Why the Admissions Interview Just Got Harder

Guest Post courtesy of Way Lum, ZoomInterviews

The world’s top business schools have continuously raised the bar on admissions standards for their full-time MBA programs.  Twenty-something professionals with strong pre-MBA work experience at brand-name firms are comprising a larger portion of the applicant bell curve as their profiles become more and more competitive.  Add to the mix the fact that these same applicants are also more sophisticated in packaging themselves into a compelling personal brand, and it’s no wonder why the admissions interview is increasingly becoming a way to separate top applicants from the rest of the pack.

The information gap closes

There is no doubt that the availability of online information about all things MBA has risen exponentially since the Internet became widely available to the public in 1995, and in particular, has accelerated in the last 10 years as major media publications such as U.S. News and World Reports, BusinessWeek, The Economist and the Financial Times have expanded their coverage of MBA programs and rankings.  The rise of social media has also seen the emergence of a number of MBA-centric blogs and forums, which not only provide fresh content on the MBA experience, but also allow schools’ applicants, current MBA students and alumni to share information, opinions and perspectives in real time.

This rapid dissemination of information on a school’s MBA program, rankings, professors, career services and any of a number of different  aspects of a school’s offering has effectively closed the knowledge gap and leveled the playing field (or at least made it more level) for applicants from all types of backgrounds.  Ironically, this closing of the information gap has meant that applicants have had to use even more information to further differentiate themselves in the admissions process, by finding the two or three unique aspects of a business school that fits exceptionally well with what they are seeking and what they can bring to an MBA program. And then, of course, articulating those points effectively to the admissions committee during an interview.

Applicant profiles are increasingly more competitive

Along with the greater availability of research resources has come an applicant who is better informed on how s/he needs to prepare for business school.  And competitive applicants are preparing earlier for their entrance into what they are hoping to be a school of choice. Today, graduating from a reputable undergraduate institution, possessing strong work experience, attaining a high GMAT score, being involved in community service and having a well-crafted ”˜why an MBA’ story make the process of just applying for business school a 2-3 year journey to ensure  that an applicant is as competitively positioned as possible.  Add to this the fact that some MBA careers require a certain type of pre-MBA experience (e.g. either banking or direct private equity experience for those pursuing PE) to even be considered for career advancement in the field post-MBA, and one can quickly see that having a cohesive career strategy and also securing a spot at a top business school is a highly competitive process.

And it’s important to note that these criteria are static ”“ your work experience and your GMAT scores are largely fixed – to significantly change one or the other usually means a substantial additional time investment to shore up whichever aspect of your candidacy you think could be lacking ”“ no easy task.  In the case of the GMAT, scores for incoming classes have risen incrementally, with the average score for each of the top 10 US MBA programs* (according to U.S. News and World Reports) resting firmly between 712 and 728, with most averaging 715 or higher. Once your application is in, only the interview remains as a significant way to make a further positive impression.

*For 2011, Stanford, HBS, MIT, Wharton, Kellogg, Booth, Tuck, Haas, Columbia, NYU Stern, and Yale (NYU Stern and Yale are tied for #10)

School are raising the bar on their admission criteria

With applicant profiles becoming stronger each year, this brings up a classic chicken and egg conundrum: are applicants setting their own bar in response to a more competitive admissions process for top schools, or are schools demanding a higher caliber of applicant?  The way applicants select schools suggest the latter ”“ a mix of ”˜dream’ schools, schools where they are likely to be accepted and schools where acceptance is a virtual certainty.  Schools raising their admissions criteria serve a dual purpose: attracting a higher caliber applicants and raising the perceived quality of the school itself.  Both phenomena help to elevate the overall brand of the school.

However, tougher admissions criteria also means that not only is it harder to impress the admissions committee with what you have achieved and why you’d be a great addition to the entering class, but also much more difficult to differentiate yourself from the other well-qualified applicants in a way that’s memorable.  Admissions committees read thousands of applications each year, and patterns emerge in the types of applicants that a school will see.  The Ivy League grad with 3-4 years of experience at a top-tier management consulting firm is a ”˜type’, as is the applicant whose pre-MBA work was at a non-profit, and who is now looking to leverage an MBA to start her career in business.

While these backgrounds are impressive by most standards, admissions committees see many of these profiles and so therefore true differentiation as an applicant is much more difficult than one might initially think.  Schools naturally assume that competitive candidates will bring the impressive work experience, high GMAT scores and stellar letters of recommendation to bear.  Unless you were a former NFL player, F-18 fighter pilot or special attaché to a foreign dignitary (all actual applicants to the best US MBA programs, by the way), your application is likely to look similar to others in the applicant pool.  What will truly differentiate you from another applicant will be the key messages about your candidacy that you convey in your essays and during the admissions interview.

The interview is an integral way to identify the best applicants

The raising of the bar for applicants to elite business schools has created a hyper-competitive environment, which has resulted in the interview becoming a more integral part of separating top applicants from the rest of the candidate pool.

Schools have also raised their level of sophistication in what they measure through the admissions interview.  Whereas previously during a typical interview applicants could provide one example of leadership, teamwork, or failure, for instance, more and more admissions committees are now probing even further. For example, Wharton has changed the approach of its interviews to focus on three key areas: leadership, teamwork and communication. The interview now consists of three questions that are behavioral in nature (e.g. “Tell me about a time when…”) and cover these key areas. Applicants can expect their Wharton interviewer to ask detailed follow-up questions about their experiences/accomplishments, testing the depth and breadth of their work experience, and sniffing out any superficial experiences that an applicant might try to pass as more substantive.  This will require applicants to not only have a well-rounded suite of examples ready to deliver as answers, but also have a level of detail and depth for each of their examples that will satisfy a more inquisitive admissions interviewer.

In addition to this focus on the quality of an applicant’s answers, the admissions committee is also probing deeply on your potential fit.  Expect the usual questions around fit such as ”˜why should you be admitted to this program?’, ”˜how will you contribute to the community here if admitted?’ and ”˜why do you want to pursue your MBA at this school?’  However, while the questions may be the usual ones you would expect, your answers need to be anything but ”˜the usual’.  Here, you need to combine your research and a clear understanding of your profile strengths to deliver answers that are nuanced and impactful.  If your answers can be easily replicated by other applicants, assume that they will not add to your candidacy in any appreciable way.

Business schools and applicants have both evolved with the changing competitive landscape of graduate business education.  Schools have become more demanding of applicants, raising the bar on entrance requirements, while at the same time applying a higher standard to an applicant’s interview performance.  Applicants in turn have become more sophisticated in their preparation for the MBA application process.  The quality of applicants has risen, which makes the process more competitive for any given candidate.  With the admissions interview being one of the few opportunities for candidates to differentiate themselves, it’s should be no surprise that the admissions interview just got harder.

If you have been invited to interview, congratulations on reaching this stage of the process. Prepare well and best of luck!

Way Lum is a managing partner at ZoomInterviews (zoominterviews.com), a leading global provider of video interview preparation services.

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