Amid a tight MBA labor market, B-school admissions decisions increasingly hinge on applicants' ability to land a job upon graduation
For prospective MBAs, it's never too early to start thinking about that postdegree job. With company recruiters becoming ever more selective, B-school admissions departments are taking a closer look at how easily candidates will be able to parlay their education into a job come graduation. That means, among others, that they're seeking out candidates who have developed a workable career plan along with polished interview skills and a killer résumé. While admissions officers have always favored these qualities, increasingly—as the job market tightens—they're demanding them.
Admitting employable students on the front end in some cases means shying away from some traditional admissions metrics such as test scores and grades and embracing professional qualifications such as interpersonal skills, proven job performance, and promotions. "These are things we hear from employers all the time," says James Clayton, director of the graduate career management center for Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business (Carey Full-Time MBA Profile), where he regularly consults with the admissions team. Over the past several years, many MBA programs have instituted partnerships between admissions and career services staff, bringing in resident career experts to sit in on interviews and evaluate applications.
But the pairing of the admissions and career services departments isn't necessarily a natural one. Jeff McNish, director of full-time MBA admissions at Michigan State University's Broad Graduate School of Management (Broad Full-Time MBA Profile), says the program is often faced with having to make a choice between the admissions office's default picks (students with academic qualifications such as a high GPA or impressive GMAT scores) and the career center's preferences (students with a long list of promotions and work experience). "I have just as many high GMAT candidates who are going to have a difficult time finding a job as I have low GMAT candidates that companies would trip over to get to, so it's all about a balance," McNish says.
At many programs, he says, the scales seem to be tipping toward professional qualifications. The increased attention to job placement could spell trouble for candidates whose essays fail to outline clear career plans. Career switchers, with no work history in what they hope will be their new profession, might be similarly disadvantaged. The same goes for younger students as some schools up the criterion for average years of work experience, says Randall Sawyer, director of admissions and financial aid at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management (Cornell Full-Time MBA Profile).
Many students don't think they'll be evaluated by career services when they're writing application essays or handing over résumés, but there's a variety of reasons why schools handle it this way. Schools are "trying to balance their class and keep their rankings up," says Stacy Blackman, an MBA admissions consultant and president of Stacy Blackman Consulting. Career placement and starting salary factors heavily into many MBA program rankings, though not BusinessWeek's. "Employability has always been an issue," Blackman says. "But it definitely has come up more recently."
For John Roeder, admissions director at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management (Vanderbilt Full-Time MBA Profile), letting in the candidates who are most likely to find jobs is "really a matter of customer satisfaction." "The worst thing that we could do," Roeder said in an interview in May, "would be to bring in a student who we know full well we're not going to be able to get into their dream job." To keep that from happening, he said, the school added its director of career services to the admissions team about a year and a half ago (the admissions department has been working with the career services center for about four years). Career services' input, he says, helps him identify the qualities that corporate recruiters are looking for, creating a more competitive class two years down the road.
Similarly, at Michigan State's Broad School, the career services director is a member of the admissions committee. As with several other schools, the admissions and career services directors have the same seniority and report to a single person. McNish expects the partnership to increase, possibly to the level of the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business (Smith Full-Time MBA Profile), where career services directors look at every piece of the application. "The speed at which that happens will depend on the economy," McNish says.
Many admissions directors say they have not put more emphasis on employability in the wake of the financial crisis and jobs crunch. Many first started a partnership with the career services department about five years ago, around the same time the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT test for MBA admissions, held conferences on the importance of the offices working together. "It's especially important these days that that's a strong working relationship," said Susan Motz, a GMAC vice-president. "But I think it's important in any economy."
Without that communication, proponents say, admissions officers would have no feedback on what it takes for people to succeed as employees. Miscommunication could lead to fingerpointing come graduation, with admissions blaming career services because students didn't succeed in the job search and career services blaming admissions for admitting students who aren't ready for the job market. The benefit of feedback from recruiters and career experts' help evaluating résumés, is invaluable, says Vanderbilt's Roeder. Doing admissions without them? "Unthinkable," he says.
The practice has its detractors. Rich Leimsider, director of the center for business education at the Aspen Institute, says the practice of focusing too much on salary and job placement is part of a larger trend of B-schools concentrating excessively on short-term results rather than a broader purpose. "A medical school wouldn't say having their graduates make the most money is their highest aspiration," Leimsider says. "I would hope that one would say the same thing about business schools."
From the applicant's standpoint, scrutiny from career services might seem like an added layer of complication, but it's also an opportunity. Says Blackman: "Your résumé, your interview, your recommendations, and your references can all work for you." In the résumé, Blackman advises that applicants consider adding information they might not otherwise include in an academic application—such as knowledge of a profession-specific software. "In a different economy I'd leave it off," she says, but when training resources are tight it's useful to show that you'd be ready to hit the ground running. The interview should be treated exactly like a job interview, from the attitude to the suit. And the references and recommendations should "pump you up as being employable," she says.
A Convincing Career Plan
The essay is another area where applicants can show off their career-readiness. A convincing career plan helps spell out how students will put the schools' career and networking resources to use. "For every applicant we make an offer to, there are another eight or nine or 10 that we can't make an offer to," says Peter Johnson, director of full-time MBA admissions at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business (Haas Full-Time MBA Profile). "So we want to find the person who's going to be best positioned to make good use of all the things that they will get from the MBA program." Johnson and his career staff look for candidates with a workable vision of their future and a good picture of how Haas will fit in. Says Johnson: "If someone's using B-school to discover themselves, that's not the best use of those resources."
It's important, however, not to sell your employability too forcefully. Sara Neher, director of admissions at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business (Darden Full-Time MBA Profile), says she takes a close look at candidates planning on entering booming industries such as health care, but adds that it's clear when students are truly committed and when they're simply trying to ride the wave. "We can see right through that," she says. If an applicant is serious about pursuing health care, they'll have a convincing story about why—and probably some volunteer hours to show for it. "If it makes no sense to me it will make no sense to a recruiter either," Neher says.
It's helpful for MBA hopefuls to recognize just how many schools rely on the advice and input of career services. Today, few admissions department operate in a bubble. "Let me put it this way," says GMAC's Motz, "I don't think there's a single school out there that doesn't recognize that there's a partnership." And now that the idea has caught on, going back to the days when admissions decisions happened in a vacuum, unrelated to your ability to to land a job at graduation, is unlikely. "I think there's no question," Motz says, "that this will always be with us now."