mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with University of Chicago Booth Director of MBA Admissions Rose Martinelli

MbaMission was fortunate to have had the opportunity recently to speak one-on-one with Rose Martinelli, Director of MBA Admissions at Chicago Booth. We think the interviews is very much worth reading, particularly for anyone interested in Booth, but also for any MBA applicant. Here, we offer some highlights from the interview, followed by a full transcript of the interview.

  • Booth saw an increase in domestic applicants and a decrease in international applicants duringh the 2008–2009 application season. Rose Martinelli expects that application volume will decline marginally in 2009–2010.
  • Booth recognizes and understands that many people have lost their jobs as a result of forces beyond their control and simply wants candidates to be honest about their situations in the applications and to explain their circumstances.
  • Martinelli discusses how she reads an application, step-by step.

We will be releasing additional interviews with admissions officers in the coming weeks. Enjoy our first with Booth’s Martinelli.

mbaMission: Chicago Booth is stereotyped as a finance school—is that fair? What should the school be known for that it’s not now known for?

Rose Martinelli: Chicago Booth is much more than a finance school, it is an economic powerhouse, and critical thinking is at the core of everything we do. Economics underpins most business functions, including finance, strategy, marketing and entrepreneurship.

While we have been known globally as a great financial institution because of the number of faculty who were awarded Nobel Prizes for their innovations in the financial markets, Booth offers so much more.

Our entrepreneurship program, which has the Polsky Center at its foundation, is excellent and unique in its focus on both the practitioner and the investor side. The curriculum combines academic and experiential learning together to enhance the learning experience. Marketing is another area where we have been recognized for the work of our faculty in quantitative and behavioral marketing research. We recently received the ACNielsen database, which will allow for tremendous insight into consumer behavior. For students interested in pursuing a career in marketing, our combination of analytical and behavioral marketing coursework provides unparalleled preparation for future challenges.

Booth’s new concentration, Analytic Management, provides the same type of rigor and depth focused on data-driven analysis as our analytic finance concentration. Our emphasis on and excellence in quantitative and statistical analysis for decision making is unmatched. These analytic methods are applied to a wide range of industries and functions, such as understanding advertising and consumer behavior, analyzing risk and incorporating uncertainty, identifying profitable customers and determining optimal pricing policies, accelerating product innovation, optimizing supply chains, identifying the drivers of financial performance, and allocating resources.

Our focus is on building critical thinking skills that utilize the many lenses of business. We’re great on teaching technical skills, and making sure those technical skills are applicable and practical. At the same time, we’re equally focused on helping students to develop their executive presence and leadership profile. It’s a packaged deal.

mbaMission: You mentioned marketing and entrepreneurship. Is there a strategy to grow these fields, or do these things just happen organically?

RM: I think it’s been a combination of both. Typically, programs grow when student interest grows. It also grows when there’s faculty interest, and there is a lot of research going on. Over the past ten years, there has been a huge amount of growth in entrepreneurship due to those dual interests.

Whereas the marketing group has always been a smaller group, but has gained enormous amounts of energy and prestige in the last five years with the launch of the Kilts Center—with a lot more groundbreaking research taking place behavioral and analytical marketing.

The growth of our programs has always been linked to student and faculty research interests. Once there is enough of a groundswell, the administration also provides additional resources to strengthen those areas, and that’s what’s been happening here at Chicago Booth.

mbaMission: Chicago Booth was fortunate to receive quite an impressive donation of $200MM from David Booth, who the school is now named for. I’m curious what the immediate impact of the gift is.

RM: This remarkable gift came at the right time, just as the market began to tumble, which helped us remain shielded from some of those enormous pressures that occur when endowments fall. This gift has given us an opportunity to focus on strengthening the core value of Chicago, which is truly the power of inquiry. Instead of these dollars being put into scholarship funds, they’re being put into strengthening the overall value proposition of the school to ensure that we have the best faculty, we recruit and matriculate the best students, and that those students find great opportunities, facilitated by the support of our career services. It’s more about strengthening what was already strong, and ensuring that the Booth legacy continues long into the future.

The other interesting thing about the donation was that it was a partnership distribution, rather than a lump sum gift. Therefore, as a partner in the fund, we’ll receive annual distributions.

mbaMission: A couple questions about the financial crisis. I’m curious from an academic perspective how lessons from the financial crises have been taught over the last couple months.

RM: Chicago is well known for our notion of “challenging everything” and to every idea there’s always a counter approach. There are free market and behavioral finance faculty researching and teaching side-by-side, so we were talking a lot about this long before the markets started to spiral downward. Now, the conversations have shifted to identifying solutions. Our faculty have been very active with the administration on both sides, analyzing and doing research on how best to structure a way out of this situation. I graduated from my executive MBA just a few weeks ago, and the classroom had ongoing discussions about what was happening in the news. Faculty were not only debating these ideas publicly on campus, but bringing [them] into the classroom as well.

mbaMission: In the light of the downturn, will there be any changes in the qualities the school is seeking in candidates?

RM: No. We are focused on selecting students who have records of achievement. And to me that can be seen in a number of ways: how well someone has done academically, how well he/she has navigated their career and leveraged opportunities. The second thing that we look at is a student’s level of self-awareness and their ability to engage and be intellectually involved in something that’s perhaps not so comfortable. Being able to get in there and debate, challenge each other, and be challenged are very central qualities to good leadership. While it is important to communicate ideas effectively, it’s more about what have they done, where are they going, and how this is all linked together, rather than elegant/eloquent writing skills. It can be short and sweet and very direct. When you know yourself well, you should know exactly what direction you are headed and what you need to be successful.

mbaMission: Chicago’s first essay is a little bit less direct compared to that for other schools, with respect to short- and long-term goals. What are you expecting in this regard?

RM: For me, the question as to why an MBA is important is much more relevant than exactly where you’re going, since goals change. The thought process that brought you to this place in your career is what interests me. I’m looking for a sense of direction and knowing what your needs are. If you have very refined goals, I would say that’s great. But for the vast majority of people, if you really pressed them, goals were often created recently and typically just for the application. And, since the whole point of an MBA experience is to explore, expand and develop a new understanding and awareness of one’s abilities and passions, I don’t get hung up on goals. I am, however, very interested in path, plan and knowing one’s self.

mbaMission: When you make decisions, do you frequently consult career services?

RM: This is an academic institution, so we’re here to educate. And we’re here to facilitate development of future leaders who can be successful in their job search. So, one of the things that we need to establish is whether a person is reasonable in terms of where they hope to go and how much we as an institution can help them along the way. Sometimes we can’t, and there are other schools that are a better fit. So, yes, if I have concerns about path, I’ll run it by our career services team.

mbaMission: Are short-term goals scrutinized more closely in the weak economy, where certain sectors are maybe not hiring?

RM: What careers exist as you come in the door and what exists as you go out are really uncertain. No one knows. Right now, sales and trading is probably a difficult career path, but by the time students graduate, that could be completely different. We do try to make sure that changes, especially for career changers, seem reasonable and achievable, and that they have transferable skills from their prior careers to accomplish their goals. Career changers do have a harder time in an economic environment like this.

mbaMission: We have candidates who are calling us and expressing their anxieties about being laid off. The perfect job they might have had before literally no longer exists, and they’re concerned about eventually taking a job that may be a step down financially or just on the org chart. Can you speak to those concerns?

RM: In the essays, it is important for people to help us understand the opportunities they have had before them. It’s the opportunity and how they leveraged it that matters. Bottom line: we all understand that people have lost jobs for no reason other than the economy. I think it is important to be clear and transparent about what your choices were and how you are making the best and the most out of the decisions you made.

mbaMission: If someone was intending to go to business school this year, didn’t see a layoff coming, and is now looking for a job and is worried about the message that can send—“I’m only going to be at this job for one year”—do you see that as being problematic?

RM: People just need to be honest. This is a very unusual time, and B-schools haven’t seen this type of situation across so many sectors, so we are learning, too. I think honesty and transparency is the best that we can hope for from one another.

mbaMission: Can you reflect on the application volume in the past year? Are there any data you can share?

RM: We typically don’t announce real numbers or percentages until a little bit later in the summer, but it has been a mixed bag this year. Applications domestically rose a good deal, while applications internationally fell, specifically in two countries, India and South Korea. Net, we’re down a little from last year, but we’d seen pretty substantial increases for the three years prior to that, so it was more of a slowdown.

Chicago was probably impacted a little bit more than some of our peers with our international pool, because we were in the media last summer when we lost our international student loan program. We were able to find a new one in late August, but the timing of the message likely played a role in the decline. In addition, there are the limitations to H1B visas, and the TARP fund regulations, making it seem as if the United States is not very welcoming to international students anymore, which, of course, is not the case.

I think interest internationally will rebound because we all have loan programs again. By the time students graduate, the TARP regulations will have ended, and hopefully, the economy will have been in the recovery mode for a while.

mbaMission: Can you talk a little bit about what’s going on in terms of on the job front, for full time and for internships?

RM: We don’t graduate until the middle of June, so we have a ways to go yet. Other schools are graduating this week. I would say that the downward spiral has slowed. Jobs are now coming back to the marketplace. What has really been impressive is Booth’s approach to providing students with lots of access points. Faculty, alumni and administrators have been scouring the world for opportunities for our students. We have doubled the number of entrepreneurship internship positions that students can enroll in this summer. We’ve offered a summer public interest fund for people who are doing internships in nonprofit or government. The school has really stepped up to provide meaningful opportunities and support for our students. We’re hopeful that by the time we get around to the first part of June, all our students who wish to have an internship actually have one. I think we are well on our way there.

mbaMission: Do you have a prediction for where application volumes are going to go this year?

RM: If the economy has a slow recovery in the fall, applications may increase. But, if it stays down and there’s not a lot of job growth in the United States and around the world, I imagine applications will fall. People are taking the GMAT test, but whether they apply or not is something yet to be determined.

mbaMission: I personally think we are going to see a decrease in applications.

RM: I’m with you. I tend to be on the more conservative side. There’s a lot of unrest out there, and if you remember after the 2001 dot-bomb, applications did fall for two years before they turned around again. There was just so much uncertainty around the quality of the investment.

mbaMission: So, I would like to wrap up with a few questions on the application process. If you could just walk us through the application process at the school, I think people would be quite interested in hearing about the review process itself.

RM: We want to give the control of the application process back to the applicant. We have designed an application that has a myriad of questions that we ask and want answered, along with free form space for a student to communicate what he or she thinks is most important. We will evaluate how well an applicant manages the different components of the application, from the data forms to their choice of recommenders to “What questions do they choose if we ask question A or B?” Then for us, most importantly, is how they navigate that free-form presentation piece. We look at it in a holistic way. We look for a profile that seems to be coherent and make sense.

As for the evaluation process, we typically have two people read the application before inviting that [candidate] to interview. While the interview has been blind in the past, we may be making a few changes this next year. After that interview report comes back, it goes into the file, and it’s usually read one or two more times. The final evaluations focus on fit to the institution and ability to match each other’s needs in terms of opportunities, engagement and that chemistry that is so important for students to be able to thrive in our environment.

mbaMission: How do you read an application? Do you pick up a PowerPoint presentation first or read a recommendation, perhaps?

RM: Typically, I go through the data portions. Work experience, numbers, schools, major, a little bit of parental background, kind of getting the overall profile, getting a sense of the candidate. Often [I] go right into the recommendation letters for a bit, just to see how somebody else perceives the candidate. Then, I read the application essays, typically spending a fair amount of time on the PowerPoint. When an application gets to me, it has typically been read at least four times, so I’m getting the benefit of a lot of different voices on that file. Now that I have my MBA from Booth, I know types of candidates thrive here. I’ve been in this business ten years, and if I can’t see it now, I don’t know what I’ve been doing.

mbaMission: I know you’re a big fan of the PowerPoint presentation, so it’s obviously back next year?

RM: We’re going to keep it; however, we may tweak it a bit. We’ll definitely be doing our application review in the next couple weeks.

mbaMission: When can we expect the application to be released?

RM: Probably in mid-June. We launch our whole year on July 1 every year: New Web site, new books, the whole thing.

mbaMission: You’ve been very generous with your time, and I thank you for being our first guest in this series.

RM: You are welcome.

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