What we have done with what I have learnt at GMAC 2014 Conference

In June this year, I attended the GMAC (GMAC is the body that develops and conducts the GMAT) Annual Industry Conference in Baltimore. This was the first conference I attended in the last two years, having passed up the opportunity in the past because I felt the topics had become a bit stale.

I attended this year because I was interested to hear what the new CEO of GMAC, Sangeet Chowfla, had to say. Sangeet had taken over a year ago and it was refreshing to hear his perspectives, as an erstwhile outsider to business education, on the challenges that GMAC and business schools face. He covered a lot of ground during his address to member schools and I will only write about one theme that he highlighted which resonated with some of my thinking.

Sangeet pointed out that while GMAT test taking volumes were still high, the numbers were small if one defined the business education market more broadly. In regions such as Africa, where there is a fast-growing young demographic plus rising incomes and the emergence of a middle-class, GMAT test taking volume is very low. He used the theme of accessibility to tie this with other observations that he had made. Coming from a software background, he was struck when he first joined GMAC at the lack of uniform standards in business school admissions. Every school had a different application form. Sangeet pointed out that in the software industry, companies competed with each other fiercely for business but also wanted a common set of standards so that consumers would face lower switching costs.

I admit that I had never thought of this before but it made so much sense if I had only adopted a more customer-focused perspective in reviewing our application processes. Most of our candidates apply to more than one school and it becomes a huge challenge to complete more than one application. Ideally, we could have the same essay questions across the main schools that our applicant pool applies to but that is probably a bridge too far in the foreseeable future.

However, one thing we have done is change the references section of our application. Until this year, all applicants had to submit a supervisor reference and a peer reference. We included a peer reference to see how candidates perform in teams as collaboration is a key value that we look for in our students. Unfortunately, almost all peer references are invariably glowing with most candidates being rated as excellent in a whole range of categories. So from now on, we will not require the peer reference because it wasn’t giving us enough information to differentiate candidates. In addition, while we would still require the supervisor reference, we now allow supervisors to submit references that they have written for the particular candidate but for a different school. This way, a candidate who is applying to us and other schools that require a supervisor reference does not need to ask his or her supervisor to write a special reference just for us. The candidate can just re-use a reference that was written for another school. Our thinking is that most schools ask for almost the same information. We still provide a template for those supervisors who prefer to tailor their reference to the Cambridge MBA context.

One thing I should point out is that we are not dumbing down the application process. The standards will remain high. But what we are doing is paring down the application to the essential parts that give us insights into a candidate; and improving the applicant journey by taking some tentative steps to harmonise some processes with other schools. My team and I will continue to scrutinise applications with the same level of rigour and so will our faculty interviewers.

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