Recently, a Liaison colleague told an interesting story comparing her first meeting with her undergraduate advisor versus her business school advisor. She recounted that her undergraduate advisor opened a folder containing her profile and flatly stated, “Based on your SAT scores and the high school you attended, we project you will graduate somewhere in the lower third quartile of your class.” Conversely, when she first met her business school advisor, he stopped her mid-conversation and exclaimed, “You are exactly how we pictured you when we read your application, and we know you will make a great contribution to the class.” It’s no wonder she said she felt like just a “number” at her college but a welcomed, vital addition to her class at business school.
This story underscores the benefits of a holistic admissions process, not just in terms of gaining a multi-dimensional view of an applicant, but by allowing the applicant to present a picture of who they are beyond numerical values. The process can be a win-win for both candidates and schools in terms of forging a positive, lasting bond. For example, on the application process page of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, it states: “The Admissions Committee takes a holistic approach to the evaluation process, meaning we consider all aspects of your application to determine if you can handle the rigor of the Georgetown MBA Program and to discover if our program is the best ‘fit’ for you.” Indeed a holistic approach has proven effective in increasing diversity, boosting retention rates and helping to select candidates who align with the school’s mission and goals. It also helps to prevent prematurely screening out interesting, talented students who have lower-than-average GPAs or GMAT scores; or worse yet, discouraging those applicants from applying in the first place!
In a recent Poets & Quants interview, Kirsten Moss, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, stated that “some of our students tell me that they almost did not apply because they did not come from a ‘top’ university, or they were from the ‘wrong’ industry, or their GMAT or GPA was too low.” Rather, she said their admissions office looks to find candidates who aspire to the school’s motto of change lives, change organizations, change the world. “We look at what you value, what you aspire to do, how you think, the impact you have had and the perspective you will bring.”
But how do you best evaluate these qualities and ensure they are measured equitably? The medical school community has worked on such an approach. The initiative, known as the Experiences-Attributes-Academic Metrics (E-A-M) model, provides admissions staff with “a framework for thinking broadly about diversity, identifying mission-based criteria that take into account the whole applicant and spark thinking about applicants as future physicians, rather than merely as prospective students.” The model can be applied uniformly, and in the event of an admissions’ audit, it allows for a review of fairness and reliability of the admissions process. Perhaps the business school community can learn from their medical school counterparts.
While the benefits of holistic screening are evident, it does come with a cost, particularly the increased time and complexity involved with reviewing a single application. Essays, recommendations and other materials that are not quantitative take additional time to review and often necessitate a team to provide different perspectives on each candidate. A 2016 report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) reported that 58% of all survey respondents (which included graduate school staff, admissions professionals, faculty and others) reported time as a barrier. Luckily, tools like BusinessCAS™, Liaison’s Centralized Application Service (CAS™) for graduate management programs, have eased the ability to obtain and store the various pieces of an applicant’s portfolio such that more time is then afforded to the qualitative assessment of candidates. Current technology platforms can also capture data throughout the student lifecycle to help admissions offices evaluate the link between admissions standards and student success to validate or tweak the criteria — thus coming full circle.
Speaking of full circle, let’s go back to our Liaison colleague’s story. Despite being told she would graduate in the third quartile of her class, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa at her undergraduate institution, worked in banking and then went to a top MBA program. Having felt valued at her business school, she paid it forward by helming several reunion campaigns and raising millions of dollars for the school. No doubt the school’s development office owes a debt of gratitude to the admissions office!
Stanford’s MBA Gatekeeper On A ‘Heartbreaking’ GSB Myth, Poets & Quants, September 26, 2018
Holistic Admissions, Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) website
Holistic Review in Graduate Admissions, A Report from the Council of Graduate Schools, 2016