Though Useful, Diversity MBA Admissions Events May Be Misleading

Menachem Wecker

Following widespread criticism, BusinessWeek admitted that a November 9 feature it published about business schools with the most attractive female students was "in poor taste" and pulled the article. The non-academic focus may have struck some readers as particularly problematic given widely reported gender gaps in MBA cohorts.

There's good news in the most recent gender data published by the b-school accreditor, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, but the gap remains. In the first year the AACSB studied, 1969-1970, its member schools conferred just 3.5 percent of graduate and 1.6 percent of doctoral degrees upon women. In 2008-2009, those percentages leapt to 45 and 38 percent, respectively.

Bridging gender gaps in MBA cohorts is one area that b-school admissions officials are emphasizing, as well as welcoming MBA applicants who are veterans or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Schools are willing to pay to foster that diversity by hosting targeted admissions events, which attendees say are very helpful. One expert, however, cautions students to avoid some aspects of the programs that may be misleading.

Diversity-oriented admissions events are "incredibly valuable" for their opportunities to network and interact closely with admissions officials, says Nicole Lindsay, a 2000 University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business Administration MBA who runs the website Diversity MBA Prep. But they might mislead some applicants, who assume that they are representative of the actual b-school experience.

"While these are pitched as a 'day in the life,'" she says, "when you get on campus, you won't have that many people from similar backgrounds and will need to effectively build relationships with a much broader group of people."

[Read about how women MBA grads out-earn men at one school.]

And, she warns, attendees shouldn't anticipate any admissions leg up. "I've seen many pre-MBA candidates presume that their candidacy is stronger because [of] their inclusion in these events and their greater number of relationships," she says. "These events can lull candidates into a comfort zone that isn't real."

Some of the language surrounding the event announcements can also be confusing.

Duke University's Fuqua School of Business promoted its November 1-4 Weekend for Women as "mainly aimed at women," adding that as an inclusive institution, it welcomed attendees "regardless of their background." Yet, when asked to explain what that means, Fuqua spokesman Kevin Anselmo says all 74 attendees of the recent event were women. "It is probably unlikely that a man would apply, given the focus of the event," he says.

Female undergrads were "strongly encouraged" to apply for the University of Texas--Austin McCombs School of Business's November 15 Career Launch For Women, but it, too, added on its site that the event was open to "all prospective students." Yet, when two official McCombs Twitter handles promoted the event, they tailored their messages to "female undergrad" audiences, and even "women only."

[Read about the MBA tool box for minority applicants.]

Some applicants who attend the events, such as Rachael Waddell, report benefiting from incentives. At the Duke event Waddell attended, for example, the school covered room and board and waived application fees.

Other schools offer a range of programs and incentives. Texas A&M University--College Station's Mays Business School, for example, covered not only two nights of hotel accommodations but also up to $300 in travel expenses for participants in its November 9-10 Diversity Leadership Forum Weekend.

One-day events, such as an upcoming December 1 Focus on Diversity event and an annual Women in Business conference on November 30 at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, often don't advertise covering students' expenses.

At Harvard Business School, for instance, applicants are invited to attend a Women's Student Association lunch--one of which was held on November 16 and another is planned for November 30--but attendees are expected to bring or purchase food provided by the school. Women considering applying to Harvard are also invited to a free Women's Q&A webinar on December 5.

[See how business school diversity comes in many colors.]

Some students who have attended diversity events, like Waddell, speak very highly of them and recommend them to others. "For those looking to gain every advantage when applying, these opportunities were something I wish I had known more about when I started the process," she says. "These weekends have provided so much meat to my applications and have been a determining factor in where I apply."

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