APPLYING TO BUSINESS SCHOOL AFTER COVID
By Alex Cohen
Senior Editor at Admissionado. Alex Cohen is a recent graduate of Harvard College and a Senior Editor at Admissionado. More of his writing may be found on Admissionado’s blog.
A new year has come, but so far 2021 has not been much of an improvement on 2020. Few observers would have predicted it, but most B-schools in the U.S. are still operating remotely. Younger people are struggling to find their place within the job market and are presented with fewer and fewer options as companies downsize. Even those with longer histories in the workforce now find themselves needing to start anew and find another path forward.
The atrocious job market has a grim human cost, but for business schools it is the pandemic’s silver lining. Just like during the 2008 recession, business school has become an appealing safe harbor from grim employment prospects. Applications have spiked, and many applicants fear that their chances of admittance are therefore slimmer than ever. But unlike in previous recessions, the process of applying to MBA programs has also changed with the pandemic, with important implications for those trying to get in. Let’s look at the various ways that applying to business school has changed in 2020 (and beyond), and what the changes mean for applicants.
A FLOOD OF APPLICATIONS
The COVID crisis has driven up the numbers of applications to business schools across the U.S. Many see an MBA as a way to temporarily step out of the floundering labor market, while gaining a competitive edge for the inevitable recovery.
But here’s the problem: Business schools have no interest in being seen as a haven from economic hardship. The lens these programs use to evaluate applications has remained unchanged: they want future leaders with clear visions for their careers who need an MBA at this juncture in order to take the next steps. An MBA still needs to feel like a logical career move given applicants’ job history and long-term goals. Unemployment at the time of application is still viewed negatively.
Many applicants turning to an MBA as an escape route do not realize this, and do not satisfy these criteria. As a result, a large portion of these new applications are not particularly competitive. The subset of applications that adcoms seriously consider has undoubtedly increased in size this year as well, but not nearly by the raw “X% percent increase in applications!” reported by schools.
Which leads to our first piece of advice: even if you are unemployed, your application should not represent you as someone who needs an MBA because your options seem otherwise limited! The strongest MBA applicants are the ones for whom an MBA seems to have been in the cards for years, with concrete and well-researched reasons why that degree is critical to achieving the goals you’ve long had in mind. It should feel like an inevitable piece of your puzzle, one that you likely were planning regardless of COVID. Even when unemployed (as many now are), there are a variety of you can take to remain competitive and appealing as a candidate, without implying that school is an “out.”
As important as it is to remember what business school is, it’s also critical to remember what it’s not. It is a steppingstone, but it is not a safety net—at least, not in the eyes of the adcoms.
In 2020, the GMAT and other standardized tests became a variable in the admissions process, rather than a constant—whether or not you need them depends on the schools to which you are applying. At the moment, more than a third of business schools in the U.S. are suspending their testing requirements due to the pandemic. Naturally, if this continues into the next admissions cycle or even become a permanent policy (which seems likely at some schools), this may encourage additional applications. However, the seriousness of an applicant who would not have applied except for a test waiver is questionable.
But what about the other two-thirds? Like most of our day-to-day lives, standardized testing has been adapting to a from-home workflow. Now, rather than being forced to sit for an in-person exam, applicants are given the option to take virtually (but carefully) monitored at-home tests. This changes the playing field somewhat—primarily because different candidates have access to different setups that can be more or less conducive to focused test-taking. If you do plan to take the virtual GMAT, the best thing you can do beyond studying as normal is to find a private, reliable, quiet, Internet-accessible space in which you’ll feel comfortable taking such a stressful test.
Of course, social distancing demands that interviews be conducted remotely. However, as with testing, pandemic-induced changes may prove lasting. The comparative ease of remote interviews for alumni and adcoms means we are unlikely to return to a pre-COVID level of in-person interviews.
All that changes in a virtual interview is presentation. With an in-person interview, the primary visual tool at your disposal is your attire/appearance. But in a virtual interview, what you’re wearing is one of several factors you can use to your advantage. As we learn from the world of film, one’s impression before a camera has as plenty to do with lighting, camera quality, and background. Make sure that you carefully select the environment for your virtual interview, dress sharply (on top at least), and invest in a good ring-light if you can afford to. These tips apply to job interviews as well!
CAMPUS VISITS (OR LACK THEREOF)
Among the many complications COVID has wrought on the MBA application process, the inability to visit campuses in-person is perhaps the most disappointing. After all, business school is usually an in-person affair, and likely will resume being one before current applicants will have gotten their degree. Not being able to explore a school’s physical space makes the process of selecting the best school for you that much more difficult.
But thanks to the age of the Internet, it can still be done remotely. It just takes research. Schools around the country have for years dedicated time and effort to creating thorough online presences, to appeal to those who may not have the freedom to travel for campus visits. So flex your research muscles, reach out to alumni, use Google’s street view, browse social media and you’ll be as much an expert on your schools of choice as any campus visit would have made you—in less time.
Over at Admissionado, we specialize in guiding applicants step-by-step through these processes, and more. For more information and professional consultation, check out our website at www.admissionado.com.