Recruiting MBA Candidates Differently

Case Western Reserve casts a wider net to attract nontraditional business students.

AS BUSINESSES SEEK to hire workers who think more creatively, it makes sense that business schools should recruit MBA candidates who don the same. How can business schools attract these creative and socially-minded individuals, who have the traits today's employers want but who might not be thinking about going to business school? This spring, the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, piloted a recruitment plan called Create Change, designed to draw just these types of candidates to its full-time MBA.

The idea for the pilot was sparked last summer as a recruitment team discussed the question, "Who is our ideal atypical MBA candidate?" Says Youngjin Yoo, professor of entrepreneurship, design, and innovation: "We were looking for creative people who might see our school's name come up in a Google search, but think, 'I would never apply to business school."'

Create Change began with a webpage calling for applications from candidates with at least five years of work experience, preferably in creative fields. Weatherhead's admissions staff also promoted the program to participants of service programs such as City Year and Teach for America, members of the Industrial Designers Society of America, and GRE test takers. Applicants demonstrated their creativity by submitting not only essays, but also videos and even a podcast. The GMAT was not required.

Of the 35 who applied, 27 were asked to campus to take part in an expanded two-day "interview," during which they worked in teams of three to tackle a business challenge on "the future of waste." Of the 27, only eight had already gone through the traditional application process. Among the others were a graphic designer, a costume designer, and a sociologist.

Teams spent ten hours on the challenge before presenting their solutions to 18 corporate representatives. They also met with faculty, alumni, and executives and had one-on-one interviews with admission staff.

"A typical interview might be 30 or 45 minutes," says Deborah Bibb, assistant dean of admissions. "This activity allowed us to see their analytical and presentation skills, their ability to collaborate on a team, and their ability to make connections with employers." It also allowed the applicants to get a taste of what it would be like to be in the MBA program.

Bibb expects that 15 of the applicants will be accepted. Those who enroll will help Weatherhead create an MBA class even more in line with its focus on design thinking and entrepreneurship, says Fred Collopy, vice dean and professor of design and innovation. He adds that the school's ideal class will be a roughly equal mix of people with interests in design, sustainability, and traditional business.

"People with creative backgrounds bring a lot of energy into our classes, "says Collopy. “We want many perspectives to be valued in our MBA program, and that's most likely to happen when we have different people in the room, including people focused on social issues."

Bibb echoes this sentiment, pointing out that when it comes to reaching nontraditional MBA candidates, business schools will have to adjust their messages. "This event gave us the chance to show these candidates that we're not about just doing business for business' sake, but about doing business purposefully to make an impact. That resonated with them."