Admissions Puzzle: Getting the Mix of B-School Students Right
By MELISSA KORN
Creating a business-school class isn't unlike casting a reality-television show or assembling guests for a dinner party: it's all about the mix.
Admissions officers spend every fall and winter weighing how certain types of students may fare in a classroom and debating how many bankers, business owners, consultants and Classics scholars add up to a diverse student body. Schools insist they have no set caps for the types of students they accept, but each one is chosen because he or she checks at least a few boxes—geography, industry background, career goals—that, when combined, result in a rich variety.
"It's a little bit like putting together a Rubik's Cube," says Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. Though every student should have strong intellectual chops, leadership potential and communication skills, Ms. Clarke says, some may differentiate themselves based on career experience or their affinity for taking risks, professional or otherwise.
"We're looking at the merit of that applicant, as well as what that applicant can offer the broader class," she says.
When it works, discussions about case studies can be inspired and inspiring. When it doesn't, study groups fall flat and networks—the relationships that someday lead to corporate partnerships and client referrals—fail to form.
Most applicants to Harvard Business School deserve serious consideration, says Dee Leopold, managing director of M.B.A. admissions and financial aid. But there is a difference between evaluating an application and selecting a student. As they read through essays, resumes and recommendations, her team tries to ensure students will find "magic" when they meet one another.
"We're not accepting resumes, it's real people," Ms. Leopold adds.
Derrick Bolton heads admissions at Stanford Graduate School of Business and says his job is all about enabling those magical interactions: "I need a student who is a psych major and a student who is a Russian major and a student who is an engineer and a student who is an accounting major, to force them to think in different ways."
Admissions officials hesitate to say exactly what characteristics would make them reject someone, arguing that the process has no strict formula. After all, course rosters ultimately include everyone from college seniors to 30-somethings, as well as engineers, journalists and doctors.
The biggest factor that hurts an applicant's chances, other than a lack of academic or professional qualifications, schools say, is failing to explain why business school makes sense as a stop on their career path, or why that school in particular is the best pick.
The admissions team at Harvard Business School sifted through 8,963 applications this year to arrive at the 919 first-year students currently enrolled this fall. Ms. Leopold walked The Wall Street Journal through the anatomy of the class of 2014, explaining why some students made the cut.