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December 02, 2009

Your Target Audience: American Admissions Officers

Sorry for the long silence, but I have been a bit busy helping my clients.  I have been suffering from extreme blog withdrawal.  I would like to say that there will be a ton of posts in December, but that is probably not likely.  I am also hoping to update IMD as their questions changed for admission to the Class of 2011.

Since this blog is a form of relaxation for me (well sometimes), I thought I would put up something marginally useful and hopefully a little amusing.

Inspired by the sheer anthropological brilliance that is Stuff White People Like, I thought I would look at that rather interesting sub-species of  humanity that is of immediate concern to graduate admissions applicants: admissions officers. This post will particularly refer to American admissions officers.  I will focus on MBA admissions people, but much of this would apply to other admissions officers as well.  To applicants reading this,  I am not sure if what I write below will help you get in, but perhaps it will help you think more about your audience.

Overall Position of Admissions Officers Within American Universities

Institutional Position: The vast majority of admissions officers have two fundamental sources of power: (1) The ability to impact admissions outcomes and (2) Some degree of control over financial aid.   Their role as gatekeepers is, in particular, what differentiates them from most other administrative staff in universities.  They directly impact the present shape of the student body and the future alumni donor base.   They are in a position to grant favors ("Yes, professor, I will be happy to meet with your grandson's friend."), to make the development office happy or sad ("I know Ms. Smith's grandfather donated the student center, but sorry we can't admit her because she would fail even the summer pre-term."), and to serve as a public face of the university. Depending on the school, they often get to travel (This might actually be much better in theory than in actual practice) at a frequency that, with the exception of varsity teams and star faculty, is likely to beat anyone else at their university.  We can conclude that being an admissions officer is thus a position with some institutional prestige associated with it.

Job Mobility: They are unlikely to have even the possibility of rising in academic administration to positions beyond admissions director because they are part of an organizational structure which usually reserves such positions of overall organizational power for academics, lawyers, and professional managers. Given the relatively low staff turnover in admissions offices, especially as one moves up the academic food chain,  they may stay in the same position for many years or possibly even decades.   Based on this job mobility consideration, we can conclude that this is not typically a job for someone with a great deal of ambition or desire for novelty (The exception being the novelty of the applicants). Generally, they can engage in minor forms of tinkering from year-to-year (Changing the essay questions or deadlines, for example). The only time, the position would become dynamic is when the overall program that they are past of, tries to transform itself.  The most prominent examples of admissions directors who have significantly changed their admissions offices would be Rose Martinelli at Chicago Booth and Derrick Bolton at Stanford GSB. I am sure there are others, but the list of highly dynamic admissions officers is not huge. 

Core Concepts That Inform Admissions Officers

The following concepts are at the core of admissions officers thinking processes.  These ideas might even be considered to form a belief system.

Not getting sued:  This really is important and governs admissions officer's behavior.  First, it is critical that admissions offices follow laws to protect the privacy of student information.  Next, it is critical that schools don't appear to be engaging in discriminatory practices, such as race quotas or age discrimination.  If you think a particular school is not being forthcoming about the age issue, assume that their lawyers probably told them what to say.  Also, for most schools, beyond the administrative burden of giving feedback to those who are dinged, it is probably the case that at least some schools would conclude that giving feedback to those who are dinged is a potential liability issue as it only takes one admissions officer to say or write the wrong thing for a dinged applicant applicant to sue on the basis of discrimination.  Better to say nothing.

Gatekeeping:  As mentioned above, this is the core source of the institutional power of admissions officers.   Deciding who gets in and does not means that admissions officers have every reason to see themselves playing a key role in maintaining the vitality and reputation of their schools because a school is ultimately only as good as its alumni.  Gatekeeping is a relative consideration:  The higher the reputation/difficulty of admission, the higher the level of gatekeeping engaged in.  Gatekeeping is about critical judgment, but also can take the form of snobbery.  It can also be connected to the admissions officer having a sense of school spirit, but it might as easily be connected to their desire for not getting blamed for admitting  a homicidal maniac, an idiot, or a criminal.

Bullshit Detection: Like gatekeeping above, bullshit detection, that is the detection of applicant dishonesty, is a relative consideration.  The quality of bullshit detection can be assumed to be lower at schools that have fewer incentives for rejecting applicants.  Bullshit detection, especially involving the use of post-acceptance, information verification, is likely to increase.  See here for more about that.

Diversity:  One of the single best ways I know of trashing an MBA or any other admissions application is to come across as racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise as someone who does not embrace diversity.  It is not necessary that you be actively political correct (though that can help), but it is important that you not be politically incorrect. A core part of the gatekeeping function is to guarantee that all the students have a good customer experience and an applicant who demonstrates the possibility of undermining that experience because of their attitudes about women, people from a particular country etc. is easily dinged.

Academic Standards: This is also a relative consideration, but all admissions officers have a sense of what kind of minimum academic potential a student is required to have in order to graduate.  GPA and GMAT (and TOEFL where applicable) are the primary ways for measuring whether any particular applicant is likely to sink or swim in a program.  MBA programs are not looking to fail people, so they really do try to screen out those who they think can't do the work.

Snobbery: The US education system is highly hierarchical and those at the top do tend to look down at those at the bottom of the hierarchy.  Snobbery is an ugly thing, one that few will admit to, but many engage in. 

The Principal Types of American MBA Admissions Officers:

The Lifer:  The Lifer has spent his or her life in academic administration.  Usually they have a masters or possibly a doctorate.  Whatever the case, they probably never used the degree for what it was intended.  The most common exception being those who attended Harvard's School of Education or Columbia Teacher's College as they may have actually obtained a degree specifically focused on high education administration (Confession: I once thought, back in 1990s, about going to Columbia's program for that purpose, but decided that I would be better off doing anything else).   The Lifer knows nothing outside of the academic world, or if they do, they did not like it, which is why they have stayed in the Ivy Tower.
The Lifer actually comes in a variety of forms, including:
The Ivy Lifer: Except for some brief foray into the world, they have spent their entire educational and professional careers in Ivy League Schools.
The Journeyman Lifer: If lucky, they have managed to work their way up the educational food chain to increasingly more prestigious institutions.
The Low Lifer: Imagine spending your life working for an institution of low prestige with the knowledge that, at a certain point, movement to better institutions was unlikely.
The Lifer, in whatever form they take, is likely to associate themselves very closely with the educational institution and campus community they are part of.

The MBA: Ever meet one of those admissions officers who has an MBA?  I am not talking about The Lifer who gets a part-time MBA from their school while working as an admissions officer, but rather someone who went to an MBA program for the purpose of... becoming an admissions officer?  I suppose having an MBA helps you read MBA applications, but plenty have done without it.  Maybe this will change, especially as the job market is not so good for more typical uses of the degree.  If the admissions officer is an MBA holder from the school that they actually work at, assume they will be a very effective gatekeeper because they actually know the reality of the program and also have a personal interest in finding the best and brightest to become a part of their own alumni community (If they care about such things).   ADAM'S BIG MARKETING QUESTION: Is it actually attractive to have alumni serving as admissions officers? I assume few MBA applicants are motivated to pursue a career in academic admissions from the outset.  Assuming that applicants are pursuing an MBA for purposes of career enhancement, what kind of message does meeting the admissions officer/alumni send to them?

The Career Switcher: Typically hired as an admissions director, the career switcher is someone with "real world experience." They are likely to have been an alumni from the program, but unlike "The MBA," they were able to find a job outside of the university after they graduated. The Career Switcher is an admissions officer now, but don't count on them doing it long-term.  Sure, some will become Lifers, but many of these people have either too much ambition or lack a talent for admissions.

The Spouse: She (maybe a he, but I have yet to meet one), became an admissions officer as a matter of convenience.  She wanted a job located on the same campus as her husband the professor, graduate student, researcher, etc.  The pragmatic nature of her employment choice, perhaps given limited options in a college town, means that admissions is decidedly not at the center of  her life.  If she is good at admissions, she might stick with it.

The Entrepreneur:  Jealous of the fabulous lives and income of admissions consultants,  The Entrepreneur became an admissions officer for the express purpose of gaining sufficient experience to actually get into my business.  Often this experience was a student adcom member. Please note, not all admissions consultants with admissions officer experience fit in this category.  It applies only to some newbies.   

The Lucky Secretary:   This is actually a dying breed, all are women (or at least 99%), who started their careers back in the 1970s or 1980s as departmental secretaries or the equivalent.  They worked their way up into increasing levels of responsibility.  Not likely to be found at top schools anymore, but certainly out there.  The most famous example of this sort is not an MBA admissions officer, but the former Dean of MIT, who had no university degree and "fabricated her own educational credentials."  She is an undergraduate admissions consultant now. America is indeed a land of second chances.

The Failed Academic: His or her PhD  may or may not be complete, but the admissions gig beats working at Starbucks, shelving books at the library, or  leaving the university.  The Failed Academic can be found throughout the entire administrative structure of almost any university in the US.  The admissions officer version of this person is clearly a much more well-adjusted and pragmatic person than that nasty guy at the used bookstore.  If you don't know what I am talking about you have not spent enough time in and around American universities.

The Drone: Ever go to an admissions events where the speaker was an admissions officer without personality who was reading from his or her notes?  Did you feel the boredom and sleep overcoming you?  This person totally lacked personality and you could not in the least imagine giving a marketing/sales job to someone who clearly belonged in the back office.  If the Drone interviews you, don't expect to hear anything but the sound of your voice and his/her note taking.

The Baby: You simply can't believe that your fate is in the hands of someone who recently graduated from university. Your imagine of being judged by slightly older wise people has been completely shattered.  The good part is that you can't possibly be intimidated. Still, he or she can ding you.

I am sure there are other types, but these are the ones that come to my mind at the moment.  Of course, admissions officers are people, so take the above as a mere guide and, at best, a faulty one:  The map is not the territory.
Questions? Write comments, but do not send me emails asking me to advise you on your application strategy unless you are interested in my consulting services. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.
Before emailing me questions about your chances for admission or personal profile, please see my post on "Why I don't analyze profiles without consulting with the applicant."
-Adam Markus
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