Stanford’s MBA Gatekeeper On A ‘Heartbreaking’ GSB Myth

Kirsten Moss, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid for Stanford’s Graduate School of Business

Ask Kirsten Moss to set the record straight on the single biggest misperception prospective students have about Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and you’ll get an unequivocal answer. “Some of our students tell me that they almost did not apply because they did not come from a ‘top’ university, or they were from the ‘wrong’ industry, or their GMAT or GPA was ‘too low,'” says Moss, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid for Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

“This is heartbreaking to me,” she adds in an interview with Poets&Quants. “We are trying to select a class who aspires to our motto of change lives, change organizations, and change the world. From my experience, I am clear that those who will live up to this motto do not come from a limited number of institutions, job roles, or GPAs. We look at what you value, what you aspire to do, how you think, the impact you have had, and the perspective you will bring.”

You can, of course, easily forgive applicants for their perspective. After all, the odds of gaining an admit from Stanford are among the lowest in higher education. Last year, Stanford received nearly 20 applications for every seat in its MBA class, 8,173 applicants for 418 seats, the second largest applicant pool in the world for any MBA program behind only Harvard.  Stanford’s 6% acceptance rate–roughly half the 11% rate at Harvard– allowed it to turn down 8,173 candidates last year out of a self-selecting group of extraordinary young professionals. No wonder Stanford last year boasted the world’s highest average class GMAT scores–737–and the highest undergraduate grade point average–3.73–for any prestige MBA program.


This year, however, Moss appears to be sending a message to would-be applicants. For the first time in recent memory, Stanford’s average class GMAT score slid by five full points to 732, equal to this year’s average posted by Northwestern Kellogg, Wharton, and Columbia Business School. It is the first time in many years that Stanford can’t claim sole possession of the highest GMAT scores for any prestige MBA program in the world (see GMAT Scores Slide Five Points At Stanford GSB).

Moss, 52, who took over the top admissions job at Stanford on June 1 of last year, brings a unique background to the school’s selection process. She is the only MBA gatekeeper to ever have held the top admissions job at both Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business. And unlike most of her peers, Moss has also spent considerable time thinking hard about the attributes and traits of exceptional business leaders, including a couple of years at Egon Zehnder, the prestigious executive search firm, and four years gaining her Doctor of Psychology in organizational leadership.  She refers to herself as a “leadership geek.”

It was a job opportunity for her husband, Alan, that originally brought Moss back out to the West Coast. She had enrolled at Harvard College in 1982 at the age of 16, earning her bachelor’s degree from Harvard in economics, government and society in 1986. Moss then joined J.P. Morgan’s investment banking practice as an associate, a job she held for four years before returning to campus in 1990 to get her MBA from Harvard Business School. Her husband, a vice president of global sales and operations at Google, is also an HBS graduate, having earned his MBA in 1992, the same year she earned her HBS degree.

We posed a series of questions to Moss. Here’s how she answered them:

You bring to the job of admissions an unusual background that I can’t help but think informs the way you think about selection. When you were at Egon Zehnder, for example, you were deeply involved in assessing CEO potential. How did that experience impact the way you view MBA admissions at Stanford?

During my time at Egon Zehnder, we researched the leadership behaviors that were the “roots” of CEO potential. We analyzed how CEOs behaved within their organizations and how these behaviors contributed to their success. This research has impacted the way I think about MBA admissions because these leadership behaviors are the markers of future success and can be found within the pages of an MBA application.

You also have a doctorate of psychology in organizational leadership. What were some of the more impactful learnings from that experience you bring to your perspective on admissions?

During my doctoral program, I focused my research on assessing transformational leadership. One major finding was that the frequency and range of leadership behaviors used by an individual strongly predicted his or her professional success. And even more remarkable, the frequency and range of behaviors used was not linked to years of career experience. In fact, some MBA students had the same frequency and range of leadership behaviors as did highly effective CEOs. While we may think that you need to be a senior executive to be an effective leader, this capability does not require gray hair or decades of work experience. You can learn to use a wide range of leadership behaviors early in your career, and this learning will drive your ability to influence and engage others.

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