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

Yale School of Management

Byrne: Now, Soojin, sometimes when an applicant goes to a website and reads what everyone requires, they may get the sense that you have to walk on water to get into your school. But very few applicants have a perfect application. So, what can they do to still prove that they’re really strong academically if something like your GPA or your standardized test score failed to hit the class averages?

Kwon: All of us have what we call a holistic evaluation process, which means that we’re not just looking at one component of the application. There are a lot of other indicators of your academic potential in your application besides your GPA. One of the things that we’ll consider from your undergrad experience is not just the number but also what kind of classes you took, what was your major, what school did you go to, how much did you challenge yourself. You can’t change any of that, so that’s already done. You can study for the GMAT or the GRE and try to get the best score possible, and then your work experience can also be an indicator of your potential to be able to do the kind of work that you’re going to do in business school. And it doesn’t have to be in business per se. It can be in the government. It could be a non-profit. It could even be in the military. Some of those things are going to give you experiences and skills that will be helpful for business school. So, the GPA is just one component of the broader picture that we’re looking at.

Byrne: Right. Michael, what distinguishes a good MBA candidate from a great one?

Robinson: This is actually a very tough question for me. It’s something I’ve thought about and something that I really struggle with. So, when you think about the people on this panel, we serve as gatekeepers to very elite spaces. So, what does that mean? The majority of the young people in our program are people who are kind of sure their backgrounds are going to allow them to thrive in elite spaces. But there are people who are just as talented who never had that kind of access. So, does that make them less great? This is very personal for me because when I was a young man, I spent the ’90s working with hip-hop artists, and I met some of the most driven people in my life, but they did not have the profile to ‘be competitive’ in a school like ours.

Then, we’re in an age where there is lots of economic inequality, and there’s lots of tension on the streets. So how will our institutions become more responsive to broaden access to opportunity? So, going back to the question about a good versus a great candidate, I would ask is someone who’s a great candidate someone who just had access to resources where they hired a consultant? Some of the tutors for the GMAT sometimes charge $200 an hour, and then you take like a 10-session minimum.

Sometimes, a person who looks great on paper is just a function of access to resources. That’s why I struggle with this because we’re rated and judged in our own league tables based on unequal access to stuff. How do you get better around that? I struggle with that because if you do something to correct for it and then drop in the rankings, alums are like, ‘What’s going on and so on?’ What is the right balance? What is the right balance?

Byrne: That’s really true, and it’s a real challenge in elite admissions. Another perennial question as well is about recommendation letters. Bruce, is there an ideal person who should fill out that recommendation form for a candidate? Should it be a more senior person in your firm who may know you less? Should it be the person who knows you well and knows your work, day in and day out?

DelMonico: That’s a great question. I would, just as a prelude to that, echo what Soojin and Michael were saying about the holistic process and understanding context. I think we sometimes feel unhealthy pressures in terms of testing and understanding the context. It’s often hard to get beyond those numbers, and understand the applicant in a deeper and I think more productive way.

Recommendations are one aspect of that. For that reason, I feel comfortable speaking on behalf of all of us. This is one area where I think we would all say you want to have someone who knows you well, someone you work with more closely. Don’t go for the more senior person just for the sake of the title. That’s not going to be productive. I think in terms of the actual recommendation letter itself, in terms of how we use them, we want someone who works more closely with you because we want more substantive advice, more substantive insight into you as a candidate.

It’s not helpful for us to hear that this candidate is collaborative and a good team player, and he’s smart, and whatever qualities you want to insert. We don’t want just that conclusory language. We want examples. We want concrete examples of behaviors that you as a professional have displayed. You can only get that from someone you work with closely, and so that’s why we care about that.

Byrne: Totally. So Soojin, there’s a lot of worry about the career prospects of MBAs given COVID. Do you have any thoughts about that? Should it be a concern for students entering this fall?

Kwon: So, here’s the thing. You shouldn’t decide whether to get an MBA based on what the economy looks like right now. You’ll be graduating actually three years from now if you apply for next year, and who knows what the economy will look like by then? Back in 2017, no one predicted that a pandemic would take down the global economy in 2020. Economists now are predicting anywhere from a V-shaped recovery to a W to an L to a U. It’s alphabet soup in terms of predictions for the economy.

By pursuing an MBA, what you’re betting on is that your career options and earning potential will be better than they would be without an MBA. It’s a pretty safe bet. In every economic scenario in the past, an MBA has given people more options and higher salary potential than they would have had without an MBA. Then, there’s a compound impact of that over time. So, regardless of what the economy looks like now or even three years from now, as I said in my answer to the first question, you’re going to be better off with the MBA.

John Byrne: No doubt about it. Here’s a great question. I love this idea. We’ll start with Michael. Tell me about a candidate that you took a bet on, maybe even some of your colleagues in the admissions committee said, ‘Michael, I’m not so sure.’ But you went ahead and admitted the person and that bet became a big success.

Robinson: I won’t mention any names for privacy reasons, but when you think about the range of people within our program, some may have questionable academics and yet are the most amazing people in the program. If you’re going to turn down four or five or six people that have 740s and 760 GMATs to bring in this person with a test score that is 100 points lower with questionable math skills, that person has to have a very powerful why.

I’m thinking about this woman who just radiated confidence. You just felt that there was something special about her.
She already had this great potential but struggled in the first year quant classes. We kind of knew that because the GMAT predicted it, but the thing that I loved about her was that she still took more quant classes than many of her classmates because she had this really strong intellectual curiosity. She was taking coding classes. She’s a marketing person and is now going on to a great job at Tik Tok and so on. When she led professional panel discussions, you could see that all her classmates respected her. So, she belonged. I do expect her to be a leader with a national profile going forward, but the key thing is that people like the grind. They hustle. You can’t outwork them.

Byrne: Bruce, do you have a favorite?

DelMonico: Yeah. I mean, lots of favorites. The one that came to mind more immediately is someone who was a risk in the sense that the testing numbers were not what might see otherwise. It was someone who, for a time, actually lived with her mom in her car, was homeless and just would not give up, just persevered. As I said before, you’ll understand the context of someone’s background and how far they’ve come from where they were. The resilience to just do what it takes to succeed makes you believe that that would translate to the academics. This person became a real leader on campus and has gone on to be incredibly successful afterward. Knowing and understanding the context in which someone presents himself and the hardships that they’ve had to overcome says a lot, and I think that’s a challenge for us in admissions.

Byrne: Soojin, I know you have favorites.

Kwon: I do. I can’t pick just one just like with my kids, but I think there are a lot of candidates out there who worry that maybe business school isn’t right for them because they’re non-traditional. So, I have a story about a woman who just graduated this past April. She was non-traditional by many opinions. She majored in environmental studies and philosophy. She took the GRE and had no business experience. In fact, she worked for three years as a bee pollinator coordinator at a nonprofit that promotes organic and sustainable agriculture. She didn’t know anyone with an MBA and had said that she was scared, that she wasn’t good enough to get into an MBA program and that her weird background would hold her back.

She couldn’t have been more wrong. At Ross, she became a member of the Consulting Club, the Community Consulting Club. She did a MAP (Multidisciplinary Action Project) project with AT&T. She participated in five national case competitions, placing first and second in two of them, and then she went on to pursue a dual degree with our School of Environment and Sustainability, and because of that, she was able to do two internships, one with the Environmental Defense Fund and the other with McKinsey. That’s where she’ll be working full-time. So she went from a bee pollinator to a McKinsey consultant. She’ll tell you that business school transformed her into a more critical thinker, a better leader, and a more confident problem solver. That’s what an MBA can do for you.

Byrne: Three great stories. I bet you, there are people in our audience who may not fit these profiles exactly. They may not be pollinating bees or sleeping in cars or whatever, but I think what you get out of those stories is a sense that you’re looking for people who can be special and who want to fulfill the potential that’s inside them. What they’ve done before may not always line up to make them perfect candidates, but the fact that you’re open to look at these very different people and bring them into a class so they can share their insights make the MBA experience more meaningful for everyone. I cannot believe that our time is over, but Soojin, thank you so much. Michael, thank you. Bruce, always a pleasure.

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