mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with University of Chicago Booth School of Business Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions Kurt Ahlm

mbaMission was fortunate to have the opportunity recently to speak one-on-one with Kurt Ahlm, associate dean for student recruitment and admissions at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. We think the interview is very much worth reading, particularly for anyone interested in Chicago Booth, but really for any business school applicant. Here, we offer some highlights from the interview, followed by a full transcript of the exchange.

  • Chicago Booth does not employ any quotas in its application review process but looks to enroll a diverse, smart group of students who fit well with the school’s values and culture.
  • Ahlm discusses how an application is reviewed at Chicago Booth.
  • Chicago Booth interviews 40%–50% of applicants, though depending on the strength of the applicant pool, the percentage can vary from year to year.


mbaMission: Chicago Booth is known for finance. What is it not known for that you believe it should be known for?

Kurt Ahlm: Chicago Booth is a breeding ground for critical thinkers. Our graduates are analytical problem solvers who can apply what they learn here to successful careers in any number of fields. Booth has strength in many areas beyond finance, including entrepreneurship and marketing. Our Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship provides unparalleled programming for our students, through labs in PE [Private Equity], VC [Venture Capitalism], Cleantech and Social Entrepreneurship, to lecture series and networking support, to helping students launch businesses through the New Venture Challenge. The Kilts Center for Marketing provides similar support to marketing students and recently entered into an exclusive agreement with AC Nielsen to share three major databases which put Booth at the forefront of thinking about marketing and consumer behavior. Partnerships like this show that Chicago Booth provides analytics and critical thought across a variety of disciplines beyond just finance.

mbaMission: Chicago Booth is probably equally well known for its flexibility—where students do not have a prescribed first-year curriculum, but choose classes from core offerings. Could you discuss some of the support that students receive to help them ensure they choose wisely?

KA: Chicago Booth offers the most flexible curriculum of any of the top business schools and has done so since its founding over 100 years ago. We have decades of experience behind us in creating a culture that supports a multitude of choices a student is faced with while they’re here. We have one of the largest administrative staffs of any of the top business schools, despite enrolling a class that is smaller than [that of] many of our closest peers. These staff members are experienced professionals who offer one-on-one support for our students and who create the best academic experience for them. When you couple this guidance with second-year students who serve as a valuable resource for first years, you’ll see that Booth is unmatched in the amount of resources and support it provides its students to help them make the best decisions in planning their curriculum and careers.

mbaMission: Sticking with the theme of what the school is known for… clearly, Chicago Booth has a variety of distinguished professors—Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel and efficient market theorist Eugene Fama, to name only two. Does the school have any professors who may be less well known for their research but are instead known for their teaching styles? Can you tell us about one or two “true” teachers at Chicago Booth and how they bring creative or innovative methods to the classroom?

KA: There are far too many names to choose from. Being in a Chicago Booth classroom is a very special experience, no matter who is teaching. The commitment to teaching is embedded deep in our culture, and it is something we not only take pride in but we it is something we are recognized for. Among the top ten business schools ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek in 2010, Booth was the only school to receive an outstanding rating for teaching. Students here can explore any class and experience thought-provoking and innovative ideas every day.

mbaMission: Does the admissions office have any directives at all to increase a “type” of applicant—to accept younger applicants, for example, or to increase the proportion of international students or women? Does the school strive to have each class reflect something specific?

KA: No. At Booth, we do not employ any quotas in our review process. We simply look to enroll a diverse, smart group of students, who fit well with the values and culture of Booth. Innovation and world-changing ideas are born in an environment made up of people of all ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, professions, gender etc. We want to maintain that same commitment to welcoming a diverse mix that has propelled us for generations.

mbaMission: Do you consult with the career services office before making admissions offers?

KA: We work with many offices at Booth to help us to understand how we can refine our selection process. Together we explore what attributes correlate well with success here and after graduation. Understanding how Booth students navigate their academic and career objectives during their two years is tremendously important to how we think about the application evaluation process. So although we leverage our community to help us understand and recognize fit, it is solely the role of the admissions office to select those students who are eventually admitted to the program.

mbaMission: When you read an applicant’s file, where do you start? With the candidate’s resume? With the PowerPoint submission?

KA: At Booth our process is iterative, with many committee members reviewing an applicant’s file before a final decision is made. We calibrate our review process to make sure we all are looking for similar elements of fit, but we all investigate the application a little differently. I tend to follow the order of the application: personal information, professional information, academics, essays (including the slide presentation), letters of recommendation.

mbaMission: No business school is for everyone—who would you say Chicago Booth is not for?

KA: I would say Chicago Booth is not for people who are simply looking for a credential to add to their resume. At Booth, the MBA is the culmination of two years of exploring your interests, engaging your mind and learning how to think critically about markets and organizations. There is no cookie-cutter approach here, no single way to get a degree, so unless a student is prepared to step in, create a path and leverage the full range of opportunities in front of them, this will not be a good fit.

mbaMission: For joint degree applicants, is there any “pull”? Meaning, if you want to accept a certain joint degree applicant, will you advocate on his/her behalf to help the applicant also gain admission to, say, the Harris School? Similarly, when a married couple applies together, do you make admissions decisions with the couple in mind—trying to bring in both spouses?

KA: All applicants to Booth have to be able to get into the program on their own merits. Although we want to be mindful of applicants applying with a spouse, partner or significant other, that will not tip the scale for someone who is not prepared to handle the challenges of an MBA program. My answer to this question is the same as the answer I would provide to a question on joint degrees.

mbaMission: How would you describe the tenor of the typical admissions interview at Chicago Booth?

KA: The interview process is not meant to be an intense experience, it is meant to be a conversation between two interested parties. It is an opportunity for us to meet a candidate and hear why they believe they are a good fit for Booth, while at the same time allowing the interviewer to convey what makes our program distinctive. Our goal at the end of the interview is to have both parties walk away feeling that they learned something meaningful from the conversation.

mbaMission: What advice would you give to a candidate to help him/her prepare to apply to Chicago Booth?

KA: Take time to thoroughly think through your objectives for business school. Why do you want an MBA? What skills or experiences do you hope to gain? How do you prefer to learn? How do all of these things put you in a better position to accomplish your short- and long-term goals? These are just some of the questions I push people to consider as they begin their application preparation. The more focused and on point an applicant is, the more compelling their application will be and the more prepared they will be to successfully start an MBA program. A two-year MBA program moves quickly regardless where you go, and if you have not fully vetted your reasons for being at that school, you can fall behind pretty quickly. The more thinking and planning you do on the front end, the greater overall success you will have throughout the entire MBA experience.

mbaMission: What percentage of Chicago Booth candidates are typically interviewed?

KA: This percentage can vary from year to year, depending on the strength of the pool, but in general we interview between 40% and 50% of those who apply.

mbaMission: How informed do you think candidates are in general? Do you think the average Chicago Booth applicant knows what he/she would be in for?

KA: Yes, because at Chicago Booth we strive to be as transparent as possible. Our staff and students work hard to be accessible; we push a lot of content out to prospective students through email, our Web site and a variety of social media platforms. We have a comprehensive campus visit program and we conduct receptions in cities around the world. Because fit with program is so important to our selection process, we try to eliminate any ambiguity about who we are and how to prepare to be successful here. So my guess is Chicago applicants are well aware of what to expect from this place by the time they enroll.

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