Looking Back on the Shrinking MBA Application

MBA Application Process

“A Matching Process”

A very long plane flight gave me the time to organize the thoughts that have been swirling through my head for months in response to the shrinking MBA application, innovations in the interview process, and various articles and posts about the widespread changes and experimentation in this year’s MBA application.

I applaud the schools for experimenting. I respect admissions officers. The ones I know are dedicated professionals who work hard to attract and then select the most talented, diverse classes they can.

At the same time, I am disappointed by some of their motivations for these experiments and concerned about the impact of the shrinking MBA application on their ability to make informed decisions.

For example, Niki da Silva, the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management’s Director of MBA Recruitment & Admissions, wrote in a recent Ask the Expert column on mba.com:

“The combination of an increasing influence and prevalence of admissions consultants, and the volume of blogs/message boards advice on presenting a profile that Schools are looking for have contributed to an environment that has become difficult to get an authentic picture of an applicant.”

In a Poets and Quants article, citing a Bloomberg Businessweek interview, Wharton Vice-Dean of Innovation Karl T. Ulrich said:

“Over the last 10 to 20 years, because of blogs and the applicant community and discussion forums, people have developed a really good sense of what the admissions process looks like, down to what kinds of questions are asked and how they manage the interview,” he said. “So in some ways that was one of the reasons we wanted to try some other approaches, because it had become kind of a game in which everyone knew the rules. We wanted to get the applicants in an unscripted environment, with a more dynamic kind of interaction. That was one of the main goals.”

Inauthentic Applicants or Disingenuous Critics?

On some level, as one of the older admissions consultants around, I should be flattered to be among those triggering this wave of experimentation and innovation. However I find the credit to be at best a left-handed compliment for a few reasons:

  1. The admissions consultants I know are urging, nagging, teaching, questioning, and doing everything in their power to encourage applicants to be genuinely at their best in their applications. Certainly a brief examination of Accepted’s articles, blogs, webinars, or my book would reveal that Accepted.com urges both self-reflection and integrity in the application process.
  2. While I agree that message boards display some applicants’ I’ll-write-whatever-will-get-me-in approach to the application essays, that attitude preceded online forums and the growth of the admissions consulting industry. And blogs are as varied as their authors. Most top business schools have excellent admissions blogs. Really mandatory reading for applicants to those programs. Student blogs can also be valuable sources of information about school culture and the b-school experience. Blaming “blogs” and more informed candidates for inauthenticity is perplexing at best.
  3. If essays are no longer authentic or informative, schools should do away with them entirely.
  4. MBA programs advise, polish, spruce, transform, and coach their students to the Nth degree when those students apply for jobs. Why is that advising OK? Why aren’t schools (or future employers) concerned about genuineness then?
  5. If inauthenticity is corrupting the admissions process, class quality should be declining. Yet every year, schools, and frequently admissions officers, delightfully declare the ever-improving quality of their classes. We need a reality check — dare I say authenticity check — either on the claim of soaring class quality or on the complaint of a process allegedly sullied by blogs, information, and admissions consultants.

Is the plethora of information really contributing to inauthenticity? Or are admissions committees today simply dealing with a more informed applicant body that is working hard to present itself well? As a result, do admissions committees find it harder to distinguish between the clueless and the clued-in because there are so many more applicants with access to information – so many more clued in?

And what about the role of professional consulting and advising? Admission officers’ used to say “We can tell when applicants use consultants.”  Those comments just made the commenters look silly as more and more clients were accepted to MBA programs. Clearly admissions staff couldn’t “tell.”

I proudly plead guilty to making admissions committees’ job harder by helping applicants present themselves well and as distinct individuals. I recognize that Accepted’s blog, articles, ebooks, webinars, MBA interview feedback database, and other resources as well as our one-on-one MBA admissions consulting are contributing to “this problem.” However, accusations of inauthenticity and fabrication aimed in this direction merely reflect the profound ignorance of the accusers. Nothing more.

MBA Admissions: A Contest?

I also hear another increasingly common complaint — a cliché really — the lament that the application process has morphed into an “essay-writing contest.”

Would anyone prefer a GMAT contest? A GPA contest? Or perhaps a beauty contest?

The admissions process isn’t a contest at all. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Yes it’s true not all applicants will be accepted to their dream school, and those who don’t may not initially feel like winners. But the GMAC’s MBA alumni satisfaction surveys reveal incredibly happy, overwhelmingly satisfied graduates. In fact 95 percent of alumni who graduated between 2000-2011 rated the value of their MBA degree as “good, excellent, or outstanding.” And it doesn’t seem to matter ten years later if the alumni got into their first-choice school or not.

The application process is a matching process. Kind of like dating. Schools and applicants initially try to attract the others’ attention.  Ultimately both have to agree they’re a match, or the relationship is over.

In order to match, the parties have to get to know each other. Schools put out brochures, web sites, videos. They host receptions, get-togethers, and admit weekends, and they attend fairs and multi-school events.  Clearly schools try to present themselves as attractively as possible to as many applicants as possible. Applicants present themselves through every interaction with a school, but the formal application clearly is the most significant element.

What’s REALLY Changed

Here is what really has changed as a result of forums, blogs, and yes the growth of the admissions consulting industry: the schools are no longer the sole source of information. It’s high time the schools adjust to this reality without blaming forums, blogs or even admissions consultants. This genie isn’t going back in the bottle.

Admissions directors: As representatives of institutions that value innovation and excellence, proudly proclaim that you are innovating because you are seeking the best way to get to know applicants and thereby create the ultimate in diverse, stimulating classrooms and communities. You don’t need to blame or credit blogs, forums, me, or anything else for the pursuit of excellence and a commitment to innovation.

But are the schools, with their shrunken applications, really getting to know the applicant? They can evaluate applications and decide who is qualified without any essays, interviews, or alternative presentations; they really just need transcripts, test scores, and a resume for that.  Do they have enough qualitative material to make informed, holistic choices when they get to the selection part of the decision process?

Stay tuned. I’ll explore that question in A Proposal for a Better MBA Application.

Linda Abraham By Linda  Abraham, president and founder of Accepted.com, co-founder and past president of the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and author of MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.


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This article first appeared on Poets and Quants