September 23, 2008

MBA Admissions Web Sites: Not All Are Equal

In choosing a business school, one of the first things an applicant does is hit the Web and pull up individual school Web sites. It's there that, one hopes, basic information need to start the search is only a few mouse clicks away.

And while that's the case at many sites -- a recent look at the online presentation of BusinessWeek's Top 20 MBA programs finds that some have lost sight of their essential purpose: educating students about the program in a simple, straightforward way. Too often, key information is obscured by a forest of links, Web animation, and poorly placed headings.

It's not surprising. Jakob Neilson, an expert on Web usability, said too many Web sites preoccupy themselves with aesthetics. "It's a complete waste of money," he said of flash-based design and other visually appealing graphic effects. "Web sites should invest in simplicity, not complexity."

Our own test, conducted last month ranked the sites of the Top 20 schools on BusinessWeek's most recent full-time MBA ranking using a single, admittedly unscientific measure: how long it took to extract useful information from the site. While this doesn't capture all of the nuances of a Web site's effectiveness, it's a reasonable measure. When slogging through site after site, speed is of the essence.

More than anything else, prospective students want to know whether a school is right for them, and how they can improve their chances for admission. Every second wasted on dead-end links and hard-to-read headings gets in the way of that.

KEY FACTORS We asked users of's MBA forums, staffers, and some prospective MBA applicants we knew to weigh in on what matters most when they're surfing school Web sites. The feedback we received provided a long list of factors. From that list we selected five items, and timed how long it took to find all of them from each site. The list doesn't include everything a prospective student is looking for, but everything on it is highly important, if not crucial, for most visitors to the sites. We searched for:

-- Application deadlines. These should be front and center on any admissions site -- before strategizing on what to do to get into a school, one needs to know by when they have to do it.

-- A complete list of application materials. Because of the sheer volume of information available on most business school Web sites, it can be easy to lose track of specific application requirements. They should be listed somewhere on the site, ideally in checklist form.

-- The admissions director's name and contact information. This person weighs applicants, answers questions, and controls admissions decisions. They are also in many ways the ambassadors for the business school. Their identity should not be a mystery.

-- Financial-aid information. Business school is expensive. A school's Web site should help a student understand how they might pay for it.

-- A description of the curriculum. Possibly the most important element to evaluating an MBA program is what it will teach. This information should be readily available, and ideally, would include a course list.

METHODOLOGY For consistency's sake, we tried to locate this information for the full-time MBA programs of each school. What we discovered about usability from this search almost certainly applies to students seeking information about Executive MBAs or undergraduate programs.

Each search began at the school's home page. Using the site's search function or site index to track down what we were looking for was not allowed. While it's common to resort to these when information is hard to find, none of the above items should be so deeply buried that one has to use them. If something was extremely difficult to locate, we gave up looking for it after an unspecified period, somewhere around five minutes.

While Web design was not the focus, we kept in mind the elements of good Web design [, 6/23/08] and noted when design factors contributed to or detracted from the usability of the site. We also frowned upon content that lapsed into MBA lingo or relied on knowledge that would likely be known only to an MBA inner circle. After all, most using the site aren't MBA students yet, and shouldn't be expected to speak the language.

FIRST AND LAST In a way, it shouldn't be a surprise that the winner of our Web site competition was Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, a school known for cutting-edge technology as well as its highly-regarded business school. And the school's Web development team spent a year researching and planning the site's latest design -- its third. It took a mere two minutes and four seconds to find all the information, compared with nearly five minutes or more for many others.

On Tepper's Web site, all of the elements fell into place -- a clear and thoughtful layout, intelligent but judicious use of flash-based slide shows, and complete, informative content. It's very easy to navigate your way to Tepper's site from Carnegie Mellon's main page, and from there, to move around the site gathering what you need. One can, if necessary, pluck a couple of crucial points -- a deadline, perhaps, or the word count for an admissions essay -- and leave the site without a single grunt of frustration or unnecessary click.

Deb Magness, Tepper's executive director of marketing, explained that the school improved its site, which was formerly text-heavy and poorly laid out, through a focus on the user. "Some schools design their Web sites according to their organizational chart, and you never want to do that," she said. "We have it very streamlined. What would have taken five clicks now takes one."

At the other end of the spectrum, it took about seven minutes to gather most of the information we wanted from the University of California at Los Angeles' Anderson School of Management Web site -- the worst showing of the bunch. And even after all that searching, we never found contact information for the admissions director. If it's there, it's buried too deep to be accessed without the search function. Font sizes that ranged from tiny to tinier, and a poorly planned organizational scheme added to the frustration.

Mae Jennifer Shores, UCLA Anderson's Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions, said last week that a redesign of the web site is in progress and that the school is working with a design firm, with a particular push toward making it more interactive. In the meantime, UCLA has added two blogs to the MBA program home page, one as a voice for MBA students and the other produced by members of the admissions office.

But, schools and Web sites can change. Initially, Cornell University's Johnson School was at the bottom of our list. But in recent days it has undergone a redesign that made it quite a bit easier to use. The changes shaved over two and a half minutes off its time, and shot it up to position nine.

To see the results of our Web site test for all 20 schools, check out our slide show.