How the Business School Visit Impacts MBA Admissions Decisions

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Surprisingly, one admission consulting firm estimates that only 20 percent of candidates who apply to a business school had first visited it. Isn’t that curious? One might suppose that business schools would be overrun with applicants clamoring for a first-hand look at the place that could potentially be the focus of their lives for two years.

However, that scenario doesn’t seem to be the case. Only the Harvard Business School appears to ration access to potential students as the esteemed institution limits class observations to one per potential student. Otherwise, HBS appears to welcome visits and provides broad access just like most other business schools.

As we’ve pointed out in several of our guides, the cost of an MBA degree from a school like Harvard now costs more than about $320,000, including vitally important opportunity costs from foregoing jobs and other income over the two-year period. According to Zillow, that’s roughly the median price listed for homes in the Las Vegas region. Who would buy a house without visiting it first? Would anyone buy a home without at least stopping by to see that essentials like the furnace, air conditioning and faucets worked? Nobody would. And neither should a potential applicant to an MBA program.

Just like shoppers for homes, potential student “shoppers” for MBA programs may find that a campus visit can provide an insider perspective and an overall intuitive feel for the academic community that’s invaluable in deciding where to apply.

However, once one considers all that might be involved in planning a worthwhile campus visit, one can more easily understand why only a fraction of potential applicants do so. For many potential applicants, visiting several target business schools amounts to a time-consuming and expensive proposition. Most potential candidates will need to request time away from work and some applicants may also need to arrange childcare. Most of these trips will require flight and hotel reservations and those costs can add up quickly. What’s more, adding admissions interviews to the itinerary can make parts of this endeavor stressful (although the tips that appear in our interview guides here on BSchools can help).

Given all these disincentives, one can more readily understand why most candidates apply to schools without visiting first. Do these visits even make sense?

The Reasons for Business School Campus Visits

Traditionally, business school visits held three purposes. All continue to be important, but in the digital age, two have assumed greater significance—and one overwhelmingly so.

Help Me Determine If the School Is Right For Me

We briefly introduced this first purpose in our guide, How Do I Get into Business School? A campus visit is an invaluable way for a candidate to tell if an MBA program is a good fit.

When I visited the Stanford Graduate School of Business as a prospective student, I attended three classes and spoke privately with the professors from each class. I also talked with a group of students over lunch. These students included my “ambassador” for the day, a Harvard grad whom Goldman Sachs had hired for a summer internship. Each of these students told me in detail what they believed were the deciding factors that won them admission. I also met with a couple of student club presidents. Often, the students one meets on these visits serve as valuable networking contacts who are willing to offer advice down the road.

Inside knowledge about the school’s culture and strengths can be useful for candidates in deciding where they want to apply. One can sometimes obtain an intuitive feel for a school from such a visit that might diverge from the carefully-crafted brand perception a university attempts to create through marketing collateral, public relations efforts like news releases, and online vehicles like websites, email lists, and webinars. Even students considering online MBA programs should consider campus visits for first-hand, real impressions of the faculty and staff driving a program’s online experiences and engagement. It is crucial to verify in-person that a school offers the key components that will make the online MBA program worthwhile.

Help Me Write More Compelling Application Essays

Although we discuss this purpose to an extent in our guide Acing the MBA Essay Questions – Tips & Reviews, the connection between school visits and essay writing deserves added emphasis.

In that guide, we provide a comprehensive analysis of the 2018-2019 short-answer MBA essays required within the application to attend the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kenan-Flagler offers MBA@UNC, one of the finest online MBA programs in the world which currently holds the #1 ranking from U.S. News and World Report. One of those essay prompts asks applicants to describe:

How you will benefit personally and professionally from earning an MBA at Kenan-Flagler Business School?

The hidden question embedded within this language is actually “Why UNC? Why do you want to attend our school?

In our essay guide How to Write a Great MBA Personal Statement, we point out that, in academic admissions, this is known as a school selection motivation prompt. Such prompts appear within applications to attend many universities. Prompts in this class typically ask a candidate to discuss why they want to attend that particular university, along with the benefits that the school (and classmates) will receive should the applicant win admission. Experts believe that this topic is highly significant to business school admissions officers and needs to be incorporated into most essays—and especially into the common “introduce yourself” essays—in some fashion.

Now, what do these points have to do with visiting a business school’s campus? Essentially, candidates who do a campus visit gain inside information that gives them a tremendous competitive advantage in writing this type of essay over those who don’t.

We would argue that there’s no way that most candidates could write an effective, compelling narrative that satisfies the UNC admissions committee without visiting the school, attending several classes, and talking with professors and student ambassadors at some length. A winning response requires all kinds of details, from names of professors and students, to topics discussed during classes, to anecdotes from conversations at the school; this is why experts urge school visitors to take copious notes and plenty of snapshots and videos. And no conceivable way exists for an applicant to obtain unique, personal details in sufficient volume and depth to write compelling essays more so than a school visit.

Furthermore, the UNC essay’s narrative ideally needs to cite competitive advantages unique to Kenan-Flagler, and to emphasize that no other business schools will benefit this particular applicant in comparable or better ways. Not all of those advantages may appear on UNC’s website and candidates may recognize some of them only during a school visit.

The applicant should also portray how they aspire to interact with these features of the program and the benefits these features provide the candidate that will help achieve their objectives. And if the applicant doesn’t frame their discussion of those features and benefits around unique, in-person, first-hand observations and knowledge of the program, their essay will appear inferior to the essays written by more competitive candidates who do.

Help Me Demonstrate Interest to the MBA Admissions Office

Expressing interest in a program is crucial, as our guide to the admissions concept known as demonstrated interest makes abundantly clear. Typically, only one other tactic provides a more effective opportunity for an applicant to demonstrate interest. That’s an application submitted for early decision, like the one offered by the Columbia Business School. Yet even though only a few business schools offer early decision options, all schools provide opportunities for potential students to visit.

Admissions expert and Alfred University English professor Allen Grove explains why universities accord such great weight to the interest shown by visiting potential students. Because the expense and effort invested in a campus visit reveal a degree of meaningful interest in the school, universities know from experience that applicants who visit their campuses are more likely to enroll than candidates who don’t. And to maximize their yield percentages, universities only want to offer admission to candidates who display behaviors that statistically correlate with the highest probability of enrolling.

Visiting the school accounts for one of those markers—but it’s not the only marker. As we point out in our analysis of enrollment management software like Slate, these kinds of customer relationship management (CRM) applications give admissions officers unprecedented capabilities to track interactions with potential students with an astonishing degree of precision. “Many students have no idea they are being tracked, or to what extent,” says the Wall Street Journal.

During a school visit, a potential student will have opportunities to go on a tour, sit in on a class, have lunch with students, talk with admissions staff, meet with faculty, and chat with student club presidents. These days, each one of these interactions results in a value tracked by the school’s CRM software. The program aggregates all these weighted values to calculate an overall “demonstrated interest” score for each applicant. All other things equal, potential students with the highest scores exhibit the highest probability of enrolling and the lowest risk of damaging the school’s all-important yield ratio. They are the applicants the school wants to offer entry.

And judging from this quote from admission consultant and Harvard MBA Jon Frank of Admissionado, the demonstrated interest values for visit-related activities are probably greater than almost any others.

Once upon a time, the Admissionado founders met countless admissions committee members from schools in the US and Europe at different recruiting events and conferences. One particularly surprising insight was shared repeatedly. Many adcom members (especially those in Europe) revealed they would NEVER admit someone who didn’t visit the campus.

Whoa.

“What if they can’t afford it?” we always asked. Their standard reply time and time again: business school is expensive and if they can afford b-school, they can afford a visit. A visit was hard evidence this person really wanted to attend, and that they took the time to really get to KNOW the school.

Admissions officers at business schools downplay the need to visit the campus. They want to maintain an image of fairness, particularly for international candidates for whom a school visit requires a substantial investment of time and expenses.

However, our analysis suggests that demonstrating interest has emerged as the most important reason to visit a business school. We suspect that, though not openly discussed, the bias cited by Frank may persist among a great many admissions officers irrespective of locale. Accordingly, the CRM software at many schools may weigh visits heavily when calculating candidates’ demonstrated interest scores—the scores that directly influence their admission choices.

For these reasons, we highly recommend that candidates who want to attend a business school visit before they apply.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark
Writer

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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