What Business Schools Want
M.B.A Admissions Experts Discuss Application Missteps;
Take the Mask Down and Pick the Right 'Recommender'
By MELISSA KORN
Applications for many M.B.A. programs are declining, but it isn't getting any easier to score a spot at a top school.
Because of a tight labor market and ballooning tuition costs, many would-be students are trimming their lists of dream schools, turning the admissions cycle into an all-or-nothing contest that leaves applicants—and schools—scrambling into the winter months.
As applicants fret over test scores, draft essays and seek letters of recommendation, what do schools really want to see?
Enlarge ImageThe Wall Street Journal posed that question and others to four experts: Keith Vaughn, assistant dean of M.B.A. admissions at University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business; Dawna Levenson, associate director of admissions at MIT's Sloan School of Management; Amanda Carlson, assistant dean of admissions at Columbia Business School, and Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission, an admissions consulting firm. Edited excerpts:
WSJ: Has the applicant pool changed in recent years?
Mr. Vaughn: We have seen some shifts in the financial industry, fewer people from that sector. The domestic pool has been stagnant at best, if not slightly down, with the international pool slightly up. The foreign countries that dominate are India and China. Japan and Korea have shown some downward shifts.
Mr. Shinewald: People are more intense about rankings and brands, feeling that the M.B.A. will determine their future more than their own actions in the workplace. More often, we hear people say, "These two schools or nothing."
Mr. Vaughn: With regard to jobs, location becomes that much more important. People want to be in the New York area, thinking that's where their next offer may come from.
Ms. Levenson: People have a long-term geographic preference that helps drive their decision in terms of school.
Mr. Shinewald: We try to play devil's advocate with our clients and tell them that most of the top schools are going to give them national opportunities.
Mr. Vaughn: Admissions is connected to career services. A lot of our conversations are, "What is it that you're intending to do?"; "How have you prepared to do that?"; "How prepared are you to look off-campus versus on-campus?"
WSJ: How can nontraditional candidates, such as artists or doctors, structure their applications so that they stand out while also showing they'll fit in at business school?
Mr. Shinewald: The artist or doctor has a story that stands out naturally. The key is telling the story in its vibrant color while connecting it to post-M.B.A. goals. That's true of the banker or the consultant as well.
The glass is half-empty for a lot of applicants. The artist looks around and says, "I've got great grades, I've got a great GMAT score, but I wish I was a banker." And the banker looks around and says, "I've got great grades, great GMAT score, but I wish I was an artist."
Ms. Levenson: Our [optional] supplemental essay is not meant to be, "Why I had poor grades when I was a freshman," it really helps to distinguish yourself. Or you can give us a link to a video or a website or anything else that helps make you, you.
WSJ: How long do you spend reviewing each application?
Mr. Vaughn: A couple of people read the file. On average, they [each] spend 20 minutes on an application.
Ms. Carlson: [At Columbia,] one person spends 20 minutes on it, then another person spends another 20 minutes, then it goes to the interview, then it goes to the final committee decision.
WSJ: Do applicants focus too much on one element of the application? Are there areas where they don't focus enough?
Mr. Shinewald: Candidates waste their time on things that are out of their control, [like] the candidate taking the GMAT for the fifth time with no improvement. I once had a guy who must have practiced the question "What do you do for fun?" 20 times. He was so worried his interests wouldn't seem cool.
Ms. Carlson: [Some] people can't relax. They can't take the mask down. We want to get to know you, how you'll be a part of the community and leave it a better place.
Mr. Vaughn: They're not spending enough time talking to their recommenders, [so] the recommender does not know why that person is applying to business school.
Mr. Shinewald: Take the [recommender] for lunch. Talk about your goals and aspirations and remind them of some of the things that you've done so they're fresh in that person's mind—then they can speak [about] them in a personal way.
Ms. Carlson: We in admissions coach them on talking to your recommenders, taking them out for lunch. To hear that they still don't know to do that—you can't say it more clearly.WSJ: What about applicants who haven't told their bosses about applying to schools? How can they get a useful recommendation?
Mr. Vaughn: We understand the angst when a student hasn't yet told their employer that they plan to apply. They think it might interfere with the bonus or promotions, or they might not get in, and where does that set them up within the company? But students can go to someone else in the company or in the industry. In the supplemental package, they can explain why [they] didn't go to [their] immediate boss.
Ms. Levenson: Choose people who can speak to specifics. It's not so much the title of the individual, it is how well they know you.
WSJ: How do schools and admissions consultants interact?
Mr. Shinewald [of mbaMission]: We generally have pretty warm relationships with admissions officers. They understand that what we're trying to achieve doesn't really conflict with what they're trying to achieve. If you've helped facilitate this person telling their story, that's great. If you've told the story for the client, it is going to become clear and will damage their chances.
Ms. Levenson: I see you [Mr. Shinewald] as an advocate for us.
Mr. Vaughn: Schools give away the [same] information for free. But applicants are willing to pay, and in some ways they're buying insurance. They feel safer if they've gone to someone [else].
WSJ: Do you advise anyone against attending business school?
Ms. Carlson: If somebody is not a right fit for the full-time program, we may encourage them to look at executive M.B.A. programs. What's more common is somebody coming in with unrealistic expectations about what we can provide. We may counsel them about the timing of when they pursue the M.B.A.
Mr. Shinewald: Particularly with entrepreneurs, I'll have a long conversation about whether school will meet their needs. Sometimes a little bit of career counseling comes in.
WSJ: How can you tell someone's been coached too much?
Ms. Levenson: One thing is that they're only telling one story, over and over. They're using the same example to respond to all the essays. We want somebody who has more than one story to tell.
WSJ: A lot of schools now are accepting the GRE, not just the GMAT, as an entrance exam. Mr. Shinewald, what do you advise your clients in terms of which test to take?
Mr. Shinewald: Many still believe that the GRE will not be taken seriously. Why would they offer that opportunity just to be punitive? That's something admissions has to broadcast with more strength and certainty because people are afraid to take the GRE, they think that their scores are discounted.
Mr. Vaughn: We're open to the GRE because it opens us to more women. A considerable number of women take the GRE, and students coming straight from undergrad take the GRE. But neither [the GRE or GMAT score] determines whether or not a person is admitted to our program.