Who are the best students?

Written on March 14, 2016 by Santiago Iñiguez in Arts & Cultures & Societies

santiagoBy Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Dean of IE Business School and President of IE University

Are all business schools looking for the same students? Asked what type of student they are looking for, every dean or head of admissions that I have ever spoken to on the matter always produces the same answer: “The best”. But are we necessarily talking about the same group of potential students, and as such competing to attract the same people?

At first glance, it would seem so. The selection criteria are similar: admissions tests — the most common filter —[1] along with similar types of exam; candidates’ academic record; their professional experience; and personal achievements. Business schools that want to promote diversity in class may apply other criteria such as cultural diversity or gender. Seen from this perspective, the pool of candidates appears markedly similar; as a result, the objective is to attract the best within that group. It’s a zero sum game: the students can only go to one school.

However, I believe that the pool of potential candidates, along with the criteria by which they are measured capable of undertaking an MBA should be convergent, complimentary, but not identical. Some schools, for example mine, give priority to applicants with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and who want to create their own businesses. Other schools are on the look out for tomorrow’s marketing experts, or who show the potential required to run a human resources department in a large organization. If candidates have different profiles based on their career paths, then different procedures should be applied in identifying their potential. I believe that one of the biggest challenges facing business schools, and universities at large, will be to come up with alternative ways of identifying talent, and of developing the means to bring out the best in them.

The most commonly used tests to pick out the “best” candidates, particularly in the case of GMAT and GRE, favor a particular type of intelligence, one that we might call analytical, and also reflected in IQ tests. Studies show that there is a clear correlation between this type of intelligence and success in education, whether at the primary, secondary, or tertiary levels. It is also largely true to say that most of us consider people who perform well in these kinds of tests to be “intelligent”.

But a growing number of academics and educationalists have begun to question our traditional approach to assessing intelligence, among them Howard Gardner of Harvard University. His multiple intelligence theory argues that traditional measures of intelligence such as IQ tests fail to take into account cognitive and interpersonal abilities, which are equally important in learning and personal development, and of course for professional success. Gardner argues that there are at least nine forms of intelligence: spatial; linguistic; logical-mathematic; bodily-kinesthetic; musical; interpersonal; intrapersonal; naturalistic; and existential. Traditional educational systems, and measurements of IQ, have tended to emphasize linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, largely overlooking others.

This may well explain why so many artistic talents and innovative thinkers have emerged from non-academic backgrounds, and why outgoing people tend not to pay much attention to conventional ways of learning. Might this not also explain why some of the most important entrepreneurs of our time, such as Steve Jobsor Bill Gates, have little formal academic training?

Based on studies about intelligence that precede Gardner’s work, other scholars have contributed toward the theory of emotional intelligence, the ability to perceive, understand, and integrate intelligence in the way we behave, and thus increase our personal development. The concept of emotional intelligence has been a major influence in the work of Daniel Goleman in his book of the same name,[2] and among the most popular management books of our time. According to Goleman, emotional intelligence is not something that we are born with, but that we learn along the way, and is reflected in a series of skills that can be developed through repeated practice, such as self-awareness, social awareness, or relationship management, all of them likely to improve one’s management skills.

We have all come across students with a prodigious analytical ability, but who lack the emotional intelligence to be leaders, and it is easy to see that if they continue that way, they will never gain significant positions in any company or organization. Similarly, there is no shortage of CEOs or heads of state with average IQs, but who have learned to develop their emotional intelligence.

Current research into the links between intelligence and education provide business schools with two major insights. The first is that despite earlier insistence that intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, was the result of genetics, according to Richard E. Nisbett, “it is now clear that intelligence is modifiable by the environment … educational environments have been changing in such a way as to make the population as a whole smarter –and smart in different ways than in the past”. [3] The second is that teachers’ input and interaction with students is key to the development of intelligence. [4] We will all hopefully have come across at least one teacher in our lifetime that demonstrated the ability to extract our maximum potential.

Finally, a contribution based on my own experience as a teacher and dean of a business school. There are myriad forms of intelligence that can be cultivated and strengthened in adulthood. At IE we have seen how people with a wide range of experience have increased their interpersonal skills, their ability to lead, or their ability to understand and analyze complex problems. Logically, developing these types of intelligence among senior executives and directors requires modesty, along with an openness and willingness to learn new things.

We need to develop new ways of identifying talent that go beyond conventional forms of intelligence. Success in the search for new categories of intelligence will significantly expand the pool of potential applicants to business schools, while at the same time allow us to identify the candidates that are right for each institution and organization. At the same time, we need to develop new teaching methodologies and approaches to learning that bring out the entrepreneurial and innovation skills of management students, along with their relationship and leadership skills. This is without doubt the next frontier of teaching in business schools, and to get there we will have to work closely with educationalists and psychologists. Such an approach will also have a tremendous impact on the content of future MBAs and on management in general. Once again, opening up our curriculum to the Humanities, while at the same time developing new teaching methods to identify individual aptitudes offers opens up promising horizons.


[1] D. Bradshaw, in Financial Times (2/12/2010), commented that “A growing number of schools now accept the GRE as well as the GMAT: 39 per cent of the 288 schools surveyed by Kaplan, as opposed to 24 per cent last year. However, of the business schools that accept the GRE, 69 per cent report that fewer than 1 in 10 applicants actually submit a GRE score instead of a GMAT one”.

[2] D. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence. Why It Can Matter more than IQ, (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1995).

[3] R. E. Nisbett, Intelligence and How to Get It. Why Schools and Cultures Count, W.W. Norton & Company; New York, 2009; p. 2.

[4] Ibid. , p. 73.


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