MBA Admissions Interviews: A Numbers Game?

New research shows there's an element of chance in the MBA admissions game Photograph by John Lund/Getty Images

As any rejected business school applicant will probably tell you, admissions officers sometimes make mistakes. Now, new research from two business school professors attempts to show how those mistakes happen.

Uri Simonsohn, an associate professor of operations and information management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Francesca Gino, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, analyzed data from 9,000 MBA admissions interviews spanning 10 years. The program that was the subject of the research is at “a large state school,” according to Simonsohn.

The pair found that admissions officers often rank applicants relative to the other candidates they interview on the same day, as well as to the applicant pool at large. Because they know only a certain percentage of applicants will get in overall, they may hold back from giving the same high or low scores too many times on the same day, even when those scores are deserved, the research shows. “Say an officer goes through 10 interviews in a day, they may be reluctant to accept all 10,” Simonsohn says. “It doesn’t occur to them that they may see 10 great applications in one day or 10 bad ones in one day.”

The study notes that “people underestimate the presence of streaks in random sequences.” Simonsohn says this bias most often affects the second-to-last and last interviews of the day. So, does that mean an applicant should schedule his or her interview in the morning at all costs? Not quite.

The effect can go either way. If officers interviewed equally weak candidates all day and gave those in the morning and early afternoon low scores, they might be more inclined to give the final candidate a higher score, and vice versa, according to the research. Simonsohn’s advice to admissions officers is to keep a spreadsheet of interview data that visually represents how they’ve scored candidates over time. That way, officers will see the big picture of their decisions, and they will be less likely to avoid giving the same score several times in a row on the occasions that it’s deserved.

However, neither the Wharton nor HBS admissions offices seem to need this advice.

Eliot Ingram, an MBA admissions counselor with Clear Admit, says Simonsohn and Gino likely based their research on a school that does a traditional blind admissions interview, where an officer merely glances at an applicant’s résumé before asking him or her a series of questions. Both Wharton and Harvard have moved away from this tactic, he says. Wharton introduced a group interview system last year where seven applicants work out a business problem while being evaluated by an admissions officer. Ingram says HBS conducts non-blind interviews. This is where an officer is familiar with the applicant’s file beforehand and can ask very specific questions about his or her experience.

Regardless, Ingram says, applicants should only worry about the factors they can control—and choosing the other candidates who interview the same day as they do isn’t one of them. He stresses preparing for the questions that officers are most likely to ask, pacing things so that the applicant tells his or her story in the first 10 to 15 minutes, dressing appropriately, and showing up on time. Candidates should arrange their interview for “a day and time that works with their schedule,” he says.

If the applicant can choose the interview time slot, Ingram suggests the morning, but not too close to lunch. He pegs 10:30 a.m. as the “optimal time.” Work and travel often make this out of applicants’ control—and that’s OK. “The biggest variables involve preparation,” he says. “That’s where they should focus most of their efforts.”

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