the Hell's Angel motorcycle gang should worry about what brand of dental floss they should use. Here are what I have noticed to be effective parts of the application process, ineffective, and really a waste of everyone's time.

The Good or Effective
The Why an MBA question, especially short and long-term goals: I think that this is the best question that schools have for differentiating candidates. An applicant has no other option but to describe their game plan, where they see themselves after graduation, and what they really want to do long-term. When someone in the tech field writes that they want to build on their quantitative skills to work in finance and have a post graduation plan of either private equity, hedge funds, or venture capital, it is glaringly obvious to the schools that this applicant has no idea what they want to do. That applicant looks like someone who wants to get out of technology so they can make more money in a now formerly trendy financial area.

I remember a classmate who decided to apply to every possible health care industry for his summer internship. He really hit the trifecta and applied for banking, consulting, and the pharmaceutical companies. He was up late into the night just trying to juggle interview spots when they came open, let alone actually preparing for any of the interviews. He spent a week not sleeping, did get one offer at an investment bank, and absolutely hated it. He is someone who would have benefited from thinking about this question more and developing a game plan for what he wanted to do post-MBA. Thinking about the question can help you better prioritize your job search when you are faced with a myriad of choices. Therefore, I find this question to be effective for schools who want to learn more about applicants and actually effective for applicants since they think about a game plan for their MBA program.

Extracurricular involvement: Schools have started to emphasize out of work involvement in the last 5 years as another way to gauge an applicant. It may seem like an MBA program is throwing out a random metric since some wonder what community service, sports participation, or the fine arts has to do with success in business. However, there are those candidates that figured out a way to balance a career with outside pursuits and they are being rewarded compared to those who spent their time outside of work watching Seinfeld re-runs or hanging out with dancers named Candy, Destiny, or Lexxxie. Since extracurricular involvement is a key part of the business school experience, I think that this is a good metric that schools can use to get the type of class that they want.

There have been some clients where I expected to see the return of $18/barrel oil before they would get accepted and some clients where I was equally surprised when they were denied admission. Involvement with non-professional activities were usually the deciding factor.

The Bad or Ineffective
Tell me about a time where you were faced with an ethical dilemma: Actually, don't tell me. This essay question started around 2001 when CEO's first started being read their Miranda Rights in mass numbers. Eight years later, the business section still needs a criminal reporter on its beat. Ethical decision-making is unfortunately still questionable in business despite MBA programs attempting to address it with this essay question. So we've seen no improvement and also, I can't imagine that this question yields very much meaningful information about a candidate. Anyone can figure out that when they write about a questionable ethical situation, that their response should probably be that they notified their superiors and tried to prevent it. This is also the one essay where I don't really need to spend a lot of time reviewing with my clients. They all generally get it right immediately. Since it's not helping produce more ethical MBA's and doesn't help schools learn anything new, they should get rid of it.

Taking accounting, economics, or statistics class to demonstrate quantitative skills: This emerged recently as yet another way for applicants to differentiate themselves. However, unlike extracurricular activities where clients differentiate themselves on an area that lends itself to the business school environment and creating a quality class, this is just lipstick on a pig. Most applicants for the top programs are smart enough to easily get an A in a local college class and they are going to take the same class over again at business school. Thus, encouraging applicants to take a business class that they will retake in business school isn't really indicative of the quality of a candidate. This only proves that someone has the free time to take a class at a local college so I don't see how it provides that much more valuable information for schools to assess candidates. Additionally, I don't think that many applicants enjoy spending their money and time taking a class that they will retake in a year.

The Ugly or Waste of Time
Letters of Recommendation: Quite a few of my clients want to talk about their letters of recommendations immediately. I always quote a classmate of mine who used to work in Wharton admissions who said, "Recs don't matter. If they're too good, we don't believe them." Schools have also made the letter of recommendation so specific, long, and require so much work that the recommender is practically writing a set of essays for each school themselves. Many recommenders give up trying to fill out all the 4 page templates and tell the candidate to fill them out. As a result, the MBA program gets no relevant new information and applicants and their managers spent extra time writing something that won't really impact the application.

Since the letters of recommendations have accomplished the rare feat of being both time intensive and low value, it's the ugly part of the application process. I think that MBA programs should either 1) get rid of letters of recommendation or 2) allow recommenders to use a general "To whom it may concern, I think that Candidate X walks on water and if I had a daughter, I would want Candidate X to marry her" format so they are not so time intensive or 3) evaluate them as highly as say the GMAT or another time intensive part of the application to make them of higher value.

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