We speak a lot about what it takes to write a great MBA application. We focus on essays, resumes, experience, recommendations and answers to questions. Once we have got in, all our nervousness dissolves in one great big party.
However, we hardly ever look at the other side: what does our application look like to those for whom it is meant? Admissions committees at any of the top US Business Schools go through at least 1000 and at most 2000 full applications every year, and they do this at what would seem to us like breakneck speed.
So how does their well oiled machine work so fast and so accurately to select the best candidates every year? The specific steps will no doubt differ from school to school, but there are some steps that are common to most. Here are a few of those steps, with an explanation of their rationale and place in the larger scheme of things.
First, there is a quick scan for obvious danger signs
MBA Admissions Officers save a lot of time by eliminating a chunk of applications early on. This number is never very high, given that most candidates who apply are serious, but there will always be a bunch of applicants with extremely low (well below 700) GMAT scores without any other big spike on their CV, and applicants who are applying ‘too early’ (that is, before they have sufficient professional experience), and some applicants whose application is obviously poorly written and badly put together.
There is also a small minority of applicants who have missed out various portions of their applications, and are automatically disqualified. All these contribute towards reducing the effective size of the applicant pool by a little over 10%, and leave the Committee free to proceed to the 90% serious candidates.
The one page resume is screened early on in the process
Many MBA application officials use the one page resume as their window into the candidate’s basics; they use it like a more factual version of the Statement of Purpose for other graduate applications. The screening seeks to understand how ‘good’ the candidate is, and group candidates into 4 or 5 levels depending on their perceived quality. Of course, this does not mean that this is the final rating; essays and recommendations can see an application fluctuate constantly between different rating levels.
Often, the letters of recommendation are also scrutinized early; if there are warning signals and inconsistency there, the rest of the application is taken much less seriously. Both these elements, taken together, help the committee form an overview of the candidate in their mind, and usually result in many cells being filled up on an evaluation excel sheet.
After this, the questions and essays are gone through in minute detail, usually by one member of the Committee
After the initial screening, applications are usually divided among members of the Admissions Board, to be scrutinized in detail. The detailed reading seeks to achieve many things: first and foremost, to pay the application the respect it deserves, and spend time on evaluating the candidate fully. It is also tested for consistency: throughout the application, the applicant is trying to tell a story, and create a compelling narrative. To check whether it is genuine or not, a detailed reading is done, so that any elements which do not hang together can be observed and tested. Finally, the detailed reading is done so that the candidate rating can be checked and improved, with specific points from the entire application to back it up.
Based on these activities, a profile of the candidate is created, to be used for future consistency checks
By this time in the process, at least one member of the Committee ‘knows’ the candidate really well – based on the application alone, of course. This knowledge is transferred to a database, where a detailed profile and evaluation of the applicant as a possible entrant to the Business School is created. This profile is used for all further evaluation – from interviews to post-interview debrief. At every moment till you are made an offer, your profile will be used to judge you. Since the profile depends only on the application, you should ensure that your application is simultaneously as factually right and impressive as it can be.
Based on the committee in question, there might be a series of clarificatory questions to enable the group as a whole to rate the different parts of the application
Your profile and evaluation might be created by one person, but it will be quality tested by many more; depending on which Committee it is, it might be mailed across to a few people, all of which either ratify the evaluation, or improve it through a series of conversations – or discussed in a large meeting, where applications are ratified in bulk. Many of these improvements are made through discussions, where your application will be evaluated at a level of depth you never thought possible; this is all done so that multiple people are convinced that they are doing a fair job with your application, and giving it the rating it deserves, on every important parameter.
To speed up the process, pattern recognition is used for each candidate
The three steps above might seem like they take a lot of work, and that no Admissions Committee can actually meet their (very tight) deadlines while still doing justice to every step. However, they manage every single time, three rounds per year. They achieve this through pattern recognition.
Over time, every good MBA program has a bank of 20,000+ applications, and 10,000 of them are recent. This recent history can be used to create patterns. For example, many applications committees look at patterns in universities: if they have always admitted candidates from a particular university, and those candidates go on to do really well in their MBA courses, they will look favourably on further applications from that university. If they see that candidates from a particular company office in a particular city have always demonstrated certain skills that they hold dear, that will be an advantage for future applicants with that profile. All these patterns – both positive and negative – can be used to accelerate application evaluation.
In addition, many experienced admissions staff can also look at the big picture – look at an entire application, and immediately think back to another very similar application they have seen at some point of time in the last few years. This way, the evaluation becomes much quicker, because they have past experience on which to draw. This is, of course, not to say that they copy the evaluation from that of someone else; they will still scrutinize your facts and judge you on your own merits. However, this is a huge time saving tactic.
The candidate is finally ‘judged’, as a definite interviewee, a potential interviewee, or a probable reject
After this entire process, the applicant rating is finalized, usually with the ratification of a senior member of the Admissions Team. Different programs use different scales, but most applicants are usually sorted into 5 piles, or less, so that the next steps for each are clear. Those who are superstars are always definite interviewees, and there is a substantially large pile of the opposites: people who have one big thing wrong with their application, who will probably not be interviewed further. For those who are in the middle, towards either extreme, the next step is to understand what further information is needed in order to make a decision.
For those who are probable or definite interviewees, a list of clarifications and questions is drawn up, all based on the application
Codifying the next steps becomes the most important output from the entire application screening process. The profile and evaluation are all suppositious until they are confirmed by speaking to the candidate, as they are based on the application alone. Therefore, every candidate who might – or will – be interviewed gets a series of questions and requests for information entered against his / her name: these become pointers for those who will interview the candidate (the interviewers are often the people who did the initial detailed reading of the candidate’s application).
The notes are based on what is needed to fill all gaps in the candidate’s profile. Every additional piece of information required is recorded, and a strategy created by which that piece of information can be gleaned over the course of a 20-30 minute interview, since that’s often how long you will have with your interviewer, anyway.
The recommended action for each candidate is placed into a central database, where high level checks such as diversity of the interviewee cohort can be carried out
Once all next steps are recorded, it only remains to finalize the list of those who will get the coveted interview call. This is usually done by taking a list that is 10% – 20% longer than the final number of interview slots, and making the decision on whom to call in based on overall guidelines and factors. For example, there might be a diversity requirement that says that the program should not take in more than N people who have applied from the same company office in the same city, so it does not make sense to give more than N calls to people with that profile. Once these things have been taken into consideration, it’s time to send out the interview invites, and make a lot of people very happy.
We hope that this special Jamboree feature has been useful to you, and that it provided some insight into an area that many of us want to know more about, but seldom get the chance to explore.
Now that you know all about how Admissions Committees read applications, it’s time for you to craft the best possible application for yourself, and reserve a seat with your name on it at one of the top Business Schools in the world. To get started right now, do feel free to reach out to any one of our centres, where you can set up an appointment with one of our test coaches or admissions experts. From the GMAT to the application help, we will do it all, and boost your probability of success significantly.