An Interview With Columbia’s MBA Gatekeeper

Columbia Business School. Courtesy photo

Columbia’s applications were down 2.6% this year. Did the admissions team make any adjustments in response to the reduced number of applications? And what can you tell P&Q‘s readers about the 8-point increase in CBS’ average GMAT score, up to 732?

No. We had a slight drop in applications, but you’re still talking about over 6,000 applications to build a class. The pool is strong. If you’re looking at a pool where the typical GMAT average is 710 or so, the pool is strong. I think our results are reflective of what’s happening in this space.

As far as the GMAT, you’re talking to someone who has issues with what’s happening. If someone sees the headline and it says “732,” they say, “What does that mean? Does it mean I have no shot to get in to Columbia because I don’t have that kind of GMAT score?” If you look at people who achieve high executive function, people who are leaders at very high levels, those who are the most effective are not necessarily the people that have the highest IQ. They have things where they’re really strong in terms of emotional intelligence, social intelligence; they can convince people to provide them with resources, they can convince people to join teams, they can convince and motivate to change direction in mid-stream, and so on. What really drives success? I think it’s the non-quantitative factors.

Look at the GMAT. It is literally a quant test with a verbal component, and the quant piece is work that a good high school math student has learned. So if you said to me the best way to identify the best leader is to give them a high school math test with a verbal and logic component, and the person that gets the best score is the best leader — that’s not true. So what’s the balance?

I’m actually more interested in the people who are in the 500s and the 600s, because if you listen to those stories, those people have the most amazing stories. I’ve been here 16 years and I’ve seen some amazing things.

But the GMAT is still what draws attention, from applicants, from press, from others. 

I noticed from your story that we are tied (in average GMAT) with Wharton and Kellogg. Test scores definitely have increased from the time when I was taking the test myself. I’m not sure I’d get into Columbia right now! And that’s a very real thing. But there is no discussion about us wanting be in the top three — for example — in terms of test scores.

There has been a big push thankfully for gender parity and so on, and many of the top schools are over 40%. When I started, it was weird to see a school above 35%. That’s a good thing, right? So last year we were 41% and this year we are 39%. That wasn’t intentional either, but we’re making the best decisions for our class. All of which is to say, we don’t have a quota system or anything like that. The GMAT and the other measures are just the way things shook out.

But in the end, I want to judge what we do in 2020 and 2018 by what our students, who are then alums, do in 10 years, on 15 years, in 20 years. And we want them to be the kind of people who are adding real value to the organizations that they are a part of. But also we want them to be good people who make their world a better place.

The Columbia admissions team, photographed in 2015. Michael Robinson is front row, second from left; Amanda Carlson, currently assistant dean of admissions, is fourth from left. File photo

If we’re not making 732 the headline, how about going the other direction? What’s the lowest GMAT score in this fall’s incoming class?

The lowest GMAT is a 530. I won’t out the person but it’s someone I personally have met, and met multiple times. Typically, we will always have handful of people in the 500s, the low 600s, and there will be dozens of people with test scores in that range.

All of the people we admit typically have engaged with the admissions committee or an individual member at an event or on the road. They’ve spoken to current students or alumni and those alums have said something on their behalf. There’s a place in our process for personal advocacy, so we know the people we admit, or we try to know them as best we can. The people who are on the lower end of the spectrum, typically that’s just the test score dimension. There typically is an offset, so what you very rarely see is someone that has a low test score and also a very low GPA. In the end, we need to be confident that they are going to be OK in the classroom, and it’s irresponsible for any school to admit someone that they think is going to fail.

So we’re looking for that offset. And sometimes the offset could be supplemental coursework — there’s some people by the nature of their work, which is highly quantitative, they come in knowing how to evaluate companies. That person will typically be fine in the classroom. So were looking for things like that.

The people who are in the lower end of the spectrum, someone on the committee may go to bat for them. “I know their test score is 100 points lower, but this is why we need to bring them in.” But if you’re going to bring in someone who is a 650 and you’re turning down four or five people who have test scores in the 740 to 770 range, then the question you have to ask yourself is, “Why?” You have to have a good reason. Just anecdotally, some of the most impressive people in our class are in the bottom third of the class academically.

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