5 Changes Occurring in Business School Admissions

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Wednesday, December 9, 2020
By Marco De Novellis
Photo by iStock
In addition to creating more flexible, accessible processes, business schools are assessing candidates’ personalities and ability to respond to adversity.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, business schools were caught at the crux of their admissions cycles.

Candidates were suddenly unable to visit campuses or interview face-to-face. GMAT test centers closed and, with the GMAT Online Exam not yet available, candidates submitted applications without test scores.

In response, business schools added unprecedented levels of flexibility to their admissions processes: transitioning online, waiving test scores, shifting application deadlines, and moving program start dates.

As COVID-19 cast doubt over the continued delivery of programs, schools rushed to fill their classes and accepted more candidates, with the assumption that some would defer to the following year.

While business school admissions is in constant evolution, the experience of business schools in the later application rounds of 2020 will likely have a lasting impact on the admissions processes and requirements of the future.

Here are five ways business school admissions is changing:

1. Virtual Recruitment

Interviews, campus tours, and admissions events are now all taking place virtually. Many schools were already doing virtual recruitment, but coronavirus has rapidly accelerated this trend.

Business schools connected with MBA candidates through more than 50 virtual admission events hosted by The MBA Tour this past summer. Likewise, the Graduate Management Admission Council's (GMAC) Master’s Tour Study in Europe events saw 16 of Europe’s top schools hosting online bootcamp sessions for master’s applicants on personal branding and return on investment, as well as virtual meetups with admissions directors.

With admissions processes going online, there is more space for the integration of artificial intelligence tools. Unimy is an AI matching tool for candidates, which recommends their 10 best-fit business schools and tells them how likely they are to be accepted based on their profile.

Schools, meanwhile, are increasingly looking for candidates with strong online profiles and digital savvy. New York University’s Stern School of Business asks MBA candidates for six images with captions to describe themselves. MIT Sloan School of Management candidates record a one-minute video introduction. Applicants to Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management MBA program submit video essays in addition to written answers.

Piyush Ranjan, founder of admissions consulting company Management Masters, says the response from candidates applying for business school online has been positive. “Most of them are quite satisfied with the way MBA programs responded to the crisis,” he says.

2. Flexibility

Many schools have four, five, or more application rounds now rather than the traditional three. Especially outside the United States, schools favor a rolling admissions process, accepting and reviewing applications until a final cutoff date.

Flexibility in admissions extends to admission requirements, too. Business schools now accept the GMAT Online Exam in exactly the same way as they do the GMAT.

Some schools have gone further. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, MIT Sloan, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business are now offering GMAT and GRE waivers as well as waivers of English language proficiency tests, like the TOEFL, to candidates who request them.

China’s Tsinghua University allows international MBA candidates to submit the GMAT, the GRE, or its own alternative admission test. International candidates are not required to have prior work experience.

Elsewhere, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business requires that MBA candidates submit just one letter of recommendation and is now accepting GMAC’s Executive Assessment—a shorter format admission test typically for Executive MBA candidates—as well as GMAT or GRE scores.

While admissions requirements were once rigid, COVID-19 has seen schools introduce more flexibility and tailor processes and requirements to individual candidate needs.

3. Profile Evaluation

Yale School of Management recently added its Behavioral Assessment component to measure character traits and interpersonal skills. Berkeley Haas recruits based on its core leadership principles. Duke Fuqua looks at IQ, EQ, and its Decency Quotient (DQ).

Business schools have recruited based on a candidate’s holistic profile, rather than test scores alone, for some time. The pandemic—with the management challenges it poses and the disruption it has caused for standardized testing—has placed renewed emphasis on the evaluation of candidates.

As well as recruiting to boost gender and cultural diversity, schools continue to look at a candidates’ broader skill set. Testing organizations are now developing standardized tests that assess a candidate’s more personal side—their character, motivations, and emotional intelligence—as well as the vital verbal and quantitative skills traditionally covered in admissions testing.

Yet the central importance of the GMAT should not be overlooked. Average GMAT scores are increasing. The lowest GMAT score accepted for Harvard Business School’s MBA program increased from 590 to 620 in 2020. Schools currently waiving the GMAT may return to accepting GMAT scores after the disruption of the pandemic is over.

4. COVID Focus

Admissions consultant Barbara Coward recently asked schools whether the qualities they look for in candidates have changed since the pandemic.

What she found is that admissions teams increasingly value resilience. More people have lost their jobs and more businesses have gone under this year. Schools want candidates to tell their stories and communicate how they tackled their own personal challenges in relation to the pandemic.

One of Kellogg’s MBA video essay questions asks candidates to explain how the pandemic has challenged them and how they have faced that challenge, while Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business asks candidates to show how they have contributed to the “greater good” in these uniquely challenging times.

With COVID-19 impacting every aspect of our lives, it’s unsurprising that business schools—at least in the short term—have crafted parts of their admissions processes with a COVID lens.

5. Increasing Applications

These admissions changes come in the context of increased competition for places at business schools.

Two-thirds of graduate business school programs saw applications increase in 2020, according to GMAC's 2020 Application Trends Survey. The unprecedented demand caused London Business School to push back its 2020-21 first-round MBA interview decisions to a later date.

Deferral rates also increased from 2 to 6 percent in 2020, according to GMAC, with seats in next year’s classes already filling up. Piyush Ranjan, from Management Masters, says one client who applied to the HEC Paris September 2021 MBA intake was admitted for January 2022 instead because of the high number of deferrals.

To meet demand, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has increased its MBA class size by 60 students to more than 900. Harvard Business School will also increase enrollment to around 1,000 students for the classes of 2023 and 2024.

David White, founder of MBA admissions consulting firm Menlo Coaching, says schools are acting to replace tuition revenue lost from canceled executive education programs, and to take advantage of the increase of well-qualified applicants available as a result of the recession.

As global jobs markets suffer the impacts of the pandemic, more professionals are looking to business school as a way forward. We can expect schools to continue to evolve their admissions processes to fulfill their own needs and the needs of candidates in these challenging times.

Marco De Novellis
Senior Editor, BusinessBecause & GMAC Media
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