When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business was among the first institutions to get out ahead of the calamity. Darden Dean Scott Beardsley was the first B-School dean to recognize that the pandemic and the recession it would cause would open the doors to a flood of new MBA candidates, some newly unemployed, others who saw their opportunities for advance scuttled by the downturn and the health crisis.
The school aggressively extended its round 3 application period by more than three months to July 15th. No less crucial, at a time when standardized test centers were closed down, the school agreed to accept undergraduate entrance exam scores on the SAT and ACT or LSAT, MCAT and Executive Assessment scores in lieu of a GMAT or GRE. Darden even agreed to chase down recommenders on behalf of its applicants.
The results of one of the boldest move in MBA admissions? Applications in Darden’s extended round 3 soared by 364% over its year-earlier final deadline. The increase drove a 25% jump in total applications for the 2019-2020 admissions season to roughly 2,730 from 2,283 for 2018-2019 for the 338 classroom seats in Darden’s full-time MBA program. At the time the admission changes were announced on March 24th, applications for this year were flat after a 19.8% decline in the previous two years. The steep increase reinforces the notion that this coming admissions season for business schools could be among the largest ever (see Could 2020-2021 Be The Biggest MBA Application Season Ever?).
‘WHO WOULD HAVE EVER THOUGHT WE WOULD SEE NUMBERS LIKE THAT?’
“It’s pretty crazy,” says Beardsley. “From my side, I expected growth, maybe 50% up in round 3, but I would never have predicted a triple-digit increase. I felt the school had momentum and the coronavirus would allow a lot of people to consider education but who would have ever thought we would see numbers like that?”
In all, the school received 724 applications in its extended round, up from 156 a year earlier. The bigger question, perhaps, is the quality of the candidates who applied? Dawna Clarke, executive director of admissions, says the applicants were comparable to the school’s overall class profile. “The percentage of women was almost identical. The percentage of minorities was almost identical. We saw a slightly lower average GMAT and comparable GPAs.”
Adds Beardsley: “We have never seen a round three with so many qualified applicants in the history of the school. It has never been seen. There has never been so many people of outstanding caliber applying in round three, and it is just continuing into the new year. We also have seen a surge in applications for our EMBA program, massive year-over-year growth.”
‘THE MAIN THRUST WAS JUST TO DO THE RIGHT THING’
Both Beardsley and Clarke make clear that the goal of extending the round three deadlines and granting applicants greater flexibility to apply was not to boost applications. Instead, it was to acknowledge a dramatic shift that would impact prospective students due to the recession, the pandemic and the closure of test centers. “The main thrust was just to do the right thing,” says Beardsley. “We wanted to focus on what we could control and help people fulfill their full potential. It was about getting the opportunity of a Darden education in front of as many people as possible and trying to open doors and not close doors. When we saw that the virus was making it impossible for people to take standardized tests, we felt that was the time for innovation.”
While Darden continues to process the last batch of applicants, so far the school has admitted 53 candidates without a GMAT or GRE across all rounds. “They may have had an LSAT or MCAT,” explains Clarke. “And it will likely grow because we are still in the process of reviewing the last 100 applications. While there were many who were successful without submitting a test score there were still many who we wished we had a test score.” It’s not yet clear how the increase will impact Darden’s acceptance rate which was 36.5% last year after the two years of application declines.
Meantime, after announcing in early June that it would consider waiving standardized tests altogether for applicants with “strong alternate indicators of academic, personal or professional accomplishment, the school already has 72 waiver requests for next year. The new change for the 2020-2021 admissions round opens the door to waivers without any test at all. “The evidence is so compelling that we can waive the standardized test,” says Clarke. “What I like about the policy is that it is time intensive on the part of our team. It is high touch. If we deny a waiver, we offer a counseling session for any applicant who requests it to explain why.”
‘I HAVE FELT PASSIONATELY ABOUT THE EXTENT TO WHICH GMAT & GRE SCORES ARE BEING OVER-INDEXED’
The school began working on the changes shortly after test centers were closed due to the pandemic, first in China in late January and then all over the world throughout February and early March. “I went to Scott and said we need to extend some flexibility to applicants in round 3 due to COVID,” recalls Clarke. “It was Scott who said, ‘Let’s let them submit SATs and ACTs since they can’t take the GMAT or GRE tests. When we made this policy decision, test centers were closed worldwide. You can think about all the implications for applicants and for us. For years, I have felt passionately about the extent to which GMAT and GRE scores are being over-indexed so I was grateful to make this move.”
Clarke, who brings 30 years of admissions experience to the game, cites the example of a recent Darden graduate, a former U.S. Army Ranger, who applied to several other business schools but was only accepted by Darden. “His best GMAT was 700 but he had a 4.0 in a master’s program and a 3.7 GPA undergrad,” she says. “The rigor of becoming a Ranger is astronomical. He was deployed multiple times and won a Purple Heart. He had to have seven or eight operations due to his wounds. Yet, he didn’t get in anywhere else and came here. He was a phenomenal person and a real leader at Darden and that is the kind of person I don’t want to miss out on.”
It wasn’t hard to convince Beardsley that this was the time to offer unusual flexibility around the tests, especially well before online versions of the tests were announced and then introduced. “In round 3, we said nobody can take a test anyway,” adds Beardsley. “Nobody can really study for it, either. Most are distracted, their families are stressed and they are jammed in apartments. Who is going to have the time to go ace the exam? So we began looking at other alternatives.”
BROADENING ASSESSMENTS OF ACADEMIC PREPAREDNESS
For the admissions team, the change reaffirmed their stance on a holistic approach to admit and deny decisions. After all, you had to place more reliance on other aspects of a candidate’s application if you lacked a GMAT or GRE result. “The way an admissions committee assesses leadership or work experience is quite broad,” explains Clarke. “But historically the way admissions committees have assessed academic preparedness has been limited to GPAs and standardized tests. We are broadening the criteria. We are not making a statement against the tests. The majority of our applicant pool will still submit them. But this moves acknowledges that there are many other ways to prove your academic ability.I would not be surprised if other schools follow us in the future.”
Beardsley’s motivation to offer waivers this year partly comes from personal experience which has long made him skeptical of standardized tests. “When I was in high school in Anchorage, Alaska, I was told I had to take the SAT and I didn’t know anything about the test,” he recalls. “I had taken the PSAT in my junior year because I was forced to take it. There was no prep. So when I went in to take the SAT in December of January, I fell sound asleep and drooled on the verbal answer sheet. I got a very bad score on the English section because it was all blank. And I was one of the top students in the school. I often thought should your whole life be linked to a standardized test? In my case, it wasn’t.”
Beardsley, who ultimately went to Tufts University and became a senior partner at McKinsey & Co., has become increasingly concerned that the use of standardized tests by universities is also unfair. He points out that prospective students from lower-income backgrounds may not be able to pay for prep classes or tutors who can cost up to $250 an hour, or take time off from work to study for the exam. “If you look at the data for the SAT and ACT by ethnic group, it is absolutely shocking,” says Beardsley.