The MBA admissions process is quite different from undergrad, which makes the staggering scale of deception and fraud typifying the Varsity Blues scandal much less conceivable in business school. My Fortuna Admissions colleague Judith Silverman Hodara, former head of Wharton admissions, speaks to some of the reasons why in her remarks to Poets&Quants for its article, Can You Bribe Your Way into Business School?
That doesn’t mean, however, that the MBA admissions process is incorruptible, or that well-meaning parents don’t veer into murky territory in the spirit of helping their children. Alas, my Fortuna colleagues have witnessed this overstepping too often, both as coaches and former admissions gatekeepers.
More often than not, it’s a case of a parent crossing the line between supportive and prescriptive. As most applicants have three to five years of work experience under their belts, the process of applying to business school is a valuable opportunity to be self-reflective about what they want to pursue personally and professionally in the next important stage of their lives. A parent’s encouragement can facilitate this process in valuable ways, just as overstepping will undermine it.
“While I was at Wharton, I did have parents attend MBA fairs on their student’s behalf, and also insist on being copied on all correspondence,” says Fortuna’s Silverman Hodara. “For most MBA admissions offices, being overly involved in your student’s process signals that the candidate may not have the maturity or time management skills to tackle this on their own, and sends up a red flag regarding the candidacy.”
Fear not: there’s plenty a parent can do to help without crossing the line. Consider these dos and don’ts for parents of MBA candidates:
HOW A PARENT CAN HELP WITHOUT CROSSING THE LINE
Do: Tap your network. A great starting point is connecting your child to your professional network to learn more about the MBA – and encouraging them to do the same in their own networks. Then, be available to discuss their interactions and impressions throughout the decision-making process. However, don’t expect the third cousin who earned his MBA in the mid ‘60s to offer insight on big data, innovation incubators or the latest MBA career trends. Do consider trusted sources who may have recently completed an MBA or know others who have.
Don’t: Micromanage the process. Allow your child to own the process at every interval. This means not leaping in to accompany them on information sessions or school events, nor asking the questions your 26-year-old is capable of posing for themselves. Also, resist any impulse to contact the program in hopes of promoting your child’s credentials. While the intent may be supportive, the impact can reflect negatively by implying your child can’t make important life decisions unsupervised.
“I had parents who would contact me and ask me to pass on advice to the daughter (who was in her late 20s), and also ask that I not let on that the advice came from mom or dad,” says Fortuna Co-Director Caroline Diarte Edwards, former Director of INSEAD Admissions. “The irony was that the young lady in question was incredibly professionally accomplished and mature, and the parental involvement was completely unnecessary.”
Do: Offer encouragement and invite introspection. Seize the opportunity to reiterate your confidence in your child’s abilities and encourage their self-reflection on what is most important to them. You can also act as a balanced sounding board throughout the process. Offer to share thoughtful observations of their best qualities and innate talents – sometimes, qualities that are obvious to a parent are overlooked by their offspring.
“In encouraging self-reflection, it’s helpful for parents to identify core strengths and weaknesses, as these could be very different from what candidates presume. Also, parents can help recall stories and personal anecdotes from when their student was young, which can sometimes be interesting to weave into an application,” says Fortuna’s Melissa Jones, former Assistant Director for the MBA Program at INSEAD. “For example, when you were eight years old, you went to gymnastics five times a week, training for three hours at a time, and were doing competitions until the age of 15 – this shows remarkable discipline.”
Don’t: Fixate on the rankings. It’s tempting to overly rely on business school rankings in narrowing down a target list of schools. But be aware that each ranking – from the Economist to the Financial Times – has a unique methodology for identifying the best programs, and those criteria may or may not be most relevant to your child. Instead, encourage your child to identify the characteristics and qualities that matter most to them – from location, size and management curriculum to career opportunities, ROI and cost. This will help you both discuss the pros and cons of each school in a more informed way.
“Parents should try and let go of their own preconceptions of what the ‘right’ school is and let the student do the choosing by fit and feel,” says Fortuna’s Emma Bond, former Senior Manager of Admissions at the London Business School says. Bond also suggests that “parents should encourage their kids to get out and experience an international program, particularly if their undergrad has been done in their home country.”
Do: Encourage planning ahead. The process of applying to business school can be an arduous and lengthy. MBA essays, for one, can’t be dashed off in a late night like a term paper, and most candidates spend months preparing for standardized exams (the GMAT or GRE). The research and preparation required typically takes a lot of effort over several months, which is difficult to juggle alongside a demanding job and other commitments. Prompt your child to create a simple project plan, and to tell you when your input might support their process.
While a parent should let the MBA applicants call the shots, know that few others are better positioned to provide the kind of moral support that will inspire an applicant to keep going when times are tough. “It never hurts to have a cheerleader (or two!) on your side,” says Fortuna’s Brittany Maschal, former member of Admissions teams at Wharton, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins. “Unlike the process of applying to college (in the US, at least), applicants might only apply to a handful of schools. There may be less “safety” or “likely” schools in the mix, therefore, you might not have any acceptances to buffer a number of rejections; this can sting, and quite frankly, rattle many high achievers!”
It can be hard for parents to ‘let go,’ and the outcome is inevitably uncertain. But trust that a profound side benefit for applicants committed to the decision-making and introspection the MBA application process demands is greater self-awareness. This will serve them well in business school, and far beyond.
Matt Symonds is Co-Founder of MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and Co-Host of the CentreCourt MBA Festival. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.