Posted by: Louis Lavelle on July 5, 2011
B-school admissions is a process fraught with problems. With the stakes for applicants higher than ever, plagiarism is a growing problem and the widespread use of consultants to polish essays makes it impossible for the admissions team to tell where the applicant ends and the consultant begins. It’s enough to make you want to major in philosophy.
I suspect that part of the problem may be the admissions essays themselves. The questions in many cases are so similar that applicants can turn in virtually identical essays to multiple schools by simply replacing one school name with another—a pet peeve of admissions directors. The similarity makes it possible for consultants to develop strategies for answering the questions that can be applied to virtually any top school. The same strategy they sold to the Harvard applicant will work on the same questions at Wharton, Stanford, and Kellogg.
Consider the humble “why are you pursuing an MBA” question. It’s a fine question and probably one that needs to be addressed at some point during the application process. But it appears in some form on the applications of eight of Bloomberg Businessweek’s 10 top full-time MBA programs. If an applicant has answered it once, the temptation to use the same answer for the next six b-schools must be overpowering.
Career goals? Six of the top 10 ask that one, and unless your career goals change every 10 minutes you’re probably hard-pressed to come up with something new for each application. Accomplishments? Four of the 10.
Which isn’t to say that there’s a dearth of imagination when it comes to essay questions. At UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where a new curriculum was announced last year, an effort has been made to craft questions that align with its foundational principles. One such principle is “question the status quo,” so one essay question asks applicants to describe a time when they questioned an established practice at their organization. Columbia Business School has applicants choose from a series of inventive questions that include writing an elevator pitch for a new business, a campaign speech, or a description of how they would take advantage of 30 minutes of face time with a top executive.
One of the more intriguing solutions to the essay question dilemma isn't an essay question at all, but a blank sheet of paper. In one of its three required essays, Chicago's Booth School of Business gives applicants free rein to write about anything, in keeping with the school's practice of teaching MBA students how to think, rather than what to think.
But even a blank sheet of paper is no sure fix. A cottage industry sprouted up to advise MBA applicants how to answer "why are you pursuing an MBA"--it's only a matter of time before the same industry begins advising them on how to deal with the "blank sheet" essay. Some MBA admissions consultants, including Stacy Blackman, already are.
If business schools really want to attract applicants who are a good fit for their institutions--and do away with plagiarism, duplicate essays, and the problems posed by consultants all at the same time--the answer is simple: do away with the essays. That's probably easier said than done, and would mean relying much more on interviews, but it's not impossible. A well-crafted application and resume gives admissions committees everything they need to make the first cut. And a 20 minute conversation between the applicant and an admissions rep--no consultants, no cut and paste, no search and replace--will tell them everything they need to know.