Why EQ Matters In Your B-School Application

Class in the NYU Stern School of Business. Ethan Baron photo

It was 1990 when researchers from the University of New Hampshire and Yale coined the term “emotional intelligence.” About a decade later, Daniel Goleman, a Rutgers University psychologist, wrote about the importance of emotional intelligence (popularly known as EQ, which stands for emotional quotient) in business leadership in the Harvard Business Review, officially cementing the concept’s legitimacy and importance. And now, another two decades later, elite business schools are using the idea more and more to make admissions decisions.

“Research is showing that leadership is more than just management. It’s the ability to work with others and motivate others towards a shared set of goals,” says Susan Cera, director of MBA admissions at admissions consultancy Stratus Admissions Counseling. “And EQ is instrumental to being successful in working with and through others.”

Admissions offices at top business schools are getting savvier — and more explicit — on how they evaluate EQ in the admissions process, according to Alex Min, CEO of MBA Exchange, another admissions consulting company. Min notes how Stanford’s Graduate School of Business pioneered the idea with the admissions essay question, “What matters most to you and why?” The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania went a step further in 2012 when it added a team-based discussion to its application process. The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management followed suit with an impromptu video essay to measure and evaluate the personalities of applicants; Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and Yale’s School of Management soon added their own video components. Most recently, New York University’s Stern School of Business added an EQ endorsement to their application, even as Wharton revamped its recommendation portion to have recommenders pick three adjectives from two lists of 10 to best describe the applicant.

Susan Cera. Courtesy photo

“I think you’re going to see more and more of this, and the EQ endorsement at NYU is just a much more explicit and specific piece of data, rather than trying to glean that EQ from other parts of the application,” Cera, who worked in the admissions office at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business for a decade, tells Poets&Quants on a phone call.


As we reported in June, Stern not only added the EQ endorsement — in which one third-party source is asked to provide recommendations based on emotional maturity — the school also added a “pick six” component, which asks applicants to choose six photos of themselves and caption them. “We believe these changes will help applicants more effectively communicate to the committee who they are as a person, which programs best suit their goals and how they demonstrate EQ,” Isser Gallogly, associate dean of MBA admissions and innovation told us at the time, noting they were the biggest single-year changes made in the Stern application in the 14 years he has been at the school. “Additionally, these changes are much more in keeping with the ‘social media’ style of communication of today’s applicant. Applicants communicate with much more than words these days and visual elements now play a dominant role.”

According to Gallogly, the EQ endorsement has indeed been “adding a whole new vantage point through which we can assess the applicant. “We felt like there was a gap in the kind of information that could be gathered about an applicant,” Gallogly says today (January 12) in an email exchange with Poets&Quants. “The EQ endorsement is really a character reference from someone who believes in the applicant’s EQ. It’s an additional dimension that a professional recommendation doesn’t provide by its nature. We’ve received EQ endorsements from mentors, lifelong friends, some from the professional arena — they provide an emotional resonance.”


Betsy Massar

But why is EQ important and why will it continue to play a role in MBA admissions? It comes down to the increasing importance of self-awareness and maturity, Cera believes. “Part of EQ is the ability to recognize and understand your own emotions,” Cera explains. “And the other is to understand and recognize and influence the emotions of others.” Plus, Cera says, being a contributing and successful student takes self-awareness.

“I think they (schools) are looking for traits and potential, and some people will show more self-awareness and emotional intelligence than others,” says Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions. “Still, both those characteristics are really important indicators of success in any organization, whether it is a business school or a place of employment. I think they are looking for maturity, and emotional intelligence can be considered on measure of that trait.”

According to Min at MBA Exchange, it can also have immediate impact within business school classrooms. “The curricula at top business schools reflects the importance they place on their students’ EQ,” Min tells Poets&Quants in an email. As example’s Min points to Stanford’s “Touchy Feely” course, Interpersonal Dynamics. The FIELD Foundations at Harvard Business School is meant to push future business leaders “beyond hard skills” while solving business problems, Min notes. “So, it’s not surprising that schools would consider EQ in their admissions process,” Min reasons.

At least two factors are driving the growing emphasis, Min says. “First, effective collaboration is an increasingly important — and sometimes elusive — skill for MBA students,” Min explains. “So, adcoms want to know that an admit is predisposed to being a team player, while on campus and after graduation.” The second half, according to Min, is B-schools are listening and being more responsive to the “motivation, behavior, and ethics” of students and recent alums. “In today’s business world, stories of collusion and manipulation are publicized instantaneously via the Internet, with the alma maters of perpetrators mentioned prominently,” Min says. “So, examining and vetting the character of MBA applicants prior to admission is a responsibility that more and more adcoms are embracing.”

Alex Min


According to the Future of Jobs report from the World Economic Forum, “social skills” will be the second-most sought after skill for employers by 2020, only behind “complex problem solving” skills. The report places social skills higher than “technical skills” and “cognitive abilities.” A 2011 CareerBuilder survey of employers found that 71% valued emotional intelligence over IQ.

For applicants looking to provide examples of high EQ within the application, Min says there are many ways to do so. When describing significant work achievements through leadership roles, Min says to also include examples of changing the minds and actions of those they are managing. “Another tactic is to present a failure that subsequently proved valuable in terms of the individual’s long-term growth and development,” Min continues. Lastly, Min says, “applicants should be appropriately assertive but careful to avoid any hint of arrogance or condescension.”

All three admissions consultants agreed that they expect schools to increasingly measure EQ and evaluate it in the admissions process. In particular, both Cera and Massar mentioned Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, without prompt, as a place to watch for upcoming changes. New Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid Kirsten Moss wrote her Ph.D. thesis on transformational leadership, Massar points out, noting that Stanford’s admissions are “likely veering” to an emphasis on transformational leadership skills. “It’s (EQ) something they (Stanford GSB) are specifically looking for,” Cera says, noting Moss used to teach the touchy feely course.

But that certainly doesn’t mean other aspects of the application will be disregarded or de-emphasized. Stanford’s GSB and other top schools continue to push the GMAT arms race forward, enrolling fall 2017 classes with record-setting average GMAT scores. Last September, we reported four schools enrolled classes with average GMAT scores at 730 or higher (a perfect score is 800). Another six had averages of at least 720. In 2016, only Wharton and Stanford GSB had averages at 730 or higher. Out of 35 schools that had year-over-year data, 20 increased their average scores from 2016 to 2017 and another six remained the same.

Regardless if the concept of EQ is new or old, it’s time for MBA applicants to check their EQs as much as their IQs.

“It (EQ) has been a thing for a while, to be honest,” says Massar. “I think the difference now is that there are more and more tools to measure it.”


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.