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Experience Diversity is ‘The New Black’ in MBA Admissions

B-schools with luxury of choice of whom to accept into their MBA classrooms have always valued diversity in the matriculating class. The news is this trend is strongly on the up.

Not only are schools admitting more minorities and foreigners and women – both HBS and Wharton hit record numbers of female enrollment with their current incoming classes of 2013 – but b-schools are also showing clear intent to accommodate “experience” diversity applicants, that is those with part or all of their work experience in non-traditional backgrounds such as social sciences, creative industries, non-profits, real estate, hospitality, urban planning, fashion, and so on.

The take-away is that male applicants wholly enclosed by cookie-cutter engineering or finance backgrounds are still getting in, but not nearly as easily as before, despite having good GMAT and GPA numbers, good recommendations, and generally having apparently made the “right” career moves. Reading the MBA admissions boards, there are many, many stories that tell of apparently perfect candidates with perfect GMATs getting dinged all over.

Why is this happening? First, schools have always seen and offered valued in diversity in the matriculating pool – which broadens the classroom perspective, fosters real-world peer-to-peer learning enrichment, and which brings MBAs face-to-face with other points of view and thus sharpens their listening and thinking skills. But now, as the business school industry itself gets more competitive, schools need to raise their game on diversity too.

Another force behind diversity in MBA admissions is the slow-burning image problem of business schools and the MBA degree itself in the last 10 years, starting with Enron, through Arthur Andersen, to banks and the Credit Crunch and debt-crisis…. rightly or wrongly it appears to outsiders that a lot of MBAs from top schools are involved in decision-making that is less than fully ethical (and some got bailed out by the taxpayer!) In short, schools are looking for MBAs who will be brand champions of better ethics, and they are not so convinced anymore they will find them in among standard finance, accounting, or consulting-based applicants.

Finally, the perceived value of innovation in industry is at an all-time-high. To build big new businesses, from facebook to Groupon to whatever will be next, you have to not just think big. You have to think different. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that Adcom will rate an architect or a journalist or similar as valuable in the class in terms of challenging mindsets and staid practices.

The best response? If you are relatively rich in diversity, make sure Adcom “gets it” – what it is and why it offers interest and value to the school. If you are not, that is if you are a standard finance or consulting or IT jock – you have a harder job. But not impossible. The quest is to find an angle (everyone has at least one) in your personal or professional experience that offers a distinctive point of view among the MBA cohort.

Last year I had a standard finance-banking background client. For a while I despaired, but in profiling I discovered he had spent six months in a rotation in Perth, working on deals and risk-mitigation in the booming (Australia-China) mining resources sector. This was enough to make him interesting, and combined with the rest of his solid profile, got him the admissions offers he was looking for.

See also this post.

The pros and cons of social media networking for MBA applicants

Part of the holy grail of a good application to business school is to show why the particular nature of the b-school you are applying to fits with you and what you want out of your MBA. That is, each program has a slightly different ‘signature’ in terms of curriculum, type of students, faculty interest, clubs and extramurals, internship-recruitment opportunities, alumni network and so on, and the task is to show that you understand what that signature is and why it fits with you.

You won’t get a lot of help from looking at the glossy brochure or the school’s glamor Website. That won’t make you enough of an ‘insider.’ The only way to know enough about a program is to get inside it for a while — by interacting with people who are there, or visiting the campus and talking to people who are there.

Social media networking forums have created new options for doing this. You can connect with or ‘follow’ current students or clubs via their blogs or tweets, or their identities Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. If there is a Stanford club entertaining Steve Jobs, it will be on someone’s blog. If Wharton students are on a trek, someone will have uploaded video to YouTube, and so on. Following this assiduously and interacting (politely) where appropriate will give you a window into the nature and culture of the program you are targeting in a way that just was impossible to imagine a few years ago. Beware, quality is mixed to say the least. You will get many perspectives from parties with vested interests that are not aligned with yours. Use them wisely. But overall this is the way to go.

Some admissions officers blog too, and currently Adcoms in general are rapidly revamping their own marketing (seeking to find and attract great applicants) to include social media. More and more authentic and useful insight in each school from the school itself is being offered in this way. See, for example, Chicago Booth Adcom director Rose Martinelli’s very personable blog, The Rose Report. You can follow, interact, and absorb the school’s culture in this way. (Again, be appropriate. Don’t, for example, use a blog comment facility to ask about your own personal application…)

But the downside of social media is this: If you can find and know them in this way, they can find you. Be careful about what you say online and what you have said. I’m not saying that Adcoms “google” an applicant or routinely look them up on identity sites to find out more about them or corroborate what they put down on the forms. They probably don’t. But they very well might.

Expect Adcom to treat you in some ways like a potential employee or client. It’s well known that these days prospective employers or prospective clients, or anyone who wants to look you up on the Web, can and will do so. And when they do they may find that beery and not-altogether-clean bachelor party photo on MySpace. Or they may find a Doostang profile that doesn’t adequately match what you’ve told them. And it’s quite hard, once something is out there on the Web, to take it back.

So be smart about it. Use social networking to get inside a program to research and develop your ‘fit’ argument. Be scrupulous about what is out there under your name, make it consistent with your application platform, and try to take down unprofessional material where you can.