Innovation is Key. Is Graduate Business Admissions the Exception? Part II: Assessing Professional Competence

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.     

 Assessing Professional Competence: Recommendation Letters and Resume

The quality and quantity of an applicant’s work experience is key when determining top management potential, so a polished resume is an absolute must.  But, what about recommendation letters?  Do they really help to set an applicant apart from the pack?  In nearly every circumstance, an applicant will choose a recommender who will gloat about their strengths and minimize or barely mention any perceived weaknesses.  In the competitive world of admissions, choosing a recommender, who will paint the picture of an all-star, seems to be the smart thing to do, but is this really a productive process for admissions committees?  Isn’t there a better way to gauge top management talent?

Evan Bouffides, Associate Dean and Director of MBA Admissions at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, says that while recommendation letters may serve as a point of differentiation for executive business programs, full time MBA admissions is a different story.  “We no longer require recommendation letters in our full-time MBA application because we found the letters didn’t provide us with a point of differentiation.  More often than not, he says, I thought a letter’s content did not provide honest insight about a candidate.  I could also never be completely sure that the name signed at the bottom was the writer of the recommendation.”

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.