Category Archives: MBA Adcom

Don’t Overcook Standardized Tests For MBA Admissions

First published on AMBA’s In the frantic scramble for MBA admissions to elite business schools, nothing appears more self-evident than ‘the higher your standardized admissions test score, the better your chances.’

Almost all business school applications require standardized tests, primarily because it gives MBA admissions committees (Adcoms) a level playing field to judge applicants’ cognitive ability.

That is, it gives Adcoms a quantitative and fair way to compare applicants from different backgrounds, different institutions, different undergraduate majors, and different cultures.

So the higher the score, the stronger the case for MBA admission, right? Wrong.

Well, right then wrong. Standardized test scores are crucial to a point. Every +10 gain adds to candidates’ admissions prospects, and a move of +30 or so fundamentally changes which business schools they can legitimately hope to get into.

But this is true only up to about the 700-740 range on an 800 point scale. Above that, the score has sharply diminishing returns, and can even harm an applicant’s chances.

There are two reasons. First, although the MBA is a university degree, it is primarily professional education. Its fundamental task is to prepare and place people into business management positions, not academic positions.

Managers need to be smart but, as everyone knows, the most academic people don’t necessarily make the best managers, nor best entrepreneurs, or bankers, or even consultants. Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, etc., are smart enough. But they are not Einstein. Accordingly, MBA Adcoms are not looking for brainiacs.

The second, related, reason is it takes a full spread of talents to get admitted to a competitive School. Academic ability is just one of many items considered, along with career potential, leadership acumen, work experience, volunteer record, profile diversity, and so on. Smart is definitely an admissions requirement, but so are the others. This reflects the multifaceted demands of a real business career.

Scoring in the super bracket (750 or above) means the applicant is, by definition, in the 99th percentile of the global population in raw cognitive ability.

Truth is, people who score like this are often better pure scientists or philosophers than managers. It’s a stereotype, but the absent-minded professor is commonly associated with being esoteric in mannerisms, or not a people-person, or a chaotic manager of self and others.

Adcom will thoroughly check and disbelieve the MBA applicant with a super-score, who also claims to be a team player, and claims to be able to do all the practical and sometimes dull things managers need to get done in a business day.

So, at around the 700 level, depending on GPA and other variables, and provided the Math and Verbal sections are not massively unbalanced, a threshold is reached where even elite business school Adcoms put a check mark next to “academically capable” and move on to ask other questions of the applicant.

When an applicant is far below the School’s published average matriculate for a standardized test, nothing else they are, or do, or say will count. But once they hit the threshold, their higher score merely checks an already checked box.

Furthermore, candidates who obsess with improving an already high score are taking time and focus away from improving the rest of their application. A super-score is not going to save the applicant whose recommendations are lukewarm or whose essays are undeveloped.

So MBA candidates should be very concerned with their test score until it is within the guidelines of the target program, then set it aside and work on getting the other facets of their application to the same level.

If all this is a solid argument that fits the admissions facts, not least in explaining why hundreds of relatively ordinary test scorers are admitted to elite MBAs, the question becomes, where do super-score obsessions come from?

It comes from applicant misapprehension of how many crucial elements of admissions, other than academic ability, there are, and how important they are. MBA Admissions Strategy lists 25 distinct dimensions of admissions value, of which ‘smart’ is just one.

Standardized test educators and coaches have an interest in feeding the obsession too: the longer MBA applicants work at trying to garnish a score already in the 700s, the more the cash register rings.

MBA applicants do their best when they call ‘enough’ once their test score is in the right ballpark, and get on with putting the many other pieces of the MBA admissions puzzle in place.

To Win, Connect Your Goals With Those Of Your Audience

Here’s is a bit more from MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building To Essay Writing, just released (McGraw Hill Education, 3rd Edition, 2017). It is high-level in this extract, but the nuts and bolts of “the how,” that is, steps to take to concretely achieve the outcomes advised, are in the book too. However, this gives a good idea of the foundational approach…

MBA admissions success turns on the simplest and oldest rule in communications strategy: to win, you need to connect your objectives with those of your audience. You need to understand what your target need to see or is ready to hear, and to increase the overlap between that and what you say. If you are better than the next applicant at demonstrating the common ground between your objectives and the objectives of the MBA program’s admissions committee (Adcom), you are well on your way to getting admitted.

Conveying fit between an item and its target audience is like marketing in the sense that you are selling a value proposition (you) to a consumer-client (the admissions committee) in a situation where the consumer has lots of other choices. You have to understand their needs, wants, and desires so you know what they value and why they value it, and how to pitch your product within this value system. Like any market communicator, you need to research consumer preferences, and coordinate various methods of communication (essays, interviews, recommendations, etc.) to make it clear why you are an attractive and necessary product, so that you get picked off the shelf. You create a coordinated campaign to influence the admissions officers’ “buying” decision, and manage this campaign as it unrolls over weeks or months.

Understanding your admissions task in these terms should turn your application world upside down: it is about you but not just about you. It’s about them, and the overlap between you and them. Companies don’t make products and then try to sell them. They study the market, determine needs, and produce accordingly.  When you know what the admissions committee is looking for and listening for, you can almost always find things in your profile that match this.

Staying true to you

There is an important, immediate caveat. Nothing about this market-communications approach implies that you need to or should try to bend yourself into something you are not, or to what you think the mold of the ideal business school applicant is, and “package” yourself as such. There is no such mold. In fact, trying to be the stereotypical candidate puts you right outside the successful profile because Adcom wants and needs a full spread of different, diverse, authentic individuals, not an applicant stereotype. Why? Because business school education is not a pre-packaged set of skills that you are going to be spoon-fed, but thousands of learning events, co-created between faculty and students, and between the students themselves. In such “peer learning,” which is a huge part of MBA education, the scope of experience of the student group directly raises the quality of the learning. Adcom cannot just admit “the best.” They have to balance the incoming cohort for diversity of abilities and experiences in order to provide the best overall peer-learning mix.

Therefore, your first task is always to be highly individualized, authentic, absolutely true to yourself—but once beyond that, then also savvy as to which parts of your unique special selfhood also happen to overlap best with the admissions committee’s needs and preferences. Your application task is one of judicious profile selection and framing for chooser delight, not one self-compromise.

5 Ways To Show Applicant Value To MBA Adcoms

First published on QS TopMBA, June 2017: The MBA admissions process at elite schools is competitive. Invariably, successful applicants beat out other hopefuls who almost always have the goods to succeed as well, but don’t demonstrate value in MBA admissions, or are unable to stand out from the crowd.

How can you ensure you demonstrate value and stand out? It’s well known that MBA admissions looks for academic ability, a professional success record, and leadership potential, etc. But it also looks for other attributes, many of which value personal or organizational attributes within the soft skills, some of which may surprise you. My book, MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing, records 25 distinct types of value that committees look for in MBA applicants, or respond positively to. The following is five of them:

1. Maturity, professionalism and good judgment

This means a candidate who looks, talks, and acts ‘like a grown-up’. Through your essays and interview, the MBA admissions committee will get a sense of whether you have the personal maturity, diplomacy, and professional polish necessary to succeed at school, in job recruiting, and in life.

Are you poised under pressure? Are you diplomatic under fire? Can you handle responsibility? Do you have ‘senior presence’, or do you come across as a brash kid? Immaturity will be signaled by giveaways such as poor self-restraint, blaming others for your bad calls, showing an inability to see your own weaknesses, or in choosing inappropriate material for your essays. In the era of social media transparency, your claim to maturity could also be undermined by a junior social media presence.

2. Pursuit of meaningful goals

Beyond ambition and the desire to succeed, an MBA admissions committee will be asking, “what do you want to succeed AT?” There is no right or wrong answer. A wide range of career goals are acceptable. But, they will want to understand why you want to do what you want to do. What meaning does it have for you?

Just wanting to ‘succeed’ or ‘make money’ is not enough. That’s assumed. The question is, beyond success, why this path over another one? Also, how might what you do professionally be meaningful for other people, for communities, or for the school itself?  Harvard Business School (HBS) has asked matriculating students the following question [taken from the last lines of a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Mary Oliver]: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” You could say you planned to be a hospitality manager or an aviation entrepreneur, or anything. The point is why is this worth spending your one precious life on? Why for you? Better still, why for those around you.

3. Awareness of self and others

Leaders and successful people almost all have good awareness of self and other, meaning they understand themselves well and they are aware of how they come across to others. Sometimes this is called ‘emotional intelligence’ or ‘EQ’.

However you frame it, it belongs to those who understand their own personality attributes and weaknesses and are aware of how this plays out in interactions with others. Put another way, the skill is to be able to ‘read the room’ and understand the people and power dynamics in it, and to be able to influence these dynamics not least by first being aware of how one comes across.

4. Coachability and a continuous learning mentality

Business schools exist to teach, train and prepare professionals for senior management careers. There’s nothing quite as much of a turnoff as an applicant who appears unreceptive to the idea of learning and improving at the hands of faculty, coaches, and peers – which, incidentally, is a lifelong requirement in the modern knowledge economy.

If you appear to know it all already, the business school won’t see room for themselves, and they may see incipient trouble in the classroom and in groupwork as a result of a non-participating mentality.

5. Communication ability

A candidate who can write, speak, and organize ideas well. Financial and technical skills are important, but the most important skill in senior management is communication: The ability to frame, transmit, and negotiate ideas in meetings with clients, staff, investors, regulators, lawyers, industry partners, and other stakeholders.

As a general rule, quantitative skills are the tasks of lower jobs in a business organization. People in the c-suite and on boards spend almost all of their time talking. So, an MBA admissions committee will be looking hard at how well you organize and communicate concepts and ideas, thinking down the line to when you are going to be interviewing in front of an employer, and on and on throughout your career after business school. You can demonstrate value, in terms of your communication abilities, through your verbal GMAT or GRE score as well as in your MBA admissions essays and interview.