One of the most common questions that the admissions team gets asked is how do we assess candidates. Our answer is that we don’t loook at any one aspect, but consider the application holistically. Somehow, this answer doesn’t seem to satisfy those candidates who believe that we have an algorithm that considers some weightage between GMATs, academics and work experience.
I have just finished reading George Anders’ The Rare Find which has given me a framework to hang together what we do when reading an application. First of all, I have to state upfront that I have no connection with George Anders but I found the book fascinating and I have been recommending it to some members of faculty.
George writes about the difficulties of finding the right talent for the job. The first step is to have a deep understanding of the qualities that is required for the job. Most recruitment fails at this step because while there is a lot of resources that go into describing the job in terms of the job description and the required experience, most organisations pay little, if any, attention to the qualities that matter for the job. For example, one could be tempted into thinking that physicality is the most important quality for a Special Forces officer when it is actually the candidate’s mental mettle that is paramount. This misconception is compounded when the wrong quality (in this case physical strength) is more easily measured than the important quality. Anders has more examples in his book : prizing intellectual thought over leadership when selecting Harvard University’s President; or being blindsided by a senior manager’s prior experience in GE.
Our admissions jobs are complicated by the fact that we don’t have a well-defined job to fill. Schools that have a focus on certain sectors might be able to draw out more clearly what their ideal candidate looks like, but in Cambridge we want diversity of backgrounds and this naturally leads to greater complexity in terms of assessing and comparing experiences of different candidates. While it is difficult to compare experiences of candidates from very different backgrounds, we can estimate how well each candidate demonstrates the values and qualities that we hold dear in the Cambridge MBA. We are looking for candidates who are intellectual; have a strong collaborative ethos and have the drive/ambition to get things done.
You’d be right in pointing out that these qualities are difficult to assess through an admissions process that relies on candidates writing application essays and the school conducting a 30-minute interview. However, I would say that me and my colleagues can learn a lot through careful reading of a candidates’ CV, essays and speaking to references.
This brings me to another central idea in George Anders’ book, that of the jagged resume. A candidate who doesn’t tick all the boxes but has a combination of promise and pitfalls has a jagged resume. Maybe the candidate does not have a stellar GMAT, or has a relatively weak undergraduate GPA, or has unclear career goals or goals that are a huge stretch. Yet, the candidate also possesses a certain drive, ingenuity or unusual background that hints at great potential. It is precisely these applications that I spend the most time assessing. I personally call more than 40 candidates per application round . Each phone call takes no more than 15 minutes but that is enough time for me to decide if someone is plainly unsuitable for the Cambridge MBA, or has some inklings of potential that might flower when they come to the MBA and should be given a chance at an interview.
There are of course limitations to our admissions process. As Anders points out, assessing talent takes a long time. Many organisations put their management associates through a series of rotations stretching over 2 years before they decide who they will retain. Time is not something that we have in the admissions world as we only have a few months to decide who among the 1000 applications that we receive should get an offer of admission. Anders has one suggestion of how to improve our odds — to hold auditions that work. He describes the example of basketball scouts who look at a practice game through a completely different lens from the unitiated. They look for the players who work hard and will do whatever it takes to improve. In other words, they look for character rather than just skill.
Several business schools have introduced assessment centres, usually in the form of a group case-study as part of their admissions process. However, I have yet to be completely convinced that these schools know what they are actually looking for. My counterparts in these schools typically give me a very confusing answer about the assessment process. In some schools, they don’t require all candidates to go through the assessment centre. In almost all the schools, they are looking at a candidate’s intellectual ability to crack a case, and then present the findings. In other words, they are looking for ready-made consultants. Some schools say that they look for collaborative traits but on further probing, I find that these schools are still looking for a candidate’s ability to impress at a consulting interview.
I have been thinking of how to introduce some type of assessment to supplement the interview and I confess that I have not gotten very far in terms of my thinking. Many of the qualities that we look for do not lend themselves easily to an audition and also about one-third of our candidates have their interviews over the phone. Nonetheless, it is something that we would like to look into, but it will probably take some time to develop a process that accurately measures what we want to measure.