By Lauren Everitt
June 12, 2013

(Poets&Quants) — Applying to a top MBA program requires an applicant to churn out several well crafted essays on everything from why they want the degree to what matters most in their lives.

But imagine if you could sell yourself as the perfect fit for your top-choice school in just 140 characters. Or better yet, imagine if you could simply link to your personal blog where you described the launch of a micro-enterprise or a backpacking trip through Peru?

Prospective MBAs aren’t the only ones who find a blog post, Tweet, or Facebook status more palatable than a dense, and often dull, admissions essay. Admissions officials at top B-schools across the country are increasingly offering alternatives to the traditional application that make those painstaking essays less important.

For many B-schools, the flourishing admissions consulting industry has made it increasingly difficult to separate the real candidate from the carefully groomed one. To help get around the gloss of a high-priced coaching package, institutions are experimenting with ways to meet candidates in their personal worlds — primarily via social media.

Earlier this month, the University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Management introduced a SlideShare option. Candidates applying before the July 14 deadline have the choice of submitting a SlideShare presentation (think PowerPoint on steroids with a social media component) in place of two admissions essays.

Tippie made headlines two years ago when it piloted the application Tweet, where candidates made their case for admission in 140 characters or fewer. “We just felt like essays were getting kind of stale, and we wanted something that was current and in a place where our applicants would want to be found,” says Jodi Schafer, the director of admissions for Tippie’s full-time MBA program.

Aspiring MBAs were all for it. Nearly every single applicant during the summer of 2011 opted for the Tweet “essay” instead of the traditional one. Tippie kept the program around for the next academic year, and Schafer estimates the majority of applicants chose the Tweet option. But the school scrapped this alternative during last year’s admissions cycle. Many prospective students fell back on the tweet as an easy copout. Instead of pithy posts with embedded links to blogs, videos, and personal websites, the admissions committee received sparse statements and had to dig further during the interviews. “That defeated the whole purpose,” Schafer says.

Last year, Tippie introduced a mandatory image essay, where students submitted a picture or collage and explained in 350 words why it was meaningful. But the single image still didn’t provide a well-rounded portrait of the applicant. So, at the urging of a student focus group, Tippie introduced the SlideShare option, which taps into social media and provides admissions officials with a more thorough sense of prospective students.

Tippie may have nixed the Twitter essay, but other schools are now adopting it. Both Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and Arizona State’s W.P. Carey School of Business have an application “essay” that must be answered in 140 characters or fewer. For Shari Hubert, Georgetown’s associate dean of MBA admissions, the brevity of a Tweet is a bonus. “It’s about the applicant being succinct and being pithy and explaining what’s really appealing to them about Georgetown,” she says.” It’s also an opportunity for candidates to stand out — those with the initiative and creativity to link to other resources can set their applications apart. Plus, it’s fun. “After reading essay, after essay, after essay you want to look at something fun, different and short,” she adds.

While schools may describe social media “essays” as being in the candidates’ best interests, the institutions certainly benefit from the free social media marketing. Tippie requires all entries to be uploaded to the school’s MBA SlideShare channel and encourages applicants to promote their own slideshows — the student with the most “likes” gets a $5,000 scholarship. The school has also pledged a full-tuition scholarship to the applicant with the most creative slide deck.

Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business encouraged prospective students to Tweet their responses to an essay question under the hashtag #WhyHoya.  Top answers, including those from alumni, were featured in a Facebook album.

But social media isn’t the only option for innovative applications. New York University’s Stern School of Business has invited candidates to submit creative expressions of themselves for nearly two decades. Over the years, the school has received everything from a miniature building with crank-powered lighting to a personalized cereal box, which listed an applicant’s attributes in place of the ingredients, says Isser Gallogly, Stern’s assistant dean of MBA admissions.

The school introduced size constraints after a few applicants adopted the “bigger is better” approach. “Is someone going to send a car next?” Gallogly jokes. “The admissions team also blacklisted previously worn clothing (likely a result of the used marathon sneakers) and food following a shipment of sushi. “By the time it got to us, it didn’t present as well as they expected it to,” Gallogly diplomatically recalls.

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business also experimented with a non-essay option early on. In the 2007-2008 application cycle, candidates were required to submit four slides to help illustrate “who you will be in their class and how you will stand out,” according to the guidelines.

Kurt Ahlm, Booth’s associate dean of student recruitment and admissions, says the slide question allowed the school to get at aspects of candidates that might otherwise fall through the cracks. “There’s a finite amount of real estate in the application. We ask very specific things for very specific reasons, but presumably there are things left out of this that you’d like to communicate,” he explains.

The experiment proved successful, he says, and the school continued the four-slide “essay” through the 2012-2013 application season. Although the question bans embedding links, videos, and social media in the slides, Ahlm says that this could change in the future. “I never say never,” he says. “I don’t think anything is off the table.”

But are these unconventional “essays” helping admissions committees get a better sense of the real candidate? Tippie’s Schafer certainly seems to think so. “It’s going to take a little bit of time for consultants to catch up with new technology and uses for new technology,” she says. “This is more complicated than shaping an essay.”

B-schools are also using nontraditional essays to tease out specific personality traits that help them assess a candidate’s “fit,” a slippery but increasingly common admissions criterion. “We’re looking for people who not only have high I.Q., but really high E.Q. and emotional intelligence,” Stern’s Gallogly says. “It can bring a candidate to life in a different way.”

For Georgetown’s Hubert, the success of the nontraditional essay depends on an applicant’s willingness to take a few risks. When McDonough introduced the Tweet essay last year, most students shied away from embedding photos or links. But that doesn’t mean it has been a failure. “We hope people will take more risks and allow us into other aspects of their lives,” she says.

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