Extra Points for Being Nice

Dartmouth's competitive business school announces new criteria for admission.

July 9, 2018

Top M.B.A. programs are known to evaluate applicants based on their grades, test scores, work experience and essays. Sure, these programs say they value those who have performed community service or have a vision for a life of doing good. But most people assume that those qualities are secondary to the grades and test scores that play such a prominent role in institutional rankings.

Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business is trying a new approach. Last month, it announced that it would henceforth look for applicants who possess four qualities: smart, nice, accomplished and aware. Most of the attention on Tuck's list has centered on the quality of being nice -- not necessarily something associated with the cutthroat world of M.B.A. students or the business world.

Luke Anthony Peña, executive director of admissions and financial aid at Tuck, said in a statement that the inclusion of nice was intentional, and related to the idea that an M.B.A. class of students should be able to work as a cohort and support one another.

“What we’re looking for is emotional intelligence, empathy and respect for others,” he said. “Tuck is a distinctly collaborative community, so being able to challenge others tactfully and thoughtfully is important.”

But how will niceness be determined? Being smart and being accomplished, he said, would be evaluated through traditional evaluations of grades, test scores and experiences. Niceness, he said, would come out in essays and in recommendations.

The announcement prompted some wonderment on social media, with one person on Twitter saying that the obvious implication for those wanting to go to Tuck was "don't be a jerk."

Tuck has followed up its original announcement with new essay prompts both for applicants and those writing letters of recommendation.

In addition to fairly traditional questions about applicants' goals and how Tuck might help them, they will also be asked this question: "Tuck students are nice, and invest generously in one another’s success. Share an example of how you helped someone else succeed."

Those submitting references will be asked, in additional to traditional questions, to respond to this prompt: "Tuck students are nice. Please comment on how the candidate interacts with others including when the interaction is difficult or challenging."

Will the emphasis work? Will Tuck get genuinely nice people or those pretending to be nice?

Chad Troutwine, co-founder and CEO of Veritas Prep, which provides high-end support to M.B.A. applicants, said he thought it would work -- primarily because Tuck has been talking about these qualities for some time, so its reputation is consistent with its new admissions approach.

"Tuck has finally formalized what they’ve long valued: a community of leaders who prize empathy and emotional intelligence at least as highly as financial and strategic acumen," Troutwine said. "Those are not mutually exclusive qualities, so Tuck will likely attract even more of the high-quality applicants they seek. It’s a proud declaration of who they are."

Noah Teitelbaum, executive director of pre-business programs at Manhattan Prep (part of Kaplan Test Prep), said via email that the shift at Tuck reflects an issue facing many business schools. "The image in the past has generally been that mean, less scrupulous people make it to the top," he said, and not everyone thinks that has been good for business or society.

He also noted that potential M.B.A. students, perhaps more than some other applicants, think about the members of the cohort they may be joining.

He said that "one factor that aspiring business school students consider when deciding where to apply to is whether that program is a good cultural fit for them and the nature of the network that they’ll gain as part of the program." He doesn't think applicants will fake being nice.

"While diversity of opinion and background is really important for many students, it would make little sense to try to game the system to get into an M.B.A. program where you and your peers wouldn't at least share a core personality trait like kindness," he said. "That would result in a far from ideal experience. If a business school’s culture places a high premium on having ‘nice students,’ applicants who know their shortcomings in that area may not want to apply to that program anyway."

Teitelbaum added that "being genuinely 'nice,' if you are not, is not easy to fake. You will always have some applicants who try to game the system, but admissions officers are generally experienced gatekeepers, who have a keen eye for applicants who embellish or fake their experiences or bona fides. It's likely they can spot artificial niceness, too."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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