Primary among these has been a growing awareness that so-called "soft skills" are crucial to managing people, making strong decisions, and collaborating with colleagues from diverse cultures spanning the world. Business schools are placing a new focus on candidates’ interpersonal qualities, including their leadership abilities, communication skills, and character, with an understanding that managers with these traits do better in the workplace.
What’s driving all of this? A primary criticism of MBA degree-holders is that they are well-trained technically and foundationally in business practices, but lack the people skills necessary to implement practical, real world business solutions. Compounding this problem is the fact that MBA programs carry a general expectation of high earnings immediately upon graduation; for many, a key draw to business school has been the salary and career boost, with soft skills as a distant afterthought.
With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that MBA hopefuls have not been the most evolved of applicants. Collaborating with others? Valuing peers? Employing thoughtful practices? Business School candidates are generally not the touchy-feely types. Historically, deeply communicative and empathetic students have been drawn to other grad schools options, such as social work, nursing, or education, where human behavior and interaction are central to the curricula.
But all this may now be giving way to a fresher business school model. And a new, kinder, softer business school student.
With the understanding that soft skills and social intelligence matter and are tied to career success, there is a new bottom line. There is a new ethos. Business is not just about profits. It’s about people.
Whether you can actually teach social intelligence and leadership remains to be seen. But the idea that you can do so has started to percolate in the MBA community, and is impacting the ways in which b-schools evaluate students for admission. MBA candidates applying to some of the nation’s most competitive schools may be screened for these soft skills — or at least for possessing the potential to develop them.
At the esteemed Wharton School of Business, the office of admissions has taken dramatic steps towards disrupting the typical admissions process and admitting a different kind of student. Applicants now undergo a group interview. During a group discussion, candidates are screened for their social intelligence and skills. Applicants receive marks not just for the content of their contributions, but for how well they mesh with others, and the ways in which they demonstrate their respect for their fellow participants. Additionally, as part of the written portion of the Wharton application, candidates have to self-report interpersonal skills from a list of adjectives such as thoughtful, perceptive, and humble.
While Wharton may be the only school on the horizon experimenting with such a unique admissions format, applicants need to think about their MBA application as an opportunity to emphasize these increasingly valued soft skills.
One of the best ways to show off your soft skills is through the written portions of the MBA application. Most business programs require applicants to submit a resume and answer several essay questions. Rather than showcasing accomplishments that may seem ego-driven, or writing at length about a solo undertaking, applicants can uses these spaces to soften things up. Play up experiences that demonstrate social intelligence, grace, humility, collaboration, and self-awareness. This does not mean you have to water-down or change your story, particularly if your prior experience has been independently driven, but do shape your narrative with this new lens. At a minimum, show admissions committees how much you have grown, what you have learned, and how you have impacted others.
No matter where you decide to apply, on top of meeting the standard requirements — strong grades and scores — demonstrating value-driven traits will go a long way towards enhancing your candidacy.
These days, business schools offer plenty of opportunities to improve upon and expand your soft skills, and to develop the leadership qualities you’ll need in your career. Many schools now intentionally integrate soft skill development into their curriculum and special programs. Two such innovative programs are Stanford’s I-Lead program, which offers students the opportunity to develop a range of interpersonal skills, and Harvard Business School’s Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development.
Note that learning can happen beyond the classroom as well. Most business schools feature a line-up of clubs and extracurricular activities. Aside from being fun, these opportunities will help you grow your skill set, increase your leadership experience, and build personal and professional networks that will enhance your classroom learning. In fact, outside-the-classroom experiences are essential for cultivating new skills and exploring different roles. Many business school clubs involve programs in which MBA students work with recruiters and industry leaders to enhance their school’s learning experiences. Students in these roles are often tasked with events such as bringing speakers to campus or coordinating career fairs. And even if a club is more social than academic, there is still plenty to be gained. At business school, socializing and networking are intertwined. The more you seek out collaborative and leadership experiences, the better positioned you will be to offer recruiters the skill sets they are looking for.
Wherever your soft skills stand today, these are some of the crucial interpersonal qualities that you will build as a business school student. The more you emphasize these traits on your applications and in your interviews, the easier it will be for admissions committees to envision you contributing to their classrooms.