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Is Emotional IQ the Future of the MBA Admissions Process?

The decision by Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business requiring applicants to take an emotional intelligence test -- in addition to the MBA admissions trifecta of GMAT, GPA and prior work -- isn't to make the already selective school more selective but rather to adapt to the changing business and educational landscape.

"These degrees, these experiences, in both graduate and undergraduate programs, should not be about getting a piece of paper. That bubble has burst," said Andrew Sama, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Notre Dame. "I think the future of admissions, along with the future of business schools, is going to involve a clearer understanding of some of the things that contribute to success for students in the program and when they leave."

Earning the degree should be a transformative experience that prepares individuals for leadership and success in life, Sama said, and this can only happen if the student isn't "a duck out of water" at the school. Evaluating this connection between students and their MBA program is not something that the current admissions trifecta is apt at predicting. Sama noted that the factors that are typically ranked reflect data that is easily and objectively obtained.

"When we defined successful we did not use GPA, we did not use placement and salary."  - Andrew Sama

"If GMAT, GPA and quality of work are the indicators that we use to select students, those must correlate with success in the program and success post-MBA, right? Well, that is not what happens in a lot of cases," said Sama. "I dug in and looked at our students, looked for some of those correlations, and what I found was these tools do not always yield that outcome."

In the past, admissions counselors could attempt to glean an understanding of an applicant's personality traits through interviews or essays. However, each process had its own shortcomings. The interview process can be short, as little as 30 minutes, and questions can be prepared for. Essays can be written, rewritten and edited before being submitted.

"If these are the tools I have, and I have essays, a bias-ridden 30-minute interview, along with GMAT, GPA and work quality," said Sama, "I have a disconnect with trying to find the people who will be good teammates, good leaders, and will be successful."

Emotional intelligence as an admissions criterion

Notre Dame worked with Talent Plus -- a talent-based assessment firm -- and created an emotional intelligence profile based on some notable alumni. Applicants' scores are compared to those of the successful graduates. Sama hopes this new assessment helps admissions counselors select more successful students, both before and after graduation.

"When we defined successful we did not use GPA, we did not use placement and salary," Sama said. "We found people who have come through our program and done things the right way. They have treated people well, they have been good teammates, and they are the people that their peers have put up for awards."

By changing the definition of success and focusing instead on leadership, empathy and teamwork, Notre Dame not only creates a tool to find students who fit the school and could be successful, but also potentially prevents applicants from slipping through the cracks.

"What we are able to do is find really good students, who can be successful at our business school, who may not have those [GMAT or GPA] numbers," Sama added.

Sama can speak to the benefits of admitting students who might not have stellar GMAT or GPA scores, as he was once just such a candidate. He gained a bachelor's degree in communications and subsequently enlisted in the Air Force before business school -- not a typical path for an MBA student.

"I got my MBA here at Notre Dame, and went into consulting. I credit the school with that because my business knowledge was zero when I started," Sama said. "I had a communications degree, and most of my prior experience was in the military. I had never had a finance class, never had an economics class. I was a blank slate."

"As a guy who did not have a sparkling GMAT score, and a guy whose GPA was middle of the road, applicants like me should want this assessment. It is another view of talent and fit that might help them in the process," Sama added.

"We know that there are dimensions of success that are not captured by GMAT, GPA and work experience."  - Andrew Sama

The type of assessment Sama described seems to be a growing trend for MBA programs. The MIT Sloan School of Management has been using its own competency model since 2000, the Wall Street Journal reported. Emotional intelligence exams are also appearing at colleges and universities such as Yale and Dartmouth. The Yale School of Management is rolling out its own assessment test within the next year, according to Business Insider, and Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business has updated its recommendation form to include an emotional intelligence focus.

Even GMAT study guides are getting into the game. The Wall Street Journal noted that Veritas Prep added the Myers-Briggs assessment to their spring study package after businesses began paying more attention to emotions.

"I'm excited to see the assessment get some attention," Sama said. "It may not be a fit for every school, but I hope that schools will consider it because I think we know that there are dimensions of success that are not captured by GMAT, GPA and work experience."

Business schools have also experimented with video essays and team-based interviews to supplement traditional admissions criteria. Moreover, the trend shows up not only at the graduate level. The educational Testing Service is also offering a holistic online assessment to evaluate college students' skills outside of specific academic disciplines, considering non-academic factors such as social support, commitment and self-management abilities.

"B-Schools Know How You Think, but How Do You Feel?", online.wsj.com, May 1, 2013, Melissa Korn
Interview with Andrew Sama, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Notre Dame University, MBAPrograms.org, Jamar Ramos, May 2013
"Now You Might Have To Show Emotional IQ To Get Into Business School," businessinsider.com, May 2, 2013, Max Nisen
"Want an MBA From Yale? You're Going to Need Emotional Intelligence," businessweek.com, May 15, 2013, Francesca Di Meglio

Melissa Korn,