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The MBA admissions process should be about self-discovery and development

Pete Johnson, Advisory Director at Fortuna Admissions, was Executive Director ofAdmissions for the full-time program at Berkeley-Haas for over 10 years, and in 2010 became Vice President of Student Services at Central European University in Budapest. He shares his perspective on changes in the admissions to top business schools, and the importance of self-reflection which will prepare both for the MBA and beyond.

Pete Johnson

“It is self-reflection that ultimately allows the MBA admissions committee to understand how admitting this particular candidate will enrich their school community” – Pete Johnson, Advisory Director at Fortuna Admissions, and former Executive Director of MBA Admissions at Berkeley-Haas

The online community of MBA applicants has been buzzing in the last 9 months with discussion of changes to the admissions process at many of the world’s top business schools.

The decision by Harvard Business School to reduce the initial essay component to two 400-word essays on something you did well and something you wish you had done better has left some potential applicants feeling concerned that they won’t have sufficient space to share their achievements, potential and future plans with the school. The introduction of a Team Based Discussion at Wharton has also raised anxiety levels, despite the chance to demonstrate communication skills and style of engagement in a group context that is comparable to the MBA experience itself. Other schools are experimenting with Powerpoint slides, video interviews, tweet-style essays and more.  These changes in the application process have led many applicants to seek advice from friends, mentors, and admission consultants.

As former directors at several of the world’s leading business schools, we recognize the desire of admissions teams to experiment with the components of the application, usually aiming to better understand the personality and potential of each applicant. Introducing a new essay or changing the interview format is not intended to raise the stress levels of the candidates, but to encourage introspection and candid self evaluation that will allow readers of the application to understand why a candidate considers the MBA experience critical for their professional goals and how it will be a transformational experience for them.

At Berkeley-Haas, we used both a long essay and a number of short answer questions that were designed to give each candidate the opportunity to give us a sense of what was important to them, why business school was the next step, and how they would fit with the culture and program. At the end of the application cycle each year, we would discuss the responses we’d read, and we changed or substituted questions when we felt we were not getting at the information we needed.  Other schools have developed the methods they believe will help them to best assess these issues, whether they include a Powerpoint essay, a team interview, or Harvard’s “something you did well and something you wish you’d done better” questions. Although potential applicants may feel that is 800 words is too limiting, remember that succinct communication is highly valued in business and in business schools.

Admissions committees get value from short answer questions and essays, they’re not just a pro-forma exercise   Although we always knew that some candidates had extensive editing assistance or may have presented the work of others as their own, this would often be revealed in the interview when a candidate was asked to clarify or elaborate on a response from a short answer question or essay. Successful candidates can articulate their own personal narrative and demonstrate ownership of their own story.

Admissions Directors are understandably concerned that many MBA applicants are over-coached or too heavily influenced by the wealth of advice that they find in MBA chat rooms or by using MBA admissions consulting firms such as ours. They point to essays that are at best lacking in authenticity, at worst a failed attempt to write what the candidate thinks the admissions committee wants to read. From the thousands of applications the team at Fortuna have read at Haas, Wharton, INSEAD and other top schools, it is true that a great number of essays fail to resonate, or do not reveal the true stories that have made the candidate the person that they are.

We understand business schools’ frustration with cosmetic re-writes, manufactured profiles, and techniques intended to help applicants  “game” the system.  Our team believes that good admissions consulting should provide a coaching experience that helps candidates to use the application process itself as an opportunity for self-discovery and development, not just a tool to get in. Holding a mirror to the candidate, guiding him or her through a process of self-reflection, will help to refine the way they present themselves so that they communicate their unique story, experience and goals in an authentic way. It is this self-reflection that ultimately allows the MBA admissions committee to understand how admitting this particular candidate will enrich their school community.

In many ways this step prepares candidates for what they can expect at business school, where they will be supported and coached as they develop leadership skills, discover new abilities, polish resumes, sharpen cover letters, and practice networking – all in preparation for the next step in their career and beyond.

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