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


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.


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.

How to Ace the MBA Interview

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So you've submitted your application and now you finally have time to start thinking about interview prep. If you've applied to Harvard Business School you're anxiously awaiting the hear back from the Admissions Committee October 2nd and 5th to see if you received an interview invite. How can you best prepare for the interview?

1. Start now

Don't make the mistake of thinking that you should wait to see if you receive an interview invite before you start preparing. Sometimes the earliest turnaround between receiving an interview and the actual interview date is two weeks! Instead, use some of the downtime now to start preparing and rehearsing for the interview. Understand which kind of interview you will have (student, alumni, or Admissions Committee) and do you research on what to expect.

2. Know your application inside and out

Your entire application is fair game. The Admissions Committee may end up spending five minutes on one of the interests you listed on your resume, or the project you completed junior year of college. Make sure you can talk intelligently about what you did, what you learned, and what the impact was. More than anything, the Admissions Committee is going to want to know why. Why did you do what you did?

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3. Be concise

What the Admissions Committee is really testing for is to see if you will be a good contributor to the case method in a classroom setting. Will you be able to clearly and concisely communicate your thoughts in a way that is easily understood by your fellow classmates? if you haven't practiced for the interview, you're more likely to start rambling and not getting to the point. Since the entire interview is only 30 minutes, it's to your best advantage to get across as much information about yourself in the time allotted.

4. Rehearse out loud

Continuing the theme of being concise, you won't really know how good your answers are until you practice them out out loud, preferably in front of a friend. Sometimes what we say in our head or have written down comes across poorly or stilted when we actually try to say it. Also, practicing out loud will make you feel more comfortable and relaxed the day of. Interviewing is a skill that can be practiced.

5. Film yourself

If you know your application inside and out, know what points you want to get across, and have rehearsed out loud, the next step is to film yourself. This process is unpleasant for most people, but is often where you can gain the most. Film yourself either conducting a mock interview with a friend, or just saying your answers into the camera. When you re-watch the film, pay attention to a few things -- how do you look? Nervous? Listen to your tone -- do you have up-speak? Do you sound confident? Are you fidgeting? What are you doing with your hands? When we're so focused on what we're saying, we often lose track of these things, but they can have a big impact on the impression you make on the interviewer.