When the pandemic hit, companies threw all the rules out the window. Work from home? Sure, no real choice. Hold meetings over Zoom? Hey, why not? Business schools faced a similar existential pivot. In a world riven with uncertainty, how do you convince young professionals to give up a safe paycheck and enroll in a full-time MBA program? Even more, how can you make graduate business education more accessible to populations that might otherwise bypass it?
At the Darden School, Dean Scott Beardsley quickly recognized the gravity of COVID-19. Like any McKinsey alum, Beardsley examined his operation top-to-bottom, challenging every assumption that had guided admissions decision-making for decades. The result was a complete re-imagining of MBA admissions process that has rippled across business schools globally.
“If you’re not first, you’re last.” That was the wisdom of Talladega Nights’ Ricky Bobby – a reminder that no one remembers faint-of-hearts and followers. In mid-March, Dean Beardsley began to roll out his think big and act bold approach. As America headed into lockdown, Darden announced it would accept SAT and ACT scores in place of GMATs and GREs, flinging open the doors to an entirely new group of MBA candidates. By the same token, Round Three was extended to July 15th to make the MBA an option for professionals displaced by the pandemic. Call it a win-win; applicants enjoyed unprecedented flexibility while Darden was able to target a wider pool of candidates.
“When there is higher volatility and uncertainty, option value goes up and education is a form of an option,” explained Dean Beardsley in a March 2020 interview with P&Q. “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.”
Soon enough, Darden began considering alternative certifications such as the CPA and CFA as well as tests like the MCAT and LSAT. In June, Beardsley took a radical step, making admissions test-optional for the coming cycle. Well, it was a radical move to outsiders. For Beardsley, it was an extension of the school’s findings, which show the correlation between test scores and business school success isn’t particularly strong.
“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,” Beardsley adds. “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.”
Dawna Clarke, Darden’s executive director of admissions, put it another way: “We are simply broadening our admissions decisions by letting people show alternative evidence that they can strive at Darden,” Clarke explained in a 2020 interview with P&Q. “It’s 2020. There are Coursera classes. There is Harvard Business School’s online CORe. There are CPAs and CFAS who apply. And we know that the interview correlates with academic success. When people apply for a test waiver, only about 22% are granted one. I feel strongly that this is a progressive approach to admissions.”
The waiver also represents an attempt to become more inclusive, adds Beardsley, P&Q’s 2020 Dean of The Year. He cites the advantages enjoyed by candidates from wealthier backgrounds, who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on prep classes and tutors. He adds that minorities tend to score lower on standardized tests, a systematic gap that often keeps talented candidates out of the pile.
“If you look at the data for the SAT and ACT by ethnic group, it is absolutely shocking,” Beardsley says. “It shows that underrepresented minorities score between one to two standard deviations below the average…I don’t want to reward only people who spend tons of money or have tons of time studying for standardized tests. We appreciate the people who have gone through all those hoops as well. But there are many indicators of success. If you graduated with the highest honors in engineering from Carnegie Mellon, I don’t need a GMAT to tell me you can do the math in an MBA program.”
Darden’s strategy has since been taken up by schools like MIT Sloan and Northwestern Kellogg. On top of that, the school experienced a 364% surge in applications during the third quarter, along with a 25% increase in applications as a whole for a spot in the Class of 2022. The school also maintained a liberal deferral policy, with roughly 70 members of the incoming class slated to start in January (and still scheduled to graduate in 2022). The school also invested heavily in new scholarships in 2020, with the school having raised $135 million dollars in student support since 2015. In a further show of solidarity with students, Darden proved there is such a thing as a free lunch. Borrowing a concept from its morning First Coffee, the school supplied first years with free lunches in its renovated dining hall during the fall core (with second years enjoying their own meal plan).
“We asked ourselves what would be a great way to build community and give everybody something to look forward to,” adds Beardsley. “Why not come out of this and make sure everybody can have lunch together and bring first and second years together. It’s an unusual measure but it is consistent with who we are. It’s symbolic…I have always described Darden as a big family and what do families usually do? They eat together. So it is in that spirit.”
However, don’t expect eased admissions and free meals to become Darden’s trademarks. After all, Darden MBAs are a different breed, a self-selected group that comes specifically to Charlottesville for academic rigor, teaching excellence, and case study mastery. In fact, MBAs can expect to complete over 500 cases – the kind that reinforces a process of deep introspection and intensive preparation – not to mention weighing alternatives and tradeoffs and confidently delivering and defending ideas.
“We are a nerdy school,” admits Vita Wu, a 2020 grad when discussing the program’s rigor. “People should and do come to Darden because they want to learn and work hard. Our core curriculum (the first semester and a half of your first year) is known for being intense…I worked harder than I ever had to academically, but have never felt more fulfilled and supported while doing so.”
This method is executed by the best business school faculty in the world. The classroom is described as “High touch, high tone, high octane” – with faculty expected to be “a stellar teacher, a stellar researcher, and a stellar citizen,” according to assistant professor Luca Cian. And Lalin Anik, P&Q’s Professor of the Year in 2019, is one faculty member who personifies excellence in all three dimensions.
“Lalin is by far my favorite professor I’ve had throughout my academic career,” writes one anonymous alum. “In terms of pure instruction, I think she does a good job of moving conversations further and teasing out ideas, ‘pushing’ students without feeling intimidating. More importantly, I found her to be highly considerate and empathetic. I have been struggling with my experience at Darden on multiple fronts – she made time to meet me outside of class and offered comfort and solid advice to manage stress.”
Anik herself identifies with Darden’s strong sense of family – the kind that reflects the openness and personal attention behind the school’s revamped admissions process. “I see my students as family,” she says with conviction. “So when I walk into the classroom on the first day, I already know their names. I have learned a bit about them. I can ask the right questions or I can ask questions that will be challenging for different people. It’s not one size fits all. So it starts there, getting to know them. But as we go through class after class, I’m learning with them and I’m guiding them.”