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February 2013

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Reflectis a new soft-skills tool, introduced by GMAC and powered by Hogan Assessments, that schools can use to guide their students' educational and leadership development, support in-program teambuilding and strengthen career services activities.

The Reflect online tool can help students and program graduates stand out by being more insightful about their professional and personal strengths and how to develop and apply them. Visit Reflect today.

Alsop Perspective: Soft Skills Makes Recruiters' Wish List

When MBA admission directors told the Graduate Management Admission Council they’d like an assessment tool that could measure applicants’ soft skills, GMAC quickly went to work on its new Reflect product.

The Reflect tool can indeed provide valuable insights about an individual’s strengths and weaknesses on such attributes as interpersonal intuition, collaboration, strategic self-awareness, drive, and resilience. But GMAC officials soon realized that applicants might try to manipulate the assessment to impress admission officials.

“You could answer the questions on Reflect in such a way as to game the system to look like the kind of candidate a particular business school wants,” says Andy Martelli, GMAC’s vice president of product development. “Reflect should be used to help individuals understand who they are and begin the journey toward self-discovery and improvement, not to make admission decisions.”

Pay off of improving soft skills

Improving your soft skills can certainly pay off in many ways. When I conducted the annual Wall Street Journal surveys of MBA recruiters, they consistently put such traits as strong communication and interpersonal skills, ability to work well in teams, personal ethics and leadership potential at the top of their wish lists. So it makes perfect sense for MBA programs to seek students who demonstrate emotional intelligence and can work effectively in teams—attributes that will help them succeed both in class and the job market.

But because people think they can game Reflect and other assessments or give the “right” answers in one-on-one interviews, admission directors need to seek other ways to learn about applicants. Some schools have begun asking candidates to create personal videos, while others are conducting group interviews to observe team dynamics.

Applicants to the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver are producing videos in which they answer the question, “What motivates you, and why?” The videos are meant to showcase candidates’ communications and presentation abilities, as well as creativity. “We’re looking for people who are strong communicators, and the video adds another dimension by showing how candidates express themselves and engage with an audience,” says Wendy Ma, assistant dean, professional graduate degree programs. “We can observe body language, poise, professionalism, demeanor.”

Going beyond test scores

Some MBA programs have gone much further and observe applicants in person in a variety of situations. The IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, has long put applicants through a rigorous day of assessments that include a personal interview, impromptu presentation, and a group case study discussion. School officials score applicants on a variety of factors, including how well they work in teams, whether they can think on their feet, and how they handle pushback from others.

“We’re looking for how they deal with uncertainty and complexity and how adaptable they are,” says Lisa Piguet, associate director, MBA admissions and marketing. “We also see how they interact with people from other cultures in the group situations, which is especially important when we have 45 nationalities in a class of 90 people.”

The assessment day sometimes weeds out people who look terrific on paper. Piguet recalls an applicant from a top consulting firm with a stellar GMAT score who would have breezed through the application process at most schools. But he let his arrogance and aggressiveness show on assessment day. “Because of all the group work we do, we don't want someone who always steals the show,” Piguet says. “We want people who know how to be leaders—and followers.”

The Kelley School of Business at Indiana University in Bloomington has developed a similar approach to soft skills assessment for its 3/2 MBA program, which undergraduates begin as seniors and finish in a fifth year of coursework. Applicants participate in two team-building exercises, such as constructing a tower with spaghetti sticks or creating a TV commercial, and then move on to a group interview. They also must complete a timed assignment that calls for writing a piece of business communication to test their persuasiveness and analytical thinking.

“We want to see how they work under pressure and in teams,” says Chad Christensen, an enrollment management official at Kelley. “Do they show respect for others? How do they receive and give feedback? Are they fearful of taking a leadership role?” After the assessment days, Kelley officials feel more confident that they are picking students who will fit well and succeed in the program, he says. “We see the stars shine on soft skills assessment day—and they may not be the students with the highest GPAs.”         

Logistically, it’s relatively easy for Indiana to pull off its assessment of 3/2 program applicants because the undergraduates are already on campus and it’s a small class of 60. Similarly, IMD is filling only 90 spots in its MBA program, although it is drawing people from all over the world who must pay their own travel expenses.

Clearly, it would be more challenging for large MBA programs to do such detailed personal evaluations. Admission directors at other schools have talked with IMD officials and even flown to Lausanne to observe an assessment day, but have found it too time intensive for their much bigger MBA classes.

No subsitute for face-to-face interactions

Technology could help large programs add new assessments, such as group interviews via videoconferencing. But there’s really no substitute for face-to-face interactions and observations to get an accurate reading of an individual’s personality and behavior in a team setting.

Yet even with assessment days like those at IMD and Indiana, do admission directors get a true sense of an applicant’s emotional intelligence and other soft skills? Or can people still figure out what business schools want to see, and adapt their behavior?

Both Christensen and Piguet doubt that people can consistently put on an act during their soft skills assessment days, especially given group dynamics and time pressures. “Some say you can game the day, but people’s true colors actually do come out,” Piguet says. “While someone can prepare for the one-on-one interview, the second they get stressed in a group situation, they don’t necessarily behave the same way.”

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