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Admissions Committees, from the inside

One of the dirty little secrets that all business school Admissions Committees try to keep to themselves is that they don’t always get it right.  And getting it wrong, for Admissions Committees, means admitting the wrong people to classes, and not admitting the right ones.  Don’t get me wrong; I’d put the success rate of the decisions made somewhere in the 90-95% range and that is mostly because of the sheer detail that is asked of the applicant.  But every now and then mistakes happen.

If you’ve ever mopped a floor – and I’m sure you have – you might have noticed something.  When someone looks over the work you’ve done they always point out the spots you missed.  Your good work isn’t mentioned and as they cast their eye over the floor it is always critical.  The same is largely true for Admissions Committees.  Admit someone who perhaps shouldn’t be there, and the Program Office and Career Centre will let you know about it until the program is over, and beyond.  It’s fair to say that there is a fair bit of skin in the game for those who are making admissions decisions.

So what is the Committee looking for when it makes these admissions decisions?  Well, two things really.  The Admissions Committee is looking at two different time spans – the length of the program, and the length of a candidate’s life.  These time spans are important for different stakeholders.  The first – program length – matters to Program teams and classmates, as it is the time that a candidate will be directly interacting with, adding value to, and potentially conflicting with, the school community.  The second – a candidate’s life span – matters to everyone as how a candidate behaves for the rest of their lives potentially impacts the school’s brand.  This speaks to one of the most profound truisms every Admissions Committee faces: you are not just admitting students; you are admitting future alumni.

A high tech factory with robots and people processing resources

It’s fair to say, then, that the stakes are high.  When candidates are viewed as customers, it is clearly important that they get a good program experience and that includes being able to learn from others who have valuable experience to share, in an environment where that experience can be shared.  A disillusioned or disruptive candidate can easily derail that, especially if you’re unlucky enough to have one in your study group or learning team.  But candidates are far more than just customers.  Think of a business school as a factory or processing plant.  You get good quality resources coming in downstream, but they are raw.  The business school processes these raw resources, adds a few bits and pieces here and there, polishes everything up a bit, and what ends up coming out the other side is a product of the business school.  These products then get snapped up by employers, or start their own companies, but their impact is meant to reflect the very specific additions and polish that the school took the time to impart.  Good or bad, they carry the school brand for life.  Viewed from this perspective the decisions that the Admissions Committee makes way back before a program starts are very important.  They represent Quality Control.

In pursuit of hard facts

So if this is all so important, then why do Admissions Committees sometimes get it wrong?  The simple answer is that Admissions Committees use a lot of great tools to assess candidates, but with one glaring omission.  So much of the assessment about class and school fit is subjective.  There are a lot of objective measures a candidate is assessed by: obviously GMAT, GRE or EA, but also GPA, professional qualifications, salary after weighting for industry and geography, number of years of experience, possibly English language test results.  None of this really measures class fit, or likelihood of overall success, though.  For that, the subjective measures come out: an analysis of the candidate’s resume, extracurricular activities, letters of reference, interview notes.

Blocks indicating the words objective and subjective

That’s not to say that these subjective measures aren’t useful.  They are, but so much weight is put on them as they (in combination with the GMAT, GRE or EA) are the bits that the Admissions Committee uses to predict what really matters.  They predict that holy grail that aligns the expectations from both the program timeline and the candidate life timeline: they predict future success.  Get that right and you can align program deliverables with what a candidate wants to achieve.  That makes for a happy, cooperative classmate.  Get it right and you can be relatively sure that the candidate will take the school brand forward and add value to it.  That makes for a happy Dean.

What shared success means for you, and for them

What does this mean for you if you are looking to apply to an MBA program?  It means a couple of things.  First, make sure you look at everything you put down on paper from an Admissions Committee’s perspective.  It’s not enough to just communicate what the MBA means to you and your future.  You need to communicate what’s in it for them.  It also means that, for your own future success, you really need to have a plan for what you want to get out of your MBA, and what success looks like for you at various points down the road – midway through your program, at the end of your program, three years after graduation, then five, ten, twenty, thirty years after graduation, and at the end of your career.  This principal of shared success is the foundation of every client journey with Inner Circle MBA as we look to really get to the bottom of a candidate’s motivations, and motivators, and the tool we use to achieve this is psychometric testing.

An MBA student at a business school holding a card which says who are you?

Psychometric testing is useful because it gives us a focal point to work from.  The discussion, and the journey, can go in any direction after that, but it has a tether that is based on fact rather than opinion, and we can use that in any number of ways – testing feasibility of objectives; assessing and making concrete the values that mean the most to the individual; observing and noting the ways the individual likes to work best and where they will best be able to make a contribution; assessing which schools align more with these values, drivers, motivators, ways of working; identifying and setting personal brand; shaping the story that will give the individual the best chance of admission to business school – there really are endless uses for what falls out of the test results.

You wouldn’t be out of line to ask why Admissions Committees don’t use psychometric testing themselves in their analysis of applicants.  The answer is a little complicated.  At London Business School we flirted with soft skills assessments.  It was part of what I was always looking for as an Admissions Director – what are the quality indicators that best show class fit, student satisfaction, and future potential.  We felt that soft skills might address fit, and therefore future engagement, and that employability would surely correlate there too.  What is fascinating is that soft skills are a fundamental part of what you learn on most MBA programs, and central to success on all of them.  They are often the first thing covered in the program, but the assessment of them during the admissions stage is almost entirely subjective.  The reasons for this are where it gets complicated, but they mostly revolve around the challenges of objectively assessing a candidate’s suitability for an academic program on non-academic grounds.  It gets a little murky, and most schools shy away from that.

So that puts the ball back in your court.  If you want to join a top-tier program you’ll need to demonstrate fit, and you won’t be able to rely on a test score to do so.  It’s therefore a complicated process of getting your story straight, your personal brand right, demonstrating value, and fundamentally, demonstrating that your objectives are aligned with what the school can deliver.  Show that you are a raw resource worth investing in.  Get it right and you will get your pick of schools.  Get it wrong and no GMAT score will help you.  After all, it’s not really a number they want on their program.  It’s you.

Find out more about how Inner Circle MBA can help you get your story straight. If you are interested in applying to an MBA program, we’ll help you get there.

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