To evaluate the leadership potential, intellectual ability and personal goals and values of their MBA applicants, business schools have long relied on a stable mix of components – academic transcripts, standardized tests in the form of the GMAT and GRE, a resume, essays and letters of recommendation.
A number of schools have played with the format in recent years, introducing additional components to assess the personalities and thought processes of candidates. For Chicago Booth you can now put together a four-slide Powerpoint to broaden the admissions committee’s perspective about who you are, while Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business asks you to explain why you want to do their MBA in tweet format.
But to gain a deeper understanding of a candidate’s interpersonal skills and communication style, nothing seems to beat the interview. A handful of business schools including the Tuck School of Business and Northwestern’sKellogg offer applicant-initiated interviews as part of the application, but the University of Toronto’s Rotman School has taken the idea a step further and replaced one of its traditional written essays with a video interview.
The move stemmed from the school’s assessment of its admissions process, and the feeling that four long essays were not generating enough differentiation. “We wanted to know more about the personality and passions of our applicants”, explains Niki da Silva, Rotman’s Director ofAdmissions. “Candidates were picking out keywords from our website for their essays, and we felt that we were losing in authenticity.”
Working with the next 36, a group of entrepreneurs who recently completed a Rotman-affiliated program, the school has devised a video essay that replaces one of the four written essays, to capture some of the spontaneity of a live interview. The tool had been developed for the job market, but da Silva was confident it would work for an admissions process. “It was a no-brainer, and a great opportunity to try something new.”
After logging on and practicing with as many non-recorded sample questions as they want, interviewees then get two questions, the first common to all applicants, and the second selected by the computer from a bank of questions pre-recorded by da Silva. They are given 45 seconds to think about their response, and then have 90 seconds to answer. “There is no preparation required, and no right answer”, says da Silva. “They might be asked to talk about an event that has inspired them, or reflect on how their colleagues might describe them. It is telling to see what jumps to mind, and we get a glimpse into their value system and perspectives we don’t see elsewhere in the application”.
The 90-second time length was decided upon based on trial and error, and itself says something about the candidate. “The important thing is to be able to contribute a brief, fluent and compelling point in the 90 seconds. A confident candidate is done after 60 seconds, while others feel compelled to fill the time.” Da Silva insists that the video interview is not a tool to identify great public speakers, but an additional opportunity to share your personality and stories, and encourages candidates to have fun with it. “The admissions team viewed the video of the quirky engineer with a 760 GMAT, and agreed that he was indeed quirky in an enthusiastic and positive way. The video helped us to see that.”
So is the video interview the way ahead for MBA admissions ? Rotman expects many other schools to follow suit, but is making the most of the 12-months exclusivity they have. “We introduced this at the right time, when people are living on Skype. It is certainly not a barrier for those who are seriously interested in the program,” insists da Silva, “and those who applied prior to the introduction of the video interview have asked if they can also take part.”
For the time being, most business schools only offer an interview after a candidate has submitted their written application, so being selected to interview is the first major hurdle on the road to a place at the school of their dreams. Last year for example, the Harvard Business School received over 9,500 applications, the majority of which were for the first two rounds of admissions in late September and early January. From these, the school sent out 855 invitations to applicants in the first round, with similar numbers in the second round. Given that the school typically admits around 90% of its 900 students from the first two rounds, the chances of admission success for interviewees have just improved dramatically – around 1 in 2 depending on the school.
But what sort of interview will you face? The Wharton School has also taken a step back to look holistically at the different pieces of the admissions process, and have recently introduced a Team Based Discussion as part of their interview format.
For Director of MBA Admissions, Ankur Kumar, the three areas that collectively make up the school’s evaluation – academic backgrounds and achievements, exceptional professional trajectories and accomplishments, and individual personal qualities such as judgement, self awareness, thoughtfulness, leadership style, interaction with others – are all considered equally important. In thinking about how they could evolve the process, the Team Based Discussion emerged for two primary reasons.
“We often heard from our applicants that they sometimes felt limited in their ability to showcase aspects of themselves in their written application. The Team Based Discussion is the chance for them to show us, versus telling us in the written application or one on one interview.
The group interaction was also the chance for applicants to experience first hand what Wharton is all about, and the values that are core to the school. “Because teamwork is such a hallmark of the Wharton experience (on average our students will be involved in 15 to 20 teams during their time here, whether in or outside the classroom), we felt this was a great opportunity for our candidates to experience it first hand – things like intellectual curiosity, interpersonal engagement, flexing and developing their leadership and communication styles.”
This is the first year that Wharton has formally launched the Team Based Discussion as part of the admissions process, having piloted the format last year with current students, and round three candidates in the spring of 2012.
“Our process is very holistic, so there isn’t one thing that gets a candidate in or keeps them out,” Kumar insists. “So the Team Based Discussion has added to our process. It is just another component to see and understand our candidates. We then go back and review applications in their entirety, just as before.”
But can you get a genuine sense of a candidate’s personality and interpersonal skills, or is everyone on their best behavior? Kumar is adamant that the new format reveals a person’s true form, irrespective of where the discussions were held. “We were able to see the impact that each individual had on a particular team, how they navigated the discussion, and how they operated. We saw people pushing back on ideas, and looking to learn more about what their colleagues were saying. Some of the best groups are digging and pushing each other, and that’s exactly what happens in our classroom and why they are coming to learn – we saw that in spades throughout the sessions. ”
The Wharton admissions team is now preparing the next series of Team Based Discussions, both in Philadelphia and various locations around the world, for selected applicants from round two. Kumar is convinced that the new format has an important role to play. “As we are going through our applicants’ files we are always trying to visualize them in the program. I think this has really added some richness to our ability to visualize them here at Wharton. And it really does give candidates a chance to get a good sense of who we are at Wharton, and how we operate.