Business School Admissions Needs an Overhaul

As the latest research from the Graduate Management Admission Council confirms, the quality of applicants to business schools is higher than ever. The increasingly competitive global MBA admissions market is forcing admissions committees everywhere to innovate—and find creative ways to ensure that what they are getting from applicants represents an actual person.

Getting the truth and identifying the genuine qualities of an applicant becomes harder each year, due to the legitimate (and sometimes illegitimate) efforts of a variety of admissions consultants. Will the move toward Twitter-like responses in 200 characters at Columbia Business School and the PowerPoint approach, with slides of text and images, at Chicago Booth School of Business provide real insight, or are they simply a nod to Generation Y?

In my book about the Wharton MBA, I explored one aspect of this innovation: the focus on standardized behavioral interviewing as part of the Wharton process. To be fair, this process is itself behind the innovation curve, since businesses have been using behavioral interviews for years. The Wharton School proposes to take the next step this year, piloting group interviews that force applicants to interact with one another in an observed setting—the goal being to create a more spontaneous environment to identify originality and demonstrate critical-thinking skills.

There are other ways that admissions committees could push the envelope in the future to gain a more authentic and rounded candidate assessment:

1. Continue the reduction of essay and essay-type materials, the main play area for admissions consultants. The fewer edited and scripted things that students have to prepare, the less likely they are to pay for a ghost writer or editor. Seriously, even if you have a 690 GMAT, paying someone $1,000 to write 100 words is a stretch.

2. Stealth interviewing, or formalizing the evaluation of applicants in unexpected settings. For example, that security guard you just treated like a second-class citizen while asking for directions to admissions: He could be filling out an interview form. Current students are also a great source for these informal observations.

3. Break the “alumni interviewer” popularity contest. One-on-one interviews, especially those that are unstructured, are a total failure as a predictor of future performance. The limitation in using volunteer alumni interviewers, especially in foreign countries, is that the people who are eligible, and make time for it, are a very small and self-selecting group. This situation gives applicants and interviewers several unfair ways to manipulate the interviewer selection and preparation. You can look for schools to begin moving away from alumni interviews and structuring more on-campus interactions. This will also lead more applicants to come to campus, as such visits become either required or necessary due to the reduced availability of off-campus interview options.

4. Personality evaluation for leadership potential. The fact that MBA classes do not have a lot of personality diversity—that B-school admissions favors a personality type—is a legal and ethical Pandora’s box waiting to happen. Top MBA programs are filled with outgoing, type-A personalities who are dead set on success, and no matter what country they come from, they act the same way. Studies of successful business leaders show that these same personality traits are often found in the executive ranks. Is this random chance? Or do people with these personality traits truly make better business leaders?

The MBA program that really wants to push the admissions envelope will begin testing applicants for personality traits in real time during the online application. Through data collection, they can then, over a period of years, push class selection toward personalities that through measured experience have a high likelihood of enriching the class as well as ending up in leadership positions. Let’s face it, sometimes these traits are mutually exclusive.

If graduating students fulfill their leadership potential and the school produces more prominent alumni, this in turn will lead to more applications, more donation money, and the virtuous cycle will continue.

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