What B-Schools Want Now

Students they're sure they can place

In this tight MBA job market, business-school career-services officers are scrambling to place graduates. "Employers want candidates who have prior experience in their respective industries," says Alysa Polkes, director of career and corporate initiatives at the University of California at Los Angeles' Anderson School of Business. "Taking a risk on people is completely gone."

That goes for current applicants, too. Admissions officers have become less willing to admit someone with fuzzy career goals or with little hope of landing a job two years hence. "Schools want to ensure that student expectations can be met," says Tom Kozicki, director of the MBA Career Resource Center at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.

That translates into a new B-school admissions X factor: "placeability." If the admissions committee can't decide on a candidate, the file often goes to the career director. If that individual thinks your goals are off-base, you're rejected.

It may sound like the old bank loan catch-22: You can't get an MBA unless you prove you don't need one. But B-schools know that many MBAs use the degree as a ticket to a new profession. The key, say admissions folks, is to draw a career path from pre-MBA to post-MBA that's plausible, even if you're changing careers or unemployed.

Demonstrating placeability will be easier for applicants with experience in typical MBA feeder industries such as investment banking and consulting--especially if the applicant wants to return to those fields. For students with other work experience, however, showing postgrad job worthiness will be tougher. David Bergheim, director of the Career Management Center at Emory University's Goizueta Business School, advises such applicants to "articulate how your personal and professional experience is transferable to a new function or industry." Suppose you want to move from marketing to investment management. Tell the school about your ability to think analytically about companies and your plans to join the school's portfolio-management club.

What if you're unemployed? It's not a mark against you as long as you can account for your downtime constructively: taking classes, freelancing, even traveling. MBA gatekeepers know the difference between being downsized and being ousted for incompetence.

Above all, don't tailor your essays to what you think the school wants to hear. "There are candidates who don't have any clue and try to make it sound like they do," says Jett Pihakis, admissions director at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business. B-school officials can see through a fake. "Few people are so adept at storytelling that they can convince a trained listener of something that simply isn't true," warns Emory's Bergheim.

Although business school may sound like the place to figure out what you want to do, it's better to work that out beforehand. Proving your placeability in your application might land you a thick envelope.

By Brian Hindo

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