Behind the Scenes: How an MBA Admissions Committee Decides

Businessman talking in meeting
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On a chilly winter day in Boston, the group is huddled in a windowless, nondescript room. Piled high on a side table is enough junk food—potato chips, popcorn and Oreo cookies—to put an extra five pounds on every person in the room. It’s evidence of the likelihood that the locked-door session will test everyone’s endurance.

The seven people around the rectangular table in room 112G are enacting a scene that is playing out at business schools all over the world, as admission committees decide the fate of tens of thousands of applicants to their MBA programs.

In this case, the group is the MBA admissions team at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. Led by Assistant Dean of Graduate Admissions Meredith Siegel, the seven members of the committee will present dozens of candidates today, mull over the pros and cons of each application, and ultimately decide whether to admit, reject, or waitlist an applicant.

A Record $50 Million Gift

For BU, this is an uplifting time. Less than a year ago, the school received a $50 million naming gift from alumnus and long-time retailing giant Allen Questrom and his wife, Kelli. The gift, the largest ever received by the university, is going toward the endowment of 10 faculty chairs and will result in a new graduate program facility.

Ken Freeman, a former corporate executive who is now in his sixth year as dean, not only reeled in the unprecedented gift. He has also put new life into a school that for years competed neck-and-neck with Boston College behind the two giants of business education in town, Harvard and MIT. “We have basically turned everything over,” he says. “There is no aspect of the school we haven’t touched. We have strived to create a warm, welcoming, scrappy, collaborative culture.”

That could explain the quality of the school’s first round applicants. Siegel, who has done MBA admissions at both Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business and Northeastern University, says it is one of the best pools she has seen since joining the school in the fall of 2009. (The school agreed to allow a journalist into their deliberations as long as the identity of the applicants remained private.)

Among the dozens of candidates the group will review today is the usual array of wildly diverse professionals wanting an MBA degree: Math and engineering undergrads, English and history majors, consultants, analysts, military officers, non-profit managers, and entrepreneurs. They hail from all over the U.S. and the rest of the world, all wanting to come to Boston for an MBA experience.

Two Days: 93 Admits, 22 Dings, 51 Waitlisted, 8 Deferred

Today’s crop is so strong, according to the committee members, that the vast majority of applicants will receive acceptances. Few snacks will be eaten (they tend to disappear on days when the dings outnumber the acceptances). Some candidates ultimately will be offered scholarship money to boot. By the end of two full days of meetings in mid-December, the group will admit 93 applicants, deny 22, put 51 more candidates on the wait list, and defer eight would-be students to get more feedback from career management on their employability at graduation.

In a typical year, Questrom receives about 1,100 applicants for just under 150 seats. Roughly 20% of the applications flow into the first of three application rounds. Overall, the school admits 35% of the candidates, turning down the vast majority of those who want to come to BU. “Our goal is not to keep people out,” insists Siegel. “Our goal is to build a class that will be excited by the opportunities here. I would never say that we’ve gotten every decision right, but we have a thoughtful system and the number of mistakes are reduced on both sides because of it.”

The entire committee meets 15 times in an admissions cycle, while subsets of the group will gather for other sessions to take a second look at candidates who were initially declined for an interview. All decisions of the committee must be unanimous.

‘There is No Formula.’

Questrom is looking for a mix of the typical admission metrics: a strong undergraduate GPA, solid work experience, a track record of achievement, leadership ability, a good GMAT or GRE score, favorable recommendations, smart answers to both the written and video essay questions, and professional poise and presence in an in-person interview. “There is no formula,” insists Siegel. “The more factors a candidate brings that are above average, the more successful the candidate will be.”

But then there are other behavioral tests for candidates. “Unlike in life, we get to pick our family,” says J.P. Maychak, dean of student experience, who sits in on admission committee meetings. “We are looking for non-arrogant, genuine, gritty people, ready and willing to take on the world.”

Those attributes are integral to the process because the school’s culture emphasizes community and high degrees of collaboration. “Our candidates,” Maychak makes clear, “are more than a piece of paper.”

First Year With Video Essays

Indeed. There’s a bit of video tape, too. For the first time ever, Questrom gave candidates the option to answer three video questions instead of doing a 750-word written essay. The majority of candidates opted into the video. Applicants are given 30 seconds after a random question pops up on their computer screens and then have 60 seconds to answer each one. The random questions are drawn from a bank of about 100.

There’s an unusual twist to the process at Questrom. The day or two after an application deadline, the admissions team does a quick assessment of undergraduate transcripts, test scores and resumes and immediately says “yes” or “no” to an interview. Roughly half the pool is interviewed in a given year. Then, those who get an interview with an admissions official have their application files assessed by another adcom staffer at the same time.

By the time applicant files come to the committee meeting, the candidates have already been interviewed. “It’s so more of us can know the candidate and also keep bias out of the process,” explains Siegel. “So all the candidates have the possibility of having two advocates in the room.”

‘That’s a Winner!’

When the admissions committee starts its work, it goes to the video tape right away on a candidate who sports low quant grades but wrote an additional essay to attempt to explain away those lower scores. She’s a project manager in a finance company and she answers each of the following three questions with ease, demonstrating both presence and personality.

The flat screen lights up at the end of the table, and everyone’s attention is drawn to the screen.

“You have many options for you’re MBA studies. Why do you want an MBA from Boston University’s Questrom School of Business?”

“If you could only accomplish one thing in business school, what would it be and why?”

“What does creating value for the world mean to you?”

Everyone is pleased with her answers. “That’s a winner!” exclaims Maychak. She will soon be receiving an acceptance.

‘It Wasn’t an Incredibly Compelling Interview.’

It went less well for an applicant who had been waitlisted last year and ultimately denied admission. His undergraduate point average is low, just 2.48, from a public university on the West Coast. It’s well under the 3.3 GPA average for the latest incoming class as well as the lowest GPA accepted last year of 2.9. His GMAT score of 640 hardly offsets his mediocre undergraduate transcript. The average GMAT of the class that entered last fall was 682, with a range of 610 to 740. So the applicant is a full 40 points under the average.

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After rattling off the stats, Jennifer Cohn, an assistant director of admissions, expresses concern about his communication skills. “It wasn’t an incredibly compelling interview,” she confides. “He didn’t have a lot to talk about.”

Little discussion ensues. No one shows enthusiasm for an admit, though one admissions staffer confesses to being on the fence. Finally, Siegel weighs in. “I wouldn’t admit him,” she says flatly. “He hasn’t done enough since last year to assuage the concerns we had last year.”

Referring to the applicant having been on the wait list last year, Maychak adds, “We don’t want to have these conversations again in April.”

He is rejected.

An Unemployed Candidate Gets a Review

Another applicant, currently unemployed, quickly raises eyebrows in the room. He had worked for a well-known tech firm and then a series of smaller companies. His stats are pretty good: a 3.2 GPA and a 710 GMAT. Cohn points out, however, that he hasn’t been working since 2014 and the candidate said he realized that his values did not align with his employer.

“He does have a substantial amount of experience before the gap,” ventures Dana Dubovik, director of MBA admissions.

Maychak asks to see the applicant’s answers to the school’s video questions. To the “Why Questrom?” question, the candidate delivers a rambling replay. “Here’s my concern,” says Maychak. “He still couldn’t come up with a strong, coherent answer.”

Dubovik agrees. “He did a poor job with the video, but he did a much better job in our interview.”

The group watches his answer to another video question: “What would your supervisor say about you?”

The applicant does a much better job with this one. “He would say that I went out of my way to new things with new technologies,” he says.

Ultimately, though, Dubovik suggests deferring a decision. “I am concerned with the gap,” she says. “We need some input from the career center.”

‘He Was Really Embarrassed.’

For another applicant, a military candidate who had been deployed overseas, there is a similar issue. This time it’s a one-year gap in work experience.

“He was really embarrassed to admit a year gap on his resume,” says Maya Howe, an assistant director of admissions who did his interview. “He was waiting to start his officer training and waited tables. I said, ‘You should own that. It’s not a bad thing at all.’ He presented with more polish than many candidates who come from an enlisted background.”

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Kyle MacDonald, an associate director of admissions who also oversees applicants to the school’s specialty master’s programs, agreed. “He has great military recommendations,” MacDonald says. “His presence and his goals were strong.”

He was accepted without reservation.

Quick Decisions

Most of the decisions in the room are handled quickly, often in less than five minutes. Surprisingly, there is little discussion of GMAT scores, though a few of the applicants have taken the test as many as six times. One candidate started with a 430 GMAT, gained a 490 on the second try, and finally ended up with a 620 (she was waitlisted). Yet another also started with a 430, went to 550, then 600, and finally 610 (he was deferred for a consult with the career center).

Instead, the key elements of an applicant’s file were presented in a way that seemingly gave each metric equal consideration and weight. The discussions of each candidate were always civil, even when an obvious disagreement emerged among the committee members.

It’s not uncommon for a committee member to say that he or she “loved” the interaction they had with an applicant or that a candidate is “a good fit with our culture.” That’s not to say that the committee isn’t sometimes disappointed at what they see, however. When the undergraduate transcript of an international candidate from Asia revealed several “D” grades, Siegel observes, “These grades are awful.” In assessing the interview of another candidate in consulting, Cohn concludes “he presented a little bit scattered. He would answer but got sidetracked and it was a little bit distracting.”

Less-Than-Positive Recommendations

Often, recommenders weighed in with surprisingly candid assessments of the candidates. One noted an applicant’s lack of self-confidence and the fact that he sometimes takes on more work than he can complete on time. Another recommender rates the candidate below average on respect for his colleagues as well as his sense of humor (he is admitted because the rest of his profile was strong and his recommender ultimately said that when pushed the applicant performs well).

As Siegel adjourns the meeting, everyone seems pleased with the result. “This was a strong group,” sums up Dubovik. “The decisions felt a little easier.”

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Based on today’s decisions at least, Siegel will not have to do what she most dislikes about her job: Delivering bad, sometimes crushing, news to a rejected applicant. “It’s never easy to turn away someone and say we don’t have a spot for you,” she says. “But it’s not the hardest part of the job. That’s making sure that everything we do is reflective of who we are as a community.”

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