Last year Poets&Quants wrote about the “incredible shrinking MBA app” – top schools were slashing essays, cutting word counts and dropping questions. Harvard, Stanford, MIT and Kellogg had all trimmed down the written requirements for candidates in the 2012-2013 application cycle.
The trend toward essay minimization doesn’t show signs of letting up. This year even more B-schools are opting to shave off entire essays or trim word counts. UCLA’s Anderson School of Management is the latest top B-school to reduce the essay requirements for its 2013-2014 application. Candidates will submit a single essay after the school eliminated one of two questions from last year. Shortly before UCLA Anderson’s announcement, U Penn’s Wharton School had dropped its application essay count from three to two.
“I’ve been in the admissions business for 16 years, and I’ve seen big swings of the pendulum in one direction or the others,” says Chioma Isiadinso, CEO of admissions consultancy Expartus. “A few years ago it was more, more, more – now schools are going for less and scaling back,” she says.
Schools opt to drop essays for a variety of reasons: some to attract more candidates, others to lessen the burden on admissions staffs and applicants and still others in response to candidate feedback – or, more likely, for a combination of these reasons.
In UCLA Anderson’s case, the school found that the information in an essay that asked students to describe their proudest achievement outside the of workplace was redundant with information elsewhere in the application, according to Craig Hubbell, Anderson’s director of operations for MBA admissions. “We already get a good picture of their past,” he says. “There’s so much in the application that covers that territory already – the forms, the resume and the interview. We wanted to remove some distractions so they can focus on making a great case about their future and why they want an MBA from Anderson,” he says.
The logic goes that candidates will now have more time to focus on fleshing out the remaining question: “What are your short-term and long-term career goals, and how will an MBA from UCLA Anderson specifically help you achieve these goals?” Plus, it makes the application process a bit less tedious and cuts the chances that students will recycle phrases from other B-school essays, he adds.
Ankur Kumar, Wharton’s admissions director, says the school opted to cut its applications essays down to two this year after past applicants suggested the process was too much. We’re always trying to strike a balance between taking up candidates’ time and getting information, Kumar says.
Seemingly, the shrinking essays should be a boon for applicants. Fewer words translates to less work for some students. But candidates are then left with the challenge of packing their dreams and aspirations into a single essay in some cases. “Going down to one essay makes it harder and more stressful on the serious applicant. They have to convey a full picture of themselves, and it’s less obvious how to do this,” says MBA admissions consultant Stacy Blackman. “On the surface, of course, fewer essays feels easier, but it’s more challenging to get it right.”
At Anderson, candidates now have 700 fewer words, collectively, to make their case for admission. However, Hubbell suggests that this is where other parts of the application figure in. “Applicants will inevitably ask, ‘How are you going to get to know me?’ he says. “There are multiple places in the application and the interview where they could cover all the ground that used to be covered in Essay 1.”
Interviews are a key component to this. So much so that Anderson revamped its interview process to allow second-year MBAs to interview applicants instead of alumni. Tapping current students allows the school to exercise more quality control over the interview process. These MBAs are also more in tune to the school’s culture and current curriculum than alumni who may have graduated decades ago, Hubbell says. This makes them better suited to weigh in on their successors, he adds.
Aspiring MBAs can also benefit from the interview process. “People are using verbal communication skills all day, every day, but writing a business school essay is usually a once-in-a lifetime thing,” he says. “With the interviews you get a sense of applicants’ energy levels and we can tell the level of excitement and diligence they have about or school – if they’ve talked to people or done research about what we offer, that comes through very readily in the interview.”
No doubt a handful of B-schools are hoping that fewer or shorter essays will attract more candidates. However, some MBA consultants predict that the caliber of applications could suffer. “[The applicant pool] will grow in size and decrease in overall quality,” Blackman predicts on the trend to strike off essay requirements.
Hubbell disagrees. B-schools applications are rigorous, and one fewer essay doesn’t change that, he says. “We don’t anticipate that the quality or number of applicants will change. It’s just the medium through which they express themselves will change.”
Perhaps the biggest perk for aspiring MBAs is a clear push from B-schools to focus on the entire application. “This has always been discussed as a holistic process with essays, interview, recommendations, numbers all contributing to overall decision,” Blackman says. “And yet people have really focused in on essays and sometimes neglected other aspects. This type of rebalancing helps the applicants to view the application in a more balanced, more accurate way.”