The nerve-wracking question, “what other schools are you applying to?” inevitably turns up these days. If you haven’t encountered it yet among the questions on your b-school application form, then get ready to encounter it during your MBA admissions interviews.
It’s been a standard question for some time now on the MBA application forms for London Business School, Chicago Booth, and Berkeley Haas – just to name a few. This year, INSEAD notably added ‘what other schools are you applying to?’ to its application form as a drop-down feature, although it’s a question that historically arises in the INSEAD admissions interview (so prepare to address it in both places).
So why do schools ask this perplexing question, why do they care, and most importantly what’s the best way to handle it? As former INSEAD Director of Communications and current Fortuna Admissions coach, I love coaching around this question, as it requires you to be both savvy and strategic. It’s not a trick question (even if it feels like one) but requires an understanding of what schools are seeking in choosing to ask it.
“Schools have several motives behind this ask,” says Fortuna’s Caroline Diarte Edwards, former Director of MBA Admissions at INSEAD. “First off, business schools want to know who their main competition is. And secondly, schools want to ensure a high yield from the candidates they admit for each class. For some schools that are harder to predict than for others.”
What’s most important for candidates to keep in mind is that the question is also a very clever way for schools to gauge how serious each candidate is about the school they’re applying to.
In her recent article, “10 Tough MBA Interview Questions & How to Handle Them,” Fortuna Director Judith Silverman Hodara explores some of the most daunting questions our clients have recently faced in the MBA admissions interview such as the uncomfortable, “Tell me about the gap in your resume.”
As she explains “Every school wants to know they’re your first choice. But under this question regarding the other schools you applied to is a subtle test of your deep understanding of this school’s culture, values, and unique offerings.”
What that means is that your response must show that you really know the school in question AND that you know the other schools you applied to as well. For example, as Fortuna’s Cassandra Pittman says, “if you’re applying to LBS because, as you’ve written in your essays, you intend to pursue a career in investment banking and attending a business school in a global financial capital is one of your top priorities, then it would make sense to share that you were also applying to CBS. It would be less credible, however, if you said that you were also applying to Yale in New Haven, Connecticut (as stellar a program as it is).”
Here are three key tips to keep top of mind as you prepare to share which schools you are applying to:
1. Show the love.
Schools know you are applying elsewhere, and, every school wants to know it’s your first choice. In your interview or your application essays, your passion for X school and its particular MBA program needs to come through clearly and credibly. Then, when citing the other business schools you are applying to, focus on a few with a similar DNA.
Caution: What’s the golden rule for how NOT to respond? At the risk of stating the obvious, do NOT tell your interviewer that you applied to their school but your number one choice is another school. This wildly unsavvy but true interview response was remembered decades later by one business school admissions director!
2. Don’t go overboard.
Share a list of 3-4 schools maximum, even if you applied to 10 schools. Communicating the full list is not necessary and will make it harder for you to credibly show the love you have for the school in question. Rest assured that despite the concerns of many candidates, gleaned from the threads on popular boards, schools do not have inside information on which schools you applied to!
3. Be prepared to explain your other choices in the interview.
Prepare a succinct explanation, with no more than two sentences, to explain why the other schools figure on your list. For example, “I plan to pursue a global career in strategy consulting so attending a school with a truly international faculty and cohort is of utmost importance to me. So while INSEAD is my top choice, I have also applied to LBS and CBS.”
A final word of advice: While you don’t need to provide an exhaustive list of all the schools you’re applying to, it’s not a good idea to say you’re applying to a school you have not nor have any intention of applying to. If you do, you risk tripping up in an interview and coming off as insincere. And of course, it goes without saying that it is never a good idea to be dishonest in your business school application! To avoid any hint of insincerity, think of this as an opportunity to demonstrate your deep knowledge of the school and understanding of what makes it special.
My Fortuna Admissions colleague and I are passionate and skilled at helping candidates achieve admissions success at the MBA programs of their dreams (see what candidates are saying about us in P&Q’s recent feature, Most Favorably Reviewed MBA Admission Consulting Firms). For more advice, and a candid and personal, candid assessment of your chances, sign up for a free consultation.
Melissa Joelson is an Expert Coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former INSEAD Director of Communications. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.