July 31, 2007 in Business

At University of Chicago, business school hopefuls must speak PowerPoint

Justin Pope Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Says the University of Chicago’s Rose Martinelli of the PowerPoint requirement: “You do what you want. It can be a presentation. It can be poetry. It can be anything.” Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

At business meetings the world over, PowerPoint-style presentations are often met with yawns and glazed eyes.

But at one of the world’s top business schools, such slide shows are now an entrance requirement. In a first, the University of Chicago will begin requiring prospective students to submit four pages of PowerPoint-like slides with their applications this fall.

The new requirement is partly an acknowledgment that Microsoft Corp.’s PowerPoint and similar but lesser-known programs have become a ubiquitous tool in the business world. But Chicago says “slideware,” if used correctly, also can let students show off a creative side that might not reveal itself in test scores, recommendations and even essays.

By adding PowerPoint to its application, Chicago thinks it might attract more students who have the kind of cleverness that can really pay off in business, and fewer of the technocrat types who sometimes give the program a bad name.

“We wanted to have a freeform space for students to be able to say what they think is important, not always having the school run that dialogue,” said Rose Martinelli, associate dean for student recruitment and admissions. “To me this is just four pieces of blank paper. You do what you want. It can be a presentation. It can be poetry. It can be anything.”

Online applications are already the norm, and it’s not uncommon for colleges to let students submit extra materials such as artwork. Undergraduate and graduate applications also are beginning to ask for more creative and open-ended essays.

Partly that’s to better identify the students with a creative spark. Partly it’s to fend off the boredom of reading thousands of grinding, repetitive responses to “Why is University X right for you?”

But asking for four electronic slides appears to be a new idea.

Chicago’s new requirement may provoke groans from some quarters. It could be called corporate America’s final surrender to a technology that, in the name of promoting the flow of information, often gums it up by encouraging bureaucratic jargon and making colorful but useless graphics just a little too easy to produce.

Nonetheless, PowerPoint has become the lingua franca of business meetings worldwide. Its 500 million copies are used (or misused) in 30 million presentations a day, Microsoft has estimated. PowerPoint is so common in the business world that “it’s actually your word processor,” said Michael Avidan, a second-year Chicago MBA student, who reads applications for the graduate program and helped it do a dry run. His slides were a play featuring a Greek chorus questioning him about his application.

“When you apply to business school, it’s only natural that your ‘deliverables’ be in PowerPoint,” he said, using a buzz word for the best a student has to offer.

Martinelli acknowledges one reason for the requirement is that students will inevitably have to master the technology in their jobs. But she says students won’t be judged on the quality of their slides. Rather the slides are an outlet for judging the kind of creativity the business world needs.

Chicago’s does have a few ground rules: no hyperlinks, and no video. Beyond that, “I really don’t know what we’re going to get,” Martinelli said.

It’s not surprising the first PowerPoint application is coming from the world of business schools. In an undergraduate admissions office there would likely be worries about the applicant pool’s familiarity with and access to technology. Applicants to Chicago’s MBA program generally already know Facebook and YouTube and are accustomed to presenting themselves online. They can also afford the $200 application fee. (True technophobes can fill out four pages in another fashion and mail them in).

Technology isn’t a hurdle for most University of Chicago applicants, but “other schools might have to think about that,” said Nicole Chestang, chief client officer for the Graduate Management Admission Council, a worldwide group of management programs that oversees the GMAT entrance exam.

It’s also business schools that traditionally have the most boring essays, focusing on workplace accomplishments rather than passions or unusual talents, but which are increasingly interested in creativity.

Avidan predicts some applicants will be turned off by the requirement, but says it’s an opportunity for clever students whose test scores and other application materials might not stand out to shine.

“If there’s one foundation of business, it’s innovation, and this is your change to elevate yourself and show you can do something innovative,” he said.

The PowerPoint presentations will be the last part of the application the admissions office considers.

“This can determine whether or not you get admitted,” he said. “Here you are. Show us.”

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