Brevity is the soul of wit, they say. It also seems to be the mantra for this year’s MBA application process.
While most people look forward to July and August as a time to lie on the beach and soak up the sun, would-be MBA students hoping for a place at a top business schools in 2014 will spend the summer swotting for entry exams, writing essays and flattering potential referees as they research the schools that best suit their needs.
The good news for them is that this year almost all the top schools have streamlined the application process, cutting down on the applicants’ workload. As Betsy Ziegler, associate dean of MBA programmes at the Kellogg school at Northwestern University, puts it, the school has shortened the word count of its essay questions “so people get to the punchline”.
Most top business schools brush aside the idea that they are simplifying the process to encourage more applicants in what is seen generally as a declining market for full-time MBA students – the figures published by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) show that 133,000 people in the 24-30 age bracket sat the GMAT business school entry test in 2011-12 compared with nearly 140,000 in 2008-09.
But there is a tacit acknowledgment that the commercialisation of the applications process, with many companies offering essay-writing services for MBA applicants, has muddied the waters. Admissions consultant Stacy Blackman believes the biggest dilemma for business schools lies in evaluating applicants’ recommendation letters, many of which are written by the applicants themselves and just signed off by their bosses. “I do think the recommendations are the weak link and need to be changed,” she says.
An easier application process will not necessarily mean it is simpler to get into business school. Quite the opposite in fact, believes Chioma Isiadinso, chief executive of admissions consultancy Expartus. “Just because a school has fewer entry requirements doesn’t mean it will be easier to get in. It means more people will apply. People shouldn’t apply to business school just because the process is easy – that will backfire.”
One of the most innovative schools in the application process this year is Kellogg. It is trying out a video essay question, using a technology that companies such as Nike already use as part of their selection process, according to Ms Ziegler. “You log in and you answer questions. You can play back and erase and re-record,” she says, adding that the video essay will be particularly useful in confirming English ability.
For the second year in a row Harvard has made substantial changes to its application process. This year applicants will have to write only one essay and submit just two references – previously three references were required. As with last year, those 1,800 applicants invited for interview will have to submit a post-interview reflection, giving them the opportunity to have the last word.
At Wharton too there are changes. The University of Pennsylvania business school has reduced the number of essays it requires from three to two, both of just 500 words. Perhaps more significant for this year’s applicants, it has retained its team-based interview.
“We want to have applicants understand our culture first-hand,” says Ankur Kumar, Wharton director of admissions. “We want to see our applicants in action. We want to get a 3D picture of them.”
Where these top schools lead, others follow. The Anderson school at UCLA, for example, now requires just one essay while the Stern school at NYU has reduced its compulsory essay count from three to two. Michigan Ross has reduced the length of its required essays while Columbia Business School, though still requiring three essays, has halved the length of its additional short answer question. Applicants now have to respond to the question “What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal?” in just 100 characters – fewer than are allowed in a tweet.
In Europe, Insead, which has two intakes a year on its one-year MBA, is reviewing its application process and may reduce the number of required essays from six as well as introducing video interviews, says Virginie Fougea, associate director for admissions. “We want them [applicants] to express their communication and interpersonal skills as well as achievements not only through essay questions but also video, group interview and presentations.”
European schools have often been less willing to reduce their application processes because they are considering applicants from a far more geographically diverse background, says Caroline Diarte Edwards, director of Fortuna Admissions. But she acknowledges that a more time-consuming applications process, such as writing multiple essays, might have a negative effect: “It might be off-putting for some candidates, especially if they are non-English speakers.”
London Business School has reduced its required essay count for MBA applicants from six to three this year. “We’re putting a bigger emphasis on the face-to-face interview,” explains Susan Roth, head of customer relationships. “Where there is no flexibility [on admissions] is if people fail the interview.”
As part of the LBS interview process all interviewees are given five minutes to prepare their thoughts on a question on a newsworthy business problem or issue, which is posed by the interviewer.
At first glance these moves look novel, but, says Ms Isiadinso, the business school admissions process is like a pendulum. The swing this year is towards fewer submissions, be it recommendations or essays. Top schools such as Harvard dictate the terms. “If you require three recommendations and other schools require two, it might put people off from applying to you,” she says.
But the reduction in essay numbers is positive, she believes. “By the time they [applicants] got to the eighth essay, they had run out of content!”
Ms Blackman describes the moves as a rebalancing. “The admissions process is an holistic process. But through the years the essays have taken on a greater importance. This isn’t journalism school, it’s business school.” Nonetheless, she too is convinced the pendulum will swing back in years to come. “A school is evaluated on the perception of how selective it is.”
One trend all the consultants highlight is the growing number of would-be MBAs who apply to business schools in several different countries. Ms Blackman reports that applicants applying to top US business schools will also apply to Insead, London Business School and HEC in Europe. The Indian School of Business has also joined this list, she says.
Ms Diarte Edwards agrees. “They [applicants] may be applying to Harvard and Stanford but they are applying to London Business School and Insead as well. We are seeing that now. The top candidates from India, China and the Middle East are now more open-minded about their options, which makes it [the application process] more complex.”
So what are the top tips from admissions consultants?
● “Don’t think one low-word essay means it’s easy. You really need to take a step back and think about how to get your message across.” Stacy Blackman
● “What is interesting and different about you? That is what will lift your application to the top.” Chioma Isiadinso
● “Take the time to think through why you are doing an MBA. A good MBA application requires a lot of deep reflection.” Caroline Diarte Edwards