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To Be Out—or Not to Be Out—in Your MBA Application?

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In honor of National Coming Out Day—October 11th—we thought we’d tackle a thorny question faced by some applicants to leading business schools: To be out—or not to be out—in your MBA application? In recent years, increasing numbers of top business schools have given applicants the opportunity to disclose their sexual orientation as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) as part of their application if they so choose. But what are the pros and cons of doing so? To find out, we spoke with admissions directors at schools all over the country to get their input.

The overwhelming consensus, we found, was that there are multiple positives and few, if any, negatives to sharing your sexual orientation as part of the application process provided you feel comfortable doing so. This is not to say that anyone should feel pressured to disclose anything that they are not personally comfortable sharing—just that those who feel inclined to share shouldn’t have any hesitation from an admissions standpoint.

“I Really Only See Pros”
“I really only see pros,” says Soojin Kwon, managing director of full-time MBA admissions at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “We are always encouraging applicants to be very authentic and bring their whole selves so that we have context around them. We are a very diverse and inclusive community, and we want to know every aspect of who you are and what you’ll bring to that community.”

Applicants who do disclose LGBTQ status—or even those who don’t—also can indicate that they would be interested in hearing from students in the school’s Out for Business student club, which helps prospective students get tapped into the campus LGBTQ community well before they arrive on campus. “Our current LGBTQ students absolutely reach out, embrace, and actively engage with applicants who self-identify because they want to make sure that our community is very strong on every aspect of diversity—they are very proactive,” Kwon says.

NYU Stern School of Business Associate Dean of MBA Admissions Isser Gallogly stresses that whether or not to disclose sexual orientation is a personal choice that should be based on each individual’s comfort level. “But certainly at NYU Stern—in New York’s Greenwich Village—we are obviously incredibly diverse and supportive of diversity,” he says. The LGBTQ rights movement can trace its origins to the neighborhood surrounding Stern, and a community of acceptance has prevailed there for decades.

“It Might Present Certain Advantages”
But even beyond Greenwich Village and Stern, Gallogly tells LGBTQ applicants that they shouldn’t have concerns about being out in the MBA admissions process. “Business schools are looking for diversity—we as admissions officers are always looking for different vantage points and perspectives that applicants can bring to the class. I think anything that’s a little different or unique only helps your personal story,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any disadvantage to being out in the admissions process, and, in fact, it might present certain advantages.”

Self-Identifying Is First Step to Qualifying for LGBTQ MBA Fellowship
Indeed, students who self-identify as LGBTQ at certain schools will automatically be considered for scholarship aid through the Reaching Out LGBTQ MBA (ROMBA) Fellowship Program. Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “educating, inspiring, and connecting the student and alumni LGBTQ MBA and graduate communities in an ongoing effort to create the next generation of out business leaders.” Recipients of the LGBTQ MBA Fellowship each receive a minimum of $10,000 in scholarship aid per academic year or $20,000 in total scholarship aid for two years. In addition, they get access to exclusive mentorship and leadership programming through ROMBA. Fifty-five members of the Class of 2019 will collectively receive more than $1,300,000 for each year in business school, ROMBA reports. “Since 2015, 35 schools have awarded $6.3 million to LGBTQ applicants who were out on their applications,” adds Matt Kidd, ROMBA executive director.

Beyond self-identifying through a school’s application form, applicants interested in being considered for the ROMBA fellowship are encouraged to demonstrate LGBTQ leadership roles on their resume, express interest in business schools’ on-campus LGBTQ clubs, and share relevant LGBTQ leadership experiences in their application essays.

Prem Tumkosit, a 2011 MBA graduate from Yale School of Management (SOM), didn’t explicitly disclose his sexual orientation on his MBA applications. When he was applying, that option was provided by fewer schools. “But I did list my participation and leadership positions in LGBT organizations, which I felt was essentially disclosing,” he says.

Stern’s Gallogly adds that current students are frequently shocked and surprised—once they begin the recruiting process—by how many corporations are likewise looking for diversity, including in sexual orientation. “The short story is if you feel comfortable, I would go for it [disclose sexual orientation], because you will see opportunities to receive support,” he said. “Short story: It’s a good thing.”

Opt in to Get Connected to On-Campus Groups
Bruce Delmonico, assistant dean and director of admissions at Yale SOM, says that his team considers it so much a positive that he sometimes has to stop and remind himself that some applicants might actually wonder if it could be viewed as a negative. “We consider it an aspect of diversity, so we certainly don’t see any negative in it,” he says. As at Ross—and many other schools—Yale SOM also allows applicants to opt-in to receive communication from LGBTQ students and groups, which helps facilitate valuable connections both during the application process and in the months leading up to school’s start.

“I really don’t see any negatives to it,” Delmonico continues. “People sometimes choose not to disclose, and obviously that is fine—it’s everyone’s individual choice,” he notes. “It can still be a difficult thing—and people are at different stages in terms of their own self-identification—so it is not as though not sharing is viewed negatively. But it is an aspect of diversity that we think about as we are trying to put together our class, so we view it as a positive.”

Delmonico does share that Yale has seen an increase in the number of people self-identifying as LGBTQ. “I think that’s a good thing,” he says, “but we do want to make sure people are being accurate in self-reporting,” he adds. Especially outside of the United States, he worries that not everyone knows what it means to identify as LGBTQ.

Don’t Self-Identify as LGBTQ If You’re Not LGBTQ
“We also sometimes have to wonder if some candidates might be looking to game it a little bit,” he says. “That’s something we are starting to be sensitive to. We look at it as a positive—but we don’t want people just checking the box because they think it might give them a little boost over other applicants.” To offset potential gaming of this system, his team has begun to dig a little deeper to see what being LGBTQ means to those who check the box. “It’s not something we would ask about in an interview,” he stresses, “but we will look to see what else they might have shared” that might support their LGBTQ status. “It can be helpful, if you are self-reporting, if you share some way you are expressing that already,” he says. For example, some people write about LGBTQ themes in their essays or talk about related groups they’ve been part of, he says.

Amanda Carlson, assistant dean of admissions at Columbia Business School, shares that her team also saw an uptick in self-reporting among applicants for the Class of 2019, particularly from certain regions. “I am saying this somewhat tongue and cheek,” she notes, “but it’s like some admissions consultant told candidates in China that saying you are part of the LGBTQ population is a good thing, because I think every single Chinese candidate this year checked the box.” Of course, she met personally with Chinese candidates who were quite genuinely members of the LGBTQ community, she adds, but she also wonders if there was some confusion among some applicants about what LGBTQ means.

“At the same time, we recognize that there is an appeal to being in New York—where people rightly feel that being LGBTQ is a warm and accepted thing—where it may not always be in China,” she notes.

Is LGBTQ Inclusive Enough?
Maryellen Reilly, deputy vice dean of admissions, financial aid, and career management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, echoes what other admissions directors have said, adding that for some students it can also be liberating. “Some students may not have been out in high school or college and it can be liberating to share it as part of applying to business school—to get to say, ‘Here I am—this is who I am,’” she says. “It’s one less thing you have to worry about hiding at school.” As for a con to self-reporting, “I kind of don’t know that there is one—I can’t think of one,” she says.

Reilly remembers the process that her team went through when they first started thinking about adding the opportunity to self-identify as part of the application. “Did you know that Facebook has 50 different categories around sexual orientation?” she asks. She didn’t. “My mind was blown.” One of the students championing the cause argued that Wharton needed to include all 50. “It’s a spectrum—and we did a lot of learning from an admissions perspective,” she says. “Our LGBTQ community was really strong and vocal, and meeting them where they are required some give and take on both sides,” she says.

So far, her team hasn’t seen any candidates that it thinks might be trying to gain an unfair advantage by  claiming to be LGBTQ when they aren’t. “We haven’t seen anything remotely like that—that’s a bridge we’ll cross when we get there, should we get there.”

Jennifer Redmond, a 2016 Wharton MBA graduate, did NOT disclose as part of her application that she is LGBTQ although the option was available when she applied. Prior to business school she worked in London in finance and hadn’t been open about the fact that she identified as a lesbian at work. “Being in Europe, I was reluctant to come out and potentially not have a great reception,” she says. That hesitation carried over to her MBA applications. “In retrospect, my advice to prospective applicants would be that you can tick that box,” she says. “It is completely confidential, and it’s a good way to get looped into all the activities that are available to members of the LGBTQ community.”

Redmond would later attend a welcome weekend at Wharton, where the Out4Biz student club hosted welcome drinks. “It was one of the biggest parties of the weekend, and it became clear to me that the LGBTQ community occupied a very central part of life at Wharton,” she says. “That ended up being a big part of my decision to attend.” When she did move over from Ireland to attend pre-term at Wharton, her roommate was gay and HAD ticked the box. “He was so much more looped into things than I was to start—it made me a little rueful I hadn’t ticked the box myself,” she says.