How Admissions Committees Evaluate Candidates - The Problem with "Odds Threads"

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Countless MBA blogs allow applicants to post their admissions profile for others to evaluate their chances of admission at different MBA programs. Usually the criteria asked for will be something like the following:

  • GPA
  • Undergraduate Institution
  • GMAT Score
  • Past employers
  • Extra curriculars / activities
  • Certifications
  • Volunteer work

These “odds threads” fundamentally misunderstand several key parts of the admissions process.

Problem 1: They confuse checkboxes for sliding scales.

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The trouble is that these forums breed the belief that the more “extra” someone is in each of these categories, the better chance they have at admission. Someone with a 4.0 GPA must have a higher probability than someone with a 3.8 and 790 better odds than a 750, right? Not quite. This is because applications are evaluated in a two-step process.

The first step is the sorting. The first four criteria in the list above are “check box” data fields. The admissions committee looks at these criteria first to run an initial screening of the candidate pool. The goal from this initial screening is to sort candidates as “highly competitive”, “competitive”, or “not competitive” for admission at that particular school.

A highly competitive applicant will have a GPA and GMAT that is at or above the business school’s overall average, earned a degree from a school well represented from among the student body, and worked at a firm that either places well at the school or (ideally) recruits a lot of MBAs from that institution to return. A competitive candidate will have most of those criteria. An uncompetitive will have few or none. Once this sorting is done, the top category is fast-tracked, and middle is evaluated, and the bottom is dropped.

The second step in the process brings us to Problem 2

Problem 2: They ignore the key selection criteria of Narrative

Since there are far, far more “competitive” candidates than a school has spots to give in a class, the admissions committee needs a second screening to further winnow the class down. This second step evaluates a candidate’s Narrative. Admissions committees want to admit students who have great personal stories, who are going to make the most of their spots in the MBA class to accelerate their career trajectories, and who will change the world for the better. Once you make it through the first screen, regardless of GPA or GMAT, the best story wins.

Put another way, passing the “checkbox” criteria mentioned in Problem 1 will get the admissions committee to listen to you. The narrative is how to convince them. If your narrative lacks focus, clarity, simplicity, credibility, specificity, emotion, logic, values, and everything else we put into our narrative work, even an 800 GMAT score will help you – you will be denied.

You’ll notice that our MBA Odds Form asks for something not included on the list I pulled from the blogs above: personal narrative. Your personal narrative is the single most important factor for determining whether you will be admitted to an MBA program, offers the single biggest return on your time investment, and is the only part of your application that you control 100%.

In short, if you were to plot out the probabilities on each of these checkbox criteria, you would not see a smooth upward sloping line, but rather a step-function as candidates are first sorted, then evaluated individually on their narrative story, the quality of which has a more random distribution.

Problem 3: They focus on the wrong things

 Remember this version of you from your college essay? Cut it from your MBA application.

Remember this version of you from your college essay? Cut it from your MBA application.

Remember your college application? Remember how you talked all about your community involvements and extracurricular activities? That silly essay about your love of track & field and how it's a metaphor for your leadership style? Many people who submit profiles for evaluation devote as much real estate to their hobbies as their actual work experience. This is a huge miscalculation because while business schools care a great deal about your work experience, they care almost nothing about your hobbies. Here’s why.

First, strategically, whereas the admissions criteria for college (and law school for that matter) are retrospective (i.e. they ask what have you done to “earn” or “deserve” a spot in the class), business school admission criteria is prospective (e.g. what will you do with this opportunity?). This is because an MBA is an entirely elective degree. Whereas you need a JD to practice law, no one needs an MBA to practice business. Therefore, any good application needs to explain what the candidate will do with the degree on their professional journey, and even insinuate what negative consequences will befall them if they don’t obtain it. The answer to this question lies in work experience and narrative, not in your free-time hobbies.

Second, tactically, extracurriculars are just not as valuable to business schools. Colleges (especially elite colleges) really value the community experience and look for students to take leadership in this important area. That’s why they give steep scholarships to athletes, and little admissions boosts students who will round out difficult-to-fill community positions (such as oboe players in the orchestra). Talking about your extracurricular activities on your college essay made sense because you had something of value to offer to the school. In contrast, the whole point of business school is to secure an internship and later a full-time job offer. Almost all extracurricular activities in business school exist to advance that goal. For example, the finance club meetings will either be to network with prospective banks or to tutor students on building models in excel. Playing the oboe at business school gives you a lot of money in a worthless currency.

In your MBA application, your work experience is king. Give it the real estate it deserves.

If you want an honest appraisal of your Odds of Admission, check ours out here.