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Our Favorite Advice from MBA Admissions Directors, Part 1

At mbaMission, we constantly strive to learn more about what makes a successful application and what the leading schools want—and do not want—from prospective students. To accomplish this, we communicate regularly with admissions directors at the top MBA programs, and in this two-part blog series, we want to share with you some of our favorite advice we have collected from these experts over the past few application seasons.

Kurt Ahlm, Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business

“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.”

Amanda Carlson, Assistant Dean of Admissions at Columbia Business School

“You should still prepare [for your admissions interview] as you would for a professional interview. Reread your application. The admissions committee is of course going to look for consistency in your story. It should not come as a surprise to anybody that if a person who’s interviewing says, ‘Well, I’d like to go into health care’ to the interviewer but said, ‘I want to go into real estate development’ in their application, that’s clearly going to be something that gets our minds percolating.”

Dawna Clarke, Director of MBA Admissions at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth

“A successful interview, I find …, is when people don’t just make broad sweeping statements, but they have some really good, tangible examples of things that they’ve done. So if they say they have strong leadership potential, then they tell a story to illustrate that, or if they identify themselves as being a strong team player, then they would tell us a story, an anecdote, or a vignette that illustrates that they are a team player. It’s very hard if you interview a lot of people, you’re not going to remember that so-and-so said that they were a strong team player, but I very well might remember a very compelling story that somebody told me. So I would tell people to really identify what are the three things that you’re most proud of that you think are relevant to business school, and how am I going to convey those in the interview, and what kind of specific examples do I have to tell that would be memorable and compelling?”

Dustin Cornwell, Director of MBA Admissions at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University

“What we like to see is applicants who are focused on why they’re pursuing an MBA. They have a career goal in mind, and they’ve done their research enough about our program to know that we’re able to help them in achieving that goal. Many candidates don’t know exactly what they want to do. They know they need to get an MBA to gain more experience, perhaps, or if they’re switching careers from marketing into finance or vice versa, for example, that’s a good reason to get an MBA. And I always encourage candidates, when I’m talking to them on the road and at recruiting events, to take that next step further. Okay, now you’ve identified why you need an MBA, what do you want to do with that? How are you going to make that transition? If you are making a rather dramatic career switch from one industry to another, think about the skill set that you have, be ready to talk to recruiters about how you can transfer what you’ve done to that new position…. There are all these different areas, and students may not have had exposure to all of them yet, so the MBA program certainly can open their eyes to opportunities. But I think you have to come in with some direction. You have to have some idea of where it is you want to go, because we can’t start from square one. You need to have at least walked down that path a little and meet us halfway so we can help you get where you’re going.”

Isser Gallogly, Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions at the Stern School of Business at New York University

“When you look at the three areas—the academic, the professional, and the personal—you don’t want to give an admissions officer a reason to say no. You want them to look at everything and say, ‘Wow, this looks great across the board.’ … Obviously for undergraduate [GPA], there is only so much you can do, and it’s usually too late, but with the GMAT, we only look at someone’s best scores. So if your score is not reflective of your ability, then retake it. Retake it several times. Put yourself in the best position to demonstrate academic ability. In the application itself, when you’re talking about résumés and things like that, again, people should really try to highlight what they have achieved and quantify those results. Answer questions that may be out there, and if you have been unemployed, take the time to explain what happened and what you were doing in that time. Don’t just leave us guessing. … Help us understand.”

Rodrigo Malta, Director of MBA Admissions at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, Austin

“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.”

Soojin Kwon, Director of Admissions at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan

“We highly encourage prospective students to visit and sit in on a class, get a feel for the class dynamics—with the professor, with each other—walk around the campus and get a feel for the culture. Visits can help applicants make informed decisions about which school to apply to and ultimately attend, because they’ll get better sense of fit. Some schools are going to be a better fit based on someone’s personality and goals, and you can’t really make that determination based on view books or Web sites or rankings. You really need to experience it firsthand. That said, we understand that applicants’ budgets and schedules are tight, and it may be tough for prospective students to visit all the schools they’re considering. At a minimum, prospective students should talk to current students and alumni at each school.”

Niki da Silva, Director of MBA Recruitment and Admissions at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management

“If they do [not know what they want to do after graduating], they should not be investing a hundred thousand dollars in an MBA program until they figure it out a little bit. But … lots of people, even the ones who think 100%, ‘I know exactly what I want to do’ will come in, and they’ll have an experience that changes their mind. They’ll shift. So what we really look for is, do they have an understanding of what they’re great at, what they want to do, what they’re passionate about doing? Can they articulate that? Do they seem flexible? Are they coachable? Are they resilient? Because even if you know that you want to be a strategy consultant at McKinsey [& Company],  … you might not land there for your first job out of the MBA program. And we want to ensure we’re admitting people who are still going to feel like they had a good experience and are open to coaching, to other options, to working really hard. If they don’t get that summer internship, are they going to come back and try again, or are they just going to kind of give up and feel like they’re entitled to a specific role …?”

Sara Neher, Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia

“One of the mistakes people make is regurgitating the Web site back to us. You telling me that you want to take so-and-so’s class or the case method is important because of what we put on our Web site is just a waste of your word count. It shows me that you can read our Web site, but it doesn’t show me anything about who you are. Really spend that time with personal examples, incidents, specific stories that you think tell me something about yourself that would make you a fit for the case method. For example, something about presenting at a board meeting and the questions you were asked and how you had to manage that on your feet and what kind of preparation you had to do beforehand—that would completely tell me that you could accomplish the case method, right? But it doesn’t tell me exactly what I already know about the case method that I’ve told you on the Web site. Really personal examples from the workplace or from an activity, that’s how you can convey that the best. The best essays are always about a moment in time and not a laundry list or a chronology of everything you’ve ever done.”

Bruce DelMonico, Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions at the Yale School of Management

“We ask applicants to tell us what they want to do after they get their MBA, and a lot of times we get applicants who want to do something different than what they’re doing now, and that’s perfectly understandable. A lot of people use an MBA to make a career shift. But one thing, one red flag that will often raise, is if we see someone who wants to make a career shift to an area that they don’t really have any experience in or any exposure to. If you’re making a career shift, you’re necessarily not in that area now, so we don’t expect that someone will have work experience in a certain area—but they should at least have some exposure, whether it’s an activity or some volunteer work, to that area so that they can have some sense of what they’re getting into and have a bit of an idea to get from where they are now to where they want to go.”


September 30, 2014

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