The MBA Summit: Straight Talk From Ross, Tuck & Haas Adcoms

The MBA Summit 2019: Soojin Kwon, managing director of full-time MBA admissions and program at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business (left), Luke Pena, executive director of admissions & financial aid at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, and Morgan Bernstein, executive director of MBA admissions at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business

Byrne: You could also tell a lot about a program by how enthused and passionate those students are. I know Luke as an interesting perspective on the whole question of fit. What’s your take on this?

Pena: Fit is such an interesting concept and an interesting word. I’ll never forget sitting with a student in Shanghai and he said, ‘Tell me about why I should pursue an MBA and don’t use the words fit, holistic or authentic because I’ve heard these words over and over and over.’

It’s true, we talk about fit a lot. I do think that fit is a concept that does in some ways invoke the idea of being completely in your comfort zone, and I think that’s not the greatest value of the MBA experience. 

There is some value in feeling like you do have an ability to feel safe and secure but at the same time are pushed beyond the boundaries of what you’ve already seen and what you’ve experienced. And when you can do that, and when you can balance that with support, that’s a powerful place to grow.

Byrne: In all my travels to business schools all over the world, I find that most MBA students are incredibly supportive of each other. They’re generous with the experiences they’ve had. The quants are going to help the poets read and decipher income statements and balance sheets, and the poets are going to help the quants communicate and present their insights. The academic work, particularly in the core, is demanding and rigorous. You’re going to get stretched, you’re going to feel a little uncomfortable, no matter where you go or how supportive the culture is.

So, I think fit is a gut kind of thing. You have to feel a place is right for you in your heart and that can’t happen unless you visit the campus, sit in the cafe and talk to students and alumni. It can’t happen unless you are able to sample a class and see the level of participation and get a real feel for what experience is going to be for you. 

Kwon: Absolutely. It’s important to see how students interact with each other, how they pass each other in the halls, whether they’re willing to stop and talk with you.

Pena: Let me add one more because I know there’s a lot of cost in thinking about visiting a campus and even reaching out to students. I don’t discount the value and yet I think about the fairness and equity for all of you who might be thinking about an MBA program, and so there’s a little hack that I sometimes suggest.

If you can’t visit the campus and if you don’t have access to students who are alums, look at the school’s essay questions and just write out some thoughts. Schools are very deliberate about the questions we ask our candidates. 

Just write some thoughts and see what comes up. You can see whether those questions excite you to really dive into that topic. That can be a very telling sign.

Byrne: Now last year at the MBA Summit, Soojin used the metaphor of dating to describe how a candidate can best discover the right MBA program for him or her. If it’s like dating, it is more like Tinder or match.com?

Kwan: I’m partial to Match. That’s how I met my husband. But you have to go out on a lot of dates. You have to give schools a chance, even the ones that you might think you should rule out because of their location, size or what not. You really have to take a school for a test drive because you may find that it feels smaller than it is or it feels bigger than it is. So you really need to give every school a chance before ruling them out.

Pena: The dating metaphor is almost too apt. In some ways, it invokes the idea of two parties trying to impress each other and put their best foot forward. And I would say the best kind of dating experiences may actually go beyond that where you can actually just be comfortable and present yourself as you are.

And that may be, a really thoughtful way to think about approaching schools.  If you feel like you have to present a version of yourself that’s not you that might actually not be the right place for you. 

But if you feel you’re very comfortable being yourself and feel you would have the support to be able to say okay this is who I am and I can engage the school in a very natural way, that’s a very telling sign in terms of finding a place that aligns with you.

Byrne: Let’s take the common admissions word that Luke would like to banish: holistic. MBA admissions directors almost uniformly contend they look at applications in a holistic way. But is that true? Do you apply some weight, consciously or unconsciously, to one metric over another?

Bernstein: This is a great question to raise because I think this is one of those opportunities that we have to bust some of these myths about the admissions process. Sometimes candidates believe that every element of the application is assigned a weight, with the GMAT representing 20%, the essays 10%, and the recommendations 10%.  I hesitate to even throw those random numbers out there for fear that somebody might actually take those literally, so I just made them up.

The quick answer is that most schools are not employing any sort of formula or weighting to the admissions criteria. If it was that simple, we would all be out of a job because you could simply put those inputs into that formula and spit out an admissions decision. The reason why we are all in these roles and why we have teams that are passionate about what they do is the opportunity to really get to know a candidate individually. To know their strengths, their opportunities for growth, the obstacles that they’ve overcome really requires us to dig into every single application and treat it as if we are trying to get to know the human being behind the piece of paper.

The next question that oftentimes surfaces is, ‘if my GMAT’s low or my GPA is low or I don’t have enough work experience, how do I make up for that or is it a done deal?’ And, again, in our effort to get to know candidates individually, it’s never a done deal. I think there’s an opportunity if you’re weaker in one component of the application to shine elsewhere.

Byrne: After all, is there really such a thing as a perfect application?

Kwon: No. They’re all great. They’re telling their story and they’re putting their best foot forward. That’s who they are and that’s really what we want to know. Who are you, what will you bring to the community, to the learning experience. So, in my mind, that’s the best application, not one that’s been manufactured by somebody else. Not one that overreaches who you are. You really need to find the place that’s the right fit for you, and you can only find the right fit if you’re being authentic with who you are.

Byrne: To a large extent you’re trying to evaluate potential.

Pena: Very much so. Not only are there no perfect applications, but there are also no perfect applicants. I will often tell candidates, half-jokingly, that if you’re already perfect the MBA’s not worth it for you. Don’t come to get the MBA, the point of this is to grow. 

So if you believe that you’re already perfect, either you lack self-awareness and you’re not going be a good applicant, or maybe you are already perfect so just go and save the world now. We want to see that a candidate is understanding both their areas of strength and their areas of growth and that’s where the potential piece really comes in.

Having a one-size-fits-all approach to the application, as Morgan said, would be a real disservice to the heterogeneity of the richness of the pool. We see people spike in different areas. We see people show potential in different areas, and we need to be responsive and reflexive to that as we’re looking at applications.

Bernstein: I think this is one of the common pitfalls that candidates make as they start the application process. They inevitably think they’re going to start with a laundry list of all of their achievements, awards and accolades, and that is where a lot of candidates anchor the rest of their application.

But as Luke noted, a lot of what we’re looking for are the imperfections, the times when you have faltered, when you have failed and how you have recovered. As I reflect back on some of the strongest applications I’ve read, it’s not the perfect application, right. It’s the ones where somebody was willing to show a little bit of vulnerability and then help us understand how they reacted to that.

Because inevitably business school is going to be a really challenging time. It is hopefully going to push you outside of your comfort zone and so it helps the admissions committee to understand how you’re going to respond to those sorts of situations, whether it’s not getting your top job or maybe it’s a challenge you’re having in communication with your study team or running for a leadership role that you ultimately don’t get. How do you react to that? And I think that’s very telling about character and potential.

Byrne: But isn’t it possible to be too vulnerable, too honest in a way that you can damage yourself in the application process? What if there is no happy ending to my failure or my flaw?

Pena: I know we talk a lot about the idea of confident humility. It’s the idea that you will tackle situations and difficult moments, with both confidence about what you might be able to achieve but also some humility in terms of knowing what you don’t know.

So my mind goes there. I don’t think that the outcomes always have to be successful on a superficial level. But I think there needs to be reflection and learning. So if somebody shares a failure in the application and it is an opportunity to really learn, to grow, and to reflect, that’s really powerful.

If we’re seeing something less than that, well then it’s just a failed outcome without a learning and an opportunity for growth and that’s less compelling.

Kwon: I think it goes back to your question about the perfect application. If someone tries to present themselves as if they’ve never had a failure, then we wonder are they really self-aware, are they really sharing the whole story. We want candidates who are going to be self-aware and who are going to be able to learn from their challenges and own them.

THE COMPLETE 2019 MBA SUMMIT

Candid perspectives from MBA students, admission officials, and employers

STRAIGHT TALK ON HOW TO GET INTO A TOP BUSINESS SCHOOL

IS THE MBA STILL WORTH IT? THREE ALUMS REFLECT ON HOW IT SHAPED THEIR CAREERS

USING YOUR MBA FOR SOCIAL IMPACT

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.