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The common application revolutionized college admissions in the 70s and 80s.  Why can't it do the same to business schools?

Every year, the b-school admissions process makes for a lot of not very jolly holidays here at Forster-Thomas, and this year was no different.  As I tore through the fifth of nine schools with one particular last-minute MBA applicant, she complained how much easier the process was when she was applying to college.  There’s no question that applying to business school, or any graduate school, is a much more complicated and provincial process then the now largely standardized college applications. That isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of challenges when applying to college; supplementary essays, unusual application or transfer requirements, and school research are three that come to mind. But the fact remains that it is much more practical for a student to apply to 12 colleges than to 12 business schools. So why don’t they get with the 21st century program, so to speak, and offer a common application?

On the surface, it seems like a pretty obvious idea. Although it is far from perfect, most students would agree that compared to the days when you had to write out every application by hand and mail them in to schools across the country, the common app is cheap and convenient. It also saves a bunch of trees – eco-friendly, hooray!  The common app, for all its shortcomings, offers a more level playing field for  students without Ivy-league graduate parents or robust school guidance systems. 

And yet, despite the arguments in its favor, a b-school common application is unlikely to ever come into being.  There are both political and practical reasons for this. First, the practical reason. Graduate programs at any top university are incredibly diverse. Among MBAs alone, one has to consider the one-year, the two-year, the JD/MBA, the MPA/MBA, the eMBA, the online MBA, and dozens of others.  What’s more, the offerings evolve every year. As if that wasn’t enough, they all have different requirements, different deadlines, and different volumes of applicants. Even standardizing an application within a school is a challenge; if you decided to do it at the graduate level, which programs would be included and which would be excluded?  Then there’s the related question of accreditation. Should all accredited business schools be included? Only third tier and above? Who gets to make that decision?  There’s also the other elephant in the room, US News Rankings.  Schools don’t know how a common application might affect rankings, and most are not eager to find out.

That leads us into the more salient reason why there is no common app for graduate school; from an admissions officer’s standpoint, it would be self-defeating. Each and every business school likes to believe that it offers a unique educational experience, and they like having complete control over their applications, essays, and other requirements.  It gives them tools to hone and winnow the incoming class to their particular taste.  It also forces the applicants to show genuine interest in the school, and it helps them carve out a niche, or so they feel. It’s not in Olin’s best interest to make it easier for students to apply to Harvard. And it’s not Harvard’s best interest to have students applying to Harvard just because they can.

College admissions and  graduate school admissions are both highly politicized processes. They are likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. So if you are an applicant or are planning to be one next year, focus on what you can control, and limit the range of schools you are applying to only include schools you’re seriously considering.