While schools may position social media ‘essays’ as being in the candidates’ best interests, institutions certainly benefit from the free social media marketing and are eager to encourage it.
Tippie requires all entries to be uploaded to the school’s MBA SlideShare channel and incentivizes applicants to promote their own slideshows – the student with the most ‘likes’ gets a $5,000 scholarship. The school has also pledged a full-tuition scholarship to the applicant with the most creative slide deck.
Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business encouraged prospective students to tweet their responses to an essay question under the Twitter hashtag #WhyHoya. Top answers, including those from alumni, were featured in a Facebook album.
But social media isn’t the only option for innovative applications. New York University’s Stern School of Business has invited candidates to submit creative expressions of themselves for nearly two decades. Over the years, the school has received everything from a miniature building with crank-powered lighting to a personalized cereal box, which listed an applicant’s attributes in place of the ingredients, says Isser Gallogly, Stern’s assistant dean of MBA admissions.
The school introduced size constraints after a few applicants adopted the “bigger is better” approach. “Is someone going to send a car next?” Gallogly jokes. “The admissions team also blacklisted previously worn clothing (likely a result of the used marathon sneakers) and food following a shipment of sushi. “By the time it got to us, it didn’t present as well as they expected it to,” Gallogly diplomatically recalls.
Despite a few hiccups, Gallogly says the alternative essay question allows the applicants an opportunity to show a different dimension of themselves – one that can’t always be captured in traditional essay questions, GMAT scores and references. “It’s a blank slate. They can use it to tell us what makes them unique and what makes them special,” he says.
The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business also experimented with a non-essay option early on. In the 2007-2008 application cycle, candidates were required to submit four slides to help illustrate “who you will be in their class and how you will stand out,” according to the guidelines.
Kurt Ahlm, Booth’s associate dean of student recruitment and admissions, says the slide question allowed the school to get at aspects of candidates that might otherwise fall through the cracks. “There’s a finite amount of real estate in the application. We ask very specific things for very specific reasons, but presumably there are things left out of this that you’d like to communicate,” he explains. “One of the things about Booth is that we really like to see how people think, how they deal with ambiguity, so we wanted to take a radical departure from the standard essay.”
The experiment proved successful, he says, and the school continued the four-slide ‘essay’ through the 2012-2013 application season. Although the question bans embedding links, videos and social media in the slides, Ahlm suggests that this could change in the future. “I never say never,” he says. “I don’t think anything is off the table.”
But the question remains: Are these unconventional ‘essays’ helping admissions committees get a better sense of the real candidate? Schafer certainly seems to think so – at least in terms of staying a few steps ahead of the application consultants. “It’s going to take a little bit of time for consultants to catch up with new technology and uses for new technology,” she says. “This is more complicated than shaping an essay.”
B-schools are also using nontraditional essays to tease out specific personality traits that help them assess “fit” – a slippery but increasingly common admissions criteria. “We’re looking for people who not only have high I.Q., but really high E.Q. and emotional intelligence. We talk about an education in possible and part of possible is what’s next, what are creative ideas. This is a platform for people to talk about that,” Stern’s Gallogly says. “It can bring a candidate to life in a different way.”
For Georgetown’s Hubert, the success of the nontraditional essay depends on an applicant’s willingness to take a few risks. When McDonough introduced the tweet essay last year, most students shied away from embedding photos or links. But that doesn’t mean it has been a failure. “If there is a good opportunity to really differentiate yourself – this is it,” she says. “We hope people will take more risks and allow us into other aspects of their lives to really get across why they value the Georgetown MBA.”
Booth’s Ahlm says innovations to the traditional application are part of a natural evolution – candidates and business schools are using technology in new ways, and admissions committees should pay attention. “It’s interesting to watch what schools are doing and what new thoughts and innovations are coming out….it makes this landscape very exciting.”
The days of the traditional application essay are dwindling. What remains to be seen is its replacement. If these last few years offer any clues, you can bet it will involve social media.