Feature of the Week

Last updated: August 8, 2012 9:43 am

The creative route to an MBA

©Stuart Briers

While many managers think of August as the month for lying on a beach and soaking up the sun, for those considering an MBA, it is the month to dust down the CV, write application essays and sit the GMAT, the entry exam for business school.

This year, however, it’s all change as many of the world’s top schools have radically altered their application processes. Innovation is the buzzword, says Chioma Isiadinso, chief executive of Expartus, the business school admissions consultancy. “In the 15 years I’ve been in this industry I have never seen this level of change,” she says.

global MBA stats

global MBA stats

At the front of the pack is Harvard Business School and where Harvard leads, others inevitably follow. MBAs who hope to be awarded one of its 920 coveted places for entry in 2013 will now only have to submit two essays instead of the previous four, says Dee Leopold, managing director for MBA admissions. Essay-writing it seems is now considered an anachronistic and often irrelevant skill for the 25 or 27-year-olds applying to business school.

“It [the revised process] is really meant to be something more germane to what is happening today,” says Ms Leopold. “I think and I’ve said this before, this isn’t an essay-writing contest.”

Other top schools are also reducing the essay count. MIT Sloan students of the class of 2015, who will be submitting applications in the next few months, will only have to submit two essays, down from three last year and at the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania the essay count is also down from three to two.

Derrick Bolton, MBA admissions director at Stanford, believes that this is just the tip of the iceberg. “Schools are finally beginning to catch up with the world around them. I think you’ll see a lot more changes in the next four or five years.”

The moves reflect a shift by top schools from written submissions to interviews, believes Graham Richmond of Clear Admit, the MBA admissions consultancy. This is particularly true at Harvard and Wharton.

MBA under review

While America’s big brand business schools trumpet change, there is one area where few will contemplate it: the length of the degree programme. They recently lobbied the AACSB, the US accreditation body, for the two-year MBA to be protected in the accreditation process – the AACSB is planning changes to its accreditation process in 2013.

“I invited some of the top brand schools, the Harvards, the Whartons, the Stanfords, the Columbias, to participate [in the review],” says John Fernandez, president of the AACSB. “Their feeling is that the [two-year] MBA is under stress.”

The stalwarts of the two-year system argue that a one-year MBA cannot cover the required curriculum and the internship, an integral part of a two-year degree, is necessary for those students wanting to change careers.

But the concerns may be more commercial than academic. Graham Richmond of Clear Admit, the MBA admissions consultant, believes the lower-cost, one-year degree could prove increasingly competitive. “In this economy, where candidates are a bit more ROI-conscious, they may think a one-year programme is enough for what they need.”

Applications to the Kellogg school at Northwestern University near Chicago, one of the few top US schools to offer a one-year and a two-year degree, support this theory. Over the past two years applications to Kellogg’s two-year degree has fallen by 9-10 per cent, while applications to its one-year programme have risen by 10-11 per cent.

Chioma Isiadinso, of Expartus admissions consultancy believes US schools must adapt. “Whether they will do it gracefully or kicking and screaming, I don’t know.”

The 1,800 Harvard applicants who are invited to interview will be required to submit a memo reflecting on the interview within 24 hours.

“This is meant to give them the last word,” says Ms Leopold. She admits, though, that the move has unnerved many potential applicants.

Wharton will become the first top US school to introduce a group interview process this year – IMD in Switzerland already does this. The team-based discussions, which will be conducted in Philadelphia and in hub cities around the world, will enable potential students to demonstrate qualities, such as working in a team, that are otherwise difficult to assess.

Ankur Kumar, director of MBA admissions, says pilots conducted by Wharton suggest the process will be positive.

“We think they [applicants] will enjoy doing this with us.”

While schools insist that the changes are intended to reflect better the behaviour of Generation Y applicants, there are nagging concerns that there is a lowering of the entry barriers to encourage more applications. The past few years have been sluggish, with even top schools reporting static or falling applications.

Ms Isiadinso believes that schools will not want to report declining applications for a further year.

“I can’t imagine any director of admissions going into the dean and saying the numbers are down two years in a row and say it’s OK because the quality is up.”

Many schools are also opening the applications process earlier to encourage more applicants. London Business School opens applications this week – two months earlier than in previous years. Oliver Ashby, senior recruitment and admissions manager, says that the move brings LBS into line with top US schools.

“It’s really because our US competitors open so much earlier. People want to apply all in one go. I’m here to increase applications numbers,” he says. “I’d hate that people didn’t apply because it is inconvenient.”

What is clear is that if would-be MBAs apply to a number of schools, the process is likely to be very different – and involve a lot of work. Some schools allow applicants to submit a PowerPoint presentation rather than an essay, others encourage applicants to add links to personal blogs, while other applicants can submit video essays.

“Communications skills and presentation skills are going to be a lot more important than written communications in the future,” says Martin Boehm, MBA director at IE Business School in Madrid.

At NYU Stern applicants are encouraged to show their artistic side by submitting a creative project instead of one of the essays, says Isser Gallogly, assistant dean for MBA and EMBA admissions. This could be a video, a sculpture or some other art project.

And even the traditional essay question has been replaced by the quirky. Out are questions on leadership and management style to be replaced by ones on what you would do if your work was cancelled for three hours or even what song best expresses your personality.

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