What are the top admission directors looking for in MBA candidates this year? What do they think are the three most valuable skills students gain in an MBA program? And are there any new tricks they’re using to evaluate candidates for their MBA experiences?
At the CentreCourt MBA Festival in London’s Tate Modern art museum February 9, MBA admission officials from four of the leading business schools in the world tackled those questions and more during a panel discussion that was broadcast all over the world.
David Simpson, admissions director for the MBA and master’s programs at London Business School, revealed that his school had more applicants during this cycle’s second round than ever before. He came to the panel having read 1,200 applications in the past week alone.
Laurel Grodman, managing director of admissions, analytics, and evaluation at the Yale School of Management, made news by disclosing that Yale SOM is working in partnership with Educational Testing Service, the provider of the GRE exam, to introduce a “behavioral assessment” to applicants who are invited to Yale for an interview. The assessment provides admissions with a look at the interpersonal competencies of candidates that are predictive of success in an MBA program.
Pascal Michels, director of MBA admissions at IESE Business School in Barcelona, makes the case for proactively putting a failure or two on a CV or in an application. In his last 50 to 60 interviews with applicants, he says, he has asked what makes a candidate unique. Invariably, they talk about their strengths rather than their weaknesses or failures which would be far more interesting and likely to make an applicant either unusual or unique.
Gina Cecchetti, associate director of masters admissions at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, says the school’s new campus is creating all kinds of opportunities for MBAs to connect to other students at the university in such disciplines as computer science and engineering.
Moderating the discussion was Matt Symonds, co-sponsor of the CentreCourt MBA Festival with Poets&Quants and a long-time observer of the business school scene.
Matt Symonds: In terms of the ups and downs of the MBA market, what are you seeing? Yale has had a few extraordinary years. There’s political uncertainty that’s entered into that context. What’s life like at Yale right now for the full-time program?
Laurel Grodman: We’re in the middle of round two, which is our biggest round, so it’s certainly busy. I think things, despite some of the headlines, are still quite good. We have a tremendous applicant pool that we’re reviewing right now. It’s incredibly strong. It’s incredibly global. I think that despite the seeming whirlwind that’s going on around us things are solid.
Symonds: Your peer from Columbia Business School, Michael Robinson, said at one of these events that the media hasn’t been helpful in reporting stories on the Trump effect or the realities of H1B visas. Bearing in mind the very international audience here in London, how is that affecting the decisions, looking at two-year programs like Yale?
Grodman: It’s certainly on our applicants’ minds, for sure. Many of our applicants, who are coming from abroad are thinking about maybe spending some time working in the U.S. before returning to a home country or a different location. My background before admissions is in career development. Even before these more turbulent times, I’ve always encouraged applicants and students to have a plan A and a plan B. Plenty of international applicants are still finding their first role in the U.S. But it’s just being smart about it and, like any job search, having that plan A and plan B and having them both be viable.
Symonds: Right. David, plan B has taken on a whole resonance in the U.K. because it’s become plan Brexit. Yet, you’re still seeing strong demand for a great program.
David Simpson: We are. We’ve had our biggest round two ever, which was quite tiring, but fantastic. We are seeing another round of amazing individuals from all around the world. Things seem to be buoyant. I’ve got a feeling it’s the same all over the world, but we’re delighted with that.
Symonds: We talk ab,out the uncertainty of Britain’s political future, but of course many applicants have a global career vision. Perhaps that uncertainty equates to opportunity for many MBA candidates. Is that reflected in your round two applicants?
Simpson: Absolutely. That’s always been the case. We’ve been through various different things globally or locally within London. London always comes out of it fine and there are new opportunities that come because of these things. I think people are attracted to that. Just as many people are staying in London and just as many people are heading back home or to a third country. It’s pretty consistent in the last few years. It tends to be 50/50. In fact, if anything, the proportion of students staying in London went up a couple of percents this year. London is providing a ton of opportunities.
Symonds: Gina, we’ve talked for many years now about this convergence of business and technology. That’s something that Tepper does very well within Carnegie Mellon, one of the top technology institutions of the world. You’ve just added this great new building for the business school. Tell me a little bit about how that interacts with the rest of the university.
Gina Cecchetti: I think that there’s been more opportunities for our students to collaborate with students from the engineering or computer science schools. Those are top programs. Technology is constantly changing, and therefore the business world is. With our new building, having a lot of open space, there are opportunities to take classes at the different schools. Their students come to us as well. You’re really seeing the collaboration and the networking occur in our new building.
Symonds: The Financial Times looks to measure everything in its assessments of business schools. A new component introduced this year is the idea of sustainability. Pascal, is sustainability something that your students are interested in?
Pascal Michels: Applicants have a very polished value proposal when they introduce themselves to us. At the same time, IESE is perhaps a little bit too vocal at times about its mission statement and how value driven we are. There’s hardly any business school left that does not talk about positive impact and sustainability, which is the flavor of the day. We get it, but it’s very hard to pin down what people actually mean by it. You could look at the type of student events that happen on campus. You could look at the ethics component that we weave into the curriculum. There are many dimensions to it. Overall, I think we try to be a bit of a one-stop shop. It would be a slippery slope to start focusing on these things and lose focus on the tangible career elements that I think every applicant in their right mind should also be looking at.
Symonds: As you think of crafting the diversity of next year’s class, how do you look to assess and identify different elements of fit? Let’s start with you, Laurel.
Grodman: In addition to the academic measures, we’re obviously looking at professional experience. You can gain a lot of information about the way that someone interacts with the world through their work. We get that information from what an applicant tells us in their resume and what we hear from recommenders. We’re really looking for people who can both lead and collaborate. We get feedback from recruiters that one of the most valued attributes in our students is their ability to know when to lead and when to follow. We put you into a classroom where you will not always be the expert. That’s an incredibly valuable perspective to have. We’re looking for evidence of opportunities where you’ve had to be at the front of the room and be a collaborator within the room.
For the first time this year, we’ve partnered with ETS, our friends who have brought you the GRE, to introduce what we call our behavioral assessment. It’s an assessment that we are providing to people who interview with us this year. It looks at interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies that we know are predictive of success in business school. That is giving us an ability to look a little bit beyond the traditional academic measures and really expand the opportunity to bring people into the classroom whose academic or professional background might look a little bit different. That’s something new and experimental we’re looking at this year as well.
Symonds: What are some of those interpersonal qualities that you’re looking to identify?
Grodman: I can’t be too explicit about the test or it doesn’t work as well. The reason we really put the test into place is, we want to bring people into the classroom who are going to thrive. But we want to be able to better predict who those people are going to be above and beyond academic measures. They’re looking at a lot of the same things that people who perform well academically would have. Being able to be diligent, to put your head down and focus on a task and goal. Without being too prescriptive, I think it’s the same factors that predict academic success, but that sometimes a lower GMAT score or a more rocky academic history that perhaps was affected by other things isn’t going to tell us. It helps us take more chances.