Searching for the Rare Find

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.

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6 Responses to Searching for the Rare Find

  1. Thank you for the great post. it helps me clear my mind over a couple of things in the admission process i had doubts on.
    Regarding the “auditions”, maybe the admissión process ought to focus part of its efforts on allowing the candidate to identify “what outcomes” will he be able to deliver under different scenarios; adaptability to change.

    I am currently working on qualitative research and i tend to use the “what if” question a lot to assess how well prepared is a person or an institution to face the challenges of a changing environment or context.

  2. Great Post Conrad. I say must read for any MBA applicant. And going through the post, I guess I fell into the category where you have the 15min call to ascertain whether or not to call for an interview (although I ain’t sure which part of the picture were you trying to put in place).
    I agree no MBA admission process is perfect (as so many great potential candidates are left out by many schools). However, your 15-min call, Tuck’s applicant initiated interview, Chicago Booth’s Presentation are novel ways to improve the process. The ‘auditions’ can be further improved, if we can well define what 4-5 characterstics can the MBA improve in the applicant and judge the applicants on that (one way could be to engage candidates after the application submission into some online group-presentations/chats)

  3. Hi Conrad,
    Maybe this is what makes you unique….
    I haven’t read till now an Admission Director so honest about the weaknesses of the selection process. Most think that their process is “perfectly holistic” thus they can pick the right candidates as if they were optimizing their investment portfolio.
    When people realize that there could be errors when making decisions, it is when things start getting better.
    I imagine that applicant’s selection is a tough job, because the problem is how to efficiently assess the leadership potential of a candidate since it’s what any renowned business school wants to imbue in their students.
    GMAT and GPA talks most of the time about hard skills (pretty useful indeed), but not much about soft ones where leaders specially must have by lots.
    Being pragmatic, I think that admission boards should improve the individual psychological variable in the selection process, working with specialists in the field (I’m not psychologist by the way). The most simple way to do that is by improving the essay questions. This part should extract all the neccesary psychological information from the candidate with questions that have more unconscious answers than consciously manipulated, helped sometimes for application advisers that have developed a very well paid business.
    Well Conrad congratulations and I expect that your team continue keeping this kind of optimization line.
    Best regards

  4. Hi, Conrad

    Thanks for the interesting post. I would like to ask a couple of questions regarding statistics and application strategy.

    Cambridge Business Schools provides detailed statistics about employment of the current class however historic data for the previous classes is limited. So my first question – Why do you hide data for the previous years? Don’t you think that historic data will show continuity and development of the program?

    Another question is about application strategy. Specifically, I am interested in probability to be accepted if one proceeds with campus interview versus if one proceeds with telephone interview.

    Thanks in advance for the comments.

    Kind Regards,

    • Pavel

      We naturally have the employment data from previous years. I am not sure why we don’t present the entire data set, but I think the underlying reason is that it is difficult to draw comparisons across years. There are many factors that contribute to the final employment stats, e.g. for MBA2011 there was a lower level of interest in consulting compared to MBA2010 and that is reflected in the employment figures. Instead, there was a stronger interest in leadership programmes and hence we saw 2 MBAs enrolled in the Siemens Finance programme, and larger numbers in the leadership programmes of several energy companies. My unease with most employment stats is that, from my experience, some candidates extrapolate from these stats to their individual situation when getting an offer can hinge on, depending on the sector, one’s past experience and one’s hard work at networking, case preparation etc.

      There is no difference in terms of how you are assessed in an on-campus interview vs a phone interview.