Category Archives: MBA Adcom

The recession adds weight to the voice of Career Services in MBA Admissions

Every year is similar in MBA Admissions, but slightly different given what is going on in the economy and the world. This year a key framing condition is the recession. Applicants who get into top schools will have a excellent spread of academic, professional, and extramural attributes. But the economic downturn will make itself felt, and one of the aspects of this was well picked up by Business Week this week in an article which says MBA Career Services departments are getting a stronger voice in who gets admitted.

Says BW: “With company recruiters becoming ever more selective, B-school admissions departments are taking a closer look at how easily candidates will be able to parlay their education into a job come graduation… While admissions officers have always favored these qualities, increasingly—as the job market tightens—they’re demanding them. Admitting employable students on the front end in some cases means shying away from some traditional admissions metrics such as test scores and grades and embracing professional qualifications such as interpersonal skills, proven job performance, and promotions.”

None of this is new. Future employability, quality career continuation, and likely starting salary have always been a consideration in MBA admissions. It’s just a shift to greater emphasis.

Recruiting well out of an MBA is one of the key function a business school offers. They do this for the candidate (it’s part of what you pay your tuition fees for) but it’s hardly altruism. This is because, among the matrices along which MBA schools are typically ranked is “percentage of students recruited on graduation,” and “average starting salary.” In other words the pressure is on Career Services to get these numbers up.

In good times they are willing to take a punt on students who have potential but not much or a record because it’s likely they will get a good offer (in boom times practically everyone at a top-20 school gets multiple offers). But in a bust Career Services knows it will be left with jobless graduates. Not only is it a headache to have them emailing you and endlessly bugging alumni, but it drives down rankings, to say nothing of word-of-mouth reputation.

So while b-school Admissions Services (Adcom) and Career Services are traditionally separate “empires,” in recessionary times Careers want to make sure they get the most recruitable candidates possible. So many schools’ Careers departments are demanding and getting a seat on Admissions Committees, where they can sit in on interviews and evaluate applications.

What does this mean for applicants this year?
Says BW: “The increased attention to job placement could spell trouble for candidates whose essays fail to outline clear career plans. Career switchers, with no work history in what they hope will be their new profession, might be similarly disadvantaged. The same goes for younger students as some schools up the criterion for average years of work experience.”

The way through this is, first, to play up your career progress and future employability (via all inputs: essays, résumé, interview, recommendations, etc.) The second is to have a really convincing, plausible, short-term career plan. Given your work history plus an MBA (from the particular school) can you make Adcom and Career Services believe you will be gainfully employed in a MBA-worthy position on graduation day? If you can do this, you’re one step closer to getting in.

What is an MBA admissions resume, and how is it different from a regular resume?

Many b-schools ask for a resume as part of the applicant’s package. Fair enough. It is professional school and they want to see your professional record. But, in fact, MBA admissions resumes do make subtly different demands and it’s crucial to know what these are (see below).

However, of course much is also identical in a normal resume and an MBA admissions resume, so you should start by getting your resume as good as it can be as per conventional requirements. There are thousands of guides to this, many free on the Web. I won’t dwell on the principles at length here, but be certain to take note of at least these basic points.

A resume should:

  • Be in reverse chronological order, education last
  • Contain tight clauses rather than full sentences, and not use the first person singular
  • Start items with verbs: “Managed at team of…”; “Assigned priority to …”; and so on
  • Contain evidence, particularly quantitative amounts of budget managed or people supervised, etc.
  • Not contain obvious age, gender, race or other similar bio-data. (More latitude allowed in Europe)
  • Be easy on the eye (text at readable point size; layout not too dense)
  • Be absolutely, completely error-free

Those are the basics. And this is first base for Adcom too. They want to see you can do this common business communications task effectively.

Once you have that, then it’s time to adapt it to the needs of MBA admissions particularly. Good resume builders will always advise you to show as much experience relevant to the job you are applying for as you can. This it true of an MBA admissions resume too, only doubly so, because doing an MBA heavily implies that you will be transitioning to or accelerating quickly along a management path. It applies a leap in career.

The mistake that most of my clients make on their first draft is to proudly present their past experiences and achievements, which are very often technical or specific to the field they are leaving. Success is always good, but MBA Adcoms don’t really care whether you cracked a complex software conundrum or isolated a biological compound or develped prefabricated housing units. What they care about is whether you will make a good manager or leader, that is, the management portion that was there (or is implied potential) in what you did.

So that is where you should focus: the management, leadership, organizational (teamwork) or innovation implications of your past experience. Don’t say: “Developed molecular compound BN6R in 3 months using ‘BitPro’ software analytics.” Say: “Was part of team that developed unique molecular compound; led presentation to the Board; liaised with company PR in media announcement.” And so on.

The other key part of making your resume an MBA admissions resume is to work carefully with the knowledge that, unlike a typical employer, Adcom has various overlapping sources of information about you – not least all your file data. So you want to augment that rather than simply repeating it, in order to get your file data, resume, and essays to elegantly dovetail rather than simply overlap.

Obviously, your resume must not leave out the basic resume attributes: dates, places, company names, and so on, even if this is already in your file data. But there are often ways to cut out repeating subsidiary information – names of products or service units and so on – that often just “block up” a resume. This should leave space to go longer on quantitative evidence of (management-oriented) experiences and successes. In fact, I counsel admissions clients to put as much quantitative data in the resume as they realistically can which, in turn, frees up the essays to be a little more personal and reflective.

What does the “MBA Oath” mean for MBA admissions? Ways to broaden your ethical platform, for a start

There are many aspects of success in a competitive MBA admissions process that don’t change whether we are in a boom or a bust, whether Wall Street is loved or hated, whether globalization is in vogue or not. For example, evidence of senior leadership responsibility successfully handled will never go out of style in a MBA essay.

But there are also more transient social or business attitudes “in the air” in any year which the applicant should be aware of and ready to address in MBA application essays or interviews, in order to maximize chances of success. These may change every few years. In previous times times, key applicant success attributes have been pointers to future business success, or new venture creation, or raising shareholder value.

This year, in the wake of the financial meltdown and global recession, much of which (rightly or wrongly) is blamed on MBAs, the accent is squarely on business ethics and long-term sustainability of decisions. These issues have been on the rise for a while, but their sudden prominence is demonstrated in the emergence and rapid spread of the “MBA Oath.”

The oath is the brainchild of a few HBS students, but has since been pledged by current and graduating MBAs from most major institutions and has garnered heavy media exposure, for example this story in Business Week and this audio clip in the Economist.

What does it mean for this year’s applicant? First let’s look at the oath

THE MBA OATH http://mbaoath.org

“As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good by bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can create alone. Therefore I will seek a course that enhances the value my enterprise can create for society over the long term. I recognize my decisions can have far-reaching consequences that affect the well-being of individuals inside and outside my enterprise, today and in the future. As I reconcile the interests of different constituencies, I will face choices that are not easy for me and others.

Therefore I promise:

  • I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner.
  • I will safeguard the interests of my shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate.
  • I will manage my enterprise in good faith, guarding against decisions and behavior that advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.
  • I will understand and uphold, both in letter and in spirit, the laws and contracts governing my own conduct and that of my enterprise.
  • I will take responsibility for my actions, and I will represent the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.
  • I will develop both myself and other managers under my supervision so that the profession continues to grow and contribute to the well-being of society.
  • I will strive to create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide.
  • I will be accountable to my peers and they will be accountable to me for living by this oath.

This oath I make freely, and upon my honor.”

**

MBA applicants should take all this on board very carefully, and look for past experiences that resonate. Adcoms won’t be looking for these words and phrases exactly (to use them verbatim would be an amateurish mistake) but it’s certain that they closely agree with these statements in general, and will be looking harder than ever for people who appear to understand this side of business administration and who will stand up to ethical tests through their careers. Remember Adcoms have taken plenty of stick too for filling classes with greedy self-profiteers, and are under more pressure than ever to pick a better kind of person.

Some of the Oath is just the usual good-citizen catechism: serving the greater good, demonstrating integrity, pursuing work in an ethical manner, balancing interests of shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society (triple or quadruple bottom line), not advancing ones own narrow ambitions, upholding the law, reporting accurately, and being accountable.

At a minimum it is important for MBA applicants to endorse this framework, or not seem to run foul of it. But this is common stuff. Other attributes of business and management ethics are perhaps less well known or defined, and here an MBA applicant can really score using the principles revealed in the Oath. Note that the Oath also sets these ethical goals:

  • bringing people and resources together to create value no single individual can create alone
  • creating value for society (not just self or company)
  • developing other managers under your supervision
  • appreciating the far-reaching and long-term consequences of decisions, and acting accordingly
  • pursuing sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity (not just fast or big prosperity)
  • distributing benefits of prosperity worldwide

This is a good starter list of ethical attributes that many applicants will miss, but which provide subtlety and differentiation for applicants who understand them, and who can find evidence of them in their personal and professional history.