Applying To B-School During COVID: Essential Advice From Three Top MBA Gatekeepers

Michigan’s Ross School of Business

Byrne: Indeed. We have a really good question from an audience member. I’ll give it to you, Soojin.
What’s a good way to know if a candidate is MBA ready or not? Put another way, what questions or criteria should a candidate ask him or herself to see if they’re ready to pursue an MBA?

Kwon: I think it boils down to two questions. It’s what do you want to do, and what will you bring to the table? So, specifically, you should ask yourself the question, do I have a career goal for which the knowledge, skills, and network I’d gain from an MBA would be valuable? If, for example, you want to continue being a musician or an engineer, you probably don’t need an MBA, but if you want to leverage those or other careers into something more or switch careers altogether, then an MBA does make sense. The second question more specifically is, do I have academic professional and personal experiences that would contribute to my classmates’ learning? So, unlike in an undergraduate college experience, getting an MBA is not a passive endeavor. You’re going to be expected to actively engage in class discussions, team projects, and co-curricular activities. Professors and classmates are going to look to you to have something to contribute. So, if your answer to the career goal and contributions questions are yes, then you’re in a good position to apply to business school now.

Byrne: Michael. Let’s say you determined that you are in fact ready. What’s the best way to determine fit with a school, its culture, its programs, and its geography?

Robinson: So, I believe that fit really matters, and I think it’s important to be thoughtful, to be introspective and reflective, and look inward before you look outward. So, by that, I mean like thinking about your ideal learning environment. Do you prefer big cities versus small cities and so on? Does the method of instruction matter to you? Those kind of things are important. You need to ask yourself, what is the best environment for me to succeed in this space? Then, you have to start looking outward in terms of, how do I engage with people from this community?

We would say talk with current students and alumni. Watch as many online classes as you can, but the key thing is really thoughtful engagement with members from that community. Before, we’re saying visit, visit, visit. Now, we’re saying watch, watch, watch, but the same is true. The cool thing is that with Zoom it’s easier to put these things together. So, before, for example, when you actually went to campus to visit a class, we would limit a visit to like five to 10 spots. Now, we can open that up so it’s easier to engage with folks, and you don’t have to do all the travel. So, that part is good, but the keyword is to engage, engage, engage with members of that community.

Byrne: That’s really good advice, particularly now in lieu of a campus visit because today at this time during the pandemic you can’t go and share a coffee with a student or sit in a class. So it is to watch, watch, watch and talk, talk, talk. Bruce, how would you describe the culture of your school? This is another audience question as well.

DelMonico: Sure. To build on Michael’s point, I think the silver lining of the current situation is that these online events definitely democratize the process. It’s not just about who’s able to get to campus. We’re able to reach more people and engage with more people, and hopefully, through that process, you do get a sense of what our culture and community is like.

I will say you should think about points of equivalence and points of differentiation. I think we all have communities that are collaborative and collegial. I think it’s probably the rare program that says we’re cutthroat, and everyone’s out to get the other person. I don’t think that’s really how we present ourselves. I don’t think that’s how we are, so I think you want to think about the next level beyond that and what aspects of the culture maybe are a little bit different. We are a very mission-oriented place. Our mission is to educate leaders for business and society. That was our founding mission. It’s very broad. I think it brings in people who I think are broad-minded and curious.

When people think of Yale, they think that we are very collaborative, but it doesn’t mean we’re not competitive. I think one student put it well, saying that we’re constructively competitive at Yale. We think that everybody can be successful. It’s not if I succeed, it’s at the expense of my classmates or others. The one word I would point to is there’s a real sense of optimism at Yale SOM, and I think that we have optimistic students. That kind of idea permeates the culture.

Byrne: Soojin, what is the culture like at Michigan Ross?

Kwon: Like Bruce said, none of us are going to say that we’re not collaborative, that we’re cutthroat and competitive. We’re very similar in how we describe our cultures, so you really need to get the words, the feelings, the stories from students. But if I had to boil it down to a few words, it would probably be supportive and inspirational. In business school, you’re going to be challenged in ways that you never have been before. It could be by classes you haven’t taken before or by the intense preparation you’re going to need to do for recruiting for a completely new and unfamiliar industry or by the real-life projects and investments or people you’re going to be tasked with managing. But you’re going to be inspired to do that because you’re going to see your classmates doing that. Through it all, you’re going to be supported by your classmates more than you could have imagined in a business school setting. Everyone thinks business is very competitive, and everyone’s out for themselves, but it’s not like that at most schools.

One of the things that is really special about our community is how much students are motivating each other to do things that are really hard, to step outside of their comfort zones, so that they can grow. Then, they reflect on it together and by the end of two years, they’re amazed at who they’ve become not just because of the opportunities that were available but also because of how much they’ve been inspired by seeing their classmates take risks, put themselves out so that they can learn and grow, too. They’re willing to meet with failure, to take on risks so that they can become this transformational leader by the end of the two years.

Byrne: Michael, I imagine that New York City figures prominently in the culture of Columbia Business School.

Robinson: Yes, it does. When Bruce and Soojin were speaking, I was like check, check, check, check in terms of collaboration and being supportive at the same time. The people that we admit have been used to being successful. They’re driven, but their success does not depend on making someone else fail. Now, we are in COVID, but New York definitely is a part of the culture so the people in our program like to be in a very dynamic, fast-paced environment. They’re interested in juggling lots of balls at the same time.

There is something that I heard a student say many years ago, which I think is still kind of applicable. She said that a Columbia student is the kind of person who will work with you on a problem set or a case until 2:00, 3:00 in the morning and say, ‘Okay, well. Let’s go out and get a beer,’ and there’s a place open to actually get a beer in New York at that time as opposed to going into your fridge. So there’s that kind of energy that I’ve always loved.

Then, the last thing I will say is that we are in a time where there is lots of social unrest. Diversity Inclusion and equity are big issues on our campuses, and students are really driving that conversation in terms of how do we get better at cultural competency? So, it’s not just a conversation about race or gender, but how do you have that conversation from a global perspective, so the person from South Korea still has context as to why black lives matter? Students are driving those conversations. So, I continue to be hopeful, and I continue to be inspired by our young people.

Byrne: Great point. Now, here is a perennial question, but nonetheless, one thing about the MBA admissions field is that every 18 months, the whole thing turns over, so you have a bunch of new people who really don’t know what the previous group learned. The question is, do you prefer the GMAT or the GR

Kwon: The short answer is no. There is no preference. Most U.S. schools now accept both the GMAT and the GRE. We wouldn’t accept it if we didn’t think it was a useful indicator of a candidate’s academic potential. That said, here’s what I would do if I hadn’t already taken one of them or even if I had. I’d take a practice test of both the GMAT and the GRE and see which one I do better on, and then invest all of my time in preparing for that one test. That’s the same advice I gave to my sons in deciding between the SAT and the ACT for college because you want to put your best foot forward, so invest your time in the one that you think you will do better on.

Byrne: Exactly. Michael, here’s another one of those perennial questions: What are the biggest mistakes that applicants make?

Robinson: I think just being inauthentic or just not doing enough due diligence. So, there’s a difference between a strong applicant and a strong application. Sometimes, I see folks who, ‘Well, I have great test scores. I have a great GPA. I work for this great company. This means I’m automatic for school X, Y or Z,’ and then, they almost like phone it in. What you may see is a bunch of very generic essays that can apply to any school. They haven’t done any research so they don’t have a sense of how do you maximize your experience at a specific school over two years.

They haven’t really asked themselves how can I contribute to the people who are going to be my classmates? They don’t really have an answer for that. So they’re strong on paper, but they’re not a strong applicant. I’ve actually written this in notes: ‘Lazy application. Great person but the person kind of phoned it in.’ Put the work in. For most people who are 27 or 28 which is a typical age for the applicant pool, this is a $200,000 investment, which is the biggest investment for most people of that age. So, take it seriously. Put the work in. Put the time in.

Byrne: Really good advice, and you’re right. I think if you have numbers above the class averages, there may be the sense that ‘Okay, I’m pretty solid. I don’t have to worry as much.’ But you’re absolutely right. Here’s one of my favorite questions, and it’s from an audience member. Let’s give it to Bruce. If there’s one thing you can change about MBA admissions, what would it be?

DelMonico: I’m getting all the softballs here. Just one thing? I would point to maybe the applicant facing part of the process. Obviously, there are things that happen behind the scenes, process improvements or other evaluative tools that we’re experimenting with that we would love to be able to put into place. We’re all competing for talent. We all want great students at each of our schools, So I think we each have our own processes, but at the same time, I think we’re all, just to a good degree, advocates for graduate management education. Obviously, I want great people at Yale, but if they’re not going to be in Yale, I want them in Michigan or in Columbia and elsewhere. I think it goes the same in the other direction.

So, as we compete for talent, we’re talking about things like the culture of our communities and what kind of students we have at our schools. I would love for the process to be focused on that. It’s sometimes frustrating to me that things like timing of enrollment deposits or timing of applications causes people to make decisionsbased on things that seem less substantive. So I would love it if the process could be coordinated more so that people didn’t have to say, ‘I would have loved to have been at Yale, at Michigan, but I couldn’t go to Michigan because the time of the enrollment deposits didn’t line up, and I had these other things I was thinking about. Or the decision wasn’t released at the right time.’

Obviously, we all have admitted student weekends, for example, and they can’t all be on the same weekend, but if there are ways to streamline the process so that applicants are filling out the same information for each of our applications, if there’s a way to only have to do that once and to make it even more candidate friendly that I think would be beneficial to everybody involved. I do feel like there are inefficiencies in the process that could be eliminated that would allow us to streamline things and allow people to focus on the things that matter as opposed to making decisions based on some ancillary considerations.

Byrne: I think applicants would love that answer.

Robinson: Can I add something? This is more like a pipeline and a conversation, so if you look at a number of the leading liberal arts colleges, there are more schools that are becoming test-optional. So, they’re deemphasizing the importance of standardized testing in the context of the admissions process. I’m actually watching that with lots of curiosity, and then just add one more data point. I’ve led the recruiting efforts in Africa for over a decade at Columbia. There are some very, very big cities. So, let’s say Lagos, Nigeria, that has over 20 million people. There’s one test center. There’s very little in the way of test prep resources and so on, so a 700 in Lagos is not the same thing as a 700 in New York City, just in terms of access to resources, but the way we’re kind of judging is the same.

So, for us in admissions, it’s not that we want to basically admit people with the highest test average. It’s more about whether this person can succeed academically in that class. There are ways to get the right answer to that question without a GRE or GMAT or executive assessment. So I’m really curious to see what’s happening there. We’ll see how that looks like.

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