Study Claims ‘Alarming’ Bias In MBA Admissions

The admissions processes for elite MBA programs can often be convoluted, vague, and tight-lipped outside of gatekeeper walls. Not surprisingly, a study published last month reveals current processes often lead to bias in admissions.

According to the study, published by Kira Talent, the video admissions platform behind many B-school video interview questions, admissions offices at B-schools earned an average C+ grade on a letter grade scale ranging from A to E. “That’s not a fail, but it was certainly alarming to us,” says Andrew Hastings, director of marketing and project lead at Kira Talent.

The study, which asked schools to self-report admissions processes, examined business programs from around the world. While nearly all (98%) of the schools strongly agreed applicants should be judged in a “fair, consistent, and objective manner,” more than half 58% said bias could be an issue at their school. What’s more, about a third of the participating schools have no established process to identify and remove bias.

Hastings and Kira Talent were unable to release school-specific results, but say the majority of schools finished with an “average” bias rating. “The schools that scored the highest were the schools that acknowledged bias exists or bias has the potential to exist at their school,” Hastings tells Poets&Quants. “If your school is in denial about bias being an issue, then you’re not going to actively work to combat it.”

Andrew Hastings of Kira Talent. Courtesy photo

SOME 58% OF SCHOOLS ADMIT BIAS IS AN ISSUE

According to the researchers at Kira Talent, bias can creep into the admissions process in multiple ways at multiple points. As schools move toward more holistic admissions processes where interviews and essays are used to “tease” out workplace competencies, bias will creep in, Hastings says. “We had a hunch that bias was creeping into the decision-making process,” he says. “The good news that came out of this study is, largely, admissions teams are very concerned about bias in their process.”

Still, schools are more likely to point the finger at other schools. Ironically, Hastings says, many admissions offices form a “blindspot bias,” believing bias occurs everywhere except with yourself. “It’s funny to see a form of bias actually forming in this data set,” Hastings says. While 58% of schools admit to bias being an issue at their own schools, 70% said they saw it as an issue at other schools.

“We have this issue that we see quite often when we talk to schools,” Hastings says. “They know of the issue, they know the issue is important, but they think their school is immune to bias — yet it’s happening everywhere else, essentially. You know, ‘Not at my school, but at this school, this school, and this school.'”

LACK OF DEFINITIONS, SPECIFICS A LEADING CAUSE OF POTENTIAL BIAS 

Dan Bauer, managing director and founder of The MBA Exchange, sees it the same way. “Most business schools proudly convey their admissions criteria as a set of traits and attributes they value most when assessing applicants,” Bauer said in an email exchange with Poets&Quants. For example, he says, Harvard Business School asks “Who are we looking for?” and then they respond with the three characteristics of “habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship.” Bauer points out that Stanford’s Graduate School of Business emphasizes three “evaluation criteria” of “intellectual vitality, demonstrated leadership potential, and personal qualities and contributions,” but, he notes, “such attributes are qualitative and generalized, leaving it to application readers and interviewers to rank order candidates based on perceived compliance with the school’s priorities.”

These generalizations are where bias seeps in, Hastings says. Another example he gives is in the evaluation of leadership skills. According to the research, if admissions offices evaluated candidates on leadership skills, a third of the schools would have no definition of leadership. “Applicants are being reviewed using either inconsistent or nonexistent criteria,” Hastings insists. “You could have five or ten reviewers viewing hundreds of applicants each, and each reviewer could have a different definition of what leadership is. If you get Reviewer A, you could be a rockstar leader. If you get Reviewer B, you could have no leadership abilities whatsoever.”

Of the schools that did report having set criteria and definitions, Hastings says, 41% do not actually use the criteria consistently or at all — dropping the number of schools using best practices to an even smaller fraction. “It’s good to have a criteria, but if you’re not actually using the criteria, it’s not worth anything,” Hastings says. “Schools have to define what it is they are looking for in an applicant, build out that rubric, define each competency, and make sure reviewers are on the same criteria.”

THE DREADED ‘BIZARRENESS EFFECT’

Two more areas where bias is believed to be popping up stem from interview and admissions fatigue. According to the research, almost half (43%) of business schools are use only one interviewer to evaluate their candidates. Sometimes, having only one interviewer simply comes down to resource constraints, Hastings says. Still, he believes that only having one interviewer compromises the integrity of the admissions process. Some schools have tried to overcome the potential bias and fatigue by enlisting alumni interviewers. While this could be a solution, Hastings says it also opens doors to more potential biases. “Alumni interviews are great,” he says, “but the issues are, they are usually informal discussions, there might not be a set of standardized questions, and the alumni haven’t been trained to do the interview. And you’re really at the mercy of the person you are talking to at that point.”

Resource constraints are likely a large reason 43% of admissions offices say they experience fatigue during the decision process. “You have almost half of admissions teams complaining about fatigue and burnout,” Hastings notes. “When you’re tired, you’re not making the best decisions — objectivity is not your strong suit. They’re exhausted — and that’s affecting applicant outcomes.”

Two of the most common forms of bias appearing in the study were the “Bandwagon Effect” and “Bizarreness Effect,” Hastings says. The Bandwagon Effect, or groupthink as it’s known in psychology, happens when a team of admissions staff decide to admit or reject an applicant largely because one member of the staff has a strong opinion one way or the other. Hastings says the best way to avoid the Bandwagon Effect is to have two, three, or more admissions staff members look at each applicant.

The Bizarreness Effect occurs when one candidate is admitted over another because they have some sort of unique quality or experience that stands out in a reviewer’s mind. This shows up most in applicants from different socioeconomic groups, Hastings says. “An applicant from a wealthy family,” he says, “has likely had the opportunity to travel the world and do interesting things that might stand out more in an admissions process than someone equally qualified but from a different socioeconomic status who can’t go help elephants in Thailand for a year.”

ALMOST NO ‘CANDOR AND TRANSPARENCY’ COMING FROM ADMISSIONS OFFICES

Hastings says bias is a part of human nature and is nothing schools should be ashamed of. But it is  something schools should be working through, he believes. “Bias cannot be eliminated, but you can reduce it by redesigning your processes accordingly,” he says. “I think it’s hard work to do this, which is why we haven’t seen many schools do it. But they have a moral imperative to do this because education is so important.”

Bauer believes the current state of less-than-transparent processes in admissions offices is a culprit. According to Bauer, there is “little, if any, feedback provided by schools to rejected applicants” to help them understand where they “fell short” in the admissions process or how they can improve their chances if they decide to apply again. “This lack of candor and transparency — even after the admission decision has been made — has the potential to hide bias and, therefore, can foster doubt and distrust among some applicants,” Bauer says.

While it’s unclear which schools are best at addressing bias, he says, it’s safe to assume the vast majority could be doing better. Of the 145 universities to complete the survey, only 0.7% scored a perfect “A+”. Besides the size of admissions staff and resources each admissions office has, Bauer advises considering the “specificity and volume of information requested from applicants.” Or, the more data collected from an applicant, the more “useful” the total application will be in informing an admissions decision.

“Schools that ask precise questions about a candidate’s past, present and future — spanning the professional, personal, and academic aspects — send a clear message that their decision process considers the totality of the applicant’s life and is less likely to be biased,” Bauer says. “In contrast, schools that ask only one question or impose severe length limits on essays receive much less data for making admissions decisions, thus leaving the door open to criticism about the fairness of the process. The perception of bias can be just as discouraging and disheartening for candidates as actual bias.”

DON’T MISS: YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHICH COUNTRY BEAT THE GMAT or YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHO HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL JUST REJECTED

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  • Dodgeboy

    One of the people I mentored from was, Bob Lutz; who said, in his book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business – that at GM design and technology-led glory days at GM but the takeover by “gangs of M.B.A.s” lead to executives, once largely developed from engineering, emerging increasingly from the ranks of .. not product experienced people, but MBAs who use reactionary decision making based largely on the advice of their accounting department (so they steer from the back end from (in my opinion) a limited viewpoint of the “why we are in business” (they would say the share price and the immediate maximization of return to the investor is the core purpose of a business). It is worth noting that both GM and Chrysler recorded VERY profitable balance sheets within 18 months of going under bankruptcy protection. The shareholders “were happy” but there was no foundation behind that “success” except those financial numbers which are based largely on “perception of the short to midterm future” of that continuing. It is basically like commanding a ship from the stern and assuming the purpose of that ship being on its “mission” is all fine and dandy if things at the back are showing an efficient and profitable “steaming” and people all feel they are going to keep rolling along without hitting anything or finding out it was more a “walkabout” than a trip with a destination. The problem with an MBA is that is it not “intellect” but more a honing of the old “fake it until you can make it” certificate that costs a lot and usually requires a prestigious sponsorship, where the pass or fail is based on just confirming you have the messaging down.

  • DACochran

    I do believe that more international students pay full ticket, especially from over-represented countries like India and China. No data to back this up, just anecdotally what I saw as a white male with a 740 GMAT who received great scholarships vs. the cases I’ve seen of Indian and Chinese students with that or higher who got little to no money. My WE and ECs were average.

  • John Doe

    It used to be only U.S. citizens, maybe it is because fewer quality U.S. students want to attend the Cornell MBA program. Money TRUMPS soft skills any day.

  • John Doe

    Where are your statistics?

  • realtalk

    Isn’t it commonly understood that MBA is probably the *least* meritocratic process of almost all graduate programs? Which other types of graduate programs actively select for gender, race, and nationality?

    This is also excluding all the “special” treatment given to certain groups – I’m talking about the exclusive meet and greets deans of HBS / GSB do with top-tier private equity firms and the direct line the HR’s of some of these firms have into the admissions office, not to mention the mega-donor / CEO calls and the “letters of support” that go into these admissions offices.

    This is not to rail against the process. It is what it is, and it captures the nature of the business world.

  • NULL NULL

    Most of the international students, at least from South Asia who come to the US for MBA as opposed to undergrad do not have the capability to pay the tuition. They usually score well on GMAT and mostly rely on the aid. I don’t think that the election result will substantially change schools’ outlook.

  • Matt

    … What? You are talking absolute nonsense. International students are assessed for the same scholarships (some exceptions i.e. Park Fellowship at Johnson) as US students. The reason why there is 35-40% international students in every cohort is because they provide a valuable point of view in discussing and solving business problems. Business is global and will always be global so creating a strong bias towards US citizens will only be detrimental to both the school’s reputation and the experience of the students.

  • To be clear, this study did not look at things like demographics. The closest leap you could make from the study to suggesting demographic bias is the “Bizarreness Effect” where candidates stick out for having some special life experience or quality.

    The bias this study addresses has more to do with unfair decision making based on AdCom fatigue and group think. Simply put, this study points to tired admissions officials not making the best decisions, undefined and unorganized qualities being used to judge candidates, and overpowering individuals making decisions for the entire group — not bias towards profession, nationality, or race.

    Now, all of that could exist in admissions offices, but that’s not what should be inferred from this study or article.

  • DeeFan

    Just another piece of the war against white American males.

  • John Doe

    Oh, let’s start a hot topic. I think there is a financial bias towards admitting international students because they have to pay the full MBA price tag. It appears that 35% to 40% international students comprise the total MBA class for the top MBA programs. With Donald Trump elected, MBA programs may have to start admitting more U.S. students than international students. International students definitely contribute to the community. I prefer the 80-20 rule. You have 80% of student who are US citizens and 20% who are international students. The rule doesn’t have to be exact, a little above or little below. What do you guys think?

  • Tuk Tran

    Of course there is a bias: if you are a woman, a minority, LGBT, work for McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Goldman, Google, Facebook, you have a much better chance to get in, all other things being equal.