Inside The Mind Of An MBA Admissions Officer

inside the mind

An excerpt from the newly published book Get In, Get Connected, Get Hired by Brian Precious

An excerpt from the newly published book Get In, Get Connected, Get Hired by Brian Precious

Poor “Jane.” She was probably the most determined applicant I wasn’t able to admit. Jane was an international student with nearly perfect grades from a well-known university. Her father had attended our school, and it was her dream to follow in his footsteps. Jane decided to wait until the end of the admissions cycle, to give herself time to take the GMAT for a sixth time. And, while her score was in the right ballpark, the rest of her application fell short. Her essays were generic and suspiciously resembled those from other applicants. Her letters of recommendation offered no detail and could have been written about any applicant.

As is often the case with an applicant who has strong grades and test scores but an otherwise weak application, it all came down to the interview. Jane was very polite and was able to convey her strong desire to attend our program, but—when asked for examples demonstrating her leadership abilities—she stumbled. When questioned about her thoughts on teamwork, she said she preferred to work alone. When asked to demonstrate her impact either at work, school, or with a volunteer organization, she couldn’t answer the question. She ended the interview by assuring me she would get all As in her classes if she was admitted.

A few days later, the admissions committee met for the final time that year. We were down to seven viable candidates competing for the three remaining spots in the class. There were some strong arguments for admitting her—a female candidate with great grades and test scores would surely help our class profile. Yet ultimately, after a thoughtful debate, we offered the remaining spots to other candidates.

NOT ADMITTING JANE STILL BOTHERS ME

Although it was the right call, not admitting Jane still bothers me. Had she better understood the admissions process and made just a few changes in her strategy, she probably would have had the opportunity to attend her dream school. To learn from Jane’s mistakes, let’s take a detailed look at the admissions process from both applicant and program perspectives.

Many applicants think that the application process comprises the tactical completion of a series of tasks required for admission to business school. They also believe that—once those tasks are completed—applying to multiple schools is a simple “cut-and-paste” process. Other applicants suspect that of the numerous admissions requirements, only the quantitative elements (GMAT score and GPA) really matter. Neither hits the mark; the process is much more complex and nuanced.

The admissions process is really about storytelling. It’s about illustrating how your goals align with the strengths of your desired program. It’s about weaving together seemingly disparate components—test scores, letters of recommendation, and essays—into a compelling narrative highlighting not only your ability to succeed academically, but also your desire to be a lifetime contributor to the institution’s community.

MBA ADMISSION DECISIONS BOIL DOWN TO A FEW BASICS QUESTIONS

It’s about showcasing the intangibles—ethics, interpersonal skills, selflessness, leadership potential, and emotional intelligence—required to lead in today’s complicated, global business ecosystem. The process should be an authentic glimpse at who you are and who you want to be. Most importantly, the admissions process is an opportunity to differentiate yourself from the hundreds, if not thousands, of other applicants that may have similar grades and test scores.

For me, the whole process boils down to a few basic questions. The better I feel about the answers to these questions, the more likely I am to recommend admission. After reviewing the application and conducting an interview, if I still don’t know the answers to these questions (or don’t like the answers) it becomes much harder for me to recommend the student for admission to our program. Note: I said “much harder,” not “impossible.” We sometimes admit students we aren’t completely comfortable with for various reasons. However, by better understanding the process, you put yourself in a position to develop a high-quality application, which increases your odds of not only admission, but also financial aid.

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Author Brian Precious

Author Brian Precious

Brian Precious has managed the admissions, recruiting, and marketing teams at three major MBA programs — Oregon State University, Purdue University, and, his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Brian’s passion for business school education stems from his own experiences as a student in the Illinois MBA program from 2004-2006. During that time, he gained the skills required to change careers, had the opportunity to start a company, travel the world, and make some of the most enduring friendships of his life. Get In, Get Connected, Get Hired is his first book. Brian can be reached via email at Brian@BrianPrecious.com

  • Brian

    Fair enough, Jane was an extreme case. However, many students I work with focus more on test scores then really putting a quality application together. Understanding how truly multi-faceted the admissions process is (or should be) may be helpful to some students. Also, in the book, the rest of the chapter breaks down each component (LORs, Essays, Interview, etc) and offers specific tips applicable to even more qualified applicants. – Brian

  • Pseudonym

    I’m sorry, but I did not find this article to be useful for me, and I suspect that it is probably not useful for the average P&Q reader. The applicant described in this article is so far off the mark, that it is really difficult for anybody to relate to her. The applicant clearly knows nothing about the MBA admissions process and has screwed up almost every aspect of her application in the most egregious manner. It would be much more meaningful for P&Q readers to learn about an applicant who is well informed and has actually nailed most parts of her application, but has unknowingly slipped up in just one or two critical areas.

  • Brian

    Interesting perspective, thanks for sharing. While there’s nothing wrong with preferring to work alone and there’s certainly nothing wrong with being an introvert (I’m actually one myself), employers of MBA graduates are typically looking for those who can lead teams and manage others. Therefore, as MBA admissions officers, it makes sense to screen for this trait. I think the point of the excerpt is that there’s more than one thing on our minds when we review an application or conduct an interview. Teamwork is just one of the traits I’m looking for.

  • bschoolalum

    I am so tired of b schools’ obsession with “teamwork”. While a stellar team will always outperform a stellar individual, those stellar teams are rare. B Schools often force teamwork upon its students, stifling originality and creativity many times. What I hate about the author’s article about teamwork is his implication that teamwork is always better than individual work. There seems to be some sort of stigma against being introverted and preferring to work alone.

  • Brian

    Thanks Tad!

  • Tad Brinkerhoff

    Brian, thanks for your insights. Admissions is more art than science. These comments will be useful to applicants as they seek to present the big picture. Great book by the way.

  • Brian

    Thanks JKM! In my experience, I’ve found students who pursue the degree for right reasons, find the right program for their unique needs and take advantage of all curricular, extra-curricular and experiential learning opportunities typically have the best outcomes. Thanks for you insights.

  • JKM

    Spot on, Brian. As an associate dean & director of a highly ranked MBA program for 13+ years, your comments are right on target. In an effort to improve rankings one year, we aggressively recruited high GMAT students and to some extent ignored many of the other aspects of their application. Unfortunately, these students often were not engaged in our MBA community, many were “problem children” w.r.t. their groups and frequently had attitudes that did not result in favorable internship or job interviews. A curious thing also happened to several of these “academically gifted” students, they failed to meet academic standards and were placed on academic probation. While I have no firm evidence as to why this happened, I feel that it was due to their failure to connect with their team which caused them to miss much of the out-of-class discussions that addressed the nuances and subtleties of complex business decisions.