Recently, we were able to catch up with Kurt Ahlm, the associate dean for student recruitment and admissions at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who brought us up to speed on some of the exciting happenings at the school and certain changes that were made this year to its application essay prompts. In addition, he touched on a number of other topics, including the following:
- The increase in the number of women in the program
- What admissions wants to know about applicants’ intended career path
- The qualities of a successful Chicago Booth student
- Why students and alumni are used to conduct admissions interviews
- The benefits of the school’s flexible curriculum
mbaMission: Thank you so much for this opportunity to chat. When the photo-inspired essay first appeared in Booth’s application last year, you said that one of the motivations for this approach was to elicit more genuine and even “visceral” reactions from applicants. We have to assume that you saw at least some of what you had hoped for, given that you are using the same approach this year. What kind of information or insight do you feel this prompt generates that the other parts of the application do not?
Kurt Alhm: The visuals really anchor on the individuality of each applicant, how they connect with a specific moment, and why they want to be part of the Booth community. We want to get a better feel for the unique connection and impact they can bring to Booth, as well as Booth’s impact on their life and future aspirations. We’ve been really impressed and have seen applicants take a very personal approach with their chosen image, as well as give profound reasons for wanting to be a part of this school and how they want to define their impact going forward. We were pleasantly surprised to see that image selection results last year were as diverse as our applicants, and we hope to find the same is true this year.
mbaMission: We noted that the number of photos from which candidates could choose dropped from 16 last year to ten, different photos were offered, captions were included, and the associated prompt changed focus a bit. Can you explain some of the reasoning behind these changes? How do you hope these adjustments might influence the essays you receive in response?
KA: We continue to select photos that represent various moments of the Booth experience. From the classroom setting to annual competitions to excursions in locations around the world, each moment is distinctive to Chicago Booth and indicative of the culture that connects every student, faculty member, and alumnus of this school. What’s more, everyone reflects on moments differently, and at Booth, we value diverse perspectives, because it is important to have varied opinions threaded throughout the learning process, as it makes ideas stronger. We hope that, as it did last year, the essay encourages applicants to express themselves, their individuality, and their passions in an authentic way, as well as how they connect to the Booth community and culture. The captions that we included this year provide additional context for applicants to relate to each moment and find connections that resonate best with them.
mbaMission: Sure. When we last spoke with you, Dean [Sunil] Kumar had been in place for only a few months. How would you characterize his influence on the school during his tenure since then?
KA: Knowing that Sunil is moving on, it is a fitting time for reflection on his tenure here at Chicago Booth. Along with his leadership in recruiting exceptional professors from around the world, Dean Kumar has been an advocate and front-runner in the expansion of Booth’s global presence—most recently, the move of our executive MBA program in Asia from Singapore to its new home in Hong Kong. The school has seen many new initiatives under his charge in regards to students, alumni, and faculty, from innovative education and research programs to increased support for scholarships and collaborative partnerships.
mbaMission: That’s great. What do you feel have been some of the most important changes at Booth in the past few years?
KA: Over the past several years, we have made strides across the board, including broadening and strengthening our intellectual and global footprint and recruiting and expanding faculty with expertise in diverse areas. We’ve increased support for students and research through the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, as well as the Social Enterprise Initiative and the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership.
mbaMission: Nice. The percentage of women in Chicago Booth’s incoming class has been rising in recent years. What steps has the school taken to help increase female interest and enrollment in the MBA program?
KA: Following the overall trend for MBA programs, we are seeing an increased number of women at top-tier business schools in the past several years. Booth’s educational approach and values have always caught the attention of a widely diverse set of MBA seekers. As we’ve learned to better convey who we are through stories of our students and alumni making an impact in industries across the board, we appeal to an even broader scope of candidates. Chicago Booth is more than a finance school—it’s marketing, social impact, entrepreneurship, technology, CPG [consumer packaged goods], consulting. That type of variety naturally attracts people with differing interests, career goals, and passions. We’re not doing anything different per se, just doing a better job of articulating what the Booth degree and this community are all about. And that resonates with many, including women.
mbaMission: Right. If an applicant is deciding between two logical career paths, would Booth prefer that the candidate discuss both options in the application or commit to just one?
KA: We ask candidates to tell us their goals to help us understand what motivates them to get an MBA and what they are driven to do in the future, but also to explain why they believe Booth is the best place to pursue that passion. As an applicant, we expect you to have well-thought-out conviction in your goals and to be able to clearly explain what those intentions are, as well as how you plan to achieve them within the construct of Chicago Booth. Regardless of industry, career aspirations backed by authentic passion that truly mean something to the candidate will come through in their application, and that is sure to catch our attention.
mbaMission: Got it. Has the school been doing anything in particular to strengthen its alumni network?
KA: With over 50,000 alumni around the world, annual events such as Reconnect and Booth 20/20 provide opportunities for alumni to reunite and reflect, while milestone events such as the celebration of our 20-year presence in Europe and 15-year presence in Asia showcase the strength of the Booth community around the globe. Alumni also connect with each other and the school through recruitment efforts, panel discussions, industry conferences, alumni clubs, executive-in-residence programs, and other engagements both on and off campus.
mbaMission: Absolutely. What characteristics would you say tend to set someone up for success at Chicago Booth? In other words, what kinds of students tend to thrive in your program?
KA: A successful student is one who has a solid understanding of why they want an MBA, why now, and why Booth. Students at Booth share an intellectual curiosity and passion for ideas. They are humble leaders who want to be part of something bigger than what a single individual can achieve. The backgrounds from which our students come and they areas they are going into post-MBA are incredibly diverse, and they [the students] embrace an environment that cultivates such diversity. Our students believe that the best ideas generate the greatest impact when different perspectives have been solicited and thoroughly vetted. Together, we build a collaborative community with respect for each other’s individual viewpoint—bringing together students and faculty from various industries and cultures to realize the potential for breakthrough moments every day.
mbaMission: Great. How can applicants convey to the admissions committee that they truly understand what Chicago Booth is about and why the school is right for them, and vice-versa? What are some ways that someone can demonstrate “fit”?
KA: Successful applicants are able to showcase their career trajectory, who they are, and what they are passionate about in an authentic way that relates both to their own aspirations and to how they plan to interact within the Booth community. Candidates should be able to give examples and a wider understanding of why they want an MBA, why it’s important at this point in their life, and why Booth is the place they want to be. Don’t be afraid to be specific and pull from encounters, conversations, and experiences you have already had with current students, alumni, faculty, staff, and other members of the Booth community.
mbaMission: Got it. What is most important for a reapplicant to demonstrate?
KA: It is important for reapplicants to show us how they have made an effort to continue growing and challenging themselves in the time since they last applied—especially in areas that they feel are their weaknesses. So we like to see things like taking additional courses, leadership development or promotion in their current job, and other opportunities to build on existing skill sets.
mbaMission: Sure. What guidance would you give someone who finds him- or herself on the waitlist? Why might admissions put an applicant on the waitlist in the first place?
KA: It is important to understand that we put a lot of time and resources into how to help and guide applicants through the waitlist process. Our approach is to be as transparent and supportive as possible, providing open communication and counsel while also emphasizing how you can take initiative during this critical period. The number of applicants placed on the waitlist varies from year to year and from deadline to deadline. We admit a number of applicants from the waitlist each year, and you should realize that being put on the waitlist signals a genuine interest in having you join us at Chicago Booth. All waitlisted applicants are reviewed as part of our ongoing evaluation efforts. We recommend doing your own thorough and thoughtful audit of your original application and think about ways in which you can add value and context for the admissions committee.
mbaMission: What would you say is the value in using second-year students and alumni for interviews rather than members of the admissions staff?
KA: Whether current students, alumni, or staff members, we approach interviews as a dialogue between two very interested parties who genuinely want to get to know each other. Interviews serve as much for us to evaluate candidates as for candidates to learn more about whether our program is a fit for them. We hope applicants take this as an opportunity to ask candid questions and to dig deep to find out if ours is a school and a community they want to be a part of—not only for the next two years but for the rest of their life. Second-year students and alumni provide a valuable judgement of fit for the program because they have been through it themselves. They can offer candidates significant insight into what it’s like to be at Booth, as well as provide a discerning assessment of how they think candidates would contribute to Booth’s learning environment. Also, these applicants are the people who will be their future classmates, colleagues, and leaders in their fields.
mbaMission: Definitely. What do you feel the flexibility of Booth’s curriculum offers students that a more rigid or required curriculum does not? How or why do you think it is better for preparing students for their post-MBA career?
KA: Our flexibility is rooted in the culture at Booth, which appreciates individuality. We believe you know yourself best, so we give you the academic freedom to explore classes that best suit your goals, that challenge you, allow you build on your existing skill set, take risks, and make you think differently. Our Academic Advisors help students craft a curriculum based on their particular academic and professional background, providing guidance and support during the entire two years. No matter your unique path, the program works to ground you in an understanding of the fundamentals and to give you a versatile “business tool kit” that will apply to whatever you aspire to do going forward. This enables our students to feel comfortable in any situation and develop a range of skills across multiple industries. Students are prepared to enter their chosen careers, but more importantly, they have the agility to change directions later on and be successful wherever they go for an entire lifetime.
mbaMission: Great. Thank you so much for your time!
KA: Thank you for the opportunity.