Inside The Mind Of An MBA Admissions Officer

An excerpt from the newly published book Get In, Get Connected, Get Hired by Brian Precious

An excerpt from the newly published book Get In, Get Connected, Get Hired by Brian Precious

So, what are the key questions I ask every time I review an application or conduct an interview?

Can Jane handle the academic rigor of our program? 

The last thing I want to do is set students up for failure by admitting them to a program when they don’t have the academic skills necessary for success. It’s very important that students are successful because successful students become engaged alumni. Engaged alumni help our program get better over time by mentoring students, providing job and internship opportunities, and sharing their professional skills with our students.

To gauge whether a student will be able to handle the rigor of our program, I typically review transcripts, test scores, and letters of recommendation. The perfect applicant would have a strong GPA from a well-known and academically rigorous university in a scientific, engineering, math-related, or business field. These credentials—coupled with a strong GMAT score and a letter of recommendation from a respected faculty member, confirming the student’s work ethic and ability to master new tasks quickly—would make for a very strong application. Bonus points may go to an applicant with a master’s or PhD in a related field, or to someone with extensive work experience in a field requiring the constant learning of difficult concepts (this would be ascertained from the resume and the letters of recommendation).

Of course, no applicant is perfect. If you have lower grades, or decent grades in a nontechnical field, I’m going to look more heavily at your GMAT score—particularly the quantitative section—than I would if you had a 3.8 GPA in computer engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If your overall GPA is low but your grades improved over time, that’s better than the other way around. In that case, it demonstrates a more recent pattern of academic success. If your undergraduate grades are low but you have been successful taking courses more recently, that can help assure me you will be academically successful. Also, the longer you have been out of school, the more your professional experience and letters of recommendation outweigh your grades. However, if you are hoping to join our program straight out of your undergraduate studies, your grades are going to be weighted heavily, since I don’t have a lot of other information (e.g., work experience) to guide my decision.

Jane hit this one out of the park. She had excellent grades from a great university in a technical field. In addition, she had a very strong GMAT score, particularly in the quantitative section. I have absolutely no doubt that she will be successful in her classes.

Are Jane’s career goals well outlined, and do they correspond with the strengths of our program? 

Again, my goal is to admit students who are going to be successful both in the program and beyond. Those who come in focused and interested in an area that aligns with our school’s strengths are likely to have a great experience, making the program better for their classmates and leaving with an excellent job offer (or, quite preferably, several offers). Those lacking focus are more likely to struggle academically and not connect with classmates, alumni, and potential employers.

Jane’s application left me with more questions than answers in this area. She talked about wanting to work in the United States for a few years before returning home to join the family business. She didn’t say what she wanted to do, and she didn’t tie it back to our program. I definitely have some concerns here.

Can Jane communicate effectively, both orally and in writing? 

Communication skills are of critical importance, both during the program and beyond. Being able to cogently articulate an argument, clearly document findings and recommendations, and develop a high-impact presentation are requirements for success in any MBA program. More importantly, these skills are required by employers everywhere. According to a recent study conducted by Bloomberg Businessweek, excellent communication skills are among the least common but most desired skills across all industries.

To gauge communication skills, I review the essays and personal statement, of course. But, I also consider all communications the applicant has had with our team. Sending a terse or unclear email to a student worker or administrative professional is a red flag for me. So are essays or personal statements that contain multiple spelling and grammar mistakes. The biggest red flag of all is an essay that does not appear to have been written by the applicant.

While her basic understanding of the English language was good, Jane was not a great communicator. After reading her essays (which I’m not positive she wrote herself—more on this later), I don’t feel I understand who she is and where she’s going. During the interview, she was stiff and had difficulty answering some basic questions. More concerns.

  • Brian

    Fair enough, Jane was an extreme case. However, many students I work with focus more on test scores then really putting a quality application together. Understanding how truly multi-faceted the admissions process is (or should be) may be helpful to some students. Also, in the book, the rest of the chapter breaks down each component (LORs, Essays, Interview, etc) and offers specific tips applicable to even more qualified applicants. – Brian

  • Pseudonym

    I’m sorry, but I did not find this article to be useful for me, and I suspect that it is probably not useful for the average P&Q reader. The applicant described in this article is so far off the mark, that it is really difficult for anybody to relate to her. The applicant clearly knows nothing about the MBA admissions process and has screwed up almost every aspect of her application in the most egregious manner. It would be much more meaningful for P&Q readers to learn about an applicant who is well informed and has actually nailed most parts of her application, but has unknowingly slipped up in just one or two critical areas.

  • Brian

    Interesting perspective, thanks for sharing. While there’s nothing wrong with preferring to work alone and there’s certainly nothing wrong with being an introvert (I’m actually one myself), employers of MBA graduates are typically looking for those who can lead teams and manage others. Therefore, as MBA admissions officers, it makes sense to screen for this trait. I think the point of the excerpt is that there’s more than one thing on our minds when we review an application or conduct an interview. Teamwork is just one of the traits I’m looking for.

  • bschoolalum

    I am so tired of b schools’ obsession with “teamwork”. While a stellar team will always outperform a stellar individual, those stellar teams are rare. B Schools often force teamwork upon its students, stifling originality and creativity many times. What I hate about the author’s article about teamwork is his implication that teamwork is always better than individual work. There seems to be some sort of stigma against being introverted and preferring to work alone.

  • Brian

    Thanks Tad!

  • Tad Brinkerhoff

    Brian, thanks for your insights. Admissions is more art than science. These comments will be useful to applicants as they seek to present the big picture. Great book by the way.

  • Brian

    Thanks JKM! In my experience, I’ve found students who pursue the degree for right reasons, find the right program for their unique needs and take advantage of all curricular, extra-curricular and experiential learning opportunities typically have the best outcomes. Thanks for you insights.

  • JKM

    Spot on, Brian. As an associate dean & director of a highly ranked MBA program for 13+ years, your comments are right on target. In an effort to improve rankings one year, we aggressively recruited high GMAT students and to some extent ignored many of the other aspects of their application. Unfortunately, these students often were not engaged in our MBA community, many were “problem children” w.r.t. their groups and frequently had attitudes that did not result in favorable internship or job interviews. A curious thing also happened to several of these “academically gifted” students, they failed to meet academic standards and were placed on academic probation. While I have no firm evidence as to why this happened, I feel that it was due to their failure to connect with their team which caused them to miss much of the out-of-class discussions that addressed the nuances and subtleties of complex business decisions.