Opening the door to the admissions process

Who gets in and who hits the brick wall? Director of MBA Admissions Marie Mookini answers 10 tough questions asked by GSB alumni and alumnae.

Q. I have written letters of recommendation for several candidates I considered exceptional, but none were admitted. Don't my letters count at all?

We value your perspective, especially if you have worked closely with the candidates and can offer specific observations about their management ability, potential, and their impact in the workplace. We take your recommendations seriously, since you often know the candidates well and can speak to their fit with the GSB.

But it is the unfortunate reality that if we admitted every candidate recommended by our graduates, we would have a class many times its intended size. Thus, while the recommendations count a great deal, they are not the whole file.

Q. You seem to put a lot of emphasis on grades and test scores. Certainly you agree that a successful manager needs to be more than just a good student, don't you?

Our mission is to admit students who will become exceptional senior-level managers and leaders. Students must learn new conceptual frameworks in order to refine their problem-solving skills and broaden their perspective through the active exchange of ideas in the classroom. To that end, we seek candidates who have demonstrated their commitment to success in a challenging academic experience. Over the years, we have found that grades and test scores serve as important indicators of that commitment.

What is most challenging for us in the MBA admissions office is satisfying what are sometimes seen as competing priorities. On the one hand, we want to enroll bright and intellectually inquisitive students. On the other, we want socially skilled individuals who will be leaders. These are not mutually exclusive qualities. And given the quality and quantity of the applicant pool, it is not difficult to find many candidates who demonstrate both.

Q. Why do you put so much stock in the applicant's essays?

We get a good idea of an applicant's intellectual strengths from college transcripts and GMAT scores. We learn a lot about a candidate's professional accomplishments from the resume. But it is through the essays that we learn more about the people behind the grades, scores, and job titles. Because we do not offer interviews, the essays serve as the applicants' opportunity to tell us who they are. The who is as important as the what in creating a community of people who will be living with and learning from one another for the next 18 months.

Q. So what impresses you in an essay? And what doesn't?

There are essays that mechanically answer the questions, and then there are essays that truly make the candidate come alive.

The advice I always give applicants is borrowed from a former colleague of mine: "Tell a story, and tell a story that only you can tell." Most applicants are good at describing the people with whom they grew up, the college they attended, the activities in which they participated, and their current job. But "telling a story only you can tell" means going beyond describing the people and places in your life, and instead focusing on how these people, places, and events have shaped you and your perspective.

A great essay answers the question we ask. For example, our second essay asks a three-part question. We ask applicants to describe their career paths, help us understand why an MBA makes sense for them at this point, and describe specifically why the GSB is a good fit for them. The most common mistake made with this question is that applicants do not answer all three parts of the question, or they do so in a superficial way that suggests that their essay is a one-size-fits-all that was used for all their business school applications. Not understanding the value of the MBA experience and not being able to articulate how specific elements of the GSB experience dovetail nicely with their personal and professional needs make a candidate less attractive to us.

A great essay is told in a sincere, straightforward fashion. Unfortunately, there are far too many business school guidebooks that encourage applicants to find a "hook" or use a certain "angle" for their essays. We have grown weary of the essays that are interviews with the candidate as CEO in the year 2020, just as we have grown impatient with essays that are singularly focused on the one skill or quality the applicant thinks we want to hear about. The most successful essays are the stories that are told in an honest and natural way. They reflect a healthy amount of self-reflection and provide a convincing career focus and direction.

Q. It sounds as if you want to get to know the applicants as people. Wouldn't it make sense to interview them?

There certainly are benefits to having a face-to-face meeting with an applicant. However, it would be difficult to uniformly interview all candidates and deal with the issues of access and equity. As incredible as it may sound, we learn so much about an applicant from the essays and recommendations that I am skeptical that the feedback from a 30-minute interview would make a significant difference in our decision making. And of course, with more than 6,000 applicants from all over the globe, interviewing each would have a tremendous impact on staff time. To date, a personal interview is not thought to be a fair or cost-effective way to screen our applicants.

Q. One of the top young people at my firm was denied admission, yet you accepted someone I didn't rank as highly. How can that happen?

This issue is probably one of the most difficult (and frustrating) for our graduates to understand. I would like to believe that you and I will be in agreement 100 percent of the time, but experience tells me there will always be the 10 to 20 percent of candidates we will judge differently. The staff in the MBA admissions office strives to make decisions that make sense to the outside world, but discrepancies such as this illustrate just how subjective the process is, and that we are dealing with the art (as opposed to the science) of human assessment.

The difference in outcomes can best be explained by a difference in context. First of all, we do not group all the applicants from a specific company and evaluate them as a set. When we read an application, we first weigh the strengths and weaknesses within the individual's profile, and then compare the applicant's profile to those of the larger applicant pool. Because we are making decisions in the broader context of the entire applicant pool, our decisions may not seem logical to you.

Another explanation may be that the person you ranked most highly did not submit, in our judgment, a thoughtful or thorough set of essays. Or it could be that she or he did not have as strong a set of academic credentials as the person who was admitted. There are many factors that enter into our admissions decision, and some of them are not apparent to the recommender, nor, for reasons of privacy, can they be revealed. The results simply reflect our best efforts.

Q. Are non-U.S. citizens treated any differently in the admissions process?

Citizens of most other countries are required to submit the results of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), but the rest of the application process is similar to that for U.S. citizens. We certainly take into account when essays in English may not be in the candidate's first language. At the same time, we need evidence that he or she has the language facility to comprehend rapidly spoken English (to ensure maximum benefit from classroom discussions), and has strong English reading skills to keep up with the volume of outside reading.

Q. My daughter is thinking of applying to the GSB this year, my son next year. Will they get special attention?

All things being equal, having a parent who graduated from the GSB can tip the balance in his or her favor. But it cannot do any more than that.

Q. I've heard that the concepts of "fit" and "diversity" are used in selecting a class. What do these terms mean? Aren't they mutually exclusive?

The concept of "fit" in admissions circles refers to the degree to which the student understands and embraces the mission of the School. For example, if an applicant mentions that he prefers to work alone and looks forward to the core classes that employ the case method exclusively, this applicant clearly would not be a good fit for the GSB. "Fit" has to do with the applicant's understanding of the basic values and goals of the GSB.

"Diversity" goes beyond race, gender, sexual orientation, and industry or geography. I prefer to think of it as "perspective," which obviously would be shaped by one's life experiences. Basically, we are interested in how the applicant looks at the world. One of the popular misconceptions is that diversity means that you have to have done something exotic to gain admission, that "there is no place in the GSB for white males or investment bankers." There are actually more similarities than there are differences among students. Diversity means bringing together a group of individuals, each of whom views the world just a little differently, through his or her own special set of lenses.

Q. Is there anything else I should know about the admissions process before my favorite candidate applies?

On a practical note, we encourage candidates to apply in the first or second application round. This is because we admit a higher percentage of applicants in the first two rounds. It is also much harder to distinguish oneself in the third and final admission round, because by then we have seen quite a range of applicants.

I have talked about the importance of the essays, and I would like to reiterate the importance of the GMAT. Because we can admit so few of our applicants, we favor those applicants with strengths in as many areas as possible. We seek applicants with strong grades and test scores who have written thoughtful and thorough essays. Additionally, detailed recommendation letters from individuals who can provide specific anecdotes about a candidate's demonstrated leadership and management potential enhance the chances of admission.

On a more philosophical note, while I encourage all interested applicants to apply to the School, I also encourage candidates to be realistic about their chances of admission. Each year we have many, many more qualified applicants than spaces available, and many more deserving candidates than places in the class. Last year we admitted approximately one of every 14 applicants, and this year's admission rate will be similar. Applying to a range of other schools is almost always necessary since there are no guarantees of admission at the GSB.

Not only is it important for applicants to be realistic about their chances for admission, but I want them to understand that while there are aspects of the process over which they can take control, there are other aspects over which they have no control -- such as the number and the quality of the other applicants.

And most important, I want all GSB alumni and alumnae to know that we appreciate their continuous interest and participation in the admissions process.

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