Advice From Admissions Deans: To Listen, or Not To Listen?

Launched August 9, 2011
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"There's no hard lower bound on GMAT scores." "This essay is all about the applicant demonstrating a good values fit." "Our top priority is to create a diverse class of socially conscious leaders." Review a few B-school admissions pages, watch some interviews with admissions deans, and you'll quickly become familiar with talking points like these. Many applicants (and some admissions consultancies) devote a lot of time to sound bites from high-ranking admissions deans, in the hopes of gaining magical insights straight from the horse's mouth. But there's a problem with this approach: What if the advice isn't actually helpful? Worse, what if adcoms have an incentive to encourage applications from folks they'll probably never admit?

GMAT scores are a perfect example of this. No admissions dean will ever tell an applicant "sorry, your GMAT is too low, you should apply elsewhere." In fact, you almost never see an adcom tell a potential applicant "no" for any reason. The line is always "well, that aspect of your application might be weak, but you can make up for it over here..."

Surely adcom members, particularly those at institutions with single digit acceptance rates, know they are offering false hope to most of the audience? Maybe, but they can't discourage applicants, for an obvious reason: Many admissions departments benefit from revenue from application fees. More applicants equals more money and (crucially) a lower acceptance rate, which is a key component of ranking rubrics. It's not a stretch to say that admissions departments BENEFIT from failed applicants.

This is just one example of the many material conflicts of interest admissions committees will never reveal in their public statements (others include favoring applicants/future donors with big family businesses, the legacy advantage, and accepting more applicants from lucrative industries). This is why we've never been all that big on interviews with current deans as potential sources of substantive application strategy insights. We look at the results, and study the hell out of 'em, and then draw conclusions. At the end of the day, it's all about who gets in. Who gets in at Harvard every year, and Stanford, and who doesn't? Who gets into M7 schools, and who doesn't? What are the patterns? There are more answers to be found here than can be gleaned by listening to an M7 dean say just enough vague things to lift the hopes of nearly every borderline candidate. We prefer critical analysis of a huge, decade-plus dataset on admissions outcomes, along with experiential analysis based on our firsthand observations. We've found that the folks admissions committees say they want, and those they actually accept, doesn't match up all that well. And so, we take it all with a grain of salt. As should you.

Don't get us wrong here: We're not suggesting that deans are insincere. You should absolutely familiarize yourself with the big names, listen to what they have to say, read stuff they've written, and all that. Just don't attempt to gain a strategic advantage on your MBA application from their words, is all. Cuz you'll never find one. (And they know it.)
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