Poor “Jane.” She was probably the most determined applicant I wasn’t able to admit. Jane was an international student with nearly perfect grades from a well-known university. Her father had attended our school, and it was her dream to follow in his footsteps. Jane decided to wait until the end of the admissions cycle, to give herself time to take the GMAT for a sixth time. And, while her score was in the right ballpark, the rest of her application fell short. Her essays were generic and suspiciously resembled those from other applicants. Her letters of recommendation offered no detail and could have been written about any applicant.
As is often the case with an applicant who has strong grades and test scores but an otherwise weak application, it all came down to the interview. Jane was very polite and was able to convey her strong desire to attend our program, but—when asked for examples demonstrating her leadership abilities—she stumbled. When questioned about her thoughts on teamwork, she said she preferred to work alone. When asked to demonstrate her impact either at work, school, or with a volunteer organization, she couldn’t answer the question. She ended the interview by assuring me she would get all As in her classes if she was admitted.
A few days later, the admissions committee met for the final time that year. We were down to seven viable candidates competing for the three remaining spots in the class. There were some strong arguments for admitting her—a female candidate with great grades and test scores would surely help our class profile. Yet ultimately, after a thoughtful debate, we offered the remaining spots to other candidates.
NOT ADMITTING JANE STILL BOTHERS ME
Although it was the right call, not admitting Jane still bothers me. Had she better understood the admissions process and made just a few changes in her strategy, she probably would have had the opportunity to attend her dream school. To learn from Jane’s mistakes, let’s take a detailed look at the admissions process from both applicant and program perspectives.
Many applicants think that the application process comprises the tactical completion of a series of tasks required for admission to business school. They also believe that—once those tasks are completed—applying to multiple schools is a simple “cut-and-paste” process. Other applicants suspect that of the numerous admissions requirements, only the quantitative elements (GMAT score and GPA) really matter. Neither hits the mark; the process is much more complex and nuanced.
The admissions process is really about storytelling. It’s about illustrating how your goals align with the strengths of your desired program. It’s about weaving together seemingly disparate components—test scores, letters of recommendation, and essays—into a compelling narrative highlighting not only your ability to succeed academically, but also your desire to be a lifetime contributor to the institution’s community.
MBA ADMISSION DECISIONS BOIL DOWN TO A FEW BASICS QUESTIONS
It’s about showcasing the intangibles—ethics, interpersonal skills, selflessness, leadership potential, and emotional intelligence—required to lead in today’s complicated, global business ecosystem. The process should be an authentic glimpse at who you are and who you want to be. Most importantly, the admissions process is an opportunity to differentiate yourself from the hundreds, if not thousands, of other applicants that may have similar grades and test scores.
For me, the whole process boils down to a few basic questions. The better I feel about the answers to these questions, the more likely I am to recommend admission. After reviewing the application and conducting an interview, if I still don’t know the answers to these questions (or don’t like the answers) it becomes much harder for me to recommend the student for admission to our program. Note: I said “much harder,” not “impossible.” We sometimes admit students we aren’t completely comfortable with for various reasons. However, by better understanding the process, you put yourself in a position to develop a high-quality application, which increases your odds of not only admission, but also financial aid.
Brian Precious has managed the admissions, recruiting, and marketing teams at three major MBA programs — Oregon State University, Purdue University, and, his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Brian’s passion for business school education stems from his own experiences as a student in the Illinois MBA program from 2004-2006. During that time, he gained the skills required to change careers, had the opportunity to start a company, travel the world, and make some of the most enduring friendships of his life. Get In, Get Connected, Get Hired is his first book. Brian can be reached via email at Brian@BrianPrecious.com.