The Highs & Lows Of An Applicant’s Journey To Business School

Shari Hubert, associate dean of MBA admissions at Georgetown

Shari Hubert, associate dean of MBA admissions at Georgetown


In any case, the mapping project has yielded numerous insights for the school to improve admissions. “It has been eye opening for us to see the highs and lows and pain points of applicants,” adds Hubert. “The low for every single persona is taking the GMAT. Once they submitted an application there was a release, but then there is an immediate low from the time they submit to when the decision is rendered. From their perspective, it comes from an inability to control their fate or their future. Most applicants feel there is not a lot of transparency at that point. It’s like a black box.“

The study has already led to several changes in admission practices at McDonough, ranging from how the admissions team conducts info sessions to sending out a new video to applicants who are admitted. McDonough says it saw a 41% increase in applications in Round 1. “I couldn’t tell you with any certainty that it was due to the Journey Mapping at this early stage in the game,” concedes Hubert. “We are trying to assess if it’s a result of overall industry trends or our bump in rankings and recent media mentions or our digital marketing campaign. The real test will be what happens in Round 2.”


Overall, the study led to some big surprises. “You know candidates are going to feel highs and lows and I would have expected taking the GMAT would be a low,” says Richmond of Southwark Consulting. “At a minimum, it’s a hassle for people. But there is a surprising low for candidates after they have applied. It’s not just, ‘I’m waiting around for an answer.’ They’ve put in all this time, doing the GMAT, writing the essays, and corralling the recommendations, and all they get from most schools is an automated form letter acknowledging that their application was received. So people just poured their heart and soul in the process. It’s a big decision and a risk. And they are often let down after they press submit because no one is acknowledging all this work.”

Those kinds of insights are already leading to substantial changes in the way McDonough approaches prospective students and applicants to its MBA program. All this is easier said than done, of course, because not everyone experiences the application process the same way. In fact, Hubert and her consultants ultimately came around to viewing the journey from four discrete archetypes or personas of applicants:

1) The ‘Good Feeling’ Seeker: This applicant wants to click with those she interacts with and may be swayed by an event where she connects with someone from her industry or a beautiful day on campus. The candidate tends to seek opportunities for multiple interactions with the school and may approach the MBA as a chance for adventure and exploration. Ultimately, she decides on an MBA program with her gut based on how the school made her feel.

2) The Goal-Oriented Ghost: So-named because these applicants generally don’t need to engage much with a school. He has a shorter list of criteria, typically location, rankings and cost. The person may have other constraints including location due to a spouse’s work obligations or a decision to keep working full-time. The candidate has a good idea of what an MBA will do for him, applies to fewer programs and is very methodical and efficient with applications, finding little need to attend extra events.

3) The Data Enthusiast: This person wants to weigh her options thoroughly and may have a decision matrix. She looks at the statistics behind the rankings and appreciates detailed information on school websites and materials. The applicant is constantly refining her school list and may need extra time when making decisions. She definitely feels the weight of the decision.

4) The Fit Questioner: This applicant has a good idea of his future goals so a school’s focus and programs are particularly important. He seeks both an intellectual and cultural fit, wanting to be a part of a like-minded community where people share his values on business and learning. He may take multiple trips to school to assess fit.


The personas, explains Natalie Foley, chief operating officer of Peer Insight, “are meant to be muses to think of new ways of doing things,” she says. “Some people might straddle one or two personas or they might move around.”

Each persona has common and different highs and lows. “There are stark differences between asking for a recommendation,” says Foley. “Two personas like it. and two did not like it at all. The ‘Fit Questioner’ and the ‘Good-Feeling Seeker’ take a more emotional approach. They saw essays as a good chance to be introspective where those who took a data-driven approach were less interested in the essays and the recommendations. The data-driven folks thought these steps were just one more hoop to jump through. But the people who were hoping for an emotional fit saw essays and recommendations a chance to show they were a good fit for the school.”

Such differences among candidates in an applicant pool can make adjustments to admissions policies more difficult. The school also doesn’t yet know what percentage of each persona actually applies to McDonough. Still, much can be done to improve the overall experience, believes Hubert who points out other unexpected findings in the data. “We were surprised that ‘mulling the decision’ tended to be a low,” adds Hubert. “If you got an accept, that means the ball is in your court. But it can be very hard to decide which program to choose. It can be daunting for some people. Data enthusiasts say there were so many factors and no perfect choice. To hear that in the voice of these people was fascinating.”

The insights led to immediate changes in admissions procedures at McDonough. “We decided to segment our interactions with admitted students, current students and alumni and make sure we are more targeted in connecting people with similar interests and goals with each other. We’re also inviting more admits to events where they can see current MBA students in action. This is not a show for admits but rather ongoing events in the normal course of the MBA program.”

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.