With round two MBA application deadlines right around the corner, the first school to reveal how its first round went is the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Applications rose by 13% in round one, a good harbinger for the remaining admissions season. That round increase is on top of overall application increases at Ross of 5% last year and 31% in the previous year.
More important, however, was that the quality of the first round applicant pool was the best ever seen by Soojin Kwon, director of admissions at Ross for nearly 11 years.
“We had another healthy increase in applications,” she says. “The quality of the applicants was better than we ever had for round one. My team had a really hard time whittling down the offers so we thought we would go a little bit bigger on admits in round one.”
ROUND ONE OFFERS NOW APPROACHING 40% OF ALL ADMIT DECISIONS
In fact, adds Kwon, first round admits—once roughly a third of all the offers made at Ross—is now edging closer to 40%, leaving less room for round two and round three applicants. The increase in offers is also a reflection of the fact that a higher portion of overall applicants are early-bird candidates.
“As schools started moving application deadlines up,” Kwon explains, “more people feel that if they really want to be competitive they should finish it up earlier. Round one used to be about a third of the offers which reflected that round one application volume. But it has been creeping up each year. We don’t know what percent of admits it is yet, but it will probably be closer to 40%.”
For round one hopefuls who were put on the waitlist, Kwon says they will get reviewed a second time in the next round which has a Jan. 2 deadline. “We are going to look at them all over again in round two,” she adds. “We need to see a bigger pool for us to make a decision on those folks but they were good, too.”
ROUND ONE ADMITS INCLUDE A WIDE RANGE OF CANDIDATES
This year’s round one Ross admits include a widely diverse group of candidates, ranging from the co-founder of an international development nonprofit that raised nearly $8 million in the past two years to a Grammy award winning singer who’s sung backup for Elton John. Other admits included a physicist who is building a rare isotope accelerator, the former seventh granked tennis player in the U.S. who now heads the English department at a school in Copenhagen and an ex-Navy SEAL who now trains furture Navy SEALs.
This year’s round one admits, says Kwon, come from Australia to Nigeria, Belgium to Uruguay and dozens of other countries. They work at Banco de Credito del Peru and Bank of Japan, Square and Girls Who Code, Bain and Goldman Sachs, Teach for America, and The White House. They majored in music, history, English and theology, aerospace engineering, neuroscience, business and statistics.
Kwon says MBA applicants are more knowledgeable than ever about the schools in which they are interested. “We find that they are more prepared. We started doing admission events in June this year and found applicants asking really good questions. You know they’ve done their homework when they want to know more about specific things in the program. Typically, we didn’t see those questions that early so they are all doing their homework earlier, too.”
YIELD IS 20 PERCENTAGE POINTS HIGHER FOR THOSE WHO DO TEAM EXERCISE
The application increases at Ross mean that it will be tougher to get an admit. The school has already reduced its acceptance rate to 26% last year from an estimated 36% in 2014 when the cancellation of a co-signer loan program for internationals caused a drop in applicants. The application gains have also been fueled by significant changes in the way Kwon is evaluating candidates and using campus visits.
The addition of a 30-minute team exercise as part of admissions has led to a 31% increase in applicants who chose to do their one-on-one interviews on campus last year. Some 880 applicants arrived in Ann Arbor over three rounds during the 2015-2016 admissions season, up from 680 a year earlier. “That is a win for us,” says Kwon. “When applicants have a chance to come to campus that gives them a much better sense for whether they fit or not.” Ross also has found that its yield—the percentage of admits who enroll at the school—is 20 percentage points higher for those who participate in the optional team exercise.
The team exercise, begun as a pilot three years ago, has been set up as part of a day-long immersion at the school for invitees. “Going to the school for a one-on-one interview is an isolating event,” reasons Kwon. “They go, do their interview, and it’s done. We now ask them to spend two-thirds of the day on campus. They get a breakfast, a welcome from me and the dean when he is town. Half of the applicants then do their one-on-one interviews and the rest spend 45 minutes in a room with student club presidents and the directors of academic centers on every thing from social impact to sustainability. They switch places and then they go do their team exercise.”
TWO BAGS OF WORDS FOR VISITING APPLICANTS WHO OPT IN
The exercise—developed after feedback from recruiters and employers—gives the school’s admission officials another data point on communication and team work skills. “Some other schools are doing video essays to gauge communication skills,” says Kwon. “This is our way of adding something to the one-on-one interviews. We’ve found that students are prepared for the one-on-one interviews. So they could be very rehearsed and polished because they are sharing the questions on Internet forums.”
Wharton was the first prominent school to begin group evaluations in the 2012-2013 admissions cycle with team-based discussions among applicants invited to interview at the school. Wharton provides applicants with prompts before their visit to campus. Last year, for example, the team-based discussion required applicants to think of themselves as current students coming up with a conference concept for a student club. Following the Wharton change, Kwon says she believed a case discussion could be helpful “to somone already in business. We wanted to level the playing field by not giving them an ability to plan for what they might have to talk about. So we give them the assignment while they are sitting there and not in advance.”
In the exercise, teams of four to six applicants are presented two bags of words and each candidate is asked to take a word from each bag. Then, the selected words must be used by the team in a mock business challenge incorporating the words picked from the bags. “It could be ‘warehouse’ and ‘airplane,’ for example. So they would have to figure out the client, create the challenge, and solve it, incorporating at least four random words,” she explains. “They have 15 minutes to work together and then stand up as a group to present the challenge over three to five minutes, with each applicant having a speaking role.”