this admissions season, business school alumni are the ones facing rejection.
graduate schools including university of pennsylvania's wharton school are bypassing alumni in admissions interviews to meet directly with m.b.a. candidates in person or via skype videoconferencing, despite the potential higher costs, in an attempt to ensure interviews are being conducted in a uniform manner—and in english.ray bartkus
for years, many graduate schools relied on their vast alumni networks to screen m.b.a. candidates. now, some schools want tighter control over interviews to better judge whether an applicant who looks great on paper really stacks up in person. they're also hoping that a smaller set of interviewers will allow for more consistent comparison among candidates.
wharton, which has more than 88,000 alumni world-wide across all of its programs, is sending its six admissions officers to 12 "hub" cities, including san francisco, são paulo and singapore, to interview applicants who hope to enroll this fall but can't make it to the main campus in philadelphia.
on-campus interviews are conducted by 45 trained second-year students. ankur kumar, director of m.b.a. admissions and financial aid at wharton, says the smaller group of student interviewers, compared with "several hundred" alumni in the past, allows for some consistency. combined, wharton conducts as many as 3,500 interviews each year, admitting about 1,000 and enrolling 800 to 850.
most school officials say the shift isn't a matter of trust. but they do express concern over whether a foreign alum and candidate will conduct an interview in english. the candidate might be engaging and insightful in their native tongue, only to arrive on campus unable to read the orientation material, admissions officers say.
"if you get two french people in a room and ask them to speak english together, it's just not going to happen," says graham richmond, ceo and co-founder of admissions consulting firm clear admit llc.
language is of particular concern in asia, where mr. richmond says there have been incidents of applicants hiring proxies to take entrance exams or write essays. even an interview by telephone isn't enough to deter fraud. "how do you know it's the real candidate on the other side," he asks.
the anderson school of management, at the university of california, los angeles, is betting that videoconferencing may be a solution. that school's admissions team started to interview more overseas m.b.a. candidates for the fall 2012 class by skype in part to ensure that potential students are fluent in english.
the virtual face-to-face format will allow admissions officers to assess an applicant's overall communication skills better than phone interviews would, says rob weiler, assistant dean and director of admissions and financial aid.
mr. weiler says evaluation of language competency has been "somewhat less consistent" overseas, but he adds that the school will still use "trained alumni," who get updates on new questions or changes to the interview process, for many interviews.
for the latest school year, anderson emphasized its requirement that interviews be conducted in english.
larry mahl, an anderson alum based in tokyo, says he has declined interview invitations for anderson. "i just don't meet enough recent candidates to compare their profiles or put their qualifications into meaningful perspective," says mr. mahl, a hollywood studio consultant.
meanwhile, wharton says it is making the change because its new "behavioral" interview questions, introduced during the 2010-2011 admissions cycle, require more consistent delivery.
the new interview style asks applicants about their experiences—applicants say questions include 'tell me about a time you participated in a negotiation,' or 'tell me about a time you managed someone who was senior to you'—rather than an overview of their résumés.
fadi arbid, a 2003 wharton graduate running a private-equity firm in riyadh, saudi arabia, says it is "a pity" that he can't conduct interviews anymore. he allows that applicants have slipped into arabic during interviews in his region, but says he steered them back to english.
mr. arbid, who worked in the admissions office while studying at wharton, had interviewed four or five candidates a year since he graduated. he personally felt qualified to assess candidates, but says not everyone is up to the task.
"not all the alumni are capable of judging just because they've downloaded the manual," he says.
wharton's move comes a year after a training video, which instructed alumni interviewers how to evaluate responses to the new behavioral questions, was leaked to some admissions-consulting firms and applicants. (the video was available on a nonpassword-protected website, according to news reports at the time.)
while applicants frequently trade notes on interview questions, some in the admissions industry say the video leak was a serious blunder because it exposed details about the answers wharton wanted to hear—not to mention what it said about the school's faith in its alumni.
ms. kumar of wharton says the school's new approach isn't a reaction to the video.
taking things in-house doesn't come cheaply. wharton wouldn't reveal budget figures for its traveling interviewers. at the massachusetts institute of technology's sloan school of management, which has conducted its interviews internally for a decade, with a half-dozen admissions officers traversing the globe to conduct 850 to 900 interviews annually, admissions director rod garcia says the endeavor has a five- or six-figure price tag.
not all schools have taken the plunge.
"either you trust your alumni or you don't," says derrick bolton, assistant dean and director of m.b.a. admissions at stanford graduate school of business, where recent graduates conduct about 90% of m.b.a. interviews. he says alumni are particularly helpful with judging international candidates because they are familiar with applicants' cultural or religious context.
but after the wharton video incident—which mr. bolton said made him "cringe"—even stanford is considering piloting some changes later this year.