Yale School of Management

Will video kill the B-school admissions essay?

July 30, 2013: 11:17 AM ET

Northwestern Kellogg has joined a growing roster of top B-schools asking applicants to submit video essays as part of the admissions process.

By John A. Byrne and Lauren Everitt

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(Poets&Quants) -- When Robert's image pops up on a screen on the wall, all eyes in the room are transfixed on the handsome 30-year-old Brit who is applying to the MBA program at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

The eyes belong to the seven members of the school's MBA admissions committee who sit, like film critics, to judge the candidate's video performance. Robert is in a dark suit, with a blue shirt and red tie. He comes across confident and articulate, doing nothing at least to put him in the reject pile.

"Hello there," he says in his clipped British accent. "So how do I like my colleagues to see me? First of all, I'd like them to see me as somebody who is fun and outgoing, who is good to work with and can actually introduce some fun into stressful working environments. I think some of the most valuable activity I've done has evolved around when we were able to break down some of the social barriers between inter-department teams to enable us to work more effectively together."

Welcome to the brave new world of MBA admissions.

Rotman, which required applicants to answer two pre-recorded questions on video last year as a pilot, is now introducing them as a screening tool for admissions. Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management said on July 29 that it would also require a video component to its MBA application this year. Kellogg joins Yale University's School of Management, which is also going to the videotape for this upcoming MBA application season.

Other B-schools are dabbling in video, but most still offer alternatives to camera-shy candidates. The University of Texas' McCombs School of Business and NYU's Stern School of Business both accept video responses to questions that allow candidates to choose from several different answer formats, including the traditional essay. UCLA's Anderson School of Management offered a video option last year, but scrapped it when some students didn't have access to the necessary technology. Most recently, the admissions team at Europe's INSEAD has hinted that the school may introduce video interviews in its upcoming application cycle.

Some admissions officials hope that requiring applicants to answer unexpected questions on video will show candidates unscripted and unrehearsed. That's become increasingly difficult at a time when applicants are increasingly hiring admissions consultants to sharpen their resumes, polish their essays, and coach recommenders.

Already, some consultants are responding to the change by offering coaching to help applicants with the video prompts. Chicago-based consultant The MBA Exchange says it is adding a "video specialist" to its team to provide guidance and feedback to applicants as they plan for video-based interaction with their target schools. "His academic and professional credentials span theatre, psychology, and multimedia communication, enabling us to advise clients on both content development and authentic delivery," says Dan Bauer, CEO and founder of The MBA Exchange, which plans to offer video coaching at no extra charge to clients who pay for the firm's "comprehensive" consulting package.

For a business school's admissions staff, the use of video also can save time because it's often used as a replacement for written essays, which take longer to read and assess. "It is easier and it provides a little bit more variety than just sitting down with a static application," says Niki da Silva, director of MBA recruitment and admissions at the Rotman School in Toronto.

"We found it incredibly helpful," she adds. "It really allowed the admissions committee to bring more objectivity to the process." Usually, only one member of the admissions committee will interview an applicant when he or she is presented in committee. With video, every member of the panel can see the applicant in action. "It's been helpful to identify superstars and to make some of the tough decisions."

At Kellogg, MBA candidates will have several minutes to answer a spontaneous, randomized question on a Skype-like screen. "We felt like this was a great opportunity to meet our applicants from wherever they might be in the world," says Kate Smith, Kellogg's assistant dean of admissions and financial aid. "We felt that we were past the tipping point in terms of video technology and comfort with it – most applicants would have used Skype or FaceTime."

Kellogg's applicants will have the luxury of three tries to record a compelling answer. If they bomb the first question, they can discard it and request another one – they'll receive a different question each time. While it sounds stressful, the admissions team hopes it will lead to more authentic interactions with the more than 5,000 people who apply to Kellogg every year.

"The spirit of the questions is to get to know our candidates on a more personal level in a spontaneous format," Smith says. "They're designed to bring to life the person we've learned about on paper in the application, including their passions, interests and ideas."

The video component will not replace Kellogg's personal interviews – a mainstay of the B-school's rigorous application process. Currently, second-year students and alumni conduct many of the in-person interviews.

Kellogg, says da Silva, consulted with Rotman a few months ago before deciding to launch the video essay. Rotman claims that even jittery applicants have generally given the new video test a thumbs up. "They thought it was a little daunting but they liked it because they knew that at least they would be able to get in front of the admissions committee virtually," she says. "It gave them the chance to tell their story, although it was a little intimidating."

During its pilot year, Rotman didn't grade the videos. But now it intends to do so. "About 10% to 15% were just not very strong," estimates da Silva. "Then there was a small percentage, about 20%, that really stood out, largely because of the content and not just delivery."

Rotman is making some adjustments. During the pilot, a standard question was asked of all applicants and then a second question was randomly chosen from a bank of some 25 queries. Each question required a response no longer than one and a half minutes.

But the element of surprise was sometimes lost when applicants anonymously began posting the questions on message boards. So this year, the standard question has been tossed and the list of questions has been expanded to slightly more than 100—half of them on the candidate's values and the remaining half on their experiences and interests.

As for Robert, he easily passed his screen test. The admissions committee at Rotman thought him confident and articulate, though it had questions about other aspects of his application, including the fact that he was currently unemployed. So even his stellar on-tape performance didn't completely sway the admissions staff.

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