Admissions criteria generally do not generate large amounts of press coverage, but recent adjustments made by the Tuck School of Business admissions office mark an exception to the rule. Beginning with the 2018-19 academic year, Tuck will admit qualified students who have demonstrated “niceness” in their academic, professional and personal lives, a change that has made headlines across the country.
The change, made after several months of discussion with faculty, students and alumni, is one component in a broader effort to streamline the school’s vision of eligible candidates; Tuck students, according to its website, are smart, accomplished, aware and nice.
This latter adjective has attracted press, praise and protest on the part of the public.
“Niceness” is conceptually slippery and seemingly counterproductive in a competitive business environment; as a result, Tuck’s endorsement of the quality came as a surprise to some. According to Tuck executive director of admissions and financial aid Luke Anthony Peña, the response to this announcement, which Tuck issued in June, has been largely positive. However, Peña has received pushback from those who question whether admissions committees can effectively assess niceness via a paper application.
To this criticism, Peña responded that “the nice candidate demonstrates — through a pattern of actions, through sustained habits — that they generously invest in the success of others, and that they are committed to elevating outcomes, not just for themselves, but for communities around them.”
Linda Abraham, chief executive officer of the admissions consulting firm Accepted and host of the Admissions Straight Talk podcast, said that she advises prospective MBA candidates seeking to prove themselves as nice to “think about times that they helped someone succeed … not about joining a group, not some grand cause, but about helping another human being.”
Pena said that Tuck’s office of admissions considered other conceptually similar words, but ultimately decided that niceness was the most “easily digestible” and “simple in concept, yet rich in quality.”
According to Peña, this update to the admissions criteria does not reflect a change in the qualities Tuck values in its students; instead, it better captures the priorities of the admissions team.
Katherine Donovan Tu’19 wholly agrees.
“I think [niceness] is the perfect summation of Tuck students,” she said.
Tuck, she added, is a close and interconnected community, in part due to its isolation and dearth of distractions relative to its peer institutions. Tuck students call this intangible quality the “Tuck fabric.”
“The Tuck character means that if I reach out to an alum, whether they graduated two years ago or 20 years ago, I can count on them getting back to me, usually within the same day, and providing really valuable advice,” she said.
Donovan also described the “pay it forward” philosophy shared by Tuck students. Second-year students help first-year students prepare for summer internship recruiting, and when those first-year students become second-year students, they do the same for their younger peers.
Like Donovan, Peña stressed the importance of support in the context of Tuck’s community and of the world more broadly.
“As our world becomes increasingly interconnected and interdependent, the ability to relate, connect and forge strong relationships is absolutely essential to being able to change the world for the better,” Peña said. “Wise leadership depends on having emotional intelligence to know when to balance support with challenge.”
This is the conclusion reached by a number of academic studies on the matter. The Human Cooperation Laboratory at Yale University, headed by professor David Rand, explores the behavioral economics of being nice. Again and again, his results indicate that collaboration and forgiveness result in long-term benefits for all parties involved, even if the sentiment is not reciprocated at first.
Perhaps in part due to findings such as these, Tuck’s adoption of niceness as an admissions criterion is part of a broader trend in the business community. Because the ability to empathize with others and regulate strong emotions is largely correlated with success in the workplace, graduate programs and companies now place increased emphasis on emotional intelligence and “soft” skills. For example, last year, New York University asked that MBA applicants submit two emotional intelligence endorsements.
Though Tuck has been the only school to label this underlying quality of selflessness and support “niceness,” Abraham said she believes it is valued by the overwhelming majority of MBA programs. These programs speak about it using different language, but they share a conceptual framework, she added.
“Call it niceness, call it community, call it teamwork, call it emotional intelligence, they’re all classic virtues that most if not all schools want … no school wants a jerk,” Abraham said.