Given the proliferation of staid essays that so often accompany MBA applications, Queen's School of Business decided to revamp the process a couple of years ago by dumping stilted prose in favour of a far more candid camera.
Entering its second full year of operation, the Kingston-based school's video application process has replaced the traditional essay component and allows the school to get a more real-life understanding of applicants. It also eliminates the possibility of students borrowing knowledge from elsewhere.
"The problem I was running into when I took over as the director was, I read these essays, and a lot of them looked like they were regurgitations of our website," says Shai Dubey, director of the Queen's full-time MBA program. "The other problem that we ran into was trying to figure out who'd written them."
Prof. Dubey describes a recent applicant from India who submitted "Pulitzer Prize-winning" essays. Only later did the school find out on interviewing the student that he couldn't speak English. When pressed, the student said that his father had helped him compile the essays, but Prof. Dubey then discovered that the person in question was an illiterate farmer.
And the situation was far from isolated.
"I've talked to some of the [application] consultants around the world and they've said they write the essays for the kids," Prof. Dubey says. "So are we really seeing the individual, or are we getting someone else's interpretation of the individual?"
The Queen's video application technology, designed by Canadian startup Kira Talent, puts prospective applicants on the spot, requiring them to think on their feet. Once other parts of the application have been verified (such as a résumé, transcripts, three references, a cover letter and GMAT scores), the applicants are sent an Internet link via e-mail. Clicking on the link takes them to a secure page where they are given three questions randomly generated from a stockpile of more than 70. They're then asked to talk into the camera to record their responses. Questions are broken into differing blocks, ranging from current events to personal information.
For some, it's a refreshing change.
"I was pretty excited to do the video essays because writing isn't necessarily my favourite thing to do," says Gabriello Presenza-Pitman, a current Queen's MBA student. "At the same time, I was a little bit nervous before doing the video essays because I knew Queen's was going to see me for who I was."
Given that Queen's gets 1,300 to 1,400 applications for just 70 seats on its full-time MBA program, the video essays are an important step in whittling down the numbers. Prof. Dubey says the school will extend video interview opportunities to about 300 applicants, with roughly 150 to 200 of those being invited to a traditional sit-down interview with the admissions office, the final step in the application process.
Prof. Dubey also recognizes that, as a novel and evolving part of the application process, the video interviews can cause significant consternation to students, particularly those unfamiliar with being put on the spot.
"People ask us all the time, 'Well, how do I prepare?'" he says. "Just know yourself, that's really it. There's no right or wrong answer, and we're not grading the video essay in the way that the written essays were sometimes graded by schools."
Queen's is far from the only school using video submissions to help shape its next MBA class. The business schools at Yale and Northwestern in the United States and Imperial College in England use video essays in some form as part of their application process.
Closer to home, Wilfrid Laurier University's MBA program and the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto also turn the lens on applicants to a certain extent.
Rotman hasn't completely eliminated the traditional written essay component of its application process – it still requires two submissions of 250 words apiece – but it also uses two video essays randomly generated from a database of more than 100 questions.
"They're quite different, because we're hoping that the [written] essay allows us to see a reflective, structured communications style," says Niki da Silva, director of MBA recruitment and admissions at Rotman. "The video questions are much more conversational.
"It's not the best analogy, but I like to tell people who are nervous about it that it's kind of like a first date. There are no right or wrong answers, it's about getting to know the applicant."
One of the great advantages of the video application process, according to Ms. da Silva, is that it prevents talented students from slipping through the cracks just because of a badly structured résumé or a poorly assembled essay.
"For many people it allows us to see very quickly that needle-in-a-haystack-potential student who is actually really exceptional," she says. "They've just done a terrible job of showcasing who they are on paper and I think it introduces another criteria that equals [levels] the playing field."
While Rotman, like Queen's, is in the early throes of employing video – it began in 2012 – the returns so far have been beneficial, they say, and Ms. da Silva imagines that its uses will grow and eventually extend beyond the realms of education.
"I can also imagine that for candidates that are graduating from an MBA program and recruiting into industry, I can see this as an increasing part of how you sort through the hundreds of qualified candidates that you've seen," she says. "For most interviewers it's that fit that they're looking for that you can't define on paper. So I just think it's going to be more commonplace and not just in education but in general hiring and talent."