What Are Admissions Committees Really Looking For?

Jul 30, 2012
Tags: Admissions Committees, Admissions Process, Applications, B-School, School Selection

Provided by Derrick Bolton, Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions, Stanford Graduate School of Business 

What Are We Really Looking for?

There are two separate processes happening as schools admit an MBA class.  One is evaluation, and the other is selection.  The difference is more than semantics. 


Evaluation is relatively simple to convey.  As Admissions Offices around the world evaluate the applicant pool, we review each application and assess candidates in many areas. We look for the most promising students in terms of intellectual distinction and professional merit. We base this judgment on the totality of information available. No single factor —whether your college performance, essay, test score, interview, letter of reference, or work experience—is dispositive. 

While every school has distinct admission criteria, some key themes emerge in evaluation. 

Virtually every MBA program looks for students who exhibit.

  • Intellect — We look for people who recognize that “school” is the key word in business school.  An MBA program is foremost an academic experience; the professional and social benefits are a lagniappe. As such, we need students who are curious, with a desire to learn and experience new things.  You shape your classmates’ experiences through your willingness to share your knowledge and experiences. Test scores and transcripts lay the foundation, but your approach toward your education is as important as your ability.
  • Leadership — We look for people who have demonstrated the ability to make a difference.  We assess your impact on the people and organizations around you, and the impact of those experiences on you. Your underlying motivation for your achievements is as important as the achievements themselves. Your leadership potential emerges through aspects including but not limited to athletics, community service, extracurricular activities, internships, research projects, and part-time and full-time employment.

Selection is much more difficult to convey.  Having evaluated each application, Admissions Offices then are faced with the difficult decisions of crafting a class: determining which candidates to admit among those evaluated as highly qualified.  The reality of selective admission is that there are many more qualified and deserving candidates than places available in an MBA program. 

The selection process is not one in which we merely separate out those candidates with weaknesses and admit all the rest.  Were we to do that, we would have a class several times its intended size.  Having carefully evaluated each individual file, we then review it in the context of the entire applicant pool.  In an effort to create an engaging student community, we select those applicants who, collectively, represent a breadth of background, talent, and experience. The reasons some applicants stand out more than others are not easily categorized, since excellence itself does not come in uniform dimensions.  As such, there is necessarily a subjective element to the selection process.  The final results merely reflect our best efforts.

Overall Advice

We urge you to complete your application authentically. Too many applicants assume that Admissions Offices have narrow views of an acceptable candidate, and then shape your applications accordingly.  If you fall victim to this fallacy, you do yourself a disservice: not only will you miss the opportunity to learn about yourself through the application, but also you make your application look less like you and more like everyone else.  Have confidence in what you have achieved. Be faithful to your passions. Trust in what you aspire to accomplish. Approach the application process as a chance for structured reflection—a rare opportunity to explore your values, spark your enthusiasm, and envision your potential. If you do so, you will have the foundation for a strong application.