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.

How many schools should I apply to – and which ones?

One of the most frequent questions we get from our clients and those who ask us for their odds of MBA admission is “How many schools should I apply to?” School selection – both the quantity and tier – is an incredibly important part of one’s application strategy and one that all applicants should invest a good amount of time considering early in the process.

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Categories of Schools

We recommend that you think of school selection like building a portfolio of personal investments. By investing your time in a number of different schools across different categories, you can decrease the esoteric risk of being denied at any individual school, pit financial aid offers against one another, and ultimately make a more informed final selection. For this reason, we recommend applying to no fewer than six schools, two from each of the following categories:

Stretch

Your stretch schools are your dream schools. These are the kinds of schools that you would drop everything and pay double price to go to if you could simply because their prestige, network, resources, and education would have an absolutely transformative effect on your career trajectory. The trouble is that these schools are normally difficult to get to for anybody and your admissions profile puts you in a rather uncompetitive camp. You should still apply to these schools! The admissions committee will still read your application. They are people too, and if you have a personal narrative that moves them or stops them cold, they may fight to make space in the class for you depending on the depth of the rest of the applicant pool.

Adding these schools to your portfolio is like buying the stock of risky tech companies. If things go well, the payoff is unbelievable. Plus, if you didn’t apply but later found out that you would have been admitted, wouldn’t you kick yourself about it? Personally, I would always rather the school say no to me, than for me to say no to myself. You can apply to these schools as a Hail Mary on your own at the end of the cycle, or if you want better odds you can engage with a consultant who has specific expertise at that school (much like how we do for HBS).

Reach

These are schools that you would be delighted to attend and where your profile is a little more competitive (e.g. two or more of the following is true: your undergraduate institution is better represented in the student body, your GPA is at or above average, your GMAT is at or above average, or your current employer is a major recruiter at the school). These are the schools that you are realistically targeting and which you will spend the majority of your time (either on your own or with a consultant) working on.

Grab

A grab school is not a safety school. It is a school where you would want to do, where your profile is competitive in most or all of the categories previously mentioned, but where your odds are still less than 50%. They are there for you to grab, if you can. Adding Grab schools to your portfolio does two things. First, if you’re sure that now is the right time to go to business school, helps give you the certainty that you will get in somewhere. Second, because you are a more desirable candidate to Grab schools, they will likely be more generous to you in financial aid. Suddenly if the cost of tuition for a grab school is 50-75% less than a Reach school, you’ll be a lot more excited about them. Also, getting money from one Grab school can help you in negotiating financial aid offers from other schools, but more on that at another time.

Run the analysis

Let’s run the numbers. If we believe that a person’s profile gives them a conservative baseline chance of admissions of 15% for Stretch schools, 25% for Reach Schools, and 40% for Grab schools (and for the sake of argument that there is negligible covariance between the applications), then the odds of being admitted to at least one school are the following:

Portfolio of 4 Schools: 1 Stretch, 2 Reach, 1 Grab – 70%

Portfolio of 6 Schools: 2 Stretch, 2 Reach, 2 Grab – 84%

Portfolio of 8 Schools: 2 Stretch, 3 Reach, 3 Grab – 93%

Conclusion

Which schools fit into each of these categories will depend on the unique admissions profile of the individual student. If you want our help in sorting, feel free to get your odds here.