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You probably know that the MBA admissions process is holistic – the admissions officers will look at your academic skills (mostly your undergraduate grades and your GMAT / GRE test scores), your work experience, your extracurricular / community engagement, and yes, even your personality, when They are trying to decide whether or not to accept them.
A conceptual mistake by applicants is to assume that each of these factors has equal weight. You don’t. This is a problem because then applicants may be wasting precious space in their application trying to highlight something about themselves that, frankly, isn’t nearly as important as other things!
To help candidates think through – that is, which facets are most important, and therefore which facets should be emphasized the most – I borrowed a concept from psychology known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The idea is that while all people have needs – food, security, belonging, self-esteem, etc. – they must be met in a specific order. In short, it’s hard to spend too much time worrying about your self-esteem when you’re starving! You must meet the basic physiological needs before you can get to the basic psychological needs, and the psychological needs must be met before you can reach the ultimate level of “self-actualization”.
Similarly, while admissions officers look at every facet of a candidate as part of the holistic process, certain criteria must first be met before the candidacy can move forward. Inspired by Mr. Maslow, here is the MBA admissions committee “Hierarchy of Needs”:
Let’s start from below, what each of these meanings mean:
Level 1 – Academics:
Given the understandable but often unproductive obsession in MBA forums around a candidate’s “statistics” (GPA and GMAT / GRE performance), these data points sometimes feel like “THE” main obstacle to admission.
But let’s take a step back and think about why schools are looking at this information in the first place: It’s true, part of it is “showing off my rights” or trying to move up in the US news rankings (“Our average GMAT is around 720! “). But the main reason they care about these things is because they want to make sure you can handle the business school academic workload. In the obsessive rush of this process, it is sometimes difficult to remember that business school … well, it is SCHOOL. Given the fast pace of many MBA programs combined with the many demands on student time (especially job hunting and extracurricular training), admissions officers want some sort of assurance that a candidate will have no problems, feel unhappy, or drop out. – and that the other students in that person’s class respect them.
If a school is concerned that a candidate will not be able to do the job, it will not advance to the next level: “Don’t go ‘GO’, don’t collect $ 200.”
Level 2 – “EQ”:
If your grades and test scores are an indicator of your “IQ”, your Emotional Intelligence, often referred to as “EQ,” is even more important. We all know the stereotype of the evil genius scientist: huge brain, but a real idiot. MBA admissions committees do their best to welcome people who are “nice”: empathetic, humble, generous, and caring. This is not because of some kind of “Kum Ba Yah” heart feeling: It turns out that conscientiousness can actually be a decisive factor in a person’s success … yes, even in the business world! Customers, teammates, and investors are more likely to “hit” for someone they like. While it’s true that unpleasant people can be successful, the fact is that these people could probably have been even more successful if they knew how to work well with and win over others.
EQ not only plays a role as a predictor of professional success, but also in the short term when it comes to who you will be on campus. Many MBA programs are tightly knit communities that rely on students to selflessly help other students find jobs, organize conferences, and even plan social outings! A selfish person is unlikely to be of much help to others, and the entire community is left behind. Show that you are more of a “giver” than a “taker”!
Level 3 – employability:
Okay, so you’re smart (and you can prove it) and you’re a super nice person (I can say!) … so your entry is guaranteed, right? Oh: not so fast. One of the main players in MBA programs are the recruiters: the corporations, banks, and consulting firms that accept the program’s graduates each year. This is important not only for student satisfaction with the program, but also because the employment statistics feed into the all-powerful program ranking.
Admissions officers want to be sure that they are accepting candidates who – should those candidates later find themselves in an interview with a fancy recruiter – will be valued and make the recruiter think, “Hey! This interview wasn’t a waste of time! This school selects really great talent! “
Note that this does NOT mean that you MUST have business experience prior to entering an MBA program – candidates from all sorts of backgrounds (from teaching to professional athletes) are accepted every year. But it does mean you need transferable skills and personality traits that recruiters value (work ethic, time management, team management). In other words: a candidate who has crossed the first two levels of the hierarchy of needs – someone who is really smart and also a nice, warm person – but who has not been able to keep a job for more than a year, seeming to quit the jobs while taking six months off each time to relax, will not exceed this next level. Someone with a very patchy work history raises many questions, none of which are flattering: “Does he keep getting fired? If yes why? Or, if he gives up so easily, does that mean he’s lacking toughness and when the going gets tough, does he just quit? ”While it’s okay to have a job on your résumé that included a brief period of employment, for example (especially if you have been the victim of downsizing!) – multiple short-time working positions risk raising a red flag. With a pool of hundreds or thousands of applicants that any company would love to hire, why take the risk for someone who could embarrass the school?
Level 4: “Leadership potential”:
And now we come to the top of the hierarchy: leadership. Either proven leadership (through a list of past accomplishments) or at least evidence that the candidate has the raw materials to become a leader. “Leadership” is a word that gets tossed around a lot and appears on countless motivational posters (usually with an eagle on it), but one way to think about it is through the ability to drive positive change through others. Someone who isn’t really driving a lot of change may be a lot of positive things and a wonderful person, but he or she is not a leader. Someone who creates change on their own is a little better, but at some point you have to be able to work through others. The day only has 24 hours and literally no one can do anything a business requires. Therefore, the ability to make teams, groups, companies, and even governments change, is vital.
The “elite” the program, the higher the bar for leadership potential. In other words, if you look at the average stats for the top programs, many of them have VERY similar average GMAT scores, average GPAs, etc. And yet it may be MUCH harder to accept a school with an average GMAT of 720 than one another. What gives? Well, two candidates may have 720 GMATs, 3.8 GPAs, and four years of work experience … but one candidate spent those four years testing software for bugs while the other was working with the government of an African nation to set up an accelerator program for Entrepreneur to start. There is nothing “wrong” with testing software for errors; The problem is that his repetitive, memorized nature doesn’t give the candidate a chance to show that he can drive any change (since he’s documenting and correcting other people’s mistakes, and the loneliness of work doesn’t give him a chance on the other hand) the candidate who convinced a government to start an accelerator program proved that he was BOTH capable of driving BIG change – changes that affected hundreds, maybe thousands of people – but could also drive a group of people , no less in government, to agree to their vision.
For this reason, you sometimes see an unbelieving candidate on message boards complaining, “I don’t get it! I had a 780 GMAT and a 4.0 GPA from a top college but got turned down by Harvard Business School! The next time you see a post like this, you can be sure that while this person clearly met the “academic” need, there must be other elements of his candidacy that did not take him to the next level of consideration.
I think knowing the MBA Admissions Committee’s Hierarchy of Needs can be useful in a number of ways:
If you are currently applying, put more energy into your essays, résumé, etc., trying to prove yourself as a leader rather than trying to prove that you are “smart”.
If you’re still a year or more away from applying, try to find opportunities at work, on campus, or in the community to develop these leadership skills so that you will be able to do so on a later application to demonstrate the kind of impact that will make you more likely to reach the top of the hierarchy!