A Refreshingly Candid Conversation About The Current MBA Applicant Market

MBA applicationWith just 40 days to go before the first round deadline for MBA applications at the Harvard Business School, the month of August is going to be a pressure-filled month for thousands of hopeful applicants. And after Harvard’s Sept. 9th date for early bird applicants, the deadlines quickly fall onto the calendar for one school after another.

So what are smart and ambitious applicants doing right now? What are they most worried about? How are they shaping their stories to increase their odds of getting into a great business school?

For a pulse of the applicant market right now we turned to one of the more outspoken and candid MBA admission consultants who has been advising graduate school candidates for many years. Adam Hoff, a principal of the Amerasia Consulting Group, knows the business from two angles. He had been associate director of admissions at his alma mater, Pepperdine University, where he reviewed more than 1,000 files in each of the three years he served in the job.

Hoff then took a detour, earning a J.D. in entrepreneurship law from the University of Chicago before taking an associate position with Sidley Austin. Law wasn’t for him. After a year with Austin, one of the ten largest law firms in the world, Hoff became director of admissions consulting for Veritas Prep where he spent three years. At Amerasia, he has worked with more than 100 clients in the past several years.

Our interview:

‘Candidates seem really obsessed with this idea of differentiation’

 

Poets&Quants: So Adam what are you seeing out there in the marketplace as the first crop of candidates in this admission cycle ready their applications?

Hoff: Differentiation. Candidates seem really obsessed with this idea of differentiation, but what I am trying to impress upon them is if they A) are honest and personal in the process, and B) have great apps, they will become different. They don’t need a marketing strategy to show why they are different from other people in X, Y, Z group. It’s really weird how obsessed people have become with benchmarking against straw men candidates, especially within their industries. I attribute it to bounded rationality (they only see the people they work with and hang out with, so they have a warped view of the entire pool) and also to the influence of admissions consultants, quite honestly. Many consultants market all kinds of weird branding services, which has the impact of bending perception to a really ridiculous place. I’ve been spending a ton of time reeducating people on this.

‘The ultimate X factor is self-confidence’

 

Poets&Quants: What else? To the extent that getting into a great school is more than just putting up terrific numbers on your GMAT and GPA, what really makes a difference?

Hoff: Confidence. The ultimate X Factor in this process is having confidence. It’s a great divide between the haves and have nots. Amazingly, confidence is something people can decide to have or even fake, yet candidates often go the other way – once they feel fear or find something to worry about, they become a puddle of nerves.

Many of today’s applicants are often so desperate to remove ambiguity or be told they are good, that they will even go ask decision-makers for affirmation. They try to find consensus out there on every point, they want assurance at every turn … it all has a way of bleeding into the process and making them seem weaker as candidates.

I sometimes miss the entitled guys from four or five years ago, to be honest. The good news is that I have been literally training my clients how to be confident in the face of their fears and uncertainties (some fun techniques here, ranging from something a homicide cop taught me to things I pulled from studying a french woman’s extensive studies on charisma) and it seems to be working. But this has been a major point of discussion, much to my surprise.

‘The mistake is that applicants think it’s easier to apply’

 

Poets&Quants: This year many schools have cut back on the number of required essays and word counts in their applications, following the big changes put through by Harvard Business School two years ago. What is your take on all this?

Hoff: I feel most people are seeing the reduction in essays in the wrong light, or an incomplete light. Sure, schools might be trying to reduce barriers and get more apps, but I think it’s just as likely that they are playing copycat to HBS and/or they are playing into perceived generational trends (“today’s applicant only thinks in 140 characters or less” and all that).

It’s like when all the buzz a few years ago was about schools “getting younger.” HBS did it on purpose and then everyone else just followed suit, either because of Harvard or because the app pool got younger – not necessarily because they intentionally wanted younger applicants. So the cause and effect gets a bit distorted on this stuff. The mistake I am seeing clients make is to think that it’s “easier” when there are fewer essays. It’s actually much, much harder. The schools may or may not be intending this, but they are creating enormous amounts of ambiguity, which is actually turning out to be a great test of who has the right stuff.

For instance, it is much harder to tackle Booth’s new question with confidence or be assertive on an open-ended HBS essay than it is to just answer all six of INSEAD’s questions. I am really happy about the essay trends, even if I think the reasons are either unknown or somewhat misunderstood. The net effect seems to be a really good thing.

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.