MBA Recruiters’ No. 1 Pet Peeve: Poor Writing and Speaking Skills

30 January 2007 at 12:18 pm 11 comments

| Peter Klein |

Sure, leadership, team skills, and functional integration are important. But if MBA programs continue to graduate students who can’t write and speak clearly, employers will stop paying the MBA wage premium. The WSJ’s Career Journal quotes Whirlpool’s director of global university relations Chris Aisenbrey:

“It is staggering the frequency of typos, grammatical errors and poorly constructed thoughts we see in emails that serve as letters of introduction,” says Mr. Aisenbrey. “We still see a tremendous amount of email from students who are writing to the recruiter like they are sending a message to a friend asking what they are doing that evening.”

In the WSJ/Harris Interactive survey of corporate recruiters, the top complaint is inferior communication skills.

As part of his interviews with M.B.A. students, Darren Whissen, a financial-services recruiter in California, provides an executive summary of a fictitious company and asks them to write about 500 words recommending whether to invest in the business. At worst, he receives “sub-seventh-grade-level” responses with spelling and grammar errors. “More often than not,” he says, “I find M.B.A. writing samples have a casual tone lacking the professionalism necessary to communicate with sophisticated investors. I have found that many seemingly qualified candidates are unable to write even the simplest of arguments. No matter how strong one’s financial model is, if one cannot write a logical, compelling story, then investors are going to look elsewhere. And in my business, that means death.”

As a university teacher of undergraduates, MBA students, and PhD students, I share the recruiters’ frustration with shockingly bad reading, writing, and speaking skills. However, graduate school may be too late to correct such errors. Grammar should be learned in, well, grammar school. Should universities really be investing resources in teaching remedial English, math, and science? (HT: Craig Newmark)

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Teaching.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Donald A. Coffin  |  30 January 2007 at 4:37 pm

    As with many things, repetition and practice are essential to success. Just as writing (speaking) skills will atrophy if not used, so will other skills. My MBA students, even those with an undergraduate business degree, often cannot perform relatively simple statistical tasks, because they haven’t used the relevant tools since they took statistics as undergraduates.

    So learning grammar in “grammar school” is not going to be sufficient, unless that knowledge is reinforced through written practice in high school, in college, and in graduate school.

    Too often, graduate school faculty assign papers, and then pay no attention to the writing–the grammar, spelling, sentence structure, word choice–in the papers. We focus only on “content”. We let the mechanics slide. The same is true for logical thinking. We let it slide. We don’t ask, “Why is that true? How did you reach your conclusion?”

    So the fault begins in elementary school. But we do too little after that to corrent the problem.

    (Given the issue on which I’m commenting, I read through and edited this post four times before submitting it.)

  • 2. spostrel  |  30 January 2007 at 7:02 pm

    I have found that returning student memos with red marks all over them, picking away at logic as well as grammar and spelling, does improve performance somewhat. (If it’s a group memo, at least the group will delegate to a better writer/thinker.) There is some cost in goodwill, however.

    It is also necessary to tell students that in order to be persuasive they must anticipate, clearly state, and then refute obvious objections to their arguments. They don’t always understand that failure to do so makes them (often incorrectly) look either dishonest or incompetent.

    For example, students often propose shifting business unit leaders’ incentives to reward executives for corporate-wide performance instead of just unit performance (hoping to improve inter-divisional teamwork). It is then incumbent on them to explain why it’s worth it to have weaker incentives for effort and innovation at the business-unit level. There are often good answers to such an objection; but to write as though this obvious point did not exist is to appear either ingenuous or disingenuous, neither of which is persuasive.

  • 3. TDL  |  31 January 2007 at 12:39 pm

    I am curious how this affects the professional development of a MBA student post-graduation? If they have a professional network in place I doubt that this weakness will undermine their professional growth. I am a recent MBA graduate and I always pay close attention to spelling and grammar (or at least I try to.) I often receive e-mails from my peers, those more senior than me, potential employers, and former professors (and even recruiters) that look as though they are completely unfamiliar with basic grammatical concepts. Ultimately, however, those with extensive professional networks are employed, regardless of their grammatical skills, and are growing professionally. Those without the necessary networks are unemployed and looking (I am in this later camp.) Ultimately, I think that this is a pet peeve of professors and recruiters (granted that this is from my limited observation.) In the end, it still matters who you know. In that light, universities should be allocating resources in helping their students expand their professional networks not on remedial English, math, or science.


  • 4. Chihmao Hsieh  |  31 January 2007 at 1:39 pm

    For the last two semesters, I have my senior capstone course students read chapters 7-9 of “The Craft of Research” by Booth et al. I find that students have a tough enough time purposefully recognizing or applying basic elements of argument described there: claims, reasons, and evidence.

    Perhaps later on in the semester, I’ll assign the chapters on ‘acknowledgements’ and ‘warrants’ and thus cover all 5 basic elements. But baby steps first.

  • 5. EWL  |  31 January 2007 at 4:45 pm

    I would have to agree with this article 100%. I think that in general, we have gotten rather “lazy” in our use of the language and use far too much “slang”. Some of this may be from television, radio, or even today’s musical lyrics. Some may stem from not having role models around the home that insist on the proper use of grammer. I can still remember my parents lecturing us at the dinner table when we might say something like ” where did you get that at” (sentences shouldn’t end with prepositions)!
    And this is mild “misuse” as compared to what we often hear today. I often hear students ask professors ridiculous questions rather than either look up the answer or figure it out. We short cut. I don’t have near as much frustration with misspelling or maybe a sentence fragment as just plain “sloppy” use of very general, vague words when a more precise, descriptive word exists. Reading books cures this as well as good role models in the home. What this article describes is a society that places less value on both- or our young people just don’t have the 2 parent family life that instills such a skillset. I Dunno.

  • 6. Bo  |  1 February 2007 at 12:05 pm

    My experience with undergraduate and MBA students points to another deficiency; that of poor presentation skills. In reality, most people can find grammatical tools etc to aid them in writing (Word and other programs will soon be able to help you contruct entire paragraphs and arguments) if they wish. However, presenting your resutls in a coherent, consistent and professional way is another story. I often see my MBA students completely lack the ability to communicate (orally) their otherwise good ideas and well-thought-through arguments. Powerpoint has not helped much, as students often misuse this media and regards it as a lifeline rather than a visual aid. I find it necessary to teach a section on “how to present your results” in the beginning of my course on international strategy because while most MBAs think highly of themselves and perceive themselves as having professional experience and good/great communication skills, reality is that most of them have no clue as to how to present their results in a professional way. Granted, this is more of a problem for the day-MBAs than the executive program, however, both groups seem to have forgotten the basics on how to make effective presentations.

    For business students – oral presentation skills are key and we do not teach this enough in our programs.

  • 7. Eric H  |  2 February 2007 at 7:25 pm

    I haven’t run into this (I don’t have to deal with students), but my wife has. People contact her in professional communication as if they were text-messaging a friend between classes. She is torn between flatly refusing to answer and answering with a strong warning to clean it up if they expect a serious reply from her. She does not try to decipher it.

  • 8. Gary Peters  |  6 February 2007 at 10:05 am

    A colleague received this student message on the same day the original blog thread was posted. Enjoy.

    “My excel assignment is attached I am not sure if I have done it right. Is this how its supposed to be done? I wasn’t in class when it was taught. Well here is a copy I took notes but at the time I had no idea what I was taking notes oand now I am more confused because of what the students said of what the teacher said that day. Well, here it is. Can you tell me what I am doing wrong?”

  • 9. kimberly  |  8 August 2008 at 12:28 pm


    I am currently taking care to use proper grammar! I think our writing problems my have developed from communicating online and via text messages where we are (told) to shorten our writing style. People have developed short hand methods of communicating. Unfortunately, many people do not know how to adapt to their audience. As a marketing professional, I often find that reading a plethora of information can make me question grammar mistakes. Being bombarded with bad writing on a daily basis (national newspapers included) can exaggerate the problem; some people pick up other’s mistakes. My university required most new students to participate in writing labs to raise their awareness of common mistakes and style issues. I agree that there seemed to be a focus on content more than syntax. However, where does one go to check their own writing? I often have questions or second guess myself. Yet, I always struggle to find resources to reference…

  • 10. Graziadio Voice Student Blog - Pepperdine University  |  23 April 2009 at 6:41 pm

    […] your ability to communicate persuasively. The number one most common complaint corporate recruiters lament is that MBAs may excel at quantitative skills, but they often write […]

  • […] by the candidates. This move comes as a no-surprise one considering that b-schools across the country and globally have been worried about deteriorating English skills. According to Dr Vishwa Ballabh, Head of […]

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