Business Schools Get Smarter About Weeding Out Uninterested Applicants

Duke University's Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina Photograph by Jim R. Bounds/Bloomberg

When Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business starts making admissions decisions this fall, antsy MBA candidates who flood admissions offices with e-mails may have unwittingly given themselves a better shot at acceptance.

That’s because Fuqua is one of a growing number of schools around the country that employs software to track “demonstrated interest.” Fuqua uses software called Talisma to log whether a student has e-mailed admissions staff, or how many times they attended admissions events.

Other schools use even more sophisticated software that can track such things as whether applicants did alumni interviews or requested program information. Those data points inform a profile of each student that’s slipped in alongside test scores and essay responses as schools consider which students to admit.

Admissions offices are keen to decode which applicants are dying to get in, because a good yield—a high percentage of accepted students who end up enrolling—can strengthen their school’s claim to elite status.

Schools including the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and Northwestern Universrity’s Kellogg School of Management have recently started using similar software called Slate, which is marketed as a tool to “maximize your yield and build the desired class.”

Most schools say they don’t use student interest as the main factor in an admissions decision, but the increased use of tracking programs suggests that a track record of eagerness could help a strong applicant beat out a peer with an otherwise similar profile.

“I don’t know if that makes or breaks anyone’s admissions decision, but when you’re getting down to the nitty-gritty and trying to factor in likelihood of matriculation, that’s the kind of thing we look at,” says Liz Riley Hargrove, Fuqua’s associate dean of admissions. Hargrove adds that using this system helped bump up the school’s yield by 2 percent last year.

Kurt Ahlm, Booth’s associate dean of student recruitment and admissions, says that it’s “very rare” for the school to make an admissions decision based on interest level but that the measure has become one piece of the overall application. He adds that the school’s yield has been little changed recently, despite adopting the software. Kellogg started to use the system this year but declined to comment on how it is used.

Prospective MBAs should treat the trend as “a wake-up call as to the importance of covering all the bases,” says Dan Bauer, chief executive officer of the MBA Exchange, an admissions consulting company.

Top business schools have tried to get smarter about improving yield as candidates expand their MBA options. More than 25 percent of MBA candidates surveyed by Stacy Blackman Consulting in May planned to apply to five schools, an uptick from 22.9 percent a year earlier.

Admissions offices—from state universities to small art schools—began to stockpile more applicant data more than a decade ago, around the time Slate was developed at Yale University, says Alexander Clark, CEO of Technolutions, Slate’s parent company. Now that they’ve captured enough data on applicants and students years later, “schools are becoming more plugged into what is possible with the capabilities of these systems,” he says.

But some schools let admissions officers trust their gut over the data. Neither MIT’s Sloan School of Management nor the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business uses a system to track demonstrated interest. Rod Garcia, senior director of admissions at Sloan, says the tens of thousands of dollars for new software to track applicants is better spent on extra recruiting trips.

“I think if we go into the tracking business, we completely change the goal of the office. We become an analytics outfit rather than educators,” he says. “I guess we still do business here the old-fashioned way, and that is relationships.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.