mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with Rod Garcia, Senior Director of Admissions at the MIT Sloan School of Management

Recently, mbaMission had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Rod Garcia, senior director of admissions at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Here are some highlights from the interview, followed by a full transcript.

  • Mr. Garcia does not view MIT Sloan as a “technology school,” but as a school with a focus on innovation.
  • MIT Sloan’s admissions process has a level of science to it. Applicants are given scores in areas such as  “intellectual skills” and “work success.” The admissions committee gets a sense of candidates within the dimensions of “demonstrated success” and “leadership attributes” and then makes its interview decisions.
  • Mr. Garcia believes attributes predict success better than goals, which is why the school asks for a “cover letter” rather than a “goals” essay.
  • MIT Sloan’s application is a screen for approximately 80% of applicants, and then 18% to 20% are interviewed, with roughly one-half of those interviewed being admitted. Interviews are one-on-one with an admissions staff member and are very structured, beginning with a standard question and evolving based on the applicant’s responses.

mbaMission: Dean David Schmittlein is now the not-so-new “new dean” at MIT Sloan. He’s been in this position for about five years—can you discuss what kind of impact he has had on the school in this time?

Rod Garcia: Dean Schmittlein has actually had a profound impact on MIT Sloan, in that he has created a variety of new programs, which have in turn become a portfolio of sorts. Now, instead of offering only an MBA, we have a program for you, no matter where you are in your career.

So, beyond our MBA, our one-year Master of Finance [MFin] program, which started four years ago, targets recent college graduates who are clearly interested in finance. This [targeting this younger demographic] was a conscious decision, because we did not want to cannibalize our MBA program by drawing away applicants who were deeper into their careers. Then, we also started a Master of Science in Management Studies [MSMS] program, which we created with partner schools, predominantly in Asia, and which allows students to complete an MBA or a master’s degree in their home country and then continue for a year at MIT, where they complete a thesis in a specialized area of their choosing and earn an MIT degree. We now also have our executive MBA [EMBA] program, which is for mid-career managers, often with as much as 15 years of experience, and is predominantly populated by domestic students. We created these programs at a time when traditional MBA application volumes were starting to decline. By diversifying, we were better able to meet demand and grow, and we have seen other schools follow our lead.

Additionally, the dean has placed a huge emphasis on concept-based action learning. We have our Entrepreneurship Lab, our Sustainability Lab, our China Lab, our India Lab, our Global Health Delivery Lab, among others. The movement toward these labs has accelerated during the dean’s tenure as he has engaged with our alumni around the world. We have our own BRIK countries—Brazil, Russia, India and Korea—and we have regional boards that engage alumni and keep them involved in our community.

The dean has definitely been busy, but MIT Sloan, with the support of MIT, is not a top-down culture. We implement changes quickly, which is unusual in these kinds of institutions.

mbaMission: Every school has its stereotypes, and we know that these are not always accurate. What do you want applicants to think of when they hear the name MIT Sloan?

RG: People immediately think “technology,” but I would prefer it if they thought “innovation-based technology.” At MIT Sloan, our students work on renewable energy projects and cloud computing concepts. We have our $100K business plan competition [the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition], and we see “innovation” as a theme in the concepts that are pitched, but not just innovation in the traditional technological sphere. Professor John Little was a pioneer in marketing science and system dynamics with bar coding technology. Franco Modigliani, who was a member of the Sloan faculty, and Paul Samuelson, who taught in the MIT economics department, collaborated and laid the foundation for the field of modern finance. Both Modigliani and Samuelson were Nobel Laureates in economics, and they in turn educated seven current or former central bankers. So, we are innovators in lots of areas, not just technology.

mbaMission: That is a great leaping-off point—what are a few areas that people should know MIT Sloan is strong in? Where does MIT Sloan quietly excel?

RG: Just come to MIT and find out! [laughs] We have a great sports analytics conference, and I think that is a great example of how we are not driven from the top down. We had a single class in sports analytics, and right away we could see its potential, and before we knew it, it grew into a conference and then into a big national conference, held at the Boston Convention Center, with extensive media coverage. This just fits our culture so well, with our focus on analytics.

We also have a great strength in operations. We have a professor—Vivek Farias—who has developed an algorithm to allocate organs fairly, based on the recipient’s health, age and more. He is not a doctor, he is not in medicine, but he is in operations, and he is doing innovative things in this field. He is helping to eliminate waste, maximize efficiency and reduce wait times at hospitals. At MIT Sloan, we unify theory and practice and have real-world impact.

mbaMission: I’d like to explore the faculty angle a little further. Are there any other professors or any particular classes at MIT Sloan that you can point to that are unusual or innovative?

RG: We have so many great teachers. Arnie [Arnold] Barnett’s students love him so much that they set up an “I Heart Arnie” Facebook page. He is a statistics professor who engages students in an unusual but fun way—he calculates death risk with them. As in, what are the odds that they will survive a plane crash? He also discusses court cases in which he was called as an expert witness.

And our Sustainable Business Lab—we just call it S-Lab—is really popular. Our students work on energy issues or global health issues in Africa. They go for three to four weeks and try to solve a health care–related problem, like distributing medicine, for example. In some places, the supply of medication is not the problem, but distribution is. We send our students to find ways to ensure that medicine is distributed consistently and safely. The students love the experiential aspects of the program.

mbaMission: Shifting gears here and moving on to the topic of the application process at MIT Sloan, your applicants are actually scored. So there is some level of science to the process, right?

RG: I would say that we have very clearly defined metrics to evaluate applicants. We start by evaluating attributes—for example, “intellectual skills.” Based on a candidate’s GMAT, GPA and the strength of their school, we assign a value of 3, 2, 1, 0 or even -1. We do the same thing with “work success”—3, 2, 1, 0, -1. Overall, we get a sense of candidates within two dimensions: “demonstrated success” and “leadership attributes.” Based on these scores—which correspond to IQ [intelligence quotient] and EQ [emotional intelligence]—we make choices and invite some applicants to interview.

mbaMission: Are there ever cases where logic overrides science?

RG: Sure. There are definitely times when logic overrides science. Metrics can guide you, but you still need to follow your gut. Even if someone has strong scores, you still have your instincts. We have people who have amazing scores but something just does not add up, and we’ll have others who don’t have great scores, but something tells you that you need to take a closer look.

We had one individual who we rejected three times and then admitted, and he was a great student and is now a great alumnus. We had someone who we put on the waitlist and then rejected, and when he reapplied, we put him on the waitlist for a while before admitting him. He ended up winning several awards while he was a student here.

mbaMission: So, being a reapplicant is not the kiss of death? It’s worth trying again if you don’t get in the first time?

RG: It is not a life sentence! Reapplicants do get in.

mbaMission: What can you say about the GRE? Applicants often worry that they are identifying themselves negatively if they take the GRE. Can you dispel that myth?

RG: I don’t know why people have that perception. Right now, about 5% of our applicants apply with the GRE. So, with a small number of applicants and a test that has changed its scoring, I can’t offer a lot of data, but I can tell you that the GRE is definitely not inferior.

mbaMission: Okay. One of MIT Sloan’s application essays is the unique “cover letter” essay. Why do you take this approach rather than asking applicants to discuss their goals?

RG: The reason is that goals are not much of a predictor of success. We use attributes to predict our applicants’ success as graduates and as citizens of the world, and goals can and do change. It is not that we don’t value goals, but from an evaluation angle, they are just not that useful to us.

mbaMission: MIT Sloan has introduced a multimedia option into the application. Can you tell us more about that?

RG: Yes, this was a response to this generation. It will give us a new opportunity to see something an applicant has done. Still, it is not scoreable. It might be interesting to see, and it might influence our gut, but it is not a factor in our metrics.

mbaMission: Can you offer us some basics about your admissions interviews at MIT Sloan?

RG: Sure. We interview 18% to 20% of the pool, depending on application volumes. So, we interview about 900 people per year and admit about half. We have a set number that we can admit, so it does not make sense to interview more people and just not accept them. For us, our “paper” application is a screen for 80% of our applicants, and then we interview 20%.

Our admissions staff conducts our interviews—no alumni or students. And our interviews are all one-on-one, no group interviews. They are very structured. We ask questions, and then we probe more deeply into certain topics, based on the applicant’s responses.

mbaMission: Will you do any Skype interviews?

RG: We might do some for those who are far away, but we feel that it is important to be face-to-face with the candidate to be able to pick up on any nonverbal cues.

mbaMission: So, how would you advise someone to prep for an interview with MIT Sloan?

RG: Honestly, I don’t know! They just need to be honest and open, and don’t over-rehearse—that can backfire. I would say it is hard to really prepare, because I start with a standard question, but then I start asking all sorts of questions based on the responses to those first questions, and those questions and answers keep leading us to new places. So it can be kind of unpredictable. Each interview is different, but we generally use the interview to verify an impression of a candidate. So, again, I would just say, be yourself.

mbaMission: What are some red flags for you when you are reading an application? What should a candidate absolutely avoid doing or putting into their application?

RG: To be honest, I cringe when I hear, “MIT is my number one choice.” I have been burned by this line in the past, and I find that the people who say it are most often not coming here. Even if you are sincere, don’t say it! I am just speaking for MIT, but sometimes I’ll be in the middle of an interview that is going really well, and then I hear that. I know what to do with that data!

mbaMission: That’s really helpful to know. Thanks so much for joining us today, Rod, and for being so candid. We really appreciate your time.

RG: You are welcome.

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