People respond to incentives. Such is the main takeaway from the bestselling book Freakonomics (and its soon-to-premiere documentary and follow-up book SuperFreakonomics), and a major competitive advantage worth embracing as you plan your MBA applications. Admissions committees are people, too, and they respond to incentives. To become a better MBA applicant, you should better understand the incentive structure for MBA admissions committees, and give them what they want.
MBA programs are ranked among multiple dimensions, among the most popular:
1) GMAT Score
There’s no way around it: your GMAT score is a significant component of your application, as it matters greatly to MBA programs. Even independent of the fact the GMAT is a quite valid measure of your candidacy, it’s a major factor for the schools even as a standalone number. In our ever-quantitative society – the very fact that there are numerical business school rankings should prove this point – numbers can instantly create an image of success, and a school with a 700+ average GMAT score is going to look quite a bit more prestigious than one with something in the 600s.
In the rankings and perception of b-schools, a high average GMAT score is the best way for a school to indicate that it is selective, and has a top-notch student body. Schools simply have to care about how that number looks to the rankings services, to prospective applicants, and to corporate recruiters. Accordingly, you’re well served to post a score that is at or above the average score of your target schools. If you’re below that average, the school has to want you enough to pull down that average a bit by taking you; if you’re above, you get to be that “balancing score” for someone else, which is a huge advantage. Just being “in the range” is a tricky proposition.
2) Employment rates
People go to business school to get jobs and increase their salaries. As much as applicants and schools talk about leadership, teamwork, global economies and sustainable enterprise, everyone knows that the primary objective of MBA students is to further their careers with a higher-paying job when they finish than they had when they started. Schools, in turn, know that they will be judged on their ability to provide those jobs, and necessarily have to concern themselves with statistics such as:
- % employed after graduation
- average starting salary
Because schools know that you’ll consider these factors when you determine where to apply, they have a vested interest in making those numbers as high as possible. And what better way to do that than to “stack the deck” with students who are quite likely to find jobs?
In your application, you need to demonstrate “employability,” or your ability to find a job:
- Show that you’ve been valued at previous jobs by listing promotions and commendations and by including positive letters of recommendations from supervisors
- Demonstrate your ability to succeed in an interview with engaging essays and a strong interview with the school
- “Stand out” somehow by being interesting; many corporate interviewers employ a variation of the “airport test” when they choose between qualified candidates: “If I were on a project with this person and we were stranded in an airport with a canceled flight, would I enjoy passing the time with him?” Interviewers typically choose applicants with whom they’ll work regularly, and want to surround themselves with engaging, as well as talented, people, so give the schools an indication that you’ll be a desirable coworker.
3) Yield Percentage
If the average GMAT score tells the world how selective a school is in choosing candidates, the yield percentage – the percentage of admitted students who ultimately matriculate – indicates how selective students view the school. A high yield percentage – something nearing 90% – shows that the school is a no-brainer to attend: if you get in, you go. A lower yield percentage – say, in the 30s – shows that many students use the school as a backup plan, but don’t view it as a destination. “I’d love to go to Harvard, but I’ll probably just end up at ___________.”
No school wants to be seen as that “probably just end up at” fallback option, so admissions committees will search your application for indicators that you have specific interest in their MBA and not just any MBA. Have you visited campus? Do you list specific clubs/classes/professors/opportunities as reasons that you’re excited about the program? Do the schools philosophies, emphases, and culture fit with your application story?
If the school can’t find reasons that you would choose it, it will have a hard time choosing you, no matter how excellent you may be as an applicant. Your admission may just prove to be too much of a risk, as, perhaps, is your lack of perceived enthusiasm. B-school moves fast; if you don’t have a plan of attack for getting involved in organizations, taking specific classes, and soaking up the experience, you won’t likely get everything out of the program that your classmates will. Which also leads to…
4) Alumni Involvement
Business schools are, in many ways, like fraternities. Once you’re in, you’re family, and have access to a vast alumni network of potential employers, business partners, investors, etc. Schools know that applicants want to have access to successful, wide-reaching alumni bases, and to that end set up active alumni clubs and events around the world. But an alumni base is only as active and successful as the alumni themselves, and so schools like to see indications in your application that you have enthusiasm for what the school has to offer, and a history of involvement in organizations and activities that will translate to involvement in the alumni community.
As alumni bases are made up of people, so are admissions committees, and people respond to incentives. If you understand these incentives of the people in the admissions committees, you can better anticipate the response that you want — you’re accepted!