Business School Group Interviews: How Badly Will This Go?

Last week the Wall Street Journal published an interesting piece about some new methods top MBA programs are using to evaluate applicants. Over the past few years we’ve seen business schools introduce PowerPoint “essay” questions and invite video responses, but now schools are stretching even farther outside the traditional boundaries of the MBA application.

Not surprisingly, a lot of chatter has been devoted to Columbia Business School’s introduction of a question (“What is your post-MBA professional goal?”) that must be answered in no more than 200 characters. As Columbia and other schools try to get a handle on Twitter, Facebook, etc., it’s only natural that they experiment with question formats like this one. Plus, 200 characters don’t leave much room for fluff, so they may end up getting some useful responses.

While we consider that an idea worth trying, we’re far more skeptical of another idea mentioned in the WSJ piece: group interviews.

According to the WSJ piece:

Beginning this winter, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School will invite a random sampling of M.B.A. applicants to participate in a staff-moderated on-campus group discussion with fellow applicants. They will be encouraged to discuss and debate current topics in business, as chosen by the school.

The method isn’t much different from a preschool screening, when a group of children are observed on the playground to see who plays nicely.

Ankur Kumar, director of M.B.A. admissions and financial aid at Wharton, said the purpose is to give applicants “a chance to demonstrate, not just talk about” their critical thinking skills and intellectual curiosity.

Though this year’s discussions won’t count toward the admission decision, if the pilot goes well, the exercise could show up as a regular component of future Wharton applications, alongside transcript, test scores and recommendations.

An interesting idea for sure, but having been to countless MBA fairs and school-led information sessions, and having seen how many applicants fall all over themselves to hog air time and ask impressive questions, we can’t help but expect to see this behavior times ten in a group discussion. Applicants, in a desperate attempt to get noticed and “shine” in their 60 minutes with admissions officers, will be all too eager to take charge of a discussion, show off leadership traits, issue profound statements, and so on. Today’s applicants simply put so much emphasis on any interactions with admissions officers that they’re always “on,” and don’t know how to turn themselves “off.” Add in the competitive, zero-sum dynamic of a group discussion happening in a (presumably) fixed amount of time, and watch their mouths start moving. It’s going to be about as “real” as most reality TV shows are today.

A likely rebuttal from admissions officers will be that any such negative behavior will be a red flag, and those applicants could find themselves filtered out via the process. That may be, but what if all applicants are playing that game? Does everyone get filtered out? Or, if that doesn’t happen, while the “air time hogs” may in fact do themselves a disservice, a more introverted, less aggressive participant will still be at a disadvantage. Yes, admissions officers may take note of a few of the overly aggressive ones and ultimately reject their applications, but they may not ever notice some of the less chatty ones who would actually be terrific additions to the Wharton classroom. Isn’t that a missed opportunity?

Ultimately, until the school puts a lot of weight on these group discussions, it may not matter much. And we’re willing to bet that Wharton never will get to the point of putting much emphasis on these discussions, because they won’t work as the school intends. We’ll bet that Wharton will quietly scuttle the idea after a year or two. Wharton’s admissions officers will likely find that the very thing they’re after — the chance to get to know the real person behind each application — won’t be easy to find in these group discussions.

Still, we applaud the school for trying. And we recognize the fact that Wharton and other schools make these changes because they feel the need to keep adapting their applications as essay questions get “ruined” by blogs like ours (high-five, Veritas Prep admissions team!), applicants universally perfect their “tell me about yourself” pitches for their admissions interviews, and so on. This evolution will keep happening, and we’re happy about that.

Are you applying to Wharton this year? Take a look at our Wharton Annual Report, one of 15 guides to the world’s best business schools, available for purchase on our site. If you’re ready to start building your own application for Wharton or other top MBA programs, call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert today. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!