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Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business Innovates Its Approach to Admissions

georgetownGeorgetown University’s McDonough School of Business wants applicants to the school to walk away feeling good about their experience, regardless of whether they gain acceptance or ultimately enroll. To this end, the school’s admissions team, led by Associate Dean of MBA Admissions Shari Hubert, launched an innovative initiative last spring to understand the applicant’s entire journey through the admissions process—from the moment they begin to research schools right up to their arrival on campus (for those who are admitted and enroll). Their findings have already begun to reshape the Georgetown McDonough admissions process—for the better, Hubert hopes.

Hubert joined Georgetown McDonough in December 2012, coming from a career in campus recruiting for the Peace Corps, Citigroup and General Electric. “I saw a need for us as an admissions office to be more connected to our customers—prospective applicants—to understand what they were going through and how they experience us as they apply to business school,” Hubert says. An MBA applicant herself once (she holds a degree from Harvard Business School), she remembers how daunting the experience can be. “I wanted to engender goodwill no matter what the outcome,” she says. “I wanted them to walk away saying Georgetown is a wonderful institution that lives its [Jesuit] values.” Of course, she also hoped that by creating a more positive experience for applicants, the school would increase its yield.

Hubert shared her goals with Graham Richmond of Southwark Consulting, a higher education consultancy that helps admissions offices identify and attract high-quality talent. (Richmond co-founded Clear Admit before leaving two years ago to start his own firm.) Richmond was reminded of a presentation he’d seen by innovation consultancy Peer Insight, which uses design thinking to help companies map their customers’ experiences. In 2012, Peer Insight helped the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business map out the entire two-year MBA journey. Richmond reached out to Peer Insight’s Natalie Foley, who thought a design mapping project focused specifically on the MBA admissions process sounded like a terrific idea. And so this innovative collaboration to understand and enhance McDonough’s admissions process was born.

Southwark and Peer Insight partnered to offer McDonough a comprehensive study combining a quantitative survey of almost 1,000 prospective MBA applicants about their perceptions of Georgetown McDonough as compared to peer schools with a qualitative piece that involved in-depth interviews with a dozen applicants to Georgetown specifically.

Understanding McDonough’s Place Among Its Peers

Southwark conducted the quantitative piece, fielding responses from 959 GMAT/GRE test takers to provide Georgetown McDonough with an understanding of how the school is perceived in the marketplace and how it stacks up to its peers. Though Hubert and her team are still dissecting the results, the high-level takeaways from this portion of the study were that press, people and presence (specifically an online presence) are critical. As for the press part, “a sense of buzz and transparency are important,” Hubert says. “Business school is a big-ticket item people are investing in, and they want to understand as much as they possibly can. They especially value third-person validation about schools.” This validation can come from traditional media, rankings and social media.

Where people are concerned, the survey showed that applicants had very favorable responses when they received consistent interaction with a school’s representatives. To this end, Hubert initiated a team-wide training program to equip the entire McDonough admissions team, from the administrative assistant up to herself, with stellar communications skills. “We are all ambassadors of this program and of Georgetown,” she says. And to strengthen its online presence, the school has completely overhauled its website to provide information in a clear, accessible manner. Additionally, the admissions team examined and made significant changes to email communication sent to applicants and those who had received admission or waitlist decisions to make sure it was targeted and purposeful. “There has been a significant decrease in the number of calls and emails we receive from applicants with questions, we believe because our information is now easier to find, more tailored and timely,” she says.

washingtonAnother realization that came out of the quantitative survey was just how important Georgetown McDonough’s location is to prospective applicants. “We learned that Washington, DC, was the real gem—the fact that we are located in an international, culturally diverse city at the nexus of business and policy,” Hubert says. “By virtue of being here we provide a credible value, and we make sure that there are many opportunities for our students to realize that and take advantage of that. We take them out of the classroom and put them in D.C. and vice versa.”

A Closer Look at How Applicants Experience the McDonough Application Process

Peer Insight headed up the qualitative piece, conducting a dozen interviews with a set of applicants to Georgetown McDonough who represented a full spectrum of applicant experiences, including candidates who were admitted and declined, those who were not admitted, those who were admitted and enrolled and those who put down a deposit after being admitted but ultimately didn’t enroll. The open-ended interviews were designed to elicit both emotional and analytical responses to questions about what each applicant experienced at each step in the application process.

Georgetown McDonough’s Shari Hubert

Peer Insight culled this copious data to create an in-depth journey map tracking each applicant through 22 distinct steps in the application process, noting highs and lows along the way. Some of the highs and lows revealed by the journey map weren’t terribly surprising. Across the board, preparing for and taking the GMAT was identified as a low point in the process by most everyone interviewed. In contrast, the moment of finally hitting “submit” was a universal high. More surprising, though, was realizing the low that immediately followed submission. “There was this kind of radio silence,” notes Richmond, and applicants were left feeling like they had just fallen into a black hole.

The peaks and valleys that emerged on the journey map became opportunities for Georgetown McDonough to try to mitigate the low points and enhance the high points. Brainstorm sessions bringing together the McDonough, Southwark and Peer Insight teams focused on just this, and as a group they came up with some innovative action steps to take in response to the findings. For example, in order to be more a part of the high that applicants feel when they hit submit, Hubert and her entire team created an exuberant congratulatory video, letting applicants know what to expect in the next few weeks. As for the low that surrounded preparing for and taking the GMAT or GRE, “it’s a non-negotiable, they have to take it,” says Hubert. “But we found we could help them prepare by providing virtual workshops, and that’s what we did.” Systematically, working in mini groups, Hubert’s team went through all the highs and lows and came up with two to three goals for addressing each one. Some of these action steps have already found their way into a revised admissions process, such as the team video upon submission and GMAT workshops, and others will roll out as part of later admissions cycles. “The end goal is for students to have a positive experience and walk away with a sense of goodwill with Georgetown,” Hubert says.

Not All Applicants Are Alike

Of course, because people are all different, not every applicant had the same emotional journey. In fact, Peer Insight’s qualitative study found that applicants could be grouped into four general personas or archetypes, which they gave names. The first, the “‘Good Feeling’ Seeker,” is an applicant who wants to “click” with a school, to feel a sense of connection with the people he or she interacts with in the course of the application process. This type of applicant will often visit the school multiple times over the course of the application process and will ultimately choose an MBA program based on a gut feeling about how the school made him or her feel.

The second, the “Goal-Oriented Ghost,” refers to the applicant who doesn’t need or want to engage much with a school because he or she has a shorter list of essential criteria—often ranking, cost, whether or not it could support a spouse’s work requirements, etc. This person applies to fewer programs and is methodical and efficient with the application process.

The third persona, the “Data Enthusiast,” carefully examines rankings and the statistics behind them, scrutinizes information on school websites and elsewhere and may even create a decision matrix in choosing an MBA program. “These applicants may need extra time to make decisions, and they are looking for data to tell them the right answer,” Hubert offers.

And finally there’s the “Fit Questioner,” who has a very clear idea of his or her future goals and wants to choose the MBA program that will mesh perfectly with them. Seeking a cultural as well as an intellectual fit with a school, he or she may visit campus multiple times as part of the application process.

Understanding what drives these different types of applicants and how they respond to steps along the application journey has transformed McDonough’s approach as well. “The personas have provided a way for us to segment the communication we have with applicants based on personality type,” Hubert says. Some types, like the Goal-Oriented Ghost, don’t need or want a lot of communication from the school. Others, like the Good Feeling Seeker, want near constant contact. “We had a one-size-fits-all communication plan. One of our ‘ah ha’ moments in this experience was realizing that we need to be more segmented and take into consideration where people fall within these personas and what we share with them as a result.”

Not Afraid to Share What They’ve Learned

As a partner with McDonough in this first-of-its-kind study of the admissions process, Peer Insight’s Natalie Foley was most surprised by how open Hubert and her team were to sharing their findings. “At a high level, sometimes academia gets a reputation for not being innovative,” Foley says. “I was really pleasantly surprised that Shari led this process in such an open way and engaged others throughout the Georgetown community.” Indeed, Hubert immediately shared the insights with her colleagues in Career Services and MBA Programs. “We’ve found that other departments are excited to partner with us to improve the applicant experience,” Hubert says, noting that her colleagues have collaborated on an admitted student website, hosted joint events and donated their time to welcome prospective students. “Ultimately, the students who attend Georgetown will work directly with Career Services and MBA Programs, so these departments have a vested interest in this process,” she points out.

McDonough also now shares a version of the journey map with applicants as part of the admissions information sessions it hosts. “We encouraged them to say to applicants, “We know this is the journey you’re on,’” says Southwark’s Richmond. “Showing that sort of empathy with candidates goes a long way toward inspiring goodwill toward Georgetown.”

Finally, Hubert and her team were invited to share their findings with other MBA programs as part of a Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) leadership conference at the end of January. “The fact that they have been selected by GMAC to share with their competitors what they did just goes to show what innovators they are,” says Richmond. “Other schools haven’t done this kind of journey mapping, and Georgetown is confident with what they have to offer and fine with sharing it,” he says.

The ultimate effects of the McDonough admissions study and process overhaul remain to be seen. In the short term, the school has seen a positive effect on applications in Rounds 1 and 2 and will continue to monitor what happens in Round 3. If Hubert has her way, yield—the percentage of admitted applicants who ultimately matriculate—will likewise increase. And even greater gains could still be ahead. Hubert’s team still hasn’t even implemented all of the ideas for improvements that came from this initial study—she estimates that they are about halfway there – and her team intends to survey applicants at the end of each future round to track customer satisfaction and identify even more opportunities for improvement.

Georgetown McDonough is an advertiser on the Clear Admit site. This piece appears as part of the school’s sponsorship package. For more information about sponsorship opportunities with Clear Admit, contact us here.