Friday, 18 May 2007

Does Hella like this title?

Hmmm - hella was giving a bad referal with the old title.

What follows here is a bit of a thought piece – I don’t have any direct conclusions from this, and have been sat on this way too long to not just throw it out there. MBA blogs are all seriously slow right now, so maybe this might get a bit of thought. Maybe not.

Anonymous MBAs post some time ago (on her sadly no defunct blog) on the reported time spent on a Business School application was heartening. Not only did it dovetail with a lot of my own beliefs on the topic, but most beneficially sparked me into an element of thought and theorising on the matter. Between herself, her stories of DDawg (what happened, anon?!?) and my own experiences, there is the beginning of a solid sample set to suggest that the time spent on applications is far less than that which applicants choose to broadcast to each other. Similarly, brief examination would suggest only 99th percentile GMAT scorers post on the BusinessWeek forums. I began to wonder if any of this made sense.

Now, any brief length of study of probability, statistics and human behaviour will push you in the direction that this isn’t likely the case. So, something else is going on amongst all this. I would expect even the freshest of MBA applicants will understand what I am writing below:

730 (49Q,38V), 6.0, 27M Ind, 4.5 W/E Manu.
(this profile is not mine and is created at random)

This is the basis of a vast amount of juxtapositioning of applicants, as they try to measure themselves up. Someone with too much time on their hands is likely to be looking through admissions411 or BW reports, trying to configure some algorithm from this crap-shoot data, with the aim to work out if they can get in to School X with their na├»ve statistical breakdown. Certain parts of this aren’t worth playing with, as they are no way to leverage them against other applicants. FWIW while we are here though, the attention that has shifted (by some) to years work experience is bizarre; an element that is completely incomparable without information (7 years analyst =/ 2.5 years progression to Associate). This is nothing new – everyone seems to want to read these figures, but the underlying is that every two or three months someone complains about the fact that this data is a waste of time. “Good Extracurriculars” is another one. I am yet to see a single person think they have anything other than good extracurriculars. It stands to reason.

With such a crapshoot of statistics, disinformation is clearly the call of the day. With GMAT being the only true index field between each applicant, it is hardly a surprise there appears to be a trend to bump up the GMAT that people share on BW and the like. It goes back to just a simple level of masculinity and human competition. In the 80s, people stuffed socks down the front of their pants to enlarge their manhood. In the 90s they had share portfolios and automobiles, while never admitting to the debt financing it. In the 00s, at least in this market, people inflate their GMAT. A self manufactured ego in one easy step. Did I tell you that I refused Stanford because I have fair skin and couldn’t cope with the sun?

However, this is just for the first part of the game. Applicants want to feel stronger than each other, alpha characteristics and all that shit. Now sure, it isn’t everyone, but if you try to convince me you have a 700+ GMAT and can’t string a sentence together, my default is you are a liar, and if you prove otherwise then the test is even more ill-conceived as a measure than I already think it is. And I do not have a high opinion of the GMAT as it stands.

Thinking about the game theory, I am not sure of the benefit of inflation of your GMAT is in the long run. In fact, a brief amount of research would suggest it is a detrimental strategy for achieving a relative advantage in the applicant pool. With some reference to Bayesian theory, it seems you would want to underplay your GMAT to competitors – a strong hand is better if people perceive it weak. If a person has a score below average for the school, the incentive is surely absent for them to inflate their GMAT, contrary to our (assumed) behavioural evidence. Official statistics state GMAT ranges for the school. Let’s assume a mean of 700, as this is the case for most top schools. By turning a 670 into a signalled (broadcast of BW forums) 730, the applicant only serves to encourage more applicants of a similar level – suggestion of a high GMAT pool should encourage below mean applications, as it points to a let-up in the market. In fact, supporting a low GMAT with a really strong back-story (some cock & bull about extracurricular activities, undergraduate, resume points) would be even more effective at rooting out competitive applicants on the forum in the hope of removing them from the applicant pool. Yet, seeing as the only broadcast marks are typically 700+, it appears behaviour is to overstate the GMAT, and undermine the optimal strategy.

But why would people choose to broadcast disinformation over the time they spent to apply? This has no bearing over their direct competitors at all. In part, this appears to be some form of competition between applicants as well – once again, completely arbitrary. Once again, a mild form of web-forum trolling to prey on people’s insecurity. And once again, people seem to take pride in the fact they claim that three essays totalling 3000 words took them near 40 hours to complete, suggesting either poor writing skills, a lack of decision making (or “perfectionism” for its listed favourable characteristic name – read taking longer than necessary, the 90-10 rule etc), or a smell of Sex Panther. But can there be a deeper seated reason?

Early in the application process, the argument can be made for overstating application time, especially against the ill informed. For a R1 applicant who is yet to hear back from the school, there is incentive to influence R2 applicants by purporting that the process is lengthy (resulting in concern that their application is weak, or they have too little time to prepare properly). Deterrence of competition from the second round is a good thing – should they be wait-listed minimising the new pool against which they are assessed can only be good. Stronger evidence than for the GMAT, I think. Now, considering that some only release information on time-consuming applications after admit, is there a long term reasoning to state this?

One element may be the creation of some form of separating equilibrium through a perceived barrier to entry to the MBA. Such an approach to qualifications is used by some associations; most famously, the pass-rate for actuarial exams in the UK is set such that a certain number of individuals pass, with the condition that a defined hurdle rate is achieved. The pool of qualified actuaries is maintained to command an artificially inflated salary by contracting supply. On this basis, it is probably advisable for the MBA student or applicant to portray the process as laborious and stressful; this in turn should deter other applicants, increase the perception of incredible amounts of effort on the candidate’s part, and maintain the value of their MBA going forward.

The other thought is that all these people are lawyers or consultants, and are simply well versed in overstating the time that things really took.

There are, obviously, problems in this whole information game. One is that people cannot change their strategy easily between scenarios. Ideally, the applicant could vary their “hand” between stages to give different facts. Web forums really defeat this, as people have a record of your statement, making it a one shot game. And worst, the individual probably doesn’t notice the long term wisdom in understating their GMAT after sitting the exam. Credibility in this world of unknown is important, as someone will call you out if you are inconsistent. It would be clearly preferable for a person to broadcast differently at different points, but the deleting of historical messages on web-forums is a good way to become persona non grata.

More importantly, the breakdown on this overtly theoretical conjecture is that the marketplace for the disinformation is incomplete as much as it is unregulated, and that although talking the game of having an admit strategy, this stretches as far as contacting alumni, visiting campus and other non-strategic activities. Also, while the actions on BW and admissions411 are seen by a volume of applicants, the registration figures surely will suggest that of applicants to top 10 schools, at most 40% have ever seen the BW forum. So it is just for shits and giggles, and will never work in its fullest sense. For some reason though, it is an activity that really irritates me.

So I may as well put it up here – I applied to three schools and sat my GMAT in January this year. I studied GMAT a bit from Christmas, but mostly in four days cramming. My score was alright, but below average for all schools (yet well within range). I did alright. If you want to go to Business school, for some people it is going to be a lot of work, for others not so much. Some will work really hard to get into a top 40 school, some will breeze into Stanford. Ignore everyone else – MBA applications are a selfish process, so don’t get wrapped up in other people’s asshattery. And if you want to to do the internet thing, hang out at GMATclub. For the most part, everyone there is supportive (though the GMAT numbers are starting to rise scarily!).

Oh, and good luck.