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mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business Associate Dean for Admissions Liz Riley Hargrove

Recently, we were fortunate enough to be able to speak one-on-one with Liz Riley Hargrove, Associate Dean for Admissions at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Here are some highlights from the conversation, as well as the full transcript below:

  • Fuqua is focusing on expanding international diversity and has grown application volume in its daytime program by 21%, with increases in international applications for all programs
  • Ms. Hargrove suggests that candidates apply as early as possible without sacrificing quality
  • Ms. Hargrove explains Fuqua’s unique approach to interviews—sometimes by applicants’ request and sometimes by the school’s—and discusses how to prepare for one

mbaMission: The first question I always ask the admissions office when I do these interviews is what do people not know about Fuqua that you believe they should?

Liz Riley Hargrove: Hmmm, interesting question! I think it would be our recent work in defining and developing an education and research strategy based around industry verticals in consulting, finance, energy/environment, IT/media, health care and consumer goods. Fuqua has nine research centers now, and if you include the new research centers we launch this year, we will have a dedicated research presence in each of our industry verticals, allowing for a greater depth of access to the most important leaders and firms in these industries.

This is quite an innovative approach and will allow us to identify cross-disciplinary opportunities to broaden students’ exposure to the industries and firms that are driving the global economy of the 21st century. The centers support the students’ academic and career exploration, and the focus on industry verticals really differentiates Fuqua from other business schools.

mbaMission: Okay, great. I think that you know that at some schools, you’ll have a professor who might be really well known for his or her research, but at Fuqua, are there any professors who are known among students for their teaching style? What they’re like in the classroom?

LRH: Yeah, I can think of several. As I think you know, I’ve been at Duke for 17 years now, and I love that our faculty are not just one-dimensional. It’s true they are known for being ranked #1 in the world for their research productivity, and that’s such an important distinction for our students, because the faculty are bringing their research into the classroom often before it’s published. But they aren’t just great researchers—they also win teaching awards. One person who immediately comes to mind is Gavan Fitzsimons, who is on the marketing faculty. He is just a really fun, engaging teacher and gets raves from the students, who love the dynamic in the classroom. He holds students accountable for the material—and for being late for class! His philosophy is that students will learn the most when they are having the most fun, and his classes are really engaging and inspirational. And, behind his casual approach and casual dress, there is a brilliant marketing professor.

We have lots of prospective students who come to Durham to visit Duke. If you come to campus and experience a day in the life of a student, you can visit a class, have lunch with students and tour our facilities. Gavan’s class is always well received by visitors, and he always welcomes prospective students. I love that he asks prospective students to introduce themselves, and in their introduction, they have to tell either an embarrassing story about themselves or they have to sing—which you’d think would be really, really intimidating, but everybody in the class is cheering for them. I’ve heard some really funny stories over the years, and have heard about some not-so-great singing.  It’s all in good fun, though, and is a way to break the ice and make people feel welcome.

mbaMission: Do more people sing or tell embarrassing stories?

LRH: You know, I’ve never been asked that question—I’m not sure!

mbaMission: And Fuqua was able to lure him away from Wharton, right?

LRH: Why, yes, yes we did!

mbaMission: And, didn’t his sister and his brother-in-law also just join the faculty recently as well?

LRH: Yes, I was just going to say that. They just joined the Fuqua faculty this academic year, so we have a lot of Fitzsimonses running around.

mbaMission: I imagine that when you are recruiting in that mold and you’ve got one great guy, you’re going to want to grab a few others as well. Is there an academic area that you think the school is trying to develop right now?

LRH: Duke is a place that is known for having balanced excellence as it relates to the academics, and we encourage students to take advantage of all of the interdisciplinary opportunities that exist at Duke, so whether you are interested in marketing, finance or energy, you will have access to the best faculty and an innovative curriculum to support the learning environment. Our health sector management [HSM] program is a great example because it immerses students in multidisciplinary learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom and draws on our vast resources in the health care industry. Students in HSM take a variety of required and elective classes designed to give them a strong understanding of the health care market—it’s also one of the largest health care-related business programs in the country.

mbaMission: You mentioned that you’ve been at Fuqua for 17 years. How would you say admissions at Duke has changed over those years?

LRH: I have loved my time here at Fuqua, and I joke with the students that I’ve been here for 17 years, and all they need to know is that I was 12 years old when I started!

mbaMission: Right!

LRH: Certainly, technology has changed the way we implement our admissions processes and has impacted the way in which students gain access to information about our school, which is great. Once upon a time, the only way to request information on our programs was to phone or fax the office and request to get on the mailing list. Now applicants have and expect instant access to information. There is also the expectation that admission offices are keeping up with technology and that we will communicate with prospective students in a very transparent way.

mbaMission: Is there an area of the world that you’d like to see Duke make inroads into with respect to recruiting students going forward?

LRH:  In the time that I’ve been at Duke, we have made significant gains with respect to our international diversity in the student population. Our dean, Blair Sheppard, who is in his third year at Fuqua, is leading us in an exciting direction, and our global strategy is designed to connect Fuqua to the most important regions in the world. We have dedicated regional recruitment teams based in Russia, India, China, the United Kingdom and the Middle East. This has obviously expanded our ability to reach prospective students, and we’ve seen more international diversity in our applicant pool as a result. So to answer your question, several years ago I would have said that there was a need to develop a broader range of international diversity, and we’re able to achieve that now because of the way we are connected in these important regions.

mbaMission: You mentioned that the dean has been around for three years now and that globalization is his hallmark, that’s one of the big changes that he’s undertaken. And I think you mentioned in a BusinessWeek article recently that the application volume has risen. What can you say about this trend, and where do you see the application volume going?

LRH: Yes, applications to the daytime program were up 21% this year, but we also saw significant increases in our one-year Master of Management Studies program, our Executive MBA programs and our Cross Continent MBA program for working professionals. In all of our programs, we saw increases in international applications where we have dedicated resources.  I won’t claim that we’ll see another double-digit increase in daytime applications this year, especially given the economy, but we’re working hard to connect with prospective students, and it is a definite bonus for students in these regions to have the ability to speak with a Duke staff member in person.

mbaMission: It sounds like an amazing strategy, actually. Could you take us through what the application review process is like and how it works at Duke? I think people sometimes perceive that there’s some sort of secret code that they can crack as opposed to it being very much procedural. So can you shed some light on this process?

LRH: I’m sad to report there’s no great mystery. At Fuqua, there are four application rounds to choose from.  The early action round is very early—October 1st—and then there are three subsequent application rounds. We will admit students from each application round. My advice to applicants is to apply as early in the process as you can without sacrificing the quality of your application. Clearly, there are more available seats in the class in the earlier rounds and fewer seats available in Round 3, so it’s best to apply early, but only when you know you’ve put together the best representation of who you are and what you will bring to Duke.

As far as the actual process goes, all applications are submitted and evaluated online, which is incredible, because we now have the ability to read and evaluate applications from anywhere in the world via a secure online system—no more paper files to carry home in the evening. Once an applicant hits the submit button, our operations team ensures that all of the required materials have been received. Each file is then organized via our online system and distributed to an admissions committee member for an in-depth evaluation. Each application is read independently, from cover to cover, by at least two members of the admissions committee and then presented to the admissions committee for discussion and decision. There is equal weight assigned to all factors in the evaluation process, which means that our decisions are typically never based on any one factor. My job as the dean for admissions is to build a class that represents a microcosm of the world. Each student’s story is unique and allows us to create the diversity that is so important to the student experience at Duke.

mbaMission: Is there any advantage to applying in the early action round as opposed to in a later round?

LRH: Well, if you apply in the early action round, you are indicating to the admissions committee that if admitted, you will enroll at Duke. It’s very early in the business school application process, so we expect to see applicants who know that Duke is for them.  You have to be ready for the commitment to apply in the early action round. Again, we will admit students from every application round, but as the cycle progresses, we will have fewer available seats in the class.

mbaMission: Who would you say is the right kind of person for Fuqua? Whom do you think Fuqua works for or does not work for?

LRH: Successful Duke MBA candidates and students come in many forms. Broadly speaking, the best candidates for Fuqua have the ability to demonstrate “fit,” and by that I don’t mean to imply that there is a cookie-cutter mold that you must represent. “Fit” is demonstrated when applicants can articulate their own story and ambitions in the context of Fuqua’s story and ambitions. Fuqua students learn when to be strong team players and when to step up and lead.  These are interwoven concepts at Duke and are not mutually exclusive. We are looking for evidence of these abilities throughout the application. We want students who go beyond what is expected of them to have a true impact in their personal and professional lives.

mbaMission: People always call us and ask, what is the way to get into the school? But there is no formula or “type.” Fair to say?

LRH: Correct, there is no formula or type—honestly. When we are building our class, there are multiple dimensions that are important, and it’s incredibly important to be authentic in this process. The worst thing an applicant can do in the business school application process is to misrepresent who they are and what they’ve done. You don’t have to be anyone other than who you are, but you do have to be able to articulate your story. You are more than your GMAT score or the sum of your years of work experience. We may admit students who have lower GMAT scores because they are amazing in all other aspects of their candidacy.  We may also deny candidates with very high GMAT scores because they are one-dimensional and are not as competitive on those other important dimensions. Applicants really have to take the time to understand what our program is about and then make the connections throughout their application. Be who you are.

mbaMission: Right. Do you see the application changing dramatically over the next year or couple of years? Do you think Duke would ever embrace a bit of a push toward PowerPoint presentations or audio or video files?

LRH: Yeah. I love the way technology has improved how we connect with our customers, and we embrace it. I can absolutely see us utilizing different mediums in the future to better enable students to present their qualifications and create a more personalized approach to the evaluation model. A few of my peers are experimenting with video uploads as a part of the application process this year. I’m very curious to see how this works for them and how it can enhance an applicant’s ability to represent themselves in a virtual world.

mbaMission: I noticed that Duke’s average age is a touch older than that at other top schools, or should I say some schools are getting younger? Is that incidental or is it by design?

LRH: The average age at Duke has been 28 for the past couple of years, so we haven’t been intentional about increasing the average age. We typically admit fewer students immediately from their undergraduate experience, and that is intentional, because we also offer a one-year Master of Management Studies [MMS] program for students without postgraduate work experience. The MMS program is ideal for students who want to strengthen their business skills and knowledge but don’t have the typical MBA profile of four to five years of work experience.

mbaMission: Do you have any advice for people who are applying with partners? Is it advantageous or disadvantageous to do so? And the same thing with joint degree programs. Are people evaluated separately? Together?

LRH: For joint degree programs, we think that one of the advantages of coming to a school like Duke is that you’re not just a Fuqua student, you’re a Duke University student first, and that opens up all of the resources of the university to you. We currently have joint degree programs with law, medicine, public policy, environmental engineering and the nursing school. In most cases there is a joint admissions committee process and a lot of coordination of effort between the two schools. There are admission requirements that you’ll need to meet for each degree program, but we have streamlined much of the process so it’s less burdensome.

The Fuqua Partners Organization is by far one of the best advantages for students who are married or have a significant other who will also be joining them at Duke. The Fuqua Partners network exists to welcome, support and provide activities for partners and families in the Fuqua community and I love their motto: “All the Fuqua fun, minus the homework.”

As far as advice for couples applying to the program, if you know that your enrollment decision is a joint decision and that’s important to you, I would encourage you to apply in the same application round. You’ll have the option on the application to list a spouse or significant other if they will also be applying to the program. This gives the admissions committee a head’s up that this is not a singular decision and that there is a potential impact. It doesn’t advantage or disadvantage you, but from my perspective, it’s good to know this information up front.

mbaMission: Got it. Can you explain the interview process a bit? For instance, what can one expect, what is the process itself?

LRH: Yes, the interview is a very important component in our admission process.  It is our goal to interview everyone who will be admitted to the class. That being said, we offer two interview options. We have an “open” interview period from September 16th to October 16th . During the open interview period, anyone can visit our campus in Durham and conduct an admissions interview to be included as part of the evaluation process. After October 16th, interviews are by invitation only and occur in Durham as well as in locations around the world.

mbaMission: How would you describe the tenor of the interview?

LRH: You should prepare for your admissions interview in the same way you would for a job interview, but you will find that our interviews are very conversational. Interviews are conducted by current students who serve as admission fellows, alumni and admissions staff. Applicants should think of the interview as a way to let us know who they are, what motivates them and how they will contribute to the program. It is the chance for applicants to differentiate themselves from other candidates. At Fuqua, we look at the whole applicant, not just quantitative skills, language abilities or career success. We are interested in learning about their interests and passions and how their background will contribute to the class. Because of Fuqua’s student-driven culture, we have high expectations for students to be active members of their academic community, so we look for what an applicant can contribute to the class dynamic and learning environment. We also look for why Fuqua is the right school—how do the individual’s goals align with and support Fuqua’s goals and vice versa? Finally, we want to get to really know our students, so the interview should reflect that authenticity.

mbaMission: Right. Is there anything else you’d like people to know about Fuqua?

LRH: Yes, it might be interesting for your followers to know that Duke offers the MBA degree in several program formats. We’ve talked mostly about the daytime program, but our Cross Continent MBA program is the best global alternative to a daytime program format because you can live and work anywhere in the world while pursuing your MBA. For promising young managers, this is a very attractive feature since you do not have to interrupt your career or relocate. There is a minimum of three years of work experience required. We also offer the Weekend Executive MBA program, which as the title suggests, is delivered on-campus in Durham on an alternate weekend format. A minimum of seven years of work experience is required. Our Global Executive program is our most senior level MBA program and is targeted at executives who are looking to take the turn into the C-suite. A minimum of 10 years of work experience is required.

mbaMission: Great. I really want to thank you for your time.

LRH: It was a pleasure, Jeremy.

For more information on Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business or 13 other top business schools, check out our mbaMission Insider’s Guides.



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