The admissions processes for elite MBA programs can often be convoluted, vague, and tight-lipped outside of gatekeeper walls. Not surprisingly, a study published last month reveals current processes often lead to bias in admissions.
According to the study, published by Kira Talent, the video admissions platform behind many B-school video interview questions, admissions offices at B-schools earned an average C+ grade on a letter grade scale ranging from A to E. “That’s not a fail, but it was certainly alarming to us,” says Andrew Hastings, director of marketing and project lead at Kira Talent.
The study, which asked schools to self-report admissions processes, examined business programs from around the world. While nearly all (98%) of the schools strongly agreed applicants should be judged in a “fair, consistent, and objective manner,” more than half 58% said bias could be an issue at their school. What’s more, about a third of the participating schools have no established process to identify and remove bias.
Hastings and Kira Talent were unable to release school-specific results, but say the majority of schools finished with an “average” bias rating. “The schools that scored the highest were the schools that acknowledged bias exists or bias has the potential to exist at their school,” Hastings tells Poets&Quants. “If your school is in denial about bias being an issue, then you’re not going to actively work to combat it.”
SOME 58% OF SCHOOLS ADMIT BIAS IS AN ISSUE
According to the researchers at Kira Talent, bias can creep into the admissions process in multiple ways at multiple points. As schools move toward more holistic admissions processes where interviews and essays are used to “tease” out workplace competencies, bias will creep in, Hastings says. “We had a hunch that bias was creeping into the decision-making process,” he says. “The good news that came out of this study is, largely, admissions teams are very concerned about bias in their process.”
Still, schools are more likely to point the finger at other schools. Ironically, Hastings says, many admissions offices form a “blindspot bias,” believing bias occurs everywhere except with yourself. “It’s funny to see a form of bias actually forming in this data set,” Hastings says. While 58% of schools admit to bias being an issue at their own schools, 70% said they saw it as an issue at other schools.
“We have this issue that we see quite often when we talk to schools,” Hastings says. “They know of the issue, they know the issue is important, but they think their school is immune to bias — yet it’s happening everywhere else, essentially. You know, ‘Not at my school, but at this school, this school, and this school.'”
LACK OF DEFINITIONS, SPECIFICS A LEADING CAUSE OF POTENTIAL BIAS
Dan Bauer, managing director and founder of The MBA Exchange, sees it the same way. “Most business schools proudly convey their admissions criteria as a set of traits and attributes they value most when assessing applicants,” Bauer said in an email exchange with Poets&Quants. For example, he says, Harvard Business School asks “Who are we looking for?” and then they respond with the three characteristics of “habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship.” Bauer points out that Stanford’s Graduate School of Business emphasizes three “evaluation criteria” of “intellectual vitality, demonstrated leadership potential, and personal qualities and contributions,” but, he notes, “such attributes are qualitative and generalized, leaving it to application readers and interviewers to rank order candidates based on perceived compliance with the school’s priorities.”
These generalizations are where bias seeps in, Hastings says. Another example he gives is in the evaluation of leadership skills. According to the research, if admissions offices evaluated candidates on leadership skills, a third of the schools would have no definition of leadership. “Applicants are being reviewed using either inconsistent or nonexistent criteria,” Hastings insists. “You could have five or ten reviewers viewing hundreds of applicants each, and each reviewer could have a different definition of what leadership is. If you get Reviewer A, you could be a rockstar leader. If you get Reviewer B, you could have no leadership abilities whatsoever.”
Of the schools that did report having set criteria and definitions, Hastings says, 41% do not actually use the criteria consistently or at all — dropping the number of schools using best practices to an even smaller fraction. “It’s good to have a criteria, but if you’re not actually using the criteria, it’s not worth anything,” Hastings says. “Schools have to define what it is they are looking for in an applicant, build out that rubric, define each competency, and make sure reviewers are on the same criteria.”
THE DREADED ‘BIZARRENESS EFFECT’
Two more areas where bias is believed to be popping up stem from interview and admissions fatigue. According to the research, almost half (43%) of business schools are use only one interviewer to evaluate their candidates. Sometimes, having only one interviewer simply comes down to resource constraints, Hastings says. Still, he believes that only having one interviewer compromises the integrity of the admissions process. Some schools have tried to overcome the potential bias and fatigue by enlisting alumni interviewers. While this could be a solution, Hastings says it also opens doors to more potential biases. “Alumni interviews are great,” he says, “but the issues are, they are usually informal discussions, there might not be a set of standardized questions, and the alumni haven’t been trained to do the interview. And you’re really at the mercy of the person you are talking to at that point.”
Resource constraints are likely a large reason 43% of admissions offices say they experience fatigue during the decision process. “You have almost half of admissions teams complaining about fatigue and burnout,” Hastings notes. “When you’re tired, you’re not making the best decisions — objectivity is not your strong suit. They’re exhausted — and that’s affecting applicant outcomes.”
Two of the most common forms of bias appearing in the study were the “Bandwagon Effect” and “Bizarreness Effect,” Hastings says. The Bandwagon Effect, or groupthink as it’s known in psychology, happens when a team of admissions staff decide to admit or reject an applicant largely because one member of the staff has a strong opinion one way or the other. Hastings says the best way to avoid the Bandwagon Effect is to have two, three, or more admissions staff members look at each applicant.
The Bizarreness Effect occurs when one candidate is admitted over another because they have some sort of unique quality or experience that stands out in a reviewer’s mind. This shows up most in applicants from different socioeconomic groups, Hastings says. “An applicant from a wealthy family,” he says, “has likely had the opportunity to travel the world and do interesting things that might stand out more in an admissions process than someone equally qualified but from a different socioeconomic status who can’t go help elephants in Thailand for a year.”
ALMOST NO ‘CANDOR AND TRANSPARENCY’ COMING FROM ADMISSIONS OFFICES
Hastings says bias is a part of human nature and is nothing schools should be ashamed of. But it is something schools should be working through, he believes. “Bias cannot be eliminated, but you can reduce it by redesigning your processes accordingly,” he says. “I think it’s hard work to do this, which is why we haven’t seen many schools do it. But they have a moral imperative to do this because education is so important.”
Bauer believes the current state of less-than-transparent processes in admissions offices is a culprit. According to Bauer, there is “little, if any, feedback provided by schools to rejected applicants” to help them understand where they “fell short” in the admissions process or how they can improve their chances if they decide to apply again. “This lack of candor and transparency — even after the admission decision has been made — has the potential to hide bias and, therefore, can foster doubt and distrust among some applicants,” Bauer says.
While it’s unclear which schools are best at addressing bias, he says, it’s safe to assume the vast majority could be doing better. Of the 145 universities to complete the survey, only 0.7% scored a perfect “A+”. Besides the size of admissions staff and resources each admissions office has, Bauer advises considering the “specificity and volume of information requested from applicants.” Or, the more data collected from an applicant, the more “useful” the total application will be in informing an admissions decision.
“Schools that ask precise questions about a candidate’s past, present and future — spanning the professional, personal, and academic aspects — send a clear message that their decision process considers the totality of the applicant’s life and is less likely to be biased,” Bauer says. “In contrast, schools that ask only one question or impose severe length limits on essays receive much less data for making admissions decisions, thus leaving the door open to criticism about the fairness of the process. The perception of bias can be just as discouraging and disheartening for candidates as actual bias.”