We started off on this topic of women applying to business school recently and we wanted to circle back on a specific angle of that conversation:
If women are accepted with lower GMAT scores, does that mean that they will have a harder time succeeding in business school?
We’re going to open with the statement that we have NO DATA TO BACK ANY OF THIS UP – and we presume that the schools are in fact tracking these issues and are putting programs in place to counter such effects, if any are indeed in evidence. We also recognize that it’s unfair to make overly broad generalizations. What we’re doing today is offering some anecdotes and observations from exchanges we’ve had from a number of former Brave Supplicants who happen to be female and have lately shared with us their experiences at some top American business schools.
The deal with bschool is that IT’S HARD.
Harder than some people realize it’s going to be.
After all, business school is GRADUATE SCHOOL.
And business school is heavily quantitative in nature. (We mentioned all this in our post last month that asked if you even know what an MBA is about.)
That is why there’s such a focus on the GMAT during the admissions process. The adcoms want to make sure that you’re going to succeed in the classroom if they decide to admit you. They don’t want to accept anyone who’s going to struggle or potentially fail.
Many women applying to bschool have a “bschool-typical” profile; they studied economics in college and then went to Wall Street and are now seeking the MBA to advance their careers or to pivot out to do something different. Or some such standard background.
But the numbers of women who share that profile are massively smaller than the numbers of men who do. (In fact, if you’re a woman who worked on Wall St., you’re likely to have an especially easy time of getting accepted into an MBA, because you’re such an unusual species.)
Instead, a big chunk of the female applicant pool is made up of women coming from non-profit or marketing or sometimes media backgrounds. Women who studied subjects like art history or English or political science in college. Women with liberal arts training.
The liberal arts are known for helping people develop critical thinking skills. Bschools like to have a lot of liberal arts types in their midst. These students are often strong communicators and they bring a different dimension to a discussion when compared to the standard mindset of the numbers types.
What the liberal arts don’t do, by definition, is provide significant training in math. Lots of colleges even have watered-down courses like “Mathematics: A Liberal Arts Approach” to help those art history types meet their math requirement. That stuff is fine but it’s not likely to be the best preparation for bschool many years later.
Perhaps this post would be better titled “Liberal arts backgrounds and quant skills” – however we suspect that it really is more of a gender-based issue. Women are not always the best at asking for help – particularly if a woman is in a competitive environment. Women often internalize an issue like this that’s actually simply a lack of training or prior experience, and may adopt defeatist thinking around it. The refrain of “I’m so stupid” or “Why can’t I just get this” may echo in her head, and she could begin to blame herself. (Please see this essay by a 17 year old who learned to program computers when she was a girl (paragraph 9, especially the comments in the right column) for a first-person account of how that works.)
A man in such a situation could suffer from the same types of self-doubt, but if the environment is already male-heavy, there’s more built-in tacit support for him to succeed. Lots of role models around.
Of course, there’s lots of posturing at bschool. You don’t often hear people admitting to having problems – of any kind. Everyone puts on a front. It’s not like a guy with little math training is going to have it easy either.
Here’s what we heard from one first-year student that opened our eyes to this:
As you might have expected, I love [GreatSchool]. The people are fantastic, and I’ve made a lot of great friends…I’m constantly impressed by my classmates.
School, however, hasn’t been so warm & fuzzy. There are a few reasons for this:
– I underestimated how steep the learning curve would be. The classes speak an entirely different language, and I’m one of the few who has been lost from the start. I don’t know Excel, and I didn’t even realize that profit and revenue weren’t synonymous until the midterm. There’s a lot of assumed knowledge on the front-end. I had know idea what I didn’t know.
– That low-ish quant score I had to fight for? Yep, it’s a pretty good indicator of how much I’d struggle to think quantitatively. It’s just not something I’m good at, and while I am working on it, I will never be very good at it compared to my peers. It’s just not how I think.
Obviously this is more the “liberal arts background” problem than any issue inherent to being female versus male (though also obviously, the American culture and early education system still produces women with a bias against math – a discussion far beyond the intended scope of this series of posts). However, as long as women continue to stay away from math-based careers, then this is going to continue to be an issue for women in bschool.
This is what another student at a different school had to say when we asked about this subject:
Many of my friends REALLY struggled with the quant stuff, especially those from liberal arts backgrounds. The issue is definitely reflected in the male/female composition of the dean’s list, which doesn’t match the school overall.
Huh. The dean’s list of a top bschool is overly weighted towards men? Even more so than the general student population is?
Man, that’s discouraging.