mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with David Simpson, Admissions Director at London Business School

When we connected with David Simpson, admissions director at London Business School (LBS), not long ago, he kindly took the time to clarify a number of aspects of the school’s unique MBA program. In addition to noting what he believes are LBS’s most well-known and least well-known strengths and explaining the array of specialized degrees and programs the school offers, Simpson shed light on the following topics we imagine aspiring LBS students may find rather interesting:
mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with David Simpson, Admissions Director at London Business School

  • the role—and advantages—of the city of London in the LBS program
  • the school’s seeming preference for older, more experienced candidates
  • the importance of a global mind-set in one’s candidacy
  • the biggest red flag Simpson sees when evaluating applicants
  • how the waitlist is used and the school’s expectations of those on it
  • the role of exchange programs in the LBS experience

Read on for our full interview…

mbaMission: Thank you so much for speaking with me today. We’re really excited to talk to you. I want to start by asking what you believe are the three things your program is best known for.

David Simpson: Okay, I think the things we are best known for are having a diverse global student body and being based in the heart of London—a very global business city. And I think we’re also very well known for having a strength in finance, especially in teaching finance.

mbaMission: So what do you think LBS should be known for that it’s not currently known for? What is an LBS offering or strength that you don’t think is in the limelight enough?

DS: Sure. This, I think, links to what I just said about finance. Whilst we have a huge strength in finance and connections to London and a Masters in Finance program in our portfolio, strategy and entrepreneurship, for example, are also a huge strength of the school, together with all our other subject areas. Our strength of entrepreneurship, I think, is as relevant as the strength in finance, in terms of how we leverage our London connections.

Also, we are a standalone business school, but we have a large number of master’s degree programs, starting with the Masters in Management and Masters in Financial Management for pre-experienced students, all the way through the Masters in Finance specialist program, the MBAs, then the Executive MBAs, up to the Sloan Masters, which is designed for people in leadership positions with lots of experience who are really senior in their career already. That, I think, makes us quite unique in having a community that is diverse in experience ranges as well as the huge diversity of nationalities and professional backgrounds.

That can give huge advantages for everyone, actually. So if you are a Masters in Management student, you’re surrounded by people who have bags of business experience and contacts, and if you are someone on the Sloan program and further on in your career, what you can get out of being around and sometimes working with those pre-experienced or early career students would be taking from their energy and their understanding of a different generation. Everybody benefits, and the courses overlap in some ways, as the elective portfolio is offered across most of our programs.

mbaMission: I was looking on the LBS Web site yesterday, and it said that of the Class of 2014, 26 graduates are self-employed or started a business. So does LBS look for candidates who have kind of an entrepreneurial mind-set in whatever career they’re targeting, not necessarily applicants who are just interested in starting a business?

DS: Yes, that’s exactly right. Entrepreneurship is not just about people who want to start running their own businesses. I mean, one of the areas we teach in entrepreneurship is about thinking in an entrepreneurial manner. Our core course in entrepreneurship that everybody takes is designed to make sure that everybody can think entrepreneurially, whatever they’re going to do. So, whether they start their own business or they’re going back to a large, established, corporate setup, it gives them opportunities to practice, act, and think slightly differently.

mbaMission: Sure. What advantages do you think LBS offers over the top U.S. programs?

DS: I think this comes down to the diversity of the student body, the global diversity. It’s quite common in a lot of U.S. schools to have, say, 30% [of students] from other countries, but for us, being global is what we live and breathe. Approximately 90% of our students are from outside the United Kingdom, and about 85% to 90% are non-U.S., if you look at it that way. And it’s not just where people are from, it’s how we use that in our programs. The entire structure of the program is designed to leverage the hugely diverse nature of our student body. Our London location and how we use the fact that we’re in this global business city is key to our success. However, it’s not just about being based here. We reach out into the city and really leverage our relationships in the city.

mbaMission: And how exactly do you do that? Can you give me some examples of how you make the most of your London location?

DS: Sure. One example would be the London Business Experiences, so taking groups of students with faculty out to different businesses to visit them and see how they operate, or to look at a different element of their organization. We do this on different programs. On the MBA, it could involve a trip to something like the London Stock Exchange or the Bank of England, or somewhere different, like the Arsenal Football Club. We’re not just looking at traditional, mainstream, corporate businesses, we’re looking at very different organizations as well. And those business experiences will look at varying angles, so it could be operations, it could be a marketing function, it could be talking to or listening to the CEO, so there’s a huge variety of different options within that program.

Then another really big part of leveraging London is making the most of guest speakers. Most businesses have a base in London or have some element of business in London. So you’re going to have this range of senior executives and CEOs who are either based in or traveling through London, and that gives us a huge advantage in bringing them in to speak to our students. Either for recruiting, or giving a guest lecture, or being part of the speaker series—the fact that they can just pop in from just 15 minutes away means it’s much easier for us to get hold of people.

mbaMission: Makes sense! Applicants ask us all the time how the different schools decide whether candidates are the right fit for their program, so I’d love to hear how you at LBS evaluate applications and what things you look for that might be different from what a U.S. program might look for.

DS: I think the way we look at it to start with is probably quite similar. We’re looking at a CV [curriculum vitae]; we’re looking at someone’s career track and the success they’ve had in their academic background. So that’s very much in line with what U.S. schools do. Then we look at their aspirations. We still ask them in the essays what they want to do and where. I think that’s maybe a subtle difference, the where bit. But the main difference will be that we’re looking for a desire to have a global impact and work internationally. So somebody who could return back home and stay perhaps in the same sector, we might ask, “Well, why LBS? Why not just go for a local program?” We want everybody joining the program to make the most of it, and that generally involves either moving into a new area of work or a new geographic area.

We’re absolutely fine with people who might want to return to their own country, of course, because we want to broaden our alumni network, but we expect that you will be using those new global skills, knowledge, and networks, and you’ll be working for a company in a role that enables you to do that. Even if you’re sponsored and you’re returning to your company, it has to be worthwhile for us to take you, so that you will use what you’ve learned here that you couldn’t learn from another school.

And another side is evidence that you’re going to be able to work in a collaborative manner. Students here work with each other, and their grades are dependent on each other, with things like the first-year study group. That’s a big ask, so that means we’ve got to do our admissions jobs really well to make sure we’re recruiting good people who get the idea of collaborative learning and group work and see that as more than a nice to have—it’s essential. And that comes with a lot of bumps, you know.

It’s not an easy thing to do, to work with someone in a very intensive first-year MBA program, especially with people you have nothing in common with professionally or culturally. But that’s what we do; we form study groups with people from very, very different backgrounds. So if you are a British investment banker, you will be the only Brit in the group, and you’re likely to be the only banker in the group, which means that you have less in common, but it also means you have combined strength. You just need to make it work. So we look for evidence that you either have worked in that context or very much want to work in that context.

mbaMission: Absolutely. Essentially, you’re focusing on applicants’ evidence of collaboration and teamwork. That’s something people should highlight in their application if they have that experience?

DS: Yes. There’s that, and then the other side was the sort of open-mindedness and interest in working globally, so that doesn’t necessarily mean where you do your next job, but you have to have an interest in people from around the world and see that although that will present challenges, like some language challenges, the value you get from that is so much more.

mbaMission: So is having international experience a requirement to apply, or do you just need to have that open-mindedness and willingness to embrace that in your career?

DS: It’s not at all essential that you have to have it, and for some nationalities, it’s reasonably rare that people would have it. It’s very much about the open-mindedness. I think most people will be able to take to working with people from different cultures, you know, even in their home country, but it’s that desire to use those new skills and that experience later.

mbaMission: Great. Thank you for clarifying that. You talked a little bit about applicants’ career aspirations—how do you judge a candidate’s employability? Do you consult with your career services department? How do you know if somebody’s career goals are achievable?

DS: Within the admissions team, we have years of experience. We also start the admissions year discussing with our senior Career Centre colleagues, program director, and executive director exactly what we’re looking for from the class, what we want more of, and what direction the school is taking, what resources we have, what companies are interested in recruiting our students, what the trends are. So we do a big review and look at what kind of class comes next. When we’re looking at individuals through the year, we’re using our experience, and we spend a lot of time with our Career Centre colleagues to understand what realistic aspirations might be for different individuals.

We check all applicants and think, “Is this a realistic aspiration? If they’re in this industry, and they want to move into this other industry in this location, is that possible? If we think it isn’t, it’s not necessarily the end of the road. It might just mean that you’re a strong candidate who we have to talk to about adjusting your aspirations. We are mindful of things like flexibility, so that people must have a plan B as well as their plan A, and they’ve got to see that the route to get to their desired final outcomes sometimes goes in a slightly different direction. You might have to go sideways to go up. Really, I think it’s looking for people who recognize that they might need to change their plans, or more importantly, once you get here and you start experiencing the program and meeting different students and seeing the recruiters on campus, you might actually change your mind completely anyway. So, adaptability is key.

mbaMission: Yes, we saw after the financial crisis that a lot of plan As didn’t work out, so people had to turn to a plan B or C. I’m sure you’ve experienced this among your students as well.

DS: Absolutely. I mean, we’ve always encouraged that, but I suppose the financial crisis just drilled it home for those students who are wishing to go into certain areas. If a job, company, or sector no longer exists, then they’re going to have to look at a plan B. I wouldn’t say it caught us by surprise, because we have always prepared students that they need to look at different options, and we also have the diversity of where our students come from and where they can go. The structure of that has changed over the years, so now on the MBA, we have fewer people going into finance than we do going into corporate sectors. Whilst finance and consulting are still big, we’re seeing a much broader range of aspirations.

mbaMission: Good. I’d like to turn to the issue of the GMAT versus the GRE. Do you at LBS have a preference for one exam over the other? And can you give us any guidance as to the score ranges you look for with the GRE?

DS: Right now, we don’t accept the GRE on the MBA. We only accept the GMAT. So that’s quite a simple answer to that one.

mbaMission: Okay.

DS: The reason is that we actually prefer having the comparability of one test. I think if you have both, then you have to make the comparison, which is quite hard to do. Because you certainly shouldn’t just translate the score and say, “This GRE is worth this GMAT score.” That’s a flawed method. For us, it just makes things a lot more simple if we have one test. We are quite accommodating, quite flexible within the range of scores that we accept with GMAT. Our average is 700. We could artificially inflate that by accepting only candidates with high scores if we wanted to, but what we choose to do is recruit who we think are the best students within a broad range and not sweat it so much to push that average up. Compared with our competitor schools in the United States, our score is slightly lower, but that doesn’t bother us much as long as we’re happy that at the individual level, the quality is very, very strong and that the students we are recruiting are a great fit for our special school.

We have confidence in looking at different measures. This means that if you’ve got a score in the upper 700s, that doesn’t guarantee admission—far from it. We’re looking for the all-around nature of the application. Some of our most successful students come in with lower 600s.

mbaMission: Okay. Thank you for that clarification. We see that LBS has a slightly older demographic, not among European schools, necessarily, but on a global basis, your demographic is slightly older. Do you intentionally seek out older applicants, people who have a little bit more experience?

DS: What we look for is the right level of experience. It’s a factor of that collaboration and the fact that much of the learning students get is from each other. Again, that’s not necessarily unusual; that’s quite common across schools. But if anybody is getting into the program with two to three years—certainly a lot of the sponsored consultants from the top firms are at that end of the range—they have to prove to us they have the maturity, they’ve got the experience, and they’ve got the ability to reflect on what they’ve learnt so far and contribute. So we’re pretty tough on someone’s ability to contribute as well as their raw intellectual horsepower.

We may disappoint some very strong and high-potential candidates by not admitting them if we think they’re high potential, but they just haven’t done enough yet; they don’t have enough professional and life experience to contribute in the way we want. The experience range for the current class is two to 13 years, but the vast majority have between four and eight years. And the outliers at either end are smaller. As I said, the less experienced ones tend to come from a very narrow range of industries. In fact, nearly always, it’s sponsored strategy consultants.

mbaMission: That’s good to know. When you’re reading over an application, what would you say is a red flag for you? What would make you stop and pause?

DS: I suppose the main, obvious one is unrealistic aspirations, in terms of what you can do with your MBA. It’s always a product of what you’ve done before and what we can offer within the school. We can certainly open doors and put companies in front of you, but your chances of being employed are quite often dependent on your previous experiences. So [we want to see] an understanding of what an MBA can do for you as an individual. The biggest red flag for me, though, is lack of research—somebody who has just kind of put in a vanilla application, that whilst you’ve got a strong profile, you could have been applying for Wharton or INSEAD or LBS or Harvard. I don’t like that. I like to see passion for our school. We have quite a unique offering, so it’s not hard for someone to do the research and put in a very specific case of why London Business School is right for them.

I think that it’s easier for candidates to do that for us than for many American schools, where there is less difference between them. For us, I think it’s quite clear. And if I don’t see evidence in terms of research on who you’ve spoken to from within the community and what elements of the program you’re interested in, that’s a red flag for me. And that kind of relates to lack of passion, as well, lack of passion for your own future, lack of passion for our school and for what we do. We want to see that shine through an application and even more so at the interview.

mbaMission: So can or should an applicant include the actual names of people they’ve spoken to—students, alumni, professors, directors of programs, that sort of thing—in their essays?

DS: Absolutely! In fact, it’s more than okay, it’s something we really want. We ask a question later in the application: “Who have you spoken to?” We look at that quite carefully, and if you don’t have contacts, that’s fine, as long as you have read enough and you’ve watched the videos and you’ve the seen the stories. So, not having established personal connections to someone in the community is not a problem, because sometimes you don’t. We just want to see evidence that you’ve researched and shown that you understand what we’re about. Connections to individuals is just one way of getting that understanding. You can exhibit it through different means.

mbaMission: Right. I tell my clients the invention of social media has made connecting with people at the different schools so easy. And we constantly encourage our clients to take that extra step, because you learn so much when you actually hear from people who are in the program. Moving on, though, the interview stage is a very stressful part of the application process. What advice would you give an applicant who is preparing to interview with LBS?

DS: This is a good question for us, because to gain admittance, all admits on the MBA have an interview. All of our interviews are by alumni. I might second-interview people if we’ve got extra questions, but every single person getting into the program will have interviewed with one of our alumni face-to-face, all around the world. We are very strong believers in that, because we can assess someone’s suitability for the program from the context of someone who has been there and done it and seen a range of classmates with very different backgrounds. So even if the candidate has nothing in common with the alumni interviewer, the interviewer will know somebody with that kind of background. On the whole, we generally match candidates with alumni from the same sector anyway, but sometimes, we do the opposite, just to mix it up a bit.

The interview makes up a huge part of the final decision. If someone doesn’t interview very well, even if their profile is strong, they’re not going to get an offer. If their interview is great but their profile has a few question marks, then it goes a long way to them gaining admission. We put a lot of trust in our alumni. And in terms of how applicants are assessed during the interview, it’s mostly about fit and suitability, and a lot of that is about potential to contribute. It’s that energy, passion, evidence of research on the program, and showing that you really want to come to this business school rather than a business school. We’re looking for students to be authentic about their background. The obvious advice is be yourself and know your own history and be able to refer to things from your own application.

mbaMission: What would you advise an applicant not to do?

DS: It’s back to authenticity and making sure that you are giving a fair representation of yourself. What comes through sometimes is that people are trying to tell us what they think we want to hear, rather than what they genuinely believe. We want people to relax and be themselves and let that shine through, because even if you come across as being super polished, we want to see the real you. We want to understand what makes you tick, what you like, what frustrates you. We want to see character and personality. If you’ve got your guard up too much, we’re not going to learn enough to be comfortable and make an admit decision. So, be practiced, be polished, be prepared, but let enough of yourself shine through.

mbaMission: Great. What does LBS want from applicants who find themselves on the waitlist? Anything? Nothing?

DS: That’s a good question. The first thing we do when we waitlist people is ask them if they’re interested in staying on the waitlist. We don’t make the assumption that you will, and some candidates will drop out, so we ask straightaway for people to tell us, “Yes, I’m still interested.” If they don’t, then we’re not going to consider them. You have to take an active role in answering that basic question. From there, I think it’s about balance. It’s about making sure we have updates, if they’re relevant. So if your career has changed, if something has happened in your life that you believe makes you a stronger candidate, let us know.

We will judge you by the nature and number of approaches you make to us. If someone is contacting us too much, that’s a problem. If they choose to not tell us anything, that’s okay, I guess. It means that there’s nothing substantial that’s changed, as long as they’re checking in and telling us they still wish to be considered. We do take some visits from waitlisted candidates, but we certainly don’t give it too much of an advantage. We don’t say, “You must come and see us,” because we can’t always host those visits. It’s more for yourself that you might want to visit to see the place, rather than improving your chances. Not everybody can make it. We can have waitlisted candidates in Australia or New Zealand, and it’s a lot harder for them to hop on a plane than it would be for someone to come down the road who lives in London.

Sometimes, we have specific areas we want to explore. In those cases, we will contact you, and we will invite you to either reinterview in person or by phone or on Skype, if there are things we want to know. That’s in a small number of cases, though. In many cases, it’s just a case of having 400 positions on the MBA and a lot of really good applicants, and we’re looking for this certain level of diversity in the class mix. This means that we have to disappoint some great people. We hold people on the waitlist through the year to help balance our class out, and some will be made an offer, some won’t. We don’t have a ranked waitlist of candidates; we don’t score in a certain way. It varies as to your chances through the year.

The main thing is about balanced communication, telling us the right amount of information in the right manner, just the basic expectations of communication and interaction that you’d have with any kind of recruitment. We will always monitor the way you communicate with us, so you want to make sure that all your communications are of a high quality. If you’re sending an email, make sure it’s well written. If you’re making a call, make sure that you’re respecting the people at the end of the line, no matter what position they play, whether it’s an admissions director or administrator, anybody in the team.

mbaMission: That’s great. Very helpful. Another question I have has to do with applicants who are interested in LBS but want to come back to the States after they graduate. What industries have the strongest U.S. placement for your MBAs, and what is your alumni network like in the United States?

DS: We have an increasing number of American students who want to return home straightaway, rather than spending some time in the U.K. or beyond. That’s a trend we’re seeing that we actually welcome, because it’s helping to spread the word and get our alumni presence out there. I guess, traditionally, there are probably more of our students in finance than other sectors, but that’s partly the nature of where they’re returning. That’s changing a bit, I think, but I’d say, traditionally, it was finance, and now it’s a bit more varied.

Geographically, we obviously have a lot of alumni and a lot of returning students to New York, but [Washington] DC is important as well, and on the West Coast, in San Francisco. There are more and more students joining from energy backgrounds who are perhaps are returning home to Texas or other regions.

mbaMission: Building on that, how many LBS students would you say participate in an exchange program with a U.S. school each year?

DS: Over 30% of our student body go on exchange, somewhere between 30% and 40%, and over half of those exchanges are to U.S. schools—well over half, in fact. Generally, we would say that if you’re a U.S. national, you should be looking to go on exchange to a school outside of America, you know, to build your global experience. So if you went to college in the United States and you worked there, we would hope that you’re coming to London to build your global experience; therefore, your exchange is more likely to be in Latin America, or Asia, or Australia, or in Europe—somewhere outside of your home nation.

mbaMission: That’s a great point. I have just one last question for you: are there any myths about LBS that you would like to dispel? Any misconceptions about the program you’d like to clear up?

DS: Sure. I guess it’s come up a couple of times in our conversation already, but certainly, that we’re just a finance school. It annoys me and somewhat concerns me that you’re badged up as something that perhaps you have a strength in but that doesn’t necessarily dominate. We have an outstanding post-experience Masters in Finance program, a great new pre-experience finance program, and it’s certainly a strength, our big finance faculty, but that doesn’t make us just a finance school. If you’re coming here to be an entrepreneur, if you’re coming here with an interest in marketing, or you’re coming here from the military with a hope to work in energy afterwards, then we have plenty of strengths to help you make that transition.

I think labeling schools as any sort of a bias to any one sector is generally quite annoying for the schools and sometimes damaging, and it’s a generalization that doesn’t fit. Where we have strength is a great thing, but that’s not the same as being “a finance school” or “an entrepreneurship school.” Most schools will have strengths in all areas—otherwise they wouldn’t be top-ranked institutions. It’s hard to do that if you only do one thing. And I think most admissions directors would agree with me. So, although it’s something that’s certainly a strength, it’s also something I think can be a myth, this misconception that this [finance] is what we do, and we don’t do anything else.

mbaMission: Great. I so much appreciate your time. Thank you again.

DS: Thank you very much, too. They were absolutely brilliant questions. I really enjoyed answering them.

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