Top B-Schools Make Changes to MBA Admissions, but the Strategy for Success Remains the Same

December 06, 2012 | by Matt Symonds

Did your chances of securing a place at one of the world’s top business schools just improve? Well yes, … and no. Several of the top US full-time MBA programmes have reported a significant drop in applicant numbers in the last 12 months, including the Columbia Business School with a 19% drop, and NYU Stern with a fall of nearly 12%. The volatility of Wall Street has been much to blame, though the likes of the Yale School of Management and Duke University’s Fuqua have also recorded declines, of 9.5% and 7% respectively.

But with over 5,400 applications for 740 places on the full-time MBA, a place at Columbia remains a much sought-after prize. And elsewhere, you are still competing with close to 9,000 other talented professionals for a seat in the Harvard Business School classroom, while the Stanford GSB receives 16 applications for each place in the MBA programme. The likes of INSEAD and Wharton have seen little change in the size of their 2012 applicant pool, suggesting that securing a place in one of the world’s top business schools remains as competitive as ever. Whether you are a consultant, a banker or a software engineer, you face the challenge of standing out from the rest of your peer group.

International Outlook

From my previous position as director of admissions at INSEAD, I’m aware of the importance of convincing the business school of your international perspective. You need to demonstrate an international outlook and motivation for studying in the US or Europe. We saw many applicants who have a very locally focused CV, and locally focused ambitions. So they needed to make an argument for why they need an MBA from a top international business school, and how this fit with their overall career ambitions.

Such comes in a year when a number of the leading business schools have made changes to the 2013 admissions process, in addition to the new GMAT format that was introduced in June 2012. The Wharton School, for example, has introduced a new interview format in addition to traditional one-on-one interviews, where selected applicants participate in a team-based discussion with five or six other applicants. For Judith Silverman Hodara, former acting director of admissions at Wharton and co-director here at Fortuna Admissions, she recommends that interviewees remember to listen as well as share their own ideas.

“The school is looking to evaluate how you interact with others, and how you approach and analyse real-world business scenarios. But one of the biggest complaints I read in interview reports over the years is that the applicant did not know when to stop answering a particular question, or tried to steer the conversation into topics that they wanted to discuss, or simply did not get any of the verbal and non-verbal interviewer cues.” Judith adds that you need to follow the lead from the person or people sitting across the table from you.

Career Goals

Meanwhile, the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto has introduced a video essay component, designed to be answered without any advanced preparation by capturing responses in real time, that helps the school to assess the personality, interest and talents of applicants as an alternative to the traditional essay format. The Columbia Business School now asks applicants to watch a 3-minute video entitled ‘Community at Columbia’ and then write up to 250 words on why you want to become part of that community. And NYU Stern has made its first major change to essay questions for six years, asking applicants to “describe two different and distinct paths you could see your career taking long-term. How do your paths tie to the mission of NYU Stern?”

For Fortuna’s Pete Johnson, former Director of Admissions at UC Berkeley Haas, these questions are consistent with the growing importance business schools are placing on a candidate’s fit with the programme they are applying to, and a clear sense of post-MBA career goals.  “There are so many applicants with excellent GPA and GMAT scores,” he explains, “so schools are increasingly focusing on the applicant’s ability to describe coherent and compelling post-MBA career goals, and show how those goals fit with the school they are applying to.”

And at the Harvard Business School, the MBA admissions committee has reduced the number of essays required from four to two, and ask applicants to take 400 words for each essay to tell the school about something you did well, and tell them about something you wish you had done better. Based on these responses – and of course a resume, academic transcript, GMAT or GRE test scores, and three letters of recommendation – around 20% of applicants will secure an interview. After the interview, Harvard is now giving candidates 24 hours to submit a written reflection on the interview experience. The school insists that this is not another essay, but rather a parallel with the real world when you might be expected to summarise a meeting the next day in an email.

As you might expect, the MBA chat forums have been buzzing with these changes, but Rose Martinelli, former Director of Admissions at Chicago Booth and expert Advisor for Fortuna, maintains that your application strategy remains the same. “Meshing your strategy with the particular application components for each school can be challenging, but taking a 30,000-foot view of the entire application should make this process a bit easier.”

Martinelli recommends that you start with one school. “Lay out all the essays and application components together, matching them with the messages that you want to communicate in each. Remember to think about this as a holistic process. The components, taken together, should create a comprehensive picture of you.”

She also insists that you carefully read each question to make sure you understand exactly what is being asked.  “A common mistake in essays is the applicant’s failure to answer the question posed. So in your quest to convey your story, make sure you first understand and can answer the question.” For Martinelli, the best way to ensure that you do both is to be direct in your answer and then relate a story that personalizes your response. “Fundamentally, admissions is interested in understanding the ‘hows and whys’ behind your actions and decisions. Your essays should not present a litany of résumé facts, but a narrative that knits the most important information together.”


For more advice from Caroline, Judith, Rose, Pete, and the rest of Fortuna Admissions’ team of experts, sign up for a free 30-minute consultation.

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