The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business today (March 24) announced the most sweeping changes in MBA admission policies of any business school yet. Darden said it would now accept undergraduate entrance exam scores on the SAT and ACT in lieu of a GMAT or GRE, will “transition” its round three deadline of April 6 by more than three months to July 15th and even nudge writers of recommendation letters on behalf of candidates.
Given the widespread closures of test centers, the school even opened the door to consider CPA, CFA and other certifications as evidence of a candidate’s academic merit. It is also accepting LSAT, MCAT and Executive Assessment scores instead of the GMAT or GRE. The new July 15th deadline is little more than a month before the start of Darden’s first academic quarter in mid-August.
“These steps are compatible with Darden’s holistic admissions process and enable us to show pragmatism, flexibility and compassion for our applicants while upholding our standards of demonstrated strong academic merit,” wrote Darden’s Executive Director of Admissions Dawna Clarke in a letter to prospective students. “Applicants are encouraged to document all alternative evidence of strong academic merit. In addition to undergraduate GPA, we will take into strong consideration the following examples of academic merit: certification programs, CPA, CFA and post-baccalaureate relevant coursework, among others.”
JULY 15TH DEADLINE MEANT ATTRACT LAST-MINUTE APPLICANTS SEEKING TO ESCAPE THE RECESSION
The extension of the school’s admissions deadline also reflects the belief that the recession will cause some prospective students who had been on the fence to apply now. “It will give people more time to consider what they want to do,” says Darden Dean Scott Beardsley in an interview with Poets&Quants. “We have just come off one of the most robust job markets of the post-World War II era and now there is a greater degree of uncertainty for some people. Maybe now is a good time to go back to school. Education has been countercyclical and we want to make sure we are providing an opportunity for people to fulfill their full potential.
“This situation is very fast-moving and it has created a lot of uncertainty,” adds Beardsley. “When there is higher volatility and uncertainty, option value goes up and education is a form of an option. I think an MBA will be a very strong option for many people who are unsure of what will happen in the next few years. For some people, the opportunity costs of attending school have just dropped. So we want to be able to be here for some of those outstanding people.”
For its extended admissions cycle, Darden said it will review applications in the order in which they are received. The earlier a candidate applies, the earlier he or she will get an admissions decision. If test centers reopen or a candidate takes either the GRE or GMAT at home, they may submit that test score up until July 15th.
‘YOU CAN IMAGINE MANY VARIATIONS OF HARDSHIPS’
“Even if you are missing one or two elements of your application, we encourage you to submit,” wrote Clarke. “For those candidates who are missing elements of their application, we recommend that you submit your application as early as possible so that we can begin our evaluation. We will hold the final decision on your application until we receive all the requirements.”
Like business schools all over the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Darden to quickly adapt. Besides the admission changes, the school’s case study classes have shifted online to the Zoom teleconferencing platform. Darden has given students the option to take their current courses on a pass/fail grading system and the faculty have relaxed the school’s grading curve in the core curriculum.
“There is a lot of flexibility that has been put into the grading,” says Beardsley. “Some individuals find themselves in a very challenging circumstance. You can imagine many variations of hardships. Some people find it very stressful and have anxiety and others don’t. It could be somebody who finds themselves having to take care of a family member. We have one of the leading epidemiologists as an EMBA. Another is leading an emergency room in one of the largest hospitals in Virginia. We are trying to be flexible and allow Darden to be an oasis of peace right now.”
‘WE’RE TRYING TO SEE THE CRISIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO GET BETTER IN THE VIRTUAL CLASSROOM’
For Beardsley, who lives in one of the Pavilions on Thomas Jefferson’s original Academical Village, it is a quiet time. “The students have all gone home,” he says. “It’s quite empty. Most people are respecting the good idea to keep at a social distance. It feels like a very quiet summer day in a way but with fewer people outside exercising. You can hear the birds and see that spring is in the air and you tend to notice nature more.”
Beardsley had to suspend all of the MBA overseas trips, including an immersion to South Africa that he was going to lead. But the dean is teaching three courses this quarter, including a class with Ed Freeman, known for his work on stakeholder theory and business ethics, on CEO Leadership in the 21st Century. In the course, students are preparing cases on real-time issues, including how the ship captain and company CEO of one of the cruiseliners impacted by the virus should respond to the crisis. “So we are using the crisis as an opportunity for real-time problem solving,” he says.
The shift to remote instruction via Zoom has worked out well so far, adds Beardsley, despite the school’s dominant case study pedagogy. “At Darden, we are trying to use the crisis as an opportunity to get better teaching in a virtual classroom and use the context as a case study in what you can do. We want to be as good in the virtual classroom as we are in the physical classroom, and so far the feedback has been very good.”
‘IF THERE’S A TRAVEL BAN AND NO VISAS FOR THE NEXT SIX MONTHS, WE’LL HAVE TO ADAPT’
The chief limitation in a case study school, he believes, is a professor’s inability to read the body language of students during a class discussion. “You need to be more disciplined on class interactions, particularly if everyone unmutes at the same time,” he says. ‘But with basic expectation setting and protocol, you could have a pretty good case discussion because Zoom does suit itself very well to cold calling and having live discussions. It’s not perfect. You can’t read body language because each person’s video screen is smaller. The main thing is the lack of physical contact but you are still able to get a lot of energetic interaction and rigor into the online as well.”
Beardsley does not believe the school is giving up anything by accepting SAT or ACT scores instead of the GMAT or GRE. “We have run analytics to see the best predictors of success, and standardized tests are not the greatest predictor of success in a Darden classroom,” he says. “It’s just one of many predictors. We will see where things shape up in the fall. We do know that academic rigor and excellence is a predictor. If someone has performed extremely well in undergrad at a good institution that is a predictor. We have also found that the admissions interviews are an indicator of a person’s ability to do well in a classroom. And people who can perform academically while doing other things in varsity sports, musicianship or taking on strong leadership roles as an undergrad or in their work environment is important.”
So far in this admissions cycle, the school’s applications are flat after a 19.8% decline in the past two years. Last year, 2,192 candidates applied for Darden’s 338 classroom seats. “This year our apps have held up pretty well,” he says “We are close to flat, and I think that is a good performance in the current environment. We don’t know where it will finally shake out by the end of July but it’s been a good year so far and the quality of the applicant pool has been strong. I do think a lot of people will be reassessing their stations in light of the job market. A crisis makes people think of education. I don’t know what other information we need to know that the world needs great leaders and we’re in the business of making leaders who contribute to the world.”
‘THIS IS A GENERATION-DEFINING MOMENT’
Asked if he believes Darden will be able to return to on-campus, face-to-face classes in August at the first of the first term, Beardsley remains hopeful. “I don’t have a prediction on the fall,” he says. “Anyone who tells you what is going to happen in the next six months you can call them Nostradamus. Nobody knows how the environment will play out. Our current schedule is to have classes begin in August, but we are also going to be ready for a world if that is not possible. If for the next six months there is a travel ban and no visas are issued than everyone will have to adapt. But I don’t know if that is going to happen. That would be quite dramatic. I know from scenario-based planning you have to be ready for possible outcomes. Who knows what will happen in August?
“If there were no international students in U.S. business schools that would change the dynamics of the class. We are hoping that is not the case. I don’t see business being purely local ever. I believe that top business schools will remain international and global but we will have to adapt to the realities of the situation at hand. The coronavirus crisis is perhaps the greatest health issue we have seen in the past 100 years. If global students are unable to travel or unable to get a visa for the next six months, we will find a way to honor our commitment to them and find a way for them to come to Darden later.
At the moment, Beardsley says he finds himself looking at the big picture. “If I step back for a minute and look at the big picture,” adds the dean, “this is a generation-defining moment. We may look back at this as the largest health care crisis of the century. The virus doesn’t discriminate or differentiate and it has no borders. It reminds us of our common humanity. We all share the planet together. If we look at the situation we find ourselves in, I do believe this crisis provides each of us the opportunity to show leadership and compassion for other people. One of the ways we are thinking about this is what is the right thing to do. How do you stay true to your values but be compassionate to students and be adaptive to extraordinary circumstances? That is really what we are trying to do in a number of different ways.”
The dean remains confident that the world will get through the crisis. “It’s very serious. We have to be very careful. The world is going to come through it. Humanity is very innovative and we will find a way through. There will be a lot of difficulties and the impact will be very strong but at the end of the day I think the human race will find its way through and there will be another side.”