mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with Rodrigo Malta, Director of MBA Admissions at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, Austin

We are fortunate to have recently enjoyed a lengthy discussion with Rodrigo Malta, the director of MBA admissions at Texas McCombs. During our Q&A session, we gained a profound window into the school’s MBA program and its admissions process. Some of our findings included…

  • McCombs is striving to stay abreast of technology trends in the energy, consumer and health care fields, especially with a new medical school in the works.
  • With approximately 260 students in each incoming class, McCombs is a small program, compared with its top-20 peers. Malta feels that the class is the right size for now, and the school has no plans to expand in the near term.
  • From an admissions perspective, McCombs wants to know that you have a true interest in the school and that you will be active there—it is not a place for anyone with a commuter mentality.
  • Malta strongly advises applicants to engage with their recommenders and really manage the selection process carefully so that they are identifying advocates who will commit to the process.

Of course, these are just the highlights. Read the entire interview to learn more about the McCombs experience and to gain admissions insight.

Rodrigo Malta, Texas McCombsmbaMission: I appreciate your willingness to chat, especially on days when your admissions committee is meeting. It’s very nice. Thanks for joining me.

Rodrigo Malta: No problem. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you guys.

mbaMission: Great. I always start my interviews with this question or at least a variation of this question: what is McCombs known for? What would you say is the stereotype of McCombs? And do you agree with that stereotype? What do you think McCombs should be known for?

RM: Got it. So as to what McCombs is known for, from a cultural perspective, we’re known for a collaborative yet competitive environment. Both our students and faculty are easygoing, love competition, but compete with a collaborative spirit. They mirror what Austin is, so I would definitely say the environment here in Austin has a big impact on our MBA culture. Our faculty is very approachable, very accessible, and I think something that’s unique to our students is they’re not really afraid to get their hands dirty. We talk about our students being “tinkerers”—playing around with concepts learned, not being afraid to think about things in a strategic manner, but also putting ideas into action.

From a focus perspective, being Texas, we obviously are well known for energy, both oil and gas, but also clean technology and renewables. Given Austin is a vibrant high-tech hub, we are also known for technology. This includes a multitude of functions in the technology space—be it in consulting, marketing, operations, finance, etc. Last but not least, something we have really highlighted lately are our strengths in entrepreneurship and innovation—helping our students learn how to identify opportunities, put together business plans, start their own business or work for a start-up. Austin is the kind of place where there is a lot of start-up activity, and almost every start-up in Austin has a Longhorn in it. This facilitates the connections between our students and the start-up environment here in the city, and we have been really promoting that quite a bit.

To the question of what should McCombs be known for, health care is an area in the dean’s strategic plan that we’re working on. In the past couple of years, we have added to our curriculum a health care concentration. We’ve also organized a health care symposium, which happens every year and focuses on the use of technology in the health care space. This aligns nicely with our strengths in technology and innovation. An area that we would like to be known for going forward is our efforts around the other sectors of health care, like hospital administration, biotechnology, etc. I think that’s also going to be coming into play, because UT Austin has recently announced the establishment of a medical school here on campus—Dell has already pledged about $50M to establishing and constructing the new medical school here in Austin. For prospective students who are interested in health care, there’s going to be a lot happening on campus in that space, and I think the students that come and join us that are interested in this space will really help us define what our relationship as a business school will be with the Dell Medical School.

mbaMission: You’ve touched on a lot of different things there, like energy, entrepreneurship, health care, but personally, I’m always most impressed by McCombs’s student investment fund. It’s at about $15M now, is that right?

RM: It’s about $13M, I think.

mbaMission: Oh, you say that humbly, like, “Oh, it’s only $13M.” It’s still probably $8M ahead of its nearest competitor. I mean, it’s pretty amazing.

RM: Yeah. It works as a private investment company, too, so it’s managed by students, but it’s actually registered under the laws of the state of Texas. It has its own board, and we have about 60 students that are involved either as a first or second year, managing the fund, which is very cool.

mbaMission: That’s amazing. You mentioned the tight-knit, collaborative culture, which you also highlight in your essay question two [“In the Texas MBA program we value our tight-knit and highly collaborative culture. Outside of your professional goals, please discuss why you are a good fit with the Texas MBA program and how you intend to impact the Texas MBA community?”], but can you share examples? It’s easy to talk about being collaborative, but can you try to make that more accessible or tangible for our readers?

RM: Sure. Our core classes happen mostly in the first semester, and that is where you have that biggest shock as a new student, realizing: “Okay, this is really quant heavy.” So we have some first-year students that do struggle with those core classes. In the past, we had always hired tutors to provide some one-to-one help for students that needed it, but in the past couple of years, because of a Graduate Business Council idea, we have started reaching out to second-year students that excelled in those classes to become tutors. They have to have earned an A in the core classes, and they become volunteer tutors for our first years. This year, we’ve had the most interest in volunteering we’ve ever had, with about 25 second years signing up to become tutors. These volunteers are taking time out of their own day, studies and projects to help others. Because of this initiative, we are now able to do away with our old practice of hiring outside tutors, keeping everything in house. This initiative also has the added bonus of strengthening the bonds between the second- and the first-year class.

mbaMission: Another thing you guys tend to emphasize is hands-on leadership. Again, can you clarify or sort of put that into action for us? What does it mean to be a hands-on leader at McCombs?

RM: There are tons of opportunities. It’s a fairly small full-time MBA program, at about 260 students per class year—so around 520 students at any given time. We have a ton of student organizations that are student driven, that are passed on from second years to first years. So, there is a lot of opportunity for you to take the lead with student groups. We also have a lot of hands-on opportunities both in the curriculum and with extracurricular activities. Within the curriculum, we offer students practicums they can take as electives. These are usually projects from companies that take more than just five or ten hours a week for our students to work on. The students work with the companies and then with the faculty advisor to deliver on that particular project.

Another leadership opportunity is to become involved in one of our fellows programs —these programs are similar to our MBA investment fund, in that we have a selection process for them. For most of our fellows programs, the selected students take an elective as a group, so they’re working really closely with a faculty member and the sponsoring companies. A key part of the class is to work on projects from the sponsoring companies, giving students the opportunity to apply the class theory to real-life projects. Current fellows programs include Marketing Fellows, Sigma Fellows, Venture Fellows, Corporate Finance Fellows—to name a few.

A popular activity for our students that are interested in hands-on leadership opportunities in a new industry or function are our MBA+ micro-consulting projects. Throughout the calendar year, MBAs identify companies with which they want to work. MBA+ helps connect the students to these organizations, regardless of the industry or location, by facilitating a micro-consulting project. The client provides a current business question to be addressed, and MBA+ provides each team with a budget and guides the team through the project management process. At the end of a four- to ten-week project period, the team of four to six MBAs reports its findings and recommendations to the client, often traveling to the client’s location to do so. For example, if you are a student thinking about switching careers, but you don’t want to devote one full elective to a practicum, you can signal a career switch desire on your resume by doing an MBA+ project in the new industry or function.

mbaMission: Sure. You mentioned the size of the program when we were talking about culture. McCombs is one of the smaller MBA programs out there. Are you guys happy with the program’s current size? Do you have any plans to grow?

RM: That’s a question I ask every year, multiple times a year. And we are happy with our current size. We’re in the midst of planning a new building, which will be primarily for our MBA students, so anytime we have a building meeting, I ask the class size question.

Currently, we’re happy with the size of our full-time MBA program. I also oversee our working professional programs, which are in Dallas, Houston and here in Austin. Additionally, we have executive MBA programs here in Austin and in Mexico City. An area of focus for us is to continue to build more opportunities for student interactions between these programs. All our MBA programs are cohort based,  so we are really looking at which student organizations are scalable across our portfolio of programs. Some examples of common student organizations across our MBA programs are our student volunteer McCombs Admissions Committee, Graduate Business Council and Graduate Women in Business. Even though we have a small full-time MBA program at 260, when you look at the portfolio of programs that we have, the incoming classes that I bring in are about 520. This larger portfolio size is attractive for employers in recruiting and for our students in building their network.

mbaMission: Right. Who does McCombs see as its peer schools right now?

RM: Whenever we’re looking at data, I look really closely at what other highly regarded public institutions are doing. So I’d say that I’m pretty close to my counterparts at UVA [the Darden School at the University of Virginia], at Michigan [the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan], at UC Berkeley [the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley]. We also keep an eye on what other schools that have similar focus areas to us, namely energy or technology. Here in Texas, from an admissions perspective, we have a really close relationship with the folks at Rice [Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business] that tend to do really well in energy, and then in technology, the schools in the Bay Area and Seattle.

mbaMission: Okay. Do you have any kind of internal target for rankings? Is that part of the strategic planning you mentioned, maybe—achieving a certain ranking within a certain period of time?

RM: We don’t directly manage to the rankings. We definitely pay attention to them, since it’s one of those factors that our prospective students and applicants are considering through the admissions process. Rankings also are one of those things that alumni pay close attention to after they leave the school.

The way that we manage things internally is by monitoring and measuring student satisfaction. Internally we do a lot of our own surveys, in addition to looking at what the rankings measure. From an internal metrics perspective, we really focus on student satisfaction and career management statistics. Questions we usually reflect on as a program include Are we really attracting the right recruiters to campus? Are students happy with the opportunities that they have? Are we placing them on par with our peer schools? Some of those internal metrics that we monitor can be ranking metrics, but not all.

mbaMission: In terms of demographics, about 30% of your class is made up of Texas residents. Do you feel like that is a good percentage? Is there a demographic you’d like to attract more of?

RM: Yeah. This is pretty much in line with our applicant pool. If you think about Texas being one of the most populous states in the nation and us being the flagship university for the state of Texas, we tend to get a high volume of Texas applicants. We do like our Texans, so we keep our percentage of people from Texas in the class very close to [that in] the applicant pool. So we’re pretty happy where we are with that, and it’s kind of funny, because we are equal opportunity regarding Texas undergraduates. We don’t even mind if you went school at one of our biggest rivals in athletics—Texas A&M. We like Aggies, and every once in a while, we even accept some Oklahoma Sooners—we just have to teach them how to do the “hook and horns.” [Laughs.]

From a demographic perspective, we are really focused this year on our recruitment of women. So if there was one class profile statistic that I wasn’t as happy with last year, it was our percentage of women, which dropped to just under 30% after being 32% the previous year. So we’re keeping a closer relationship with the Forte Foundation, trying to do a lot more women-specific recruiting events, talking to our students who just came in this year about what things made a difference from their perspective—all to ensure we have a stronger representation of women in  future full-time MBA classes.

mbaMission: What kind of a student is McCombs not for? Who would you say would not fit in as well?

RM: I think someone that’s just trying to check the MBA box would not be a good fit here at McCombs. If you’re just going to come to the classroom and then go home to study, then UT and McCombs are probably not for you. We’re a smaller program from a size perspective, so we are looking for people that are going to have a really positive impact on the experience of their classmates and also on the overall school. We really look for folks that during the application process give us evidence that they’re going to be highly involved in the program for the two years that they’re here.

mbaMission: Sure. Can you take us through the life cycle of an application? Maybe walk us through what happens to an application after it has been submitted?

RM: After the deadline day, we usually do a “divide and conquer” of application reads. All of our applications get either one or two total reads. Parallel to the read process, we also start inviting applicants to interview. So after the read and interview processes are completed, we meet as a committee for about two weeks and discuss every single candidate, even those candidates that we’re going to be denying. And while all of this is going on, we’re also doing all of our transcript, test score verifications on the back end—we leverage the infrastructure that we have at UT Austin for this process. It’s kind of a three-prong process, where we’re reading, we’re evaluating applications to interview and we’re verifying all the application data, while the applicant is anxiously awaiting their final decision. So that time period from submission to decision that tends to go really slow in the applicant’s eyes goes by very fast when you’re on the admissions side.

mbaMission: And what’s the interview like at McCombs? How can or should a candidate prep for a McCombs interview?

RM: We offer applicants the option to interview on campus, via Skype or with an alumnus. On-campus interviews are usually done with our second-year students, sometimes with admissions officers. There is the opportunity for our international students to take advantage of Skype, and those Skype interviews again are usually done by our second-year students that we select and train. All applicants also have an opportunity to interview where they’re at, with one of our alumni. A lot of times, the alumni that are interviewing for us in different cities were second-year students that we trained to do our on-campus interviews. These alumni spent about a year with us interviewing here on campus, which means we have the ability to read their interview critiques and coach them through feedback before we enlist them as alumni interviewers.

How can the applicants really prepare for the interview? Treat the interview professionally, no matter if it is done by a student, an admissions officer or an alumnus of the program. I think it’s really important to prepare questions for the end, because after all, the interview is a two-way street. We’re getting to know the applicant a little bit better, but we also expect that this is an opportunity for the applicant to get to know us as well. So, I would advise them to prepare some good questions that can’t usually be found on the Web site. One of the things that’s really big for McCombs is to show your excitement for the program, we usually call this factor “McCombs Love.” So you can show us this McCombs Love—think school research—through the application and in the interview.

mbaMission: Besides a lack of love, then, is there anything else you would say is a kind of “red flag” in the applications you see?

RM: Whenever I’m at admissions panels, I always advise applicants to take a close look at the letter of recommendation process and make sure that they’re selecting the right people to be their recommenders, making sure that their recommenders are able to really talk about why they want an MBA and what their differentiators are. Probably the biggest flag that we see is whenever we open those letters of recommendation, and they’re either very skimpy or negative. Letters of recommendation are outside of the applicant’s control from a writing perspective, but the applicants do have a say in who they select and what they’re able to share about their candidacy with those folks that write them.

mbaMission: Can we talk a bit about the different rounds? Is applying to McCombs in the third round a mistake? What would you advise someone considering submitting in Round 3?

RM: I always tell people to apply when their application is the most ready, and I feel like at this time of the year, there’s still time for an applicant to work on his or her application and submit by our second-round deadline. What happens in Round 3, even though we take a fair amount of individuals in that third round, is that we often have good applicants that we’re not able to make admission offers to right away, given space constraints. In cases like this, we may have to waitlist really good applicants, because the class is full, and we have to wait for some individual to change their mind to actually make space for that other good applicant. If someone applies to McCombs in Round 3, there’s of course a chance for them to be admitted—otherwise we wouldn’t have a Round 3—but they’re probably going to have to be a little bit more patient with us from a decision timing perspective.

mbaMission: You mentioned before that showing the love is important. So, is visiting campus part of that? Are you skeptical of applicants who don’t visit campus, assuming that they don’t live too far abroad?

RM: With technology nowadays, there are a lot of options to interact with us that don’t entail a campus visit. With that being said, I think from an applicant’s perspective, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if somewhere in the admissions process you didn’t come to the campus if you’re able to do so. We don’t ding individuals who apply without visiting campus, but we do see a strong correlation to that McCombs Love on the essays and in the interviews when folks have visited campus and were able to see our culture firsthand. I do highly advise all candidates to visit campus, be it before you apply or maybe when you interview, or even for an admitted student event. Just make sure that before you make that final decision, you come and visit campus, if at all possible.

This is more difficult for our international candidates, but if you’re a domestic candidate, there is no reason, if you’re going to be investing all this money in a MBA program, to not come visit campus at some point during the admissions process.

mbaMission: Right. Is there anything else we haven’t covered that you think is important for people to know about McCombs?

RM: Something that I always emphasize through my admissions team is that yes, we are here to evaluate applicants. Yes, we are the gatekeepers to UT Austin and the McCombs MBA program. But at the end of the day, we’re really here to help guide applicants through the application and admissions process, making sure that the applicants have an opportunity to put their best foot forward while ensuring we are evaluating them in a fair manner. So if there is one parting thought that I have, it is for applicants to really not be afraid to reach out to us with questions and ways that can strengthen their application. It is our mission as the admissions team here at McCombs to help guide the applicants through the process and help them put their best foot forward at the end of the day.

mbaMission: Thank you so much for all of us. This has been super helpful, and you’ve been really generous with your time. I really appreciate this.

RM: No problem. If at any point in time, you have questions or need anything, feel free to reach out to me. We’re laid back here at McCombs, and if we can ever be of assistance from this front, definitely let me know.

mbaMission: Great. Thanks so much, and same thing here. If we can offer you anything, let me know as well.

RM: Awesome. Will do.

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