Ready for Your Closeup? How to Ace MBA Application Video Assessments

Top business schools are introducing “live” video tests to assess candidates’ so-called “soft skills”, such as communication, which cannot be done through written essays only

Back in the day, applying to business school meant penning perfect essays, acing the GMAT and interviews with admissions teams or alumni. That’s no longer enough to secure a spot at a top business school – these days it may also take an insightful video too. 

The written parts of business school applications are still crucial, but schools are introducing “live” video tests to assess candidates’ so-called “soft skills”, such as communication, which cannot be done through essays only. 

These skills are essential to the case study method used by MBAs, and surveys show companies also covet communication ability in those they hire. 

“We use video to [get] a sense of how students will ‘show up’ — not just in the classroom setting but in professional ones as well,” says Leigh Gauthier, assistant director of recruitment and admissions for Rotman School of Management’s full-time MBA. 

INSEAD, Yale School of Management, Kellogg School of Management and London Business School are among the top-tier institutions now requiring that candidates complete video assessments as part of their MBA application. 

The schools want to combat “ghostwriting”when an applicant pays a third party to write their essay or drafts their own recommendation letter — and prepare students for a method of interviewing that is now used by corporate recruiters including Goldman Sachs. 

“With videos, candidates will have to show their ‘true self’ and would not be able to ‘outsource’ this exercise to others,” says Virginie Fougea, director of MBA recruitment and admissions at INSEAD, adding: “We understand that more and more companies are recruiting through this sort of exercise.” 

According to Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange admissions advisory firm, business schools are also using videos to improve the efficiency of their admissions departments, which receive thousands of applications each year. 

“Providing individual interviews to every applicant is beyond the capacity of admissions staff at most business schools,” he says. “Schools use video essays as a device for vetting candidates who will be invited to an in-person interview.” 

Coming to life on the screen: what’s involved in an MBA application video?

While there are clear benefits to admissions teams, MBA candidates themselves can use videos to their advantage. At INSEAD, Fougea says a strong video has convinced the admissions team to interview candidates they were on the fence about. 

“We have been better able to evaluate profiles that are more atypical,” she says, without providing an example. “Some candidates literally come to life on the screen…we can look them in the eye, and realize their drive and passions.”

But what does creating a great video essay involve? At Rotman, each student receives two randomized questions that they have up to 90 seconds to record a response to, via their webcam. Also, they complete a timed written essay based on a professional scenario, such as writing a thank-you note to alumni. 

Gauthier says authenticity is key when responding to Rotman’s questions, which focus on candidates’ values and interests. “Each candidate should have an answer that is personal and truthful to them, and delivered in a manner that is true to their own style,” she says. “Answers that are thoughtful, articulate and share a story or example view very well.” 

She cites the example of a candidate who, responding to a question on how they were brave, shared a story about remaining calm after a colleague made an error that put the candidate’s job in jeopardy. “The emotional intelligence demonstrated in this scenario suggests that he would be an excellent team player and problem solver, which are two characteristics that we value,” says Gauthier. 

Advice for MBA video application essays: practice, but don’t over-rehearse

While video essays can be empowering, for some candidates they are intimidating. Although we are familiar with video, via smartphones and social media, it is different being the sole subject of a video that has much riding on it. “Stress levels increase for many applicants,” says admissions consultant Esther Magna, principal at Stacy Blackman Consulting. 

Her advice is to prepare and practice succinct responses to questions you may be asked in the video assessment. Many schools, such as INSEAD, make practice questions available for applicants. Magna says: “Record yourself answering these questions. Have a trusted friend review your responses and tell you how you’re coming off. Tweak your style accordingly.” 

However, there is a risk that overly-rehearsed responses could seem superficial, even though they are recorded in real-time in the assessment. “It’s vital to maintain freshness and spontaneity,” says Min. “Regardless of the essay’s substance, a delivery that’s flat, memorized, or robotic will make admissions staff feel this is a candidate who lacks confidence.” 

He says it’s important to weave key selling points into video responses and to align them with a school’s individual culture. “Some emphasize analytical rigor, others favour strategic vision [etc]. Your content and communication style should convey that you will fit in and add value.” 

Consider production value, too. You’re not creating a Spielberg masterpiece, but effort can demonstrate commitment. Use a plain background, a webcam with clear visuals and sound, and face natural light. But don’t overdo it with lights and filters. Min says: “Those applicants who make the audience feel like they’re sitting across a table and having a face-to-face dialogue are going to produce the most effective and convincing videos.” 

At the end of the day, business schools point out that video responses are just one part of the MBA application. “[Video] is no more or less important than any other part,” says Rotman’s Gauthier. “We look for potential, not perfection in a video essay.” 

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