Graduate Management News

2004 Directors Symposium Encourages a Cross-Functional Approach to Admissions

Admit decisions, for all the effort that goes into them, don’t come with any guarantees. Some admits turn out to be “hits”—great students, strong contributors to the learning environment, and eminently employable graduates. But others end up as admissions “misses,” taking more than they contribute and lacking the career direction and self-confidence that would make them placeable upon graduation. How can your admissions program achieve more “hits” and avoid the “misses?”

In March and April, the Graduate Management Admission Council® (GMAC®), in cooperation with the MBA Career Services Council, presented and fully underwrote a new professional development program for director-level business school staff in admissions, career services, and MBA program management. The purpose of the 2004 Directors Symposium was to bring together teams of leaders in different functional areas of each participating school to talk about the identifiable characteristics of their schools’ admissions “hits” and “misses” and how the different business school functions can work together to identify applicants who will be outstanding students and alumni for their particular schools.

The Directors Symposium was offered on different days in Los Angeles, New York, and Paris, with audiences ranging in size from 25 to 65 participants. Despite the geographic differences and the wide range of schools represented, there were many common traits of admissions “hits” and “misses.” Some of them are listed below.

Identifying “Red Flags” in the Application Process

The Directors Symposium participants found that many of the markers of less successful students can be identified in the application process but are often overlooked—everything from numerous job changes in a short period of time to strange personal interactions or difficulty communicating. These signals should not be ignored, said participants. It may be useful to discuss any “red flags” with other colleagues, to determine which shortcomings can be mitigated by other qualities and which should be reasons not to offer admission.

One red flag that is often ignored but should be taken seriously, said some symposium participants, is excessive contact with the admissions office. Termed “Hassler Syndrome” by one participant, extreme dependency on the admissions office may signal a lack of self-confidence that manifests itself as neediness. This trait may show up later in the learning environment, when the student is unable to contribute meaningfully to classes and work groups and becomes known as a “net taker.” The same person may be a drain on career services, unable to take initiative in a job search.

Another characteristic of unsuccessful admits that can be detected in the admissions process is arrogance. Is an applicant rude to admissions office staff? Does he think his grades or GMAT® scores make his acceptance a sure bet? Watch out, said some symposium participants. People who exhibit arrogance as applicants rarely change. They may be unable to work as part of a team, may have unrealistic expectations about their job prospects, may have a sense of entitlement when it comes to student and career services, and may put off recruiters with their self-centered attitudes.

Other hints that an applicant may not be successful are inconsistencies between the application and what the applicant says in interviews, odd personal interactions, and applications that seem to change on the basis of what the candidate thinks the admissions office wants. Paying attention to these characteristics can help avoid admissions “misses.”

Assessing and Ensuring “Right Fit”

Certain applicant characteristics can signal future difficulties in some programs but augur success in others. For example, applicants who fall outside the typical age range for admits can be valuable contributors in the classroom but can be hard to place in jobs—unless their career goals are precisely in line with the specializations of the program to which they are applying or with the types of companies that recruit graduates from that program.

Another category of applicant that deserves special attention is would-be entrepreneurs. These applicants often come to the application process with unrealistic expectations about what they will get from a graduate business program and what the return will be on their school investment. In these cases, it may be up to the admissions office to help the applicants set realistic expectations, perhaps using survey data that show satisfaction rates, postgraduation employment statistics, and salary data.

Playing the Numbers Game

Participants from different symposia and different schools noted the drawbacks of chasing rankings by emphasizing certain qualifications too heavily in the admissions process or by offering merit-based scholarships to candidates who may not fare well in the program.

Some participants noted that the pursuit of rankings that rely on undergraduate grades and GMAT® scores, particularly the U.S. News & World Report rankings, encourages an overly heavy emphasis on these quantitative measures of an applicant’s aptitude. It can be difficult to make the right admissions decisions while being pressured to weigh certain factors too heavily, said some.

Participants of the Directors Symposium said that sometimes the best admit decisions they have made involved applicants whose grades and GMAT® scores were above average but not extremely high, and whose work experience, leadership ability, career direction, and positive attitude made them very strong candidates for admission. Participants from part-time programs noted that this is especially true in their programs, and some participants said that the most successful admits from their waitlists (the “hidden jewels,” as one participant called them) were accepted in large part on the basis of their personal characteristics and experience.

Another area of concern for symposium participants was merit-based scholarships, which are considered in some publication rankings. Many merit-based scholarship recipients don’t perform well in their programs because of scholarship policies geared more toward boosting rankings than toward making fruitful matches between scholarship recipients and programs.

Some symposium participants suggested reallocating scholarship money to offer more partial scholarships for deserving applicants and using work experience as a requirement for scholarship recipients. They also recommended that admissions offices emphasize career and interpersonal skills in their decisions about which applicants should be offered scholarship money.

Keeping track of how admits fare in the classroom and in job placement can yield useful data for identifying (and reporting to the dean) policies that encourage improper weighting of admissions decisions or unwise allocation of scholarship funds. Certainly, whenever money is allocated to recruitment activities, it is important to track the return on the investments.

Collaborating for Success

Participants suggested that admissions and career services professionals sit down together to discuss and make decisions about applicants who are on the margin, especially those who are on the waitlist. They also suggested asking faculty members to interview candidates who are on the margin or on the waitlist. Talking about these applicants together can help make sure that the possible outcomes of the admissions decision have been thought through from how the applicants would perform academically to what they might contribute in the classroom to how realistic their career goals are and how placeable they might be after graduation. Deans might also be a party to these discussions, particularly if they are pressuring admissions offices to admit particular applicants or to rely on some admissions factors too heavily.

A Valuable Experience

The participants gave the Directors Symposium very positive evaluations, saying that it offered them their first opportunity to discuss the hallmarks of successful and unsuccessful admits with colleagues from different areas of their own business schools. They said that the program helped them refine their approach to making admissions decisions that pay dividends to all areas of the business school and gave them ideas for changing policies that hamper their ability to make the best decisions for their school and for their applicants. As one participant noted in an evaluation, “[It] was a good exercise to think about this subject and how we can influence future strategy.”

GMAC®, Graduate Management Admission Council®, and GMAT® are registered trademarks of the Graduate Management Admission Council®. All rights reserved.
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