MBA admissions: innovative ways to assess soft skills
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When Luke Anthony Peña applied to business school a decade ago, he was disheartened by the lack of transparency and communication in the admissions process. So when he joined Tuck School of Business as executive director of admissions and financial aid in 2017, he made innovation a priority, introducing changes ranging from the way Tuck interacts with candidates to making students prove their “niceness” in applications.
Over the past year, the business school at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire has sped up decision times by removing the longest of its four selection rounds, and has increased communication with applicants. “Reaching out helps with their anxiety,” says Peña, who himself has a joint MA/MBA run by Stanford University’s graduate schools education and business in California. “We don’t want the application to feel like a financial transaction.”
Tuck also asks prospective students to prove they are “nice” people, with recommendation letters and an essay question that asks them to share an example of how they helped someone else succeed. “Niceness captures the spirit of investing in others, which is fundamental to effective leadership,” says Peña.
He reports that more people who fit stated values, such as empathy, are now vying for a place on the MBA, which last year enrolled 287 people from the 2,621 who applied in 2017-18. “Fit” is important because group work is a core part of the MBA curriculum, says Peña. “We need people who can build relationships and trust each other.”
Schools are showing a newfound zeal for innovation, according to admissions consultant Stacy Blackman. Admissions teams are trying to make applying for an MBA less stressful as they attempt to increase the take-up of offers to candidates. “There are just as many strong business schools out there as there are strong candidates,” she says.
The top schools also want to improve efficiency by gathering more information on the thousands of people who apply for a place each year, to help them identify the strongest candidates.
In 2013, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business added an optional team exercise to its MBA application, augmenting one-on-one interviews. On campus in Ann Arbor or in locations outside the US, groups of would-be MBAs create a mock business challenge scenario and solution based around four words they choose from a set of six, such as “investment” or “supplier”.
Soojin Kwon, managing director of the full-time MBA programme and admissions at Ross, says the change was made to assess so-called “soft skills”, such as communication, which is critical to group work and is coveted by corporate recruiters. The FT’s 2018 Skills Gap survey found that these skills were the most important to companies that employ MBA graduates — but schools cannot assess them simply by written exams or essays.
“We’re less interested in the scenario [candidates] come up with and more interested in how they interact and communicate,” says Kwon. “Recruiters have told us this is one thing they want to see more of — tackling something without being given step-by-step instructions.”
Yale School of Management in Connecticut assesses soft skills with a behavioural assessment that is administered by the Educational Testing Service non-profit body. In the assessment, introduced to the MBA application in 2017-18, applicants are given pairs of 120 statements and asked to select the one that best describes who they are, such as “I like to keep a schedule” or “I love going to meetings”.
The assessment will count towards admissions decisions from 2018-19. “Exam scores and grades capture intellectual capacity, but there is always a subset of people who perform well in tests but underperform in school, and vice versa,” says Bruce DelMonico, Yale’s assistant dean of admissions. “We are trying to find other measures that help us identify who those people are.”
In addition to written submissions, schools are introducing multimedia components to applications, on the platforms candidates are most comfortable with. The aim is to see a more personal side to prospective students. Since 2017, NYU Stern School of Business in New York has asked applicants to submit six images, such as pictures or artwork, along with captions, to express who they are.
Alice Schnurman, an MBA candidate at Stern, picked a photo of a poster for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that has hung in her bedroom since she was a child — a reminder that life is unpredictable. It helped the 27-year-old American convince Stern she was determined and resilient. The application required extra effort, but she was excited to do it. “Nowadays people feel comfortable with visual media,” she says. “It made me like Stern a little bit more.”
Spain’s IE Business School has also introduced a digital component to applications. Those applying to the MBA this year choose how they answer one essay question — by video, presentation or written word. A good video or presentation is clear, accurate and simple, says Tino Elgner, senior associate director of admissions for IE’s full-time MBA. High production values can impress the admissions team. “Putting more effort into the pitch might correlate with putting more effort into the programme,” he says.
Laura Zuzzi-Funder, an MBA student at IE, chose video. Filming on her iPhone, the 29-year-old Austrian unpacked a box of objects symbolising what she would bring to the cohort. She included face cream, a reference to a beauty line she is creating. She says the video showed she would fit into IE’s culture, which emphasises entrepreneurial thinking. “It was a very important part of my application, because with the competition for limited places, I had to do something unique and exceptional to stand out,” she says.