January 16, 2011 11:59 pm

Express yourselves

 

Singing for her supper: students are finding new ways to stand out

The increasing competitiveness of the MBA applicant pool has prompted many business schools to experiment with application questions that feature optional multimedia formats and video interviews in addition to traditional essay questions.

Business school applications are famously punishing. Typically they involve test scores, academic records, several sets of recommendations, an interview and standard essay questions. In recent years, however, many schools – including University of Chicago’s Booth and UCLA Anderson – have introduced a “third essay” that asks students to express themselves creatively using PowerPoint slides, PDF files, or video. NYU Stern, which opened up its third essay to electronic submissions for the first time this year, has already received CDs, DVDs, film, songs and links to websites from would-be MBAs.

It was not until the mid to late 1990s that most business schools began encouraging candidates to interview for a spot. But as the number of applications to MBA programmes continues to climb, admission officers must collect ever more information about candidates to determine which are most deserving of entry. Stern, for instance, last year received 4,501 applicants and accepted 13.2 per cent; Booth, meanwhile, received 4,299 applications and accepted 22 per cent.

“Every time an admissions office changes part of their process, it’s a sign that whatever they were doing before wasn’t working,” says Scott Shrum, director of MBA admissions research at Veritas Prep, the admissions consulting company.

“The back half of the admissions office is being moved into the 21st century because the number of applications business schools receive is much larger than it ever has been – especially at top schools. It’s getting harder and harder for admissions officers to separate the good from the great and so they need more material to make a call.”

Stock essay questions such as: “Why do you want to get an MBA?” or “Which global issue is most important to you?” often elicit pretentious or exaggeratedly earnest answers.

“Admissions officers roll their eyes because all the essays start to sound the same,” says Mr Shrum. “But multi­media offers a free-form element that invites a fun, personal response. The goal of the admissions office is to get to know the applicant better. In the age of YouTube, video is now a real possibility.”

The move toward multimedia is also perhaps a way to reduce cheating in the application process, whereby a potential student pays handsomely for essay writing services and interview coaching.

But, says Mr Shrum, an essay that is too polished and inauthentic is just as problematic as a video response that’s scripted or overly prepared. “If you want to show the admissions office that you are a mountain climber and you decide to do a presentation on the face of a cliff, it could be effective but it could also be gimmicky.”

Kurt Ahlm, senior director of admissions at Booth, says that since the school launched its third essay in 2008, he’s seen a variety of responses: from colourful, finely designed charts and data to one PowerPoint slide with five bullet points. “The point is: there’s not one approach. When students do this well, they think through what they’re trying to communicate.”

Mr Ahlm says that while the other two essays are “valuable”, they are also “somewhat programmed”.

“This blank paper is a way to get students to step outside of their comfort zone. It’s an opportunity to round out the application and add depth.”

Admissions offices are trying out technology in other ways, too. Brandeis International Business School is allowing students to submit with their standard application an optional video segment in which they answer questions about why they want to attend Brandeis. Often the students are dressed in suits and appear in an office-like setting, according to Holly Chase, associate dean of admissions and financial aid.

“We told applicants to treat it as though it were a job interview,” she says. “We didn’t want anyone making trips to Universal Studios for this.”

However, James Holmen, who heads the admissions office at University of Indiana’s Kelley School of Business, has not considered allowing a multimedia option because, he says, “the [application] process we have now works really well for us”.

“My concern with the multimedia option format is: would [the admissions committee] be getting a good sense of who the applicants are
and what they bring to the table, or would they be swayed by style over substance?”

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