Innovation is Key. Is Graduate Business Admissions the Exception? Part I: Assessing Academic Potential

Touted in nearly every business blog or book, the ability to innovate is the Holy Grail of capitalist enterprise.  The advent of the MBA program was in itself an innovation, a response to the massive business model overhauls during the industrial revolution.  Later, the end of World War II brought continued innovation, aggressive growth in the automobile, aviation and electronic industries and, in 1943, the creation of the Executive MBA at the University of Chicago.  Since then, like business, management educations have continued to evolve. What hasn’t changed so much is the evaluative process employed by admissions committees, the gatekeepers at top programs.

In 1943, when the first Executive MBA Program yielded a class of 52 students, business school admissions processes largely mirrored those practiced in the Ivy League.  Applicants completed a personal facts section and clearly outlined their extracurricular and professional activities.  Recommendation letters, written by persons who knew the applicant well and could speak to their character, were sent to the institution.  The applicant completed personal essays so the admissions committee could gauge the applicant’s aptitude for leadership.  And, finally, the interview would look at the more subtle indicators of future success.  Academic achievement was just one of the 4 pieces.  Was the admissions committee downplaying the value of intellectual accomplishment?

The answer is yes, because it was decided that pure intellectual prowess does not, alone, predict future success.  Factors, unrelated to intellect, like motivation and social skills were also considered crucial. Today, not much has changed.   The admissions process is nearly identical to the one used by the first student’s at Chicago’s EMBA.  This is because MBA programs have never been looking for just good students.  They are looking for leaders who will continue their positive trajectory of success after the program is complete.  Like the officials of the Ivy League, the MBA admissions process is not simply a matter of academic brilliance.  Admissions committees want a student body with a diverse variety of talents, qualities, attitudes and backgrounds. 

The question, then, is not whether the goals of the admissions process are out of line.  The question is whether or not the admissions tactics employed by MBA programs are effective in evaluating top management potential.  Let’s examine each piece of the puzzle.     

 (1.) Assessing Academic Potential: The GMAT and Transcripts

The Graduate Management Admissions Council created the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) in 1953 to gauge a prospective students’ ability to compete in the academic rigor of graduate business programs.  The exam, which was recently updated with an additional section, tests verbal skills and analytical writing ability, quantitative skills as well as an aptitude for integrated reasoning.  Most full-time MBA programs value the test’s findings because it makes their evaluative jobs easier by leveling the playing field.  This has proven to be especially important when applicants are coming from a wide array of industries and educational backgrounds.  But, is the GMAT an effective predictor of academic success?

Many proponents of the exam agree that analytics, reasoning skills and aptitude are vital in EMBA programs.  With no standardized measure, some schools say, programs may accept students who are not qualified academically, especially in the heavy quantitative courses.  Schools who require the GMAT for EMBA admission say that while work history, prior degrees and leadership experience are important, they are not a good gauge of an applicant’s analytical skills.

Critics of the GMAT’s usage in EMBA admissions say it is not a valid test of an applicant’s strengths. Instead, they say, schools should base decisions for enrollment on academic records and work history, aspects of the application the GMAT doesn’t measure.  These programs are clearly more concerned with an applicant’s professional career and the value their experiences will add to the classroom dynamic.                      

Business schools will continue to engage in the debate regarding the priority given to the GMAT in admissions, but one thing is for sure.  The GMAT is not a test of future management success.  It is merely a predictor of success in an applicant’s first year of business school.  

Like the GMAT, the transcript is another predictor of future academic achievement.  For applicants and admissions officers alike, the content and requirement of a transcript on a graduate business application is set in stone.  Applicants can’t change its material and admissions deans won’t ever be able to standardize the rigor of classes or grades given at other institutions.  It is what it is, a staple of most applications to academic programs in higher education.  

Rather than doing different, when we innovate, we do the same better.  The ultimate goals of MBA admissions committees will remain the same, but as future students and alumni of MBA programs, if we can encourage constant innovation in the selection processes of our classmates, our academic experiences will be richer and the programs, from which we graduate, stronger.