Through social listening, Business Casual came up with a list of the most common questions now being asked by MBA applicants and attempted to answer them.
In this 30-minute conversation, I caught up with my Business Casual co-hosts from Poets&Quants and Applicant Lab discuss the merits of applying now, how some online learning is here to stay, assessing fit when you can’t go to campus, how to distinguish yourself in a record-breaking app cycle, recommender strategy, and more.
Listen in to this podcast episode, or view a transcript of their dynamic conversation, below.
John Byrne, Poets & Quants: Today, we have a series of questions here discerned from social listening, which give us an idea of what’s on the mind of most people out there who are intending to apply in this upcoming admission season. At the very top of the list, people are questioning if it’s worth applying for an MBA right now, particularly at a time when most Business Schools have already announced the learning that will occur in the fall will be via remote learning online. If you’re going to apply now, you’re going to be hopefully getting into Business School more than a year from now, and things may look dramatically different than we certainly hope so. But nonetheless, people’s idea of what to expect are informed by what’s going on right now. There’s generally less of a connection to what’s it going to look like 14-15 months from now. Is it worth it to apply right now?
Caroline Diarte Edwards, Fortuna Admissions: I think it’s worth it and as you said John, things are changing rapidly. We would hope and forecast suggests that we’ll probably have a treatment or vaccine hopefully soon for COVID-19. It’s a very uncertain time, but business schools are adapting, and we were really impressed by how quickly they adapted to this online environment by switching online, creating incredible online offering for students. While it’s difficult to maintain the same level of personal interaction and all of the networking and so on, schools are planning to have an in-person element in the fall to a lesser or greater degree, and that will gradually start to pick up in the fall most likely. Whilst we won’t be going back in a few months to where we were 12 months ago, hopefully it is going to gradually start getting better, and you’re still going to get a tremendous learning experience, with access to an extraordinary network, a lot of doors will open. Especially if you’re going to a top school, the return on investment will still be there and it’s an asset that stays with you for the rest of your life.
Maria Wich-Vila, Applicant Lab: I completely agree. The schools are doing everything they can; they’re enlisting current students to try to create these task forces to maximize the online bonding. I feel that some applicants are viewing this as a binary thing; either it’s in person and it’s 100% good or it’s online and it’s zero percent good. The answer is somewhere in the middle; if it were truly impossible to connect with other people using virtual tools, examples like online dating wouldn’t exist.
John: Another thing is, with a global recession looming, should people reconsider the MBA because job prospects may not be what they had been? Maria, what do you say about that?
Maria: It’s all the more reason to consider an MBA, because if there’s going to be a recession coming up, as Caroline mentioned, hopefully medicine will have something for us in the upcoming years. We can only hope for a less dangerous world in 2023, so I think you should go even more.
John: Yes, and it’s worth pointing out that all the research shows that if you have any degree, the unemployment rates are dramatically different for people who have availed themselves of higher education than they are for people who haven’t. The higher up you go, the lower the unemployment rates get even when things are bad.
One of the reasons why you get an MBA is to ensure that you get protected when things get tough, because you have that network. Even if you lose your job, you have opportunities through the network that most people will never get. So that’s a big difference, too.
What about the long-term impact COVID-19 might have on the full time MBA experience as a whole?
Caroline: I think it will accelerate a process that was already happening where schools are experimenting a lot with online technologies and looking at how they can leverage that effectively in the classroom and for the MBA experience. This has been a massive acceleration of that process and that will have a long-term impact, that an evolution that might have taken about 10 to 15 years to happen, will happen instead in 12 months. Online teaching can be more convenient for the people involved. It gives broader access to staff professors than there might otherwise be possible. And as you say, it means that you can increase participation because people are able to attend who might not otherwise be able to be there for some of those other networking and social events. I believe there will be much greater integration of these tools on a long-term basis, which is a good thing. Ideally, it will be balanced with a sufficient in-person interaction so that people feel they are getting the full benefit of the experience overall and getting those opportunities to meet people in a natural context where there’s more spontaneous interaction, and that spontaneity can sometimes be difficult online. Therefore, it will need to be a mix, but I’m sure a lot of these new formats are with us to stay.
John: I know a lot of schools do pre-MBA summer camps or boot camps, particularly for incoming students who are light on quant on their undergraduate transcripts. And I could see where this would be ideal. Now, say you’re a student who’s decided the time is right to pursue an MBA, what’s the best way to determine which MBA program is the right fit?
Maria: There are lots of different facets to fit. I would break it down into two big categories. One is, will the school enable me to make the career moves I want to make, so the career fit and then the social cultural fit. In terms of the career fit, it behooves people to dig into both elective offerings that every school has, really look at them and ask yourself, is this something that will be beneficial for me? Then, look at the professional clubs that you’re interested in, find out how many people are in that club. Do they have conferences, has the website been updated in the past three years, etc. Because if there aren’t a lot of students actively involved in that career area, they won’t be pushing the administration for those courses, they won’t be creating a vibrant alumni network in that field. That’s personally how I advocate for people to narrow it down.
Caroline: Yes, I agree with all of that. It’s important to reflect well ahead of time on what you want to get out of the program and what your priorities are. You must really scrutinize what the school has to offer. A lot of the time, people make an assumption by choosing a shortlist of schools based on rankings, where their colleagues have been, the reputation of the school without delving into the detail of where they actually want to go in the long-term.
John: Are there signs when a student in an MBA program just aren’t compatible?
Caroline: I think that sometimes comes out when they graduate, and they maybe haven’t been able to land the job that they wanted to do. Perhaps, at another school, they would have been able to tailor the course more towards their specific professional interests and get involved in activities that would have opened doors and have been more relevant to them. Sometimes it’s apparent that the community is not the best fit for them. I’ve spoken to students who’ve gone to top schools and haven’t really interacted with the community, which is such a shame because it’s a fantastic school, it’s a huge investment, but it’s just not the right fit for them.
Right now, one of the challenges is that you can’t necessarily visit campus so easily like you could. In the past, I would always encourage students or candidates to try to get to campus to meet the people and hang out with the students, attend a class, chat with staff and soak up the environment in order to get a gut feel if you can see yourself there or not. And because they obviously won’t be able to do that right now, they need to invest a lot of time and effort in reaching out, networking online and trying to have discussions with people who’ve been there and reaching out to students and alumni. By having those in-depth conversations, you’ll build up an impression over time, whether that is the right place for you.
Maria: I think another good use of your time is really, honest self-reflection, asking yourself, Wow, am I really going to be happy at a school that is so focused on the analytical side of things? Or, how do I learn best? Do I want to go to a program that is so analytically focused? As Caroline said, don’t just go by the rankings, but really be honest with yourself about where you’ll be happiest.
John: That’s really good advice. I know a lot of applicants look very much alike and that’s because there are certain streams of people from certain professions who apply to Business School; whether it’s from banking, consulting, and they want to broaden their skill base and become general managers. But in a massive pool of applicants, what can candidates really do to distinguish themselves from others and get out of the pile?
Caroline: Something that’s helpful is preparing yourself well ahead of time, because it can be much harder to differentiate yourself when you just start thinking about it three or four months ahead of applying. It’s really a case of presentation and packaging versus if you think about this two years ahead of time, there’s actually a lot that you can do to influence your profile so that you’re in a much better position to stand out. If you’ve got that similar timeline, you can be proactive by looking for projects that will differentiate you or give you a different story versus your peers. Take on some responsibility that is out of the ordinary for someone at your level, invest in your extracurriculars and have a great story to tell there. That long-term planning helps a lot, if you have the luxury of that timeline. And if not, then you have to invest a lot of time and effort in the reflection process before you start writing your application.
Everyone is different in their own way, but it’s important to figure out what is that special stardust in your background that is unique about you and how to best get that across. I recommend figuring that out first before you start putting pen to paper on your application.
Maria: Ultimately, a lot of what it comes down to is how much impact you’ve had. For example, two types of engineers: one who works nine-to-six, does the bare minimum of what’s required is a very different profile from an engineer who shows up to lead, take charge. They see an issue, and are like, oh my gosh, we should completely rebuild this thing. And I’m going to propose to senior management that we completely redo what we’re doing, and they create a new revenue stream, and now the company has doubled its revenue. Both of those people are software engineers, but what is separating those two types of people is what’s the impact that you’ve had on the organization?
I often tell people, the role they are hiring you for is a future illustrious alumnus or alumna; they are looking for people who have these fundamental leadership characteristics that will eventually propel them to these high levels.
Don’t focus too much on the technical aspects of what you do that makes you excellent, because that doesn’t matter as much as those interpersonal EQ and leadership activities that you’ve done. If you really are a standout performer, your recommender can go to bat for you and spread positive feedback about you.
John: What kind of recommenders can boost an applicant’s chances of getting in? Does getting a recommendation from an alum of the school really help?
Caroline: It’s great if your recommender is an alum, but it’s mostly important to have a recommender that knows you really well; ideally a current or past supervisor. Schools really care about having someone who has observed you on a consistent, regular basis over a period of time and can really speak to your strengths, your weaknesses, how they see you developing over time, the potential that they see you having. If it’s someone who has a strong connection to the school, that’s a bonus, because they do carry credibility and understand what the school is looking for and what it takes to be part of that community. Sometimes, candidates make mistakes in picking someone who’s extremely senior, but has had little opportunity to observe them on a day-to-day basis. Schools really need to hear from someone who’s worked with you very closely and who’s senior to you, which is absolutely their primary focus.
Maria: I agree. If you can get an alum of a program to write your recommendation, that is great. But it certainly does not hold nearly as much weight as people think. Like Caroline said, definitely go for the person who knows you the best. It’s more about what they say about you and a lot less about what their title or their training or their background is.
John: Is there equal weight given to every item of the application process, including the resume, letters of recommendation, GPA, the interview, your standardized test score, the way you fill out the little questions on the online form, how much interest you show in the school? Is there equal weight or is every item weighed differently for every single candidate?
Caroline: I think schools aren’t looking at evaluating the resume separately from the letters of recommendation and then evaluating the GPA. They are looking at all of this together. For example, at INSEAD, we had four key criteria: academics, professional experience, international experience, and the fit for INSEAD, plus all of those additional, softer elements and extracurriculars and so on. The various elements of the application that you’ve mentioned, would feed into all of those, and then we rated the candidate on each of those criteria. Sometimes, people spend a huge amount of time on the essays but quickly run through the application form itself, and you can’t be sloppy in any of it, but it really is feeding into this holistic perspective that the school is trying to get of you.
John: Maria, are standardized test scores weighed more than some of these other ingredients?
Maria: A few years ago, GMAC did a poll of over 100 admissions directors, asking them to assign a percentage of importance to each of the different pieces. I believe the test score was 20%, transcript was 18%, interview was about 21%, resume was 15%, the essays were 11%. In regard to what Caroline just said, everyone gets obsessed over the essays, you don’t realize that the resume actually matters a little bit more than the essays, because it’s about what you’ve done, what you’ve accomplished in your career.
There are two important points; one is as I just said, they can balance each other out. If you did have a low GPA, you can absolutely balance that out with a higher GMAT. And if you have a low GMAT, you might be able to balance that out by pointing to very quantitative or rigorous coursework you’ve done in the past. The other thing is, I suspect that there’s a hierarchy of which things matter in terms of a percentage roughly the same, but in terms of when I’m evaluating profiles, the first thing I ask myself is, can this person handle the work on a basic level? If they get accepted to business school, are they going to fail out and flunk the classes? As I start digging deeper, I look for what leadership impact has this person had? How employable are they? It’s not the most important thing, but I think many admissions directors think about, if this person comes to our school, will they get a job afterwards?
John: I assume that if you pass that initial hurdle, it’s possible that a greater weight might be applied to other elements of your application, right?
Maria: I think if two people have a 750 GMAT, I know that both of those two people can absolutely handle the coursework at my school. For me, the academics is the base hurdle to cross because I don’t think you’re going to get in if they think you’re going to struggle. They’re actually doing you a favor by not letting you in, because then you’ll just be miserable if you’re up until 3am every night struggling through the work.
John: What’s the one thing you wish you could change about the MBA admissions process?
Caroline: At a lot of the top schools, the final round can be so much harder and it’s a shame because it doesn’t really make sense that you would admit someone at the start of the process, who you would reject at the end of the process. Someone who applies at the end and doesn’t get in, but if they would’ve applied three or four months earlier, they would secure their place. To me, that doesn’t quite make sense and I think the schools are missing out. They’re not taking the best of the pool overall, so it’s a loss for them and it’s a real shame for the candidates. Sometimes, people have things are going on in their life and they can’t apply in round one or round two. I would like to see the schools make a better effort to smooth out the level of competition over time.
Maria: I wish more schools would embrace a common recommendation form; recommenders are busy executives with busy lives. When each school has a different little checkbox and countdown, I don’t think that’s fair. I love the fact that some schools are increasingly embracing the common recommendation form, but I wish that they wouldn’t make the recommender suffer.
Something else I wish would change is the emphasis and pressure that so many schools put on candidates when it comes to choosing their path or major choice. A lot of the time, candidates don’t actually know what they want to do and the schools know that they’re probably going to change their minds, even if they don’t think they will change their minds and to me, it’s a bit of a charade. I so badly wish the schools could say to these students, look, not everyone who goes to our school gets a private equity venture capital or a hedge fund job, only 15% of people who want to work at McKinsey actually get that job.
John: As someone who reports what schools do, I wish there was more transparency about admissions, and that the transparency was more standardized. There are very prominent schools who have been accepting GRE scores for years, but they still don’t publish the class average of the range. We’ve gotten beyond the point where that should happen because GRE submitted applicants now form a very substantial part of almost every MBA class. In fact, the further down you go in terms of rankings, you find more people who use GREs and GMATs. I’d like to see schools such as Kellogg and other schools report the GRE numbers because I think that gives someone more confidence to use a GRE to get in and secondly, it gives them a sense of whether they fit at that school academically.
Another pet peeve for me is why do schools almost always report admission numbers in class profiles through the 80% middle range? Why not just reveal what’s the lowest score? There are some schools that report the full range, including Harvard and Wharton and I think seeing the full range gives people a little bit more perspective on should they even bother to apply.
Fortuna Admissions Co-Founder & Director Caroline Diarte Edwards is former head of Admissions at INSEAD. For more free advice and a personal, candid assessment of your chances, you can sign up now for a free consultation.