How to Win the MBA Admissions Lottery

MBA applications are down at some of the top schools, but competition is still intense. How can you secure a place at your school of choice?

The top US business schools are reeling from a second year of successive plunges in applications to their two-year full-time MBA courses. Acceptance rates are rising, and career prospects are also excellent amid the booming US jobs market, so now seems like a fantastic time to apply for a place at a US school. 

In addition to the elite US institutions, prospective MBA students are also well served by excellent programs around the world; schools in Europe and Asia are rising forces in business education. 

But the MBA application process is constantly evolving, so aspiring MBAs need to keep pace with changing applications to give themselves the best chance of getting into courses that remain competitive. 

MBA admissions: the need for soft skills

One of the hottest trends in the MBA admissions world is assessing so-called “soft skills”, such as negotiation, creativity, and general communication skills that corporate recruiters are crying out for. 

Brandon Kirby, MBA admissions director at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, says soft skills are a key determinant of success in an MBA program and beyond. “We’ve had situations where candidates with really great quantitative metrics have struggled in the program due to issues related to soft skills.” 

He says assessing soft skills must be done consciously, so as to avoid biases. “Schools are looking to build a dynamic classroom and there is a risk of creating an ideal candidate profile, which could lead to a homogenous classroom.” 

Yale School of Management in the US introduced a behavioral assessment in 2017 to assess applicants’ soft skills. Administered by the Educational Testing Service, which runs the GRE entrance exam, the behavioural assessment asks candidates to select from a pair of statements the one that best describes themselves, such as “I like to keep a schedule”, or “I love going to meetings”. 

Yale says this method measures inter- and intrapersonal competencies that are associated with success in business school, and is a fair and consistent method. 

The competencies that business schools are looking for have not changed much, says Stacy Blackman, an MBA admissions consultant in the US. But she says there’s “an increasing priority on getting to know the individual applicant’s authentic life story and character”. 

For example, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania recently launched a “speak with an admissions advisor” program where prospective students can speak one-on-one with a Wharton representative to find out about the school’s top MBA course and share snippets of their stories. 

Also, the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California introduced three more optional mini-essays to its MBA application this year, with the questions focusing on how candidates have made a positive impact on society, for instance.

At RSM, Kirby says “schools are enrolling people, not robots”, adding: “Whenever you have the opportunity, tell us your story. Facts and figures are great, but we want to look beyond the numbers and learn about you. Spend time reflecting on what you’ve done in your life and your career that will enrich the classroom experience for others.” 

MBA admissions: the proliferation of technology

Elsewhere, the proliferation of technology is another big change in the MBA admissions process. Several schools such as Kellogg, Rotman and INSEAD are adding video essays to their MBA applications, with the aim of evaluating candidates’ coveted communication skills and making the admissions process more efficient for those evaluating the applications. 

RSM recently began using video questions, which allow candidates to showcase their personality. It also trimmed the number of written essays required in lieu of the video responses, which take less time for candidates to complete.

“Technology improves the experience for the applicant and the admissions team,” says Shari Hubert, associate dean of admissions for Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. 

The school does not use videos in its admissions process. But it has made several changes to the application process this year, with the goal of increasing accessibility to all applicants, streamlining the application process, and meeting more students in person. 

“We have, for example, decreased the number of short answer questions, created more opportunity to interview, extended the deadline for Early Action [a September application deadline] and reduced the number of academic transcripts required,” says Hubert. 

Efficiency is an enduring theme of this year’s MBA application. For instance, NYU Stern School of Business has just started accepting the Executive Assessment (EA) as part of its full-time MBA application, which is a faster alternative to the GRE or GMAT, in terms of preparation required.  

The EA was designed by the Graduate Management Admission Council, to evaluate business school readiness in the context of career experience. During the 90-minute assessment, candidates are evaluated on three areas: integrated, verbal and quantitative reasoning.

MBA admissions: a diverse pool of applicants

Along with innovation in the admissions process, the types of people applying to business school have also changed recently, with an increase in those from the social impact or nonprofit industries, for example.

Also, the admissions consultant Blackman says far more people from the technology industry are applying, while fewer overseas students are applying to US MBAs overall. “Applicants from companies including Google, Amazon, Uber and LinkedIn are applying in high numbers. Candidates from startup tech companies are also a larger presence in the applicant pool,” says Blackman. 

This means that tech applicants will find the process more competitive this season, as there are so many tech applicants in the pool. Similarly, Blackman says strong overseas candidates “should see easier admit odds”. 

But while the US admissions climate may be more favorable because of the application plunges, competition for places is still tough. At Duke Fuqua, Hubert says candidates should visit schools’ campuses, show some vulnerability in essays to make themselves interesting, and not come on too strong by overcommunicating.  

“We aren’t focused on any specific metric and are looking at a candidate holistically,” she says, adding: “Like the lottery, if you don’t play you can’t win.” 


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