We had the opportunity to catch up with Soojin Kwon, the director of admissions at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, to get her take on some recent developments at the school and explore various elements of the Ross admissions process. Soojin kindly shared her thoughts on a number of topics, including the following:
- the reasons behind several of the changes to Ross’s essay questions this year
- how admissions works with career services in the evaluation process
- how admissions views a campus visit, or lack thereof—especially for certain candidates
- what she feels are important characteristics for a Ross student to have
- what waitlisted applicants should be sure to tell the admissions committee
- where candidates tend to be weakest in their applications
mbaMission: I’m glad we’re getting this chance to catch up. It’s been a long time.
Soojin Kwon: It really has! And this is a really exciting time at Ross. We’ve got a new dean; we’ve got a new building that’s about to open up this fall. I’m headed to New York to do an event with Steve Ross and the dean. A lot is happening. We’re building on some really good momentum here.
mbaMission: That’s great. How long have you been in this position now? It’s been a while, right?
SK: Almost 12 years! I love this job. I meet a lot of interesting people and recruit them to come to a school I love and went to myself. Then I get to reconnect with them on the road as alumni who help us recruit more great students. It’s an awesome community to be part of.
mbaMission: I’m sure. I know people who already have their MBAs who say, “Oh, if were to apply to business school now, I would never get in.” The perception is that things are constantly getting harder and more competitive. And I do feel like every year, the applicants get a little better. Do you get that impression, too?
SK: I do feel that way. Some of it comes from candidates having access to more information about schools from the schools themselves as well as from media outlets and advisors—and from schools “getting out there” more, both in person and virtually. And many schools, like us, have strived to be more transparent. So that makes it easier for applicants to understand what it takes to put their best foot forward in the application process.
mbaMission: That is true. But I want to return to one of the exciting developments at Ross that you mentioned earlier—Scott DeRue taking over as the school’s dean just over a month ago. What effect do you feel his leadership might have on Ross’s MBA program?
SK: We’re really excited to have Scott as our dean. He’s no stranger to the school; he’s been here nine years and has served in a number of leadership roles, most recently as the associate dean for executive education and director of our Sanger Leadership Center. Because he knows the school well, he’s been able to hit the ground running. He has a lot of energy, and he’s extremely dedicated to the school. It’s only been a month, and he has logged a lot of miles to engage with alumni, meet prospective students, and chat with the media. Closer to home, his schedule’s been packed, too, talking with faculty and staff, welcoming our new MBA students, and even doing a live Facebook Q&A session.
He’s identified a few ideas, or goals, if you will. One is to make Ross the world’s leading business school for experience-driven learning. Another is to make Ross a home for ideas that influence the world of business. And the third is to make lifelong learning possible by giving Ross alumni access to tuition-free executive education for life.
mbaMission: That’s really good to hear. So in regard to Ross’s written application, in recent years, you have asked candidates to share their proudest moment in their professional and personal lives, but this year, the question addresses only applicants’ personal life. What was the motivation for this change?
SK: We found that most applicants tended to write about a professional achievement. And it was often something that was already mentioned in their resume, their recommendation letter, and sometimes their interviews. We were basically getting the same story two or three times. We didn’t have a space to get to know them more personally before we interviewed them, so we wanted to steer people more toward the personal side of things and be explicit about focusing on a personal accomplishment. We wanted to get a better sense of them as a person.
mbaMission: A lot of applicants seem to think there is no room to talk about their personal life in a business school application, but clearly, there is.
SK: Absolutely there is.
mbaMission: You want to get to know people as people.
SK: Yes. We’re not just trying to bring in smart, accomplished professionals. We’re also building a community of students who will work together, hopefully motivate and support and inspire each other and expand each other’s vision of possibilities, and share their unique skills and talents with their classmates. To get a sense of that side of a candidate, we need to know more than just their professional accomplishments. Business school isn’t just about academics and finding a great job. It’s also about joining a school’s community and working with folks in that community. The fit piece is really important.
mbaMission: Definitely. The word count for Ross’s career-goals essay was reduced this year from 400 words last year to just 250. Was there a particular reason for this change, too?
SK: By making it shorter, we’re hoping students can be more focused in their vision and their response—something along the lines of “Here’s my plan. Here’s why I’m interested in this path.” They can think of it as a short answer question with two parts.
mbaMission: Got it. How often would you say you confer with the career services office to make sure candidates’ goals are really plausible?
SK: We do an annual review with career services on students’ employment outcomes. We call it “Stars and Strugglers.” We ask career services to identify students in each category so the admissions team can review those students’ applications to see what, if any, “signs” there might’ve been about their potential success in the career search process. What we’ve found is that it’s less about a student’s prior career than it is about how they prepare for their desired new career that shapes their outcomes.
mbaMission: That makes sense. With the recent trend among MBA programs in asking fewer essay questions and reducing word limits, we’re seeing candidates who are increasingly focused on the optional essay and concerned that not submitting one could be detrimental in some way. What advice would you give applicants about whether to submit an optional essay and how doing so—or not—might affect someone’s candidacy?
SK: For the Ross application, the optional essay is less of an “optional essay” and more of a place to briefly explain anything within the application that might require more context. For example, maybe someone has a gap in their employment history, which we would see in the resume, or they didn’t have their current direct supervisor write their rec letter. The optional essay is a place to explain those things. It’s not a place to explain why they love Ross or to copy and paste an essay they wrote for another school because they think it sheds more light on who they are. Or to say, and this is something we often see, “I’m a really bad standardized test taker” or “I was immature in college and partied too much, and hence my grades were bad.” It’s not a space for that.
One of the things I keep contemplating is doing away with essays altogether, but I think that might freak applicants out rather than providing them less work. They might think, “But the essay’s the only place where I can differentiate myself” or, “If I write an amazing essay, that’ll offset my low test score.” Not true. The bottom line is that I’d caution applicants against spending an inordinate amount of time on their essays at the expense of investing time in the parts of the application that have greater weight—demonstrated academic ability and professional achievements.
mbaMission: Sure. I saw where you recently wrote a blog post encouraging applicants to attend more student recruiting events, and you offered some great reasons for doing so. But how does going to one of those events compare with a school visit in the admissions committee’s eyes? If a candidate attends a Ross recruiting event, would you like to see that person also come to campus for a visit?
SK: There’s no better way for an applicant to get a sense of a school and whether it would be a good fit than visiting its campus, sitting in on a class, watching how the discussion goes, walking the halls and seeing how students engage with each other, or exploring the town. Meeting us and our alumni at one of our events can be a substitute, but obviously, only a partial one. From an evaluation perspective, though, it doesn’t change how we make our decision. If a candidate is great, we’re going to admit them whether they come to an event or not.
mbaMission: If an applicant doesn’t live all that far away from Ross but doesn’t ever visit the school, would that lead you to think that maybe he or she could have put in more of an effort?
SK: Yes, when someone lives fairly close, but they don’t interview on campus or come to visit, we do wonder why. It doesn’t happen often. Candidates take advantage of every opportunity to put their best foot forward. We’ve seen that in the increase in campus visits and in the applicants who opt to interview on campus.
mbaMission: What kind of person would you say tends to do well at Ross? In other words, what characteristics tend to position students for success in this program?
SK: A few characteristics come to mind. People who thrive on doing things and not just taking things in and absorbing them do well at Ross. It’s a place for do-ers. Both the academic experience and extracurricular activities are based on the premise that students will learn best by actually doing things. We provide lots of opportunities to gain hands-on experience in just about anything an MBA grad could want to do—advising, managing, starting or investing in a business or impact organization. Students who do well here are those who take advantage of opportunities.
Another characteristic of students who tend to do well in the program is being team oriented. Everything students do here is with other students Whether it’s class assignments, semester-long projects, or club activities, it requires working well with others. So we’re looking for people who know how to work with others and value doing so. It requires having an open mind and respecting others.
mbaMission: I see. You’ve said that in the Ross interview, candidates will often—if not always—be asked to explain why they feel Ross is the right program for them. So what are some ways applicants can clearly show that they really understand what Ross has to offer and are a good “fit” with the school?
SK: It will show by what they write about in their essays, what their recommender says about them, and, for those who are invited to interview, what they say in their interview. Candidates can get a good sense of who we are by talking to our students, alumni, and staff.
mbaMission: Okay. Can you provide some insight into why an applicant might end up on the Ross waitlist and what waitlisted candidates should or should not do while the school makes its final decision?
SK: One reason could be that one part of a person’s application isn’t as strong as the rest of it, compared with the rest of the pool. The two main areas are generally academics—in other words, their test score and/or undergrad record—and work experience. The test is really the only thing an applicant can change within an admissions cycle.
One thing waitlisted applicants should do is to let us know whether they’re still interested in coming to Ross. We email applicants to confirm their interest, and we touch base with them throughout the process to share where we are and ask them if anything’s changed.
mbaMission: Got it. What would you say to potential applicants who are hesitant to apply to Ross because they don’t believe they have a “good enough” story or their stats do not quite measure up to the school’s published averages?
SK: They should apply. An average is just that—an average—not a requirement or a minimum. Even the lower end of the 80th percentile, which is what most schools publish, is not the “minimum.” We admit applicants on both sides of the average. There’s a reason there are multiple components to the application; we review applicants holistically. No one is just a score and a GPA.
mbaMission: Sure. What is a part of the application process that you feel candidates do not tend to spend enough time on or address thoroughly enough? What would you say is most often the weakest area?
SK: The resume. That’s our first snapshot of who an applicant is, and what many will do is just submit the last resume they wrote. It’s full of jargon for their industry; it looks like they’re applying for a job in their industry. The resume should be something that someone who doesn’t work in their industry can understand. Applicants can do that by focusing on impact and results.
The one thing that we see frequently—and that applicants shouldn’t do—is make it read like a job description. We want to know what an applicant accomplished, not what they were hired to do.
mbaMission: How would you recommend that applicants deal with their recommenders? Do you think applicants should engage with them, maybe refresh their memory about certain events or accomplishments, or take more of a hands-off approach?
SK: Ross requires only one rec letter. We decided to require—and accept—only one because we found that a second letter rarely gave us different insight into a candidate. As far as how an applicant should deal with their recommenders, it’s helpful to the recommender to refresh their memory about what you worked on with them, what you contributed or accomplished, how you performed, and to check in with them to make sure they meet the application deadline.
mbaMission: Right. Before we wrap up, is there anything else you want people to know about Ross’s MBA program?
SK: It’s one of the top three schools in the U.S. News [& World Report] rankings of specializations, with bench strength across all academic areas, not just one or two areas. This is important because MBAs aren’t going to spend their entire career in one industry. They’re going to change careers one, two, three, or more times. Ross will prepare them to move across industries and functions.
They’ll also have classmates and alumni who go into a wide range of careers, so the network will be very diverse. In fact, one of the phrases we frequently use here is “Go Blue, Go Anywhere,” because Michigan Ross grads can be found around the globe, across a wide array of industries and functions. The majority go to the coasts: New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, DC, and Chicago. And with more than 90% of our students coming from outside of Michigan, students don’t come in with preestablished relationships or a singular focus on getting a job in the area. As a result, they tend to develop strong bonds. And Ann Arbor is a really easy place to get to, unlike some schools that aren’t in a big city. We’re just 30 minutes from an international airport and Delta hub. So it makes it easy for students to travel—for recruiting, for courses that have a global component, or to go on an adventure with classmates.
Another thing is that a lot of schools have gotten on the bandwagon of experience-driven learning. What we do is more comprehensive and intensive than anything else out there. MAP, which stands for Multidisciplinary Action Project, is seven weeks, full-time. That’s a quarter of your first year, almost as long as a summer internship. That’s particularly helpful for students who want to change careers. The roster of project sponsors is pretty amazing, too—organizations like Amazon, Google, Facebook, the World Bank, the New York Jets, Celebrity Cruises, Hyatt Hotels, NBC, Clinique, Habitat for Humanity, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, start-ups in Europe, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] in Africa. It’s a pretty cool list. Candidates who are comparing programs and thinking every school’s got experience-driven learning or field-based learning should know that they’re not all created equal.
mbaMission: This has been really great. Thank you so much for your time!
SK: No problem. Thank you!