Like many 28-year-olds, Nika Stelman admits to being an avid WhatsApp user, keeping in touch with family and friends via Skype, checking her Facebook page several times a day and using Twitter to track the news.
So perhaps it is understandable that she seems unfazed at being asked to record a response to two random questions on her laptop webcam as part of her MBA application to Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
“It was nerve wracking but also kind of nice to have that immediacy, giving a better representation of me as a person,” she recalls after allowing me to see the two recordings that secured her place on the programme, in which she does look remarkably calm.
“I might have had an easier time if it had been a real person on the other end, but I like taking risks,” she adds.
Less is more
Applying to business school was never easy, but at least it used to be fairly straightforward. Write a few 600-word essays about why you have chosen to return to full-time study, why you chose the institution you are applying to and what you hope to do after graduation.
Now, the buzzword in admissions departments is innovation, with applicants expected to prepare PowerPoint presentations, create 140-word descriptions of themselves akin to a tweet or participate in a group discussion with other prospective students.
“The bigger trend is for shorter applications,” says Matt Symonds, co-director of Fortuna Admissions, an MBA coaching team consisting of former business school staff.
“There [seems] to be this pressure with generation Y to reduce everything to a tweet, but each school has different reasons for making changes.”
The growing number of applications is one reason. Prospective students on average apply to five schools, compared with four a decade ago, Mr Symonds notes. This has led to record numbers at the top schools. However, it puts a pressure on admissions departments whose budgets have not increased accordingly.
“Wading through thousands of essays where people pour their hearts out on paper has been a Tolstoyan process,” Mr Symonds says.
According to Bhavik Trivedi, managing partner of Critical Square, a Chicago-based consultancy helping prospective MBA students, the changes are also about getting a more rounded view of an applicant and how they might fit in with life on campus.
“The underlying element is how you get to the crux of the applicant,” Mr Trivedi says. “The school is going to have this person for two years. Hopefully, they are going to make a huge impact on the organisation, so they want to get to know the person, like a courtship.”
When Dee Leopold applied to study at Harvard Business School in the late 1970s she was expected to write at least half a dozen essays. Today, as director of MBA admissions at HBS, she has overseen an active massaging down in the number of mandatory applicant essays from four in 2011 to two.
“It is not a writing competition,” she says, adding that the essay is merely part of a “first cut” to decide who to invite for an interview on campus.
It is not good for the applicants either, she notes. “If you are looking to apply to five schools you are looking at an awful lot of essays.”
Applicants eager to please and not afraid of hard work can be their own worst enemies. Last year, HBS made one of its two essays optional, but almost all 9,700 applicants did it anyway.
Ms Leopold’s take is that it is important to allow people to express themselves if they wish, while not overburdening them. “It is really more about thinking how do we streamline this process,” she says. “It will always be difficult to enter Harvard but we shouldn’t be a high wire process that is daunting.”
Chicago’s Booth School of Business introduced PowerPoint presentations to its application process seven years ago alongside the more conventional requirements, such as a CV, the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) score, third-party recommendations and an essay question.
Asking for a PowerPoint presentation makes people think in a different way to essays, which can follow a template formula, says Kurt Ahlm, Booth’s associate dean for recruitment and admissions, who reviews the Booth process every year to ensure it remains fresh.
“The people applying to business school come more and more prepared thanks to the ability to search the internet for tips and the growth in application coaching consultants and mentors.
“It then becomes a challenge to create the type of process that will enable applicants to be authentic and honest.”
Teamwork is key
Three years ago, Pennsylvania’s Wharton School replaced its conventional applicant interview panel, conducted by staff, with a team-based discussion method between several prospective students. The idea was to simulate the kind of classroom interaction successful applicants will have to take part in once they come to school, revealing who works best in this environment.
“We always want to be better at what we do,” Maryellen Lamb, Wharton’s deputy vice dean for admissions and career management, explains.
“We realised what we were getting from one-to-one interviews was not very meaningful. Moving to a team-based interview would at least give us something tangible in working out how people work in teams.”
This method also helps the school to find a more diverse range of backgrounds, beyond those who just had the skill to perform well at interviews, says Judith Silverman Hodara, a former director of admissions at Wharton.
“During my old one-to-one interview trips, where I would interact with up to 15 candidates a day, I could tell those who had over-prepared and were responding to me in a memorised script format,” she recalls.
Group discussions mimic how the real world works, in all its messiness, she says. “You don’t get to always choose your team members, and you may be working under stressful conditions.”
Making the write move
Changes in admission processes to date have largely been a North American phenomenon. Many of the top European schools, for instance, have restated the primacy of essays.
At London Business School, three essays have been required for several years, while Insead demands four, with the option of a fifth to explain anything else they wish to include.
“It is important to have this self reflection,” says Virginie Fougea, assistant director of MBA admissions at Insead’s Fontainebleau campus. “We do [also] use social media, just not in the selection process,” she adds, referring to the practice at Insead of cross-checking people’s backgrounds through websites such as LinkedIn.
Caroline Diarte Edwards, a director of the advisory business at Fortuna and former director of admissions at Insead, doubts that essays will ever be eliminated entirely.
“They provide useful context for the facts and figures of the candidate’s résumé, and some valuable insights into the candidate’s personality and motivations,” she says.
“My job was not only to identify the candidates with the most academic smarts and professional success and potential — but also [those] that fit well in the school community. This cannot be evaluated from a résumé alone.”
Back at Rotman, Ms Stelman is glad to have her place secured. Now she has to write long essays for course modules, she realises the attraction of presenting to her tutors via a short video.
In addition, “it is a little bit more real,” she adds, more like a meeting with those who will decide her future.