Chicago’s new format for its #3 question has generated lots of publicity for Chicago GSB. It’s also generated ulcers for lots of applicants. Relief comes from a knowledgeable source: Rose Martinelli in a Q&A on the Chicago GSB Dean’s Student Admissions Committee (DSAC) blog.
I know Chicago prides itself on challenging the status quo, and Rose Martinelli has been a leading innovator in MBA admissions both in her previous position as Director of Admissions at Wharton and in her current role as Chicago’s Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions. I respect her and admire the work she has done for both institutions. Her willingness to try new tools in admissions (forums, blogs, chats) and her outstanding communications skills demonstrates that she values interaction with applicants and transparency in the admissions process.
At the same time, I question the effectiveness of Powerpoint in liberating creativity and enhancing communication. Chicago #3 is supposed to provide applicants with an "opportunity to express themselves without guidance or restriction" as Rose says. Four static PPT slides don’t exactly qualify as unrestricted. Furthermore Powerpoint is designed to accompany a presentation — usually words, copy, text …something; it is not intended to stand alone. Initially (and incorrectly) it appeared that Chicago did not want associated copy. Finally, Powerpoint is widely criticized for putting creativity in a straight-jacket and replacing sedatives — in other words for stifling creativity, encouraging homogeneity, and inducing narcolepsy.
In the post mentioned above, Rose discusses the motivation behind the Powerpoint question and provides some very concrete insight into steps applicants can take to avoid Powerpoint’s pitfalls. I am going to quote this section of the post in its entirety (SS is the interviewer; RM is Rose Martinelli):
SS: Compared to the usual essay questions, how differently should an applicant think about the slides? What is similar, and what is not – in terms of how the AdCom will be looking at the responses?
RM: In many respects we are looking for similar things in the slides as we would in the essays. We are looking for organized thoughts, strong communication skills, and the ability to convey ideas clearly. We will also be looking at an applicant’s ability to be insightful and their willingness to express themselves in a new medium. In some respects, this question adds an element of risk to the application that has not been there before. There is no question to guide you, or any history to use as an example. Therefore, an applicant’s success will largely depend on his/her ability to think and reflect on those things that capture who they are as a person and a potentially successful member of the GSB community.
SS: It appears that there is an option to attach a word document to provide an "explanation" of the slides. In what cases do you think this option might be used? Is there a restriction/suggestion on the length of this document?
RM: The word document is there as a safety net. We recognize that interpretation of material is not always consistent across languages, cultures, socio-economic differences, etc. The intent is that the slides will communicate the messages without explanatory notes. However, we want to ensure that the meaning conveyed in these slides is clearly understood in the evaluation process. If a notes document is included, it should not exceed one paragraph per slide.
SS: While reviewing applications, how would you weigh the actual content vs. the presentation style? Obviously, different applicants will have had different levels of experience creating slides and presenting ideas in that format?
RM: This question is not designed to evaluate the applicants’ PowerPoint expertise, but rather to reveal how people think and communicate their ideas. This question, like the rest of the essay questions, is designed to provoke critical thought and self-reflection, not just their creativity. It is the message within the slides that is important, not the presentation.
The rest of the Q&A contains more general, but equally insightful MBA admissions advice.
For a tips on effective Powerpoint, please see:
It will be interesting to see next year what happens to the Powerpoint question. Will it be retained? Will the restrictions be loosened? Will other schools jump on a Powerpoint bandwagon? On a creative question bandwagon? Hopefully by then all you 2008 applicants will be safely enrolled in the Class of 2010. In the meantime I applaud Chicago for having the guts to try something new. I am sure it will also have the confidence to improve upon it next year, if necessary.