How to Answer Diversity Equity Inclusion (DEI) Questions in my MBA Application
Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion, often referred to as DEI, is a growing part of the work environment and the broader economy. As such, it is a key focus for business schools. With MBA programs educating and preparing the next generation of leaders, DEI initiatives will now impact the workplace of the future.
How DEI Affects Schools
According to Harvard Business Review, schools have been gradually increasing their diversity and gender percentages over the last decade. Different schools keep records in different ways, particularly with regard to race and ethnicity, many of which are not standardized.
HBR states that over the past ten years, US and UK schools have steadily increased their gender diversity and number of international students. Most MBA programs still have notably fewer women than men, and there are relatively few women in top faculty roles. Women are often hit with a “motherhood penalty” when it comes to taking up tenure positions at most business schools, with employers hesitating to hire them and offering lower salaries than their male counterparts.
Furthermore, HBR notes that certain schools might be experiencing their own blind spots when it comes to diversity initiatives. This could include inadequate data, ineffective admin processes, cultural differences, or simply poor transparency. At some schools, even dedicated diversity offices may not achieve their goals due to the lack of a genuine culture of inclusion.
Certain schools, such as Cambridge Judge, UPenn Wharton, and Chicago Booth, have a hybrid approach that brings students into DEI decision-making alongside academic and administrative staff. Ultimately, HBR suggests that many schools have great DEI initiatives, but there is still more work to be done. Here’s how schools can bring DEI into their culture:
Create and support a dedicated DEI office
Monitor and analyze diversity metrics using standardized methods
Make DEI initiatives people-centered and part of the school’s culture
Bring DEI topics into the curriculum
Here’s an example of how DEI is becoming part of the classroom: a group of 15 business school leaders that meet several times a year at Columbia recently created a DEI workshop for the 2022 Academy of Management conference. This group suggested ways that professors can increase DEI discussions in the classroom, ways that professors can identify and deal with statements or situations that might be uncomfortable, and how to facilitate learning experiences from what might otherwise be awkward situations.
How Does DEI Affect Your Application?
AdComs are increasingly including DEI elements in MBA applications. This is most obvious at schools that ask applicants specific, DEI-based questions.
For example, Tepper asks: “The Tepper community is dynamic and unique. Each community member’s individual journey has shaped them into classmates who are collaborative and supportive. Describe how you have overcome adversity during your journey. What did you learn about yourself and how has that shaped who you are?”
Another example is University of Virginia’s Darden school, which asks, “Please describe a tangible example that illuminates your experience promoting an inclusive environment and what you would bring to creating an inclusive global community at Darden.”
For applicants who come from a minority background in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, race, etc., these essays position them to discuss their personal and career development through the lens of their identity.
However, a large number of applicants also belong to over-represented groups, like white male investment bankers, or Indian male engineers. If you belong to this category, the DEI question may be challenging to answer. Note that while schools want to invite more students from diverse backgrounds, they put equal weight on the quality of the application. That is, while diversity is a clear advantage in one’s application, schools will not pick lower-quality candidates simply to fill diversity quotas.
So, even if your demographic profile doesn’t tick any DEI boxes, you can successfully write this essay. Here’s how: position yourself as a supporter of DEI values. But simply calling yourself an “ally” isn’t enough. Provide an example of what you did for the communities around you or a particular cause. This may be active participation, advocacy, or engagement with the community. Focus on specifics and quantifiable outcomes.
At the workplace, you should show initiative when it comes to increasing diversity in hiring, representation, or leadership, standing up for your under-represented peers, or other ways you have supported minority members of your workplace or wider community.
How to Answer DEI-based Essay Questions
DEI-based essay questions don’t differ tremendously from other types of questions. They simply require you to reflect deeper on a topic that may not have loomed large in your life or career so far. As Darden’s advice for their own DEI question suggests, it’s about learning to go outside oneself and having a genuine interest in “what peers bring to the table.”
Otherwise, follow normal guidelines: pay attention to all parts of the prompt, be specific rather than general, be vulnerable without oversharing, and use the SCAR (Situation, Challenge, Action, Result) format. Use stories to your advantage!
Head over to MBAconsultant.com to understand exactly what you should include in your DEI answer and read example DEI essays from real applicants.
Seeing DEI Opportunities as an Over-represented Candidate
Unsure if your profile shows enough DEI engagement? You’re not alone. Part of the difficulty of understanding DEI for people from non-diverse backgrounds is that one may not understand that a problem even exists. Through DEI questions, business schools are looking for core leadership skills like self-awareness, empathy, and communication.
At first glance, this may seem difficult. After all, it’s hard to talk about what you’ve never experienced. Keep in mind what the school is looking for:
That you acknowledge experiences outside your current worldview
Seek to learn about these experiences and reflect on your own biases
Seek ways to increase inclusivity and equity in the workplace
For example, a discussion with a minority colleague on a particular business practice or attitude may signal that the company culture could be made more inclusive. You could use your platform to introduce this change and sustain it for future employees.
If your workplace doesn’t come to mind for DEI issues, consider extracurriculars such as sports or clubs. Let’s say that you are part of a workshop, sports team, or art group that isn’t very diverse. Part of diversifying might include outreach programs for local schools to recruit members from different backgrounds. It might also mean taking the effort to speak to minority friends and colleagues to understand why they aren’t participating and to brainstorm, and potentially implement, ways that would make it more welcoming for them.
In short, if DEI is not yet a part of your work or extracurricular culture, you can take steps to bring it into your workplace. Taking the first step isn’t hard; it is simply asking questions of yourself and others, and acting on the insights you receive.
You can also write about your plans to improve DEI efforts at your target school. As we mentioned, many schools have dedicated DEI offices. These provide students with opportunities to volunteer, propose, and potentially implement new ways to support DEI initiatives at the school.
Questions to Ask Yourself About DEI
If you haven’t taken steps to make your workplace or extracurricular more diverse, now’s a good time to start. Ask yourself the following questions. If you think that your company is lacking in any of these areas, consider what you might be able to do to help.
1. Think about how your company deals with implicit bias.
Is your company aware that its processes and structures might actually unfairly advantage people of certain demographics over others? What might you be able to do to change this?
2. Think about what perspectives are missing at your company/on your team.
Is there an over- or under-representation of a certain group? Is there a voice that you’d like to hear, or a question that you need to go outside the team to answer? Perhaps the answer is to have someone on the team to help you out with this.
3. Think about whether the workplace would be as comfortable for you if you were part of a minority group.
Inclusion could mean anything from disabled access to LGBTQIA+ friendliness to watercooler jokes. Workplaces have come a long way, but as we become more aware of structural or implicit biases, it is important to consider how things might improve.
4. Think about the changes you have seen in your own time at the workplace.
The past decade has seen a surge in DEI efforts, so consider what the environment was like when you started working and what it is like now. What can you learn from these changes and the people that championed them?
5. Have you ever called attention to an inappropriate comment or, in fact, had your own comment called out?
MBA programs are about learning and self-examination, so being able to admit your mistakes and failures is, in fact, a strength. The Adcom won’t punish you for your shortcomings as long as you’ve grown from them.
Accidentally saying something inappropriate happens to most people at some point. When people come from different backgrounds and perspectives, they may find that what seemed like an innocuous comment might be received poorly by another.
What’s important is that you accept that you messed up, learn why your comment was inappropriate, and change your behavior in the future. Being willing to put in the work to be more inclusive is a key part of what makes DEI initiatives successful.
While DEI is a relatively recent topic in MBA communities, it is rapidly becoming an important conversation. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are not only a part of a business school’s culture, they are a part of the business world.
Training future leaders to embody these principles is a good step toward making our world a more equitable place. With that in mind, consider how your leadership skills include DEI, and how you will continue to contribute to this goal.
If you want to learn how to position yourself as a DEI-aware candidate, contact us for a free 20-minute consultation.
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