Why Emotional Intelligence is Now a Staple of MBA Admissions

An increasing number of ‘EQ’ tests are being added to the MBA application, to supposedly predict academic achievement and career success

Emotional intelligence — or emotional quotient (EQ) — is broadly viewed as being a key factor in academic achievement and career success. So it is not surprising that assessments to measure EQ are now a staple feature of the MBA application. 

NYU Stern and Dartmouth Tuck are among the top US business schools that have recently begun asking MBA aspirants to demonstrate their emotional intelligence, whether by submitting a recommendation from a colleague, or answering an essay question about a selfless act. 

Definitions vary; EQ is subjective. But, typically, emotional intelligence has meant the ability to recognize yours and others’ emotions, and to adjust behaviors accordingly. 

Luke Anthony Peña, executive director of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, says to be emotionally intelligent is to be able to “challenge others tactfully and thoughtfully”. You “recognize when to encourage others, as well as when to disagree, for a stronger, mutually beneficial relationship”. 

These sorts of competencies are associated with business school success, since so much learning takes place in group discussion through the case study method. 

“Mature, approachable and productive behavior facilitates learning and bonding in the classroom,” says Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange, an admissions agency. 

These traits may be crucial in succeeding in the workplace as well. “Running a business isn’t just a numbers game,” says Stacey Koprince, head of Manhattan Prep’s content and curriculum. 

“You’ll help your business to be more successful if you’re able to connect with your clients and co-workers at a human level, which reflects well on the program from which you graduated.” 

Applicants who want to demonstrate a high EQ can do so in a variety of ways, according to Min. In essays and interviews, candidates can describe leadership and teamwork scenarios where they not only achieved tangible results, but also positively changed the minds and behaviors of others, he says. 

Min relates the example of one client who explained how she capitalized on severe hearing loss to help others understand, confront and overcome adversity. To build relationships with colleagues, she shared a story about being the only high-school soccer player who could not hear the ref’s whistle, but who nevertheless led her team to a championship and went on to play college varsity soccer. 

“Conveying her EQ as a core aspect of her candidacy, she was admitted to all three of her target schools,” Min says. 

Adding ‘vital perspective’ to the MBA classroom

Schools take different approaches to attempt to evaluate people’s EQ. Yale School of Management measures intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies that are predictive of MBA success, based on “rigorously validated analyses”, though it won’t share the specific traits. 

Students are evaluated in a “behavioral assessment” developed with the Educational Testing Service and introduced in 2017/18. The test consists of 120 pairs of statements from which you have to choose the statement that is more like your own behavior. 

Bruce DelMonico, assistant dean for admissions, argues that this information is more fair, consistent and measurable than an essay or interview question. 

“If we limit ourselves to applicants who perform best on traditional academic measures like GMAT, GRE, or undergraduate GPA, we may miss out on candidates with extraordinary professional experience or personal backgrounds that would add vital perspective to the classroom,” he adds. 

Laurel Grodman, Yale’s managing director of admissions, analytics and evaluation, hopes the test can draw a more diverse intake of MBA students. 

With such prospects, EQ is attractive to MBA admissions teams and corporate recruiters alike. “Our alumni and corporate partners are constantly telling us that future leaders are those who can foster engaging and meaningful dialogue,” says Rabia Ahmed, executive director of MBA admissions for New York University’s Stern School of Business. 

Stern introduced an “EQ endorsement” to its MBA application in 2017. Endorsers provide one specific and compelling example to demonstrate the applicant's emotional intelligence, while Stern also evaluates EQ during the admissions interview by asking questions that probe the student’s self-awareness and ability to work in teams. 

The Tuck school also seeks a third-party review: it asks would-be MBAs to pen an essay evidencing an instance when they helped someone else succeed, and provide a recommendation letter showing they are a “nice” person. 

Peña argues that emotional intelligence manifests not in circumscribed moments or actions, but rather in patterns of behavior over time. The EQ assessments, introduced in 2018, show whether candidates have “cultivated a habit of emotional intelligence, rather than investing in others only when it was convenient or easy”, Peña says. 

Is EQ more important than IQ?

EQ was popularized by a journalist in the 1990s; his book argued EQ was more important than general intelligence, which is hotly debated among psychologists. 

EQ has always been a factor for MBA admissions teams, but took on greater importance after the financial crisis, argues Jeremy Shinewald, president and founder of mbaMission, a business school admissions consulting firm. 

“There was a lot of soul searching in the MBA community,” he says. “Schools started adding ethics courses because there was a sense that short-sighted MBAs had their heads in spreadsheets, thinking about the quick buck, rather than stopping to consider all stakeholders.” 

The importance of humanity is underscored by the fact that “no business school wants to make the news because a famous alum is associated with predatory business practices”, says Manhattan Prep’s Koprince. 

There may be an upside for business schools, Min at The MBA Exchange adds, with emotionally intelligent MBA students likely to sustain ties with alumni, and perhaps make donations to their alma mater. 

He expects more schools to introduce EQ assessments in a declining market for MBA applications, especially in the US. “It might help to attract MBA candidates whose stellar EQ outshines a modest college transcript and professional résumé.” 

Yet while EQ appears to be far more important to admissions teams than in the past, MBA applicants should not discount the importance of their IQ. 

“Both are essential to effective leadership,” says Tuck’s Peña. “The best leader has the cognitive intelligence to chart a path, and the emotional intelligence to empower others to share in the journey.” 

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