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MBA Admissions 2.0: Technology Makes Inroads


Business school applications are going high tech. Slowly, the 2.0 version of MBA admissions is arriving. Utilizing everything from social media to video, business schools are seeking new ways to get to know applicants. The goal, say admissions committee members, is to discover the true personality of the people they are considering for their classes.

Members of the admissions committees at top business schools were getting tired of reading the same old traditional essays, which had become perfunctory and overly edited, according to an e-mail written by Kurt Ahlm, associate dean of student recruitment and admissions, at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, one of the first schools to bring technology into the application by requiring a PowerPoint presentation since 2007.

“Traditional essays were too familiar, and applicants had access to hundreds of essay-writing books, websites, and consultants. We wanted to get at something that was more authentic, get an answer that was thoughtful, strategic, and added some depth,” he writes. “Our culture embraces the challenge of making sense out of the unfamiliar, and we wanted to introduce an exercise that would capture that.”

Booth asks applicants to answer an open-ended question that encourages them to share something other than what they have already mentioned about themselves elsewhere in the application, and to do so in no more than four pages on a PowerPoint presentation. Although there are guidelines, applicants are limited only by their creativity in what they churn out.

“The choices applicants make to create meaningful content in this exercise are as revealing as the content itself,” writes Ahlm. “We learn how a person thinks, what he values, and how he perceives his fit with Booth.” He adds that the exercise is “as much about strategic decision-making as it is about graphics and prose.”

BEYOND POWERPOINT

The use of technology at Booth and elsewhere is part of a broader rethink of the application process that’s taking place at such schools as the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton SchoolColumbia Business School, and the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. At all three schools, changes to the traditional application essay or other aspects of the application process are giving admissions teams new insights into the personalities and qualifications of applicants and effectively diminishing the role of admissions consultants, who have become increasingly influential in business school admissions.

Other business schools are looking for similar results with their technology-driven additions to the application. In 2010, New York University’s Stern School of Business began having applicants submit one of the application essays—asking candidates to share something about themselves in a creative way—using a USB drive, DVD, or CD. Musically inclined applicants sent CDs that included a selection of their songs, others created short movies in the form of documentaries and parodies, and still others created virtual photo albums that took viewers through their life with music or narration. The school was so pleased with the applicants’ creativity that it plans to continue with these electronic submissions, says Isser Gallogly, assistant dean of MBA admissions at Stern.

“It gives them a chance to show us how they’re unique and different and how they’ll fit into the community,” says Gallogly, who adds that these submissions serve as a nice talking point in the admissions interview as well.

TWITTER-LENGTH ESSAYS

While traditional essays had applicants writing at length and with much detail, less is more with these high-tech enhancements. The University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Management recently had applicants answer one essay question in the form it would take as a tweet on Twitter. Although they did not have to broadcast their response on Twitter, it had to be 140 characters or less. Because this was a pilot program, they could still opt to write a traditional essay instead.

Whoever sent in the best Twitter-like response would win a full-tuition financial award package, valued at more than $37,000. The question was, “What makes you an exceptional Tippie Full-Time MBA candidate and future MBA hire? Creativity Encouraged.” The school received 58 entries, and a 33-year-old Texas applicant won the free ride. Delighted with how this first attempt at using social media went, the school plans to integrate it into the application and award two full scholarships next year—one each for the best Twitter-like response from a domestic and an international student, says Lydia Fine, associate director of recruiting and admissions at Tippie.

Despite the brevity, the admissions committee could learn a lot from the applicants’ tweets, says Fine. “It helps them boil down their main selling points,” she adds. And MBA candidates could add links to separate Web pages, videos, and blogs that would inform the school even more about the person’s personality, interests, and creativity, adds Colleen Downie, senior assistant dean of Tippie.

The use of social media is not the only way schools are seeking to acquaint themselves better with applicants. Video is another way to understand students beyond their written words. Mycollegei, a company that facilitates videotaping and screening for admissions committees, has several business schools as clients, including the USC Marshall School of Business and Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.

Schools send applicants an e-mail requesting them to answer additional questions using this video service, and the applicants then tape their responses. The service archives the videos for viewing only by the admissions committee. Although some schools use these videos for any applicant who wants to add another dimension to his or her application, the majority reserve the service for those who cannot participate in a face-to-face admissions interview, says Bill Barnett, president and chief executive of mycollegei in Los Angeles. “The videos can show who candidates are above and beyond a piece of paper,” he adds.

REVIVING “PERSONALITY”

High-tech additions, says Barnett, are a part of the natural evolution of today’s applications. “Technology is becoming more popular in admissions, not just because it is more practical and convenient, but also because students were raised with it,” he says.

Still, not everyone has had success including technology in business school applications. For instance, 2008-09 applicants to the UCLA Anderson School of Management had the choice of answering essays in either a written or an audio form. After prospective students around the world indicated that they experienced difficulties with the audio technology, the school decided to revert to traditional written essays in 2011, writes Robert Weiler, assistant dean of career initiatives at Anderson, in an e-mail.

Although business schools might face stumbling blocks when first incorporating technology into the application, they seem to be embracing the possibilities. In fact, Tippie’s Fine says it’s inevitable. “There’s a trend toward bringing personality back into the application,” she says. “You have to go beyond the résumé, because that’s what employers are doing.”

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Francesca_dimeglio
Di Meglio is a reporter for Businessweek.com in Fort Lee, N.J.

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