The MBA Gatekeeper At MIT Sloan

So were you happy with the quality of your first pool of applicants this year? 

To tell you the truth, I am so buried in it I haven’t had much time to reflect on it. It’s just one of those things. You put it out there and do whatever it takes to do it. The reality is the mix is different every year. The pool is big and the pool is strong. It highlights how important the interview is. There are people with incredible scores and accomplishments, yet people sometimes come to an interview over prepared and flat.

Still, I imagine you just experienced what most admissions directors consider their favorite part of the job: telling people they were accepted into your school?

That’s true. Making those calls is my favorite part of the job. I can’t wait to do that. When I get to call applicants and give them good news, I know it can literally change their lives. I’m a bit of a cryer so i get welled up and teary-eyed when I make these calls. Sometimes there is just a pause. sometimes there are tears on the other end. Can I get off the phone now and call my parents or my wife? It’s raw emotion on the other side of the phone. And then later on people will tell you when they saw the phone number pop up that they were sitting there waiting for that call. I think they probably count one or two rings and then they’ll answer. What we try to do is have the people who interview make the call. At least that’s what we try to do. It doesn’t always work out.

What happens to an application once it is received by your office?

Every application is randomly assigned to a reader. We have a dedicated admissions committee made up of full-time people and experienced contract readers. It varies in size depending on the cycle and the number of applications we receive. It’s around a dozen people. We do have regular meetings with readers to insure that we are calibrating. When I say something is good, I want all of us to be talking the same language.

We have a structured scorecard where people are asked to evaluate on different criteria. All of our work is done on the iPad. After they read an application, they make a recommendation on whether someone should move forward in the process which would lead to an invite to an interview. Nothing is done by one person. We have a smaller committee composed of a handful of people who evaluate all of those recommendations and decides who comes for an interview.

The first reader is saying whether we should interview them—and not accepting or rejecting a candidate. So there are times when an interviewer’s recommendation is overturned because we interview some incredibly strong people. The recommendation to admit is far more than the number of students we can have. The simple math doesn’t quite work in these situations.

We had eight interviewers for round one—all dedicated staffers, and it is not a blind interview. Our interviewers have read the entire file, along with the first reader’s comments and recommendations. it’s a very small group, including myself. I just spent two weeks in India, Israel, London, Madrid, and Paris, interviewing almost every day including weekends except for a little bit of time to travel from one place to another.

We don’t use students or alumni to evaluate applicants because 1) our students and alumni are busy and engaged with the school in other ways and 2) we want to make sure our process is consistent and we meet regularly to calibrate.

I would imagine that at times it must all be a blur. How could you possibly remember who you interview?

It really isn’t a blur. This is an incredibly important 30 or 45 minutes and during that time I am completely focused on them. We also use a scorecard to grade candidates on their interview and it is similar to the first one. Our interviewers are also evaluating personal presence. So you are building on the comments of the first reader and it all leads to a summary and another recommendation. That all gets consolidated and we then have a committee which is meeting to build the class. It’s not just based on the interview. It’s all of the input we have gathered up until that point.

Can a single person on the committee torpedo a candidate?

If someone is really strongly against a person we would continue to discuss the applicant. It’s not like a jury where everyone has to raise their hand and agree. But we want everybody in the room to be comfortable with the decision. The interesting conversations are around the candidates who potentially demonstrated a lot of our qualities but have a relatively lower GPA. I can’t think of any decision that is made in isolation by one person. The process is thorough, and it is repeatable.

What’s the most challenging part of the job for you?

Picking an MBA class of 400 is tough because there are so many high quality applicants and it is an honor and a privilege to hear their stories. It is a benefit that we have a small tight-knit community, but it is a challenge to have to choose among the great applicants.

You do run into people who haven’t been admitted. Having a conversation with them, you have to be very sensitive. But for many of those who have been turned down, it’s simply not a good fit. Even so, you feel bad that those people were let down.

At MIT, we have a very open campus so we often get many visitors. People will show up Christmas week, and many people on the wait list will call with updates and will come by. There will be a lot of interaction with our wait list candidates. We encourage that. We want to know people really want to come to MIT. If something happens to an applicant on the wait list—like a promotion or a reward—it can be significant and it can make a difference.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.