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

Does Jane demonstrate leadership skills or potential? 

This is probably one of the most important questions I ask when reviewing an application. As we’ve already discussed, MBA programs are designed to help those who wish to lead organizations. Good leaders are so important, yet so rare. My goal is to identify and prioritize the admission of those who can demonstrate that they are already good leaders, or those who can show they have the desire and potential to become good leaders.

So, where do I look for evidence of leadership skills or potential? The personal statement and essays are important. In these, I’m looking for evidence that you have made a positive impact on the organizations and companies with which you’ve been affiliated. I’m not expecting a twenty-two-year-old to have run a major corporation, but I would like to see that you’ve been active in student organizations. In the essays, I’m also looking for information about your leadership style. Writing about your thought process as you faced a tough problem, or how you brought people with differing beliefs together, can be a positive differentiator. Finally, I’m looking for examples of how you intend to enhance the student learning community. Mentioning your desire to participate in or lead specific clubs, or talking about starting a new one, demonstrates your intent to lead as a student.

Leadership was not a strong point for Jane. Her application failed to highlight any relevant experiences, and during the interview she confirmed she doesn’t enjoy working in groups, and was not involved in any extracurricular activities as an undergraduate student.

Does Jane conduct herself honorably and ethically? 

Sadly, it’s not hard to think of numerous examples of unethical leaders destroying companies, defrauding investors, and harming their customers. MBA programs tend to place graduates in leadership positions, and I see it as a moral obligation to verify that those I am considering for admission to our program have a solid understanding of the importance of ethical behavior.

To answer the question of whether I believe the applicant will behave ethically, I utilize every aspect of the application. I look at the essays and letters of recommendation to see if the applicant has ever been placed in a difficult ethical situation and learn what his or her response was. I also carefully review the essays to verify that they were actually written by the applicant. On occasion, I’ve phoned a recommender to get additional details about some information depicted in a letter of recommendation. Every now and then, I’ve come across a made-up letter of recommendation (either the supposed recommender or company doesn’t exist) and this always, always, always leads to an immediate denial of admission, regardless of the applicant’s other qualifications.

The best advice I can give is to demonstrate your understanding of the importance of ethics in business school and beyond. Talk about difficult situations you’ve faced, and walk the reader through your thought process, the actions you took, and the results.

Unfortunately for Jane, she did not receive his advice. During her interview, I noticed a disconnect between her speaking skills and her essays; while her essays contained a lot of big words and complex ideas, she preferred very brief answers during the interview. Furthermore, when I asked about some of the content in her essays, she had a hard time relaying some of the information she supposedly wrote. I’m now very suspicious that she did not write her own essays, which is a huge red flag. This not only makes me question her ethics, but also makes me wonder if she will be able to succeed in her writing-intensive coursework.

Will Jane be a good team member? Would I want to work with her? 

Like communication skills, the ability to be an effective team member is a critical success factor both in business school and in the “real world.” I would much rather have someone in my program who has lower grades or test scores but has exceptional interpersonal skills and an orientation toward teamwork than the other way around.

It’s pretty easy to spot good team players. They tend to use we more than I in their essays and during their interviews. Their recommenders highlight their team-oriented nature and offer examples illustrating their ability to function in a highly collaborative environment. Some applicants bring to the interview a portfolio of group projects on which they have worked.

Jane underwhelmed in this area as well. In her essays, she said she prefers working alone to teamwork. None of her letters of recommendation indicate that she’s a team player. That’s a problem because most of our coursework is done in teams. Furthermore, most of our employers want to hire future leaders with exceptional interpersonal skills and a strong desire to work in teams.

  • 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.