There’s not a smiley face on the door to the Columbia Business School admissions office, but there might as well be. It may come as a surprise that one of the most renowned business schools in the world puts a heavy emphasis on a quality so soft as a personable manner, but to the admissions committee, affability is a marker for a capacity deeply important to the effective functioning of the program. The warm smile, the caring, considerate nature, the respectful engagement all signify that an applicant fits one of the school’s most critical criteria: beyond test scores and GPA, beyond career achievements, MBA students at Columbia must play well with others.
“If you come here, we have a special thing,” says Michael Robinson, senior associate director of admissions. “Amanda, our leader, she actually likes nice people. It really matters to her. Someone who is very accomplished, but a bit of a jerk, but gets great test scores, gets passed on.”
The Columbia team also keep their antennae up for insincerity. “Sometimes you interact with folks where they’re very transactional: ‘You have something I want, so I’m going to be nice to you or pretend that I am until I get what I want, then move on,’” Robinson says. “We try to avoid those people. Sometimes they kind of rub three or four (team members) the wrong way. We’re trying to find people who are genuine.”
‘CHECK YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR’
Again, sincerity is a marker for the ability to collaborate. “The culture of Columbia is really one of inclusion,” assistant dean of admissions Amanda Carlson says. “That’s something that we’re looking for – the humility that you’re going to learn from these people. You’ll check your ego at the door. You want people who are going to be able to cultivate relationships, and not be transactional.” Indeed, Carlson relates, in the Q&A below, a somewhat appalling example of the transactional approach, as used by a potential applicant, at an admissions event, who revealed himself to be a walking cocktail of ignorance, bad judgment, and incivility.
In Columbia Business School’s admissions office, they want to know what an applicant would give to the MBA program, but they also want to know what the applicant will get. Many who apply make a key tactical error, Carlson says. In their essays, in their interviews, they tell the admissions committee what they think its members want to hear. Often, they’re wrong. Yes, adcom members want to know how an applicant plans to contribute to the program, the classes, and MBA candidate peers. But they also want to hear about what an applicant thinks he or she will receive from the program – what the program will do for them in their lives and careers.
“In an application it is absolutely OK for candidates to think selfishly about what they want to derive from their experiences at school,” Carlson says. The more an applicant focuses on what they think admissions wants to hear, the worse their application will be, Carlson says.
THE REQUIRED STRATEGIC ROADMAP
Adds admissions director Emily French Thomas, “They really should be thinking about making sure they’re expressing what their goals are, and clearly thinking strategically, giving us a sense of what’s important to them as individuals and how they are strategically thinking about using the MBA to get where they want to go.
“Sometimes we get asked questions from prospective students about, ‘How do I stand out? How do I make myself more appealing to the admissions committee?’ The truth is all the applicant can do is be themselves.”
That said, once an applicant has done the research about the school and conducted the introspection to come up with an effective pitch concerning how they would benefit from the program, they do indeed need to figure out how they would contribute, what they would give, Robinson says. “To do that they need to do some detailed due diligence and figure out, ‘Where will I make a mark?’” he says.