Applying for admission to a top business school’s MBA program can be a emotional roller coaster for many people. A universal low point is studying for and taking the GMAT exam. A universal high point is receiving an acceptance call from an admissions officer of a school you really want to attend.
But rarely has a school systematically mapped out the journey of typical MBA candidates until now. Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business recently embarked on a soul-searching mission not often seen in higher education – to take an introspective look at the admissions experience. The goal: To make changes that would lead to a more customer-focused application process for prospective students.
The unusual initiative was driven by Shari Hubert, associate dean of MBA admissions at McDonough. She wanted to use a stakeholder perspective in the school’s admissions office and believed the study would help. “As someone new to the space, I wanted to be in the shoes of the applicant and see admissions from their experience,” says Hubert, who joined McDonough in December of 2012 after a career in campus recruiting with the Peace Corps, Citigroup, and General Electric.
PUTTING AN ADMISSIONS TEAM IN THE SHOES OF THE APPLICANTS
“I wanted to make sure that our team put ourselves in their shoes. No matter what the decision, whether they choose us or we chose them, we want there to be good will throughout the process. I also want to win more than I lose, but at the end of the day it’s appreciating the hard work that goes into a process like this. We wanted to make sure we didn’t make it anymore challenging for applicants. For us, it’s about trying to be as transparent and customer-centric as possible.”
To help with the project, Hubert used Peer Insight, an innovation consulting firm that uses design thinking to map customer experiences. A couple of years ago, the same firm helped the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business to map out the entire two-year MBA experience. Georgetown also partnered on the project with Southwark Consulting, the firm founded by former Clear Admit co-founder Graham Richmond. “We engaged all 11 of us on the admissions team, from the receptionist to me,” recounts Hubert. “I wanted everyone to participate.” Hubert believes the initiative has had several other benefits, including reenergizing the admissions staff. “It teaches your team a new way of thinking and brainstorming,” she says. The entire team was put through the four phases of design thinking: The What Is, What If, What Wows, and What Works. “It’s a continuous iterative process.”
Kicking off the exercise in June, the group interviewed a dozen different applicants. To map the full range of applicant experiences, some of the candidates were admitted to McDonough and declined, others put down a deposit but did not matriculate, while others were wait listed and several were admitted. The goal of the interviews was to gain detailed information on what they experienced throughout the process, from the very first thought of pursuing an MBA to the day they arrive on campus as students. Interviewers asked applicants what was important to them throughout the journey, on both an emotional and analytical level. In all, the team tracked 22 different steps in the application process and then measured the emotional ups and down of candidates through each step.
INSIGHTS FROM ‘NEUROTIC NICK,’ ‘MR. EFFICIENT,’ AND THE ‘PROCRASTINATOR’
Among the interviewed candidates was “Neurotic Nick,” an applicant who was admitted but declined the school’s offer. “I need definitive answers sooner,” he told interviewers. “I need a more high touch experience when being wait listed. I need to fell connected, part of a community of peers; I need to feel wanted by a school.”
There was “Mr. Efficient,” a strong candidate with a 730 GMAT who was admitted, given no scholarship and matriculated. “I need to access and receive information in a clearer way, particularly when on boarding,” he said. “I need a low-risk way to pursue my MBA. I need to feel a connection during the interview and feel like I’m valued.”
And then there was the “Procrastinator,” a 640-GMAT candidate who was admitted, put down a deposit but did not matriculate. “I need to go to a brand name school for my career,” he told the interviewers. “I need more communication to know the process is moving and that the schools cares. I need easier access to alumni. I need a collaborative, social culture.”
THE SCHOOL ALSO SURVEYED NEARLY 1,000 PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS
The interviews resulted in a journey map that shows the high and low points for different types of prospective students as they ‘journey’ throughout the admissions process. The quantitative survey shed light on the factors prospective students consider when assessing an MBA program, their motivations, how they gather data about MBA programs, and their perceptions of McDonough.
Southwark also surveyed nearly 1,000 prospective students. The survey was used to gain a better understanding of perceptions of the school as well as to help admissions benchmark itself against peer institutions. Hubert discovered that third-party validation from others—whether through traditional media or social media—was critical to the perceptions formed by prospective students. She also found out that consistent interaction from admissions personnel to school alum was a key to favorable impressions. “We also realized our location in D.C. is a benefit, but it was validated by this process,” she says. “The fact that we are on a campus in an urban setting was viewed as a benefit. It feels more like a community and students feel more supported because of it.”
One surprise takeaway from the survey was the group of schools viewed as peers. Prospective students named nine different schools with which Georgetown’s business school typically competes: the University of Virginia, Cornell, the University of North Carolina, Duke, New York University, Yale, Michigan, USC, and UT-Austin.
Adds Richmond of Southwark Consulting: “Georgetown is in a challenging spot because it frequently goes head-to-head against Darden, Cornell and NYU. So they are forced to compete with higher ranked schools on a regular basis. What plays in their favor is the halo effect on McDonough from the university and their highly desirable location. If you want to be in D.C., McDonough is the big game in town. Georgetown is the brand.”
The prospect survey was distinct from the mapping project. “I wanted to conduct both a study on how prospects perceived the Georgetown McDonough brand relative to other select schools so that it would help us better formulate our marketing strategy and MBA program value proposition,” explains Hubert. “The journey mapping was about continuous improvement of our practices and processes so that we can provide better customer service and understanding and appreciation for those who actually apply.”