mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with NYU Stern’s Executive Director of MBA Admissions Isser Gallogly

We continue our series of exclusive admissions interviews with a transcript of our one-on-one chat with Isser Gallogly, Executive Director of Admissions at NYU Stern. Among the highlights, Mr. Gallogly comments on:

  • Stern’s unique essay three and suggests ways to consider the essay
  • Stern’s robust response to the financial crisis via the book the faculty wrote almost immediately
  • Stern’s willingness to accept younger applicants and its emphasis on career goals

mbaMission: Stern is pretty well known for finance. Would you say that is a fair assessment? In your opinion, what should the school be known for that it is not known for?

Isser Gallogly: I think probably the first thing that surprises people about NYU Stern, especially when they come in contact with our students and visit us, is our incredibly collaborative and down-to-earth community. I think that for whatever reason, when you’re in New York City, people expect that the community might be less closely connected or less friendly.  Nothing could be further from the truth about NYU Stern. The thing that probably differentiates us the most is our community and how collaborative [the students] are and how well we work together. I think that’s the first sort of surprise people may not be expecting when they encounter NYU Stern.

I think the second thing would be the broad range of educational and functional expertise. Certainly we are in a finance capital of the world by being in New York, but New York is much more than a finance capital. It’s actually a capital of all industries across the board. In fact, 25% of the Fortune 500 has their headquarters in the New York area. So really, we reach all industry and functions. We have an excellent program in marketing, consulting, social entrepreneurship, as well as in fields that are more specialized—entertainment, technology, luxury & retail and pharmaceutical, to name a few. We’re really strong across the board.

For example, in the innovation and social enterprise field, we recently added a specialization in that area. In entertainment, media, and technology, we’ve added a dual degree, an MFA with NYU’s Tisch School [of the Arts], which is an exciting project for us and one that’s been very popular. For luxury and retail, there is no better place than New York if you’re interested in this area of the marketing world. We’re just a lot more diverse here at Stern than people really think.

mbaMission: Are there any areas in particular that Stern has been working to strengthen over the past couple of years? And how are those kinds of decisions—as to what needs to be an area of focus for the school—typically made?

IG: I think one of the great things about NYU Stern is that, despite having been around for 100 years, it’s a very forward-looking and innovative institution. I think one of the things that we pride ourselves on is that we’re constantly changing, evolving, growing, seeking to enhance things. Continuous improvement is part of our DNA, and we’re always looking at different things to do and different ways to do it and how to make ourselves better. We’re never going to rest on our laurels; we’re never going to become complacent. And I think that’s one of the things that is exciting about being at NYU Stern.

In terms of where the decisions come from and how we prioritize, the school definitely has a strategic planning process. It’s a proactive process, not so much a reactive type of thing, here at NYU Stern. We’re savvy about how we use our resources and how to grow and evolve.

An area that has definitely gotten heightened interest over the last several years is the marketing department, which has always been very strong, and I think that some of the moves that have been made recently, in terms of bringing on well-known researchers, as well as clinicians, have been phenomenal. Certainly the luxury and retail space has been one that has continued to grow, and the social innovation area has also picked up based on interest. We have a lot more students in the Millennial Generation who not only want to do well but want to do good.  Stern is a place that fosters that type of thinking. So those are some areas that we have continued to enhance academically.

In terms of the school overall, one of the things that we always try to work on here in New York is our physical space. We’re not out in the countryside, so we don’t have limitless acres. We have to be smart about how we utilize our space. And we initiated a very large-scale space initiative. It’s called the Concourse Project, and it’s to revamp whole sections of the school. There’s a lot of construction going on this summer, but we’re hoping to complete most of it by this fall, and this will create more and better space for students.

We’ve also done a lot of projects to revamp student lounges and reconfigure them based on student input of how they want to use the space and what would be most appropriate. So we’ve done a lot in that world.

Obviously, things like infrastructure are also being improved. Our IT systems, for example, have been one area that we are continuously enhancing to keep up with the pace of technology. The school hired a new CIO—chief information officer—a few years ago. And he’s been doing a phenomenal job of partnering with students, administration and faculty to make sure the school is continuing to move forward.

mbaMission: So you mentioned the Millennial Generation. How does NYU feel about younger applicants, perhaps direct admits from undergrad or people who might have only one year of professional experience?

IG: People without experience have always been eligible to apply to NYU Stern. We’re looking to make sure that people are able to reach their academic, professional and personal goals. So, when we admit people without work experience, we want to make sure that fits with what they want to achieve.

For example, let’s say an applicant is applying for our JD-MBA dual degree with NYU School of Law and wishes to pursue a career in law. Well, law is a field where people often do not have prior business experience. The legal firms that hire law students are comfortable with that, too. So in that case, not having work experience prior to the MBA makes sense to us. In other industries and in other types of careers, recruiters are not necessarily going to be as positive toward not having prior work experience. So we really understand that person’s path.

Another example might be someone who works in a family business and wishes to go back [after business school] and work in that family business. In that case, they may or may not need post-undergraduate work experience if they have worked with the family business for years and they want to get the education to continue to move forward in it.

mbaMission: That naturally leads into another question I had about goals and what is scrutinized closely in light of the challenging economy. What are your thoughts with regard to someone who is trying to make a career transition that may be a little more difficult to pull off in this economy, or someone who perhaps talks about primary and secondary goals?

IG: At Stern we’ve always scrutinized goals extremely closely. That’s just part of our process and something we’ve always done. We’re in the top seven business schools in terms of the number of applications that we receive. We also have a medium-sized class. Our selectivity last year was 14%, which [makes us] one of the most selective business schools. So for us, we’re really looking for people who know what they want to do, who have taken the time to do self-evaluation and have a really focused and well-conceived plan.

Any MBA student will tell you that first semester goes by exceptionally quickly, and you really need to have a plan when you walk through the door. Sometimes that plan changes, you’re exposed to different things, but you’re going to get a much greater return on your investment of time, money and effort if you have a good plan from the start.

I always say to people, if all you know is that you don’t like what you’re doing, then you don’t know enough to apply to business school. You’re going to have a really hard time writing one of those essays about goals and career if you haven’t really thought through what you want to do. You’re going to have a really tough time when you come in to do an interview with us in admissions. You’re going to have a really tough time when you get in front of recruiters at the end of the semester.

And the other thing I’d say is that it’s really smart to figure out what you want to do. You might not have it all nailed down exactly, but you’re investing a tremendous amount of money and time in an MBA, so you had better be sure that it will get you where you want to go. Admitting well-directed students is part of our philosophy here, and we’ve always partnered with our Office of Career Development in this effort. We look at the skills it takes to be successful in certain fields, what the dynamics of those fields are, what backgrounds are most attractive—we talk with recruiters. We really want to partner with our students and help them get where they want to go academically, professionally and personally. I don’t think we are doing anyone any favors if we’re not holding people accountable for having a plan, a pretty thought-out plan, when they apply to Stern.

Now back to your point about Plan Bs and contingency plans. No matter what you’re doing, and no matter what economy [you’re in], you always want to have a contingency plan. It just shows that you are someone who understands realities. You should always have a Plan B. It’s good to have thought it through.

mbaMission: Speaking of which, what would you say to someone who is interested in applying and who has been unemployed for several months, not just a month, and has been laid off?

IG: They have to think about how they want to position that when they are at business school and when they are in front of recruiters. They need to try to do what they can to maximize their development and enhance their skill set while they are between jobs. That may mean taking some course work. Perhaps they can earn a certification or a professional license. Perhaps they do some volunteer work that enhances their business and/or leadership skills. Perhaps they take on some independent consulting work. Maybe they assist family businesses. I think it comes back to what are they doing to better their skills and to keep themselves marketable.

Some people just say, “Oh, I am going to go travel the world.” That’s okay, if that’s what you want to do. Certainly getting global exposure isn’t a bad thing. So long as you have thought about how that is going to look on your résumé and how that is going to look when people are deciding whom to invite for interviews—or not. You should have a plan for how you are going to talk about that in your job interviews, in your admissions essays and admissions interviews.

This is going to affect you professionally, so make the time between jobs be as meaningful for your development as possible. It is a challenge. The upside is that people understand the reality here; we understand that if someone is not employed, it’s probably not a result of that person’s ability but more a result of the situation and the economy. So we will be somewhat forgiving, but it sure doesn’t mean just coast. You want to be proactive.

mbaMission: Stern has had quite a robust response to the financial crisis. Can you talk a little bit about the goings-on on campus and in the media with respect to academics and to the school’s overall response to the financial crisis?

IG: The short answer is that we wrote a book on it. We have such an amazing faculty here. The faculty that chooses to be at NYU Stern is a faculty that wants to be connected to business and tell students about changes in business. This isn’t a place where the faculty wants to do the same old lecture for their entire career, teach about theory and never broach or approach what is going on today, or that uses cases that were written 15 years ago that might no longer be relevant. That’s just not our style. And I would say to anyone who is applying to NYU Stern, if that’s what you’re looking for—a place that is doing just theory and old cases—then don’t apply, because that’s not what you’re going to get here.

We had a whole number of our faculty write a book called Restoring Financial Stability: How to Repair a Failed System. And this book had 18 targeted white papers by 33 academics that offer financial policy alternatives, specifically courses of action to help the global financial system. And the whole idea was to be able to present this to the current government and administration but [for it] also [to] be a roadmap for industry, not only in the United States, but also other places around the world. We got endorsements from Paul Volcker [former chairman of the Federal Reserve] on this and John Paulson [founder and president of Paulson & Co., Inc.]. It’s been fantastic. It’s been extremely well received. You can read about it on our Web site []. Mostly, the faculty looked at this as an opportunity to contribute to society and share knowledge and effect positive change. Again, that is just the spirit of Stern.

As this thing started to happen, we also had a “Market Pulse” series event where we brought in people from industry and professors and had these sessions for our alumni, students and the media about what is going on. What do we need to do about it? How is this going to affect the world and the market and business in general? So it’s been a very exciting time. In fact, we turned the book into a class.

And it’s not just a financial situation; this is affecting all industries. The management groups and strategy groups—how do you manage in an economic situation of instability from a strategy standpoint? How do you rethink your business in order to be profitable? It’s affecting everything from a marketing standpoint. How do you market when people are reluctant to spend? It’s a fast time for business, and our professors are very engaged in it, and it’s really reaching across the board. It’s definitely been the kind of thing that our academics and students and administration have been very excited about and been extremely involved in teaching.

mbaMission: Can you shed a little light for me as to why Stern has a later application deadline than many other business schools? It’s November 15, right?

IG: Yes, November 15 will be our first deadline. It’s still almost a year before they would begin business school, so it’s very early. It serves applicants’ needs, and we can get decisions to people in a timely fashion. So it works for us.

mbaMission: Did you see an increase in your application volume last year, and would you care to make a guess as to what will happen this year?

IG: Last year was a very robust year for applications. Actually, the year before last, applications were up 20%, and that was the second highest level we have ever had. We generally have a very high level, so that was an amazingly high level. Last year, application levels were about equal to that, so it was the third highest level that we have ever had. It was an extremely competitive year, and Stern is an extremely popular place to be, as always.

In terms of predictions for next year, I think that right now things are extremely uncertain. There are so many factors. What I will say is that historically, in the year of an economic decline, you get a small increase in applications. Usually the year following a decline, applications start to go down a little bit. So that would be history. But then again, I don’t know if this is going to be a moment in time that is similar to history or not.

mbaMission: What can you say about the proportionality of applications from one deadline to the next? What is typically the volume per round at Stern?

IG: The majority of people will apply typically on our January 15 deadline, the second deadline—that’s typically the largest. It really can change from year to year. We typically have spots to admit people from all deadlines, and we typically tell people that they should apply at the first deadline for which they feel that they are extremely competitive. Because there is no point in applying early with a poor application, because you’ll just hear bad news sooner. You should wait until you are most competitive and apply then.

mbaMission: In terms of actually reviewing an application, what is the review process at Stern from the moment you receive a completed application through when decisions are made?

IG: When an application comes in, the committee makes an initial evaluation, and from there, there are three possible outcomes: you can be invited for an interview, you can be placed on our waitlist or you can be denied admission. If you are invited for an interview, your interviewer is typically a member of the admissions committee and a trained, professional assessor of talent. And the interviewer will review your application prior to the interview; it will not be a blind interview. Interviews are by invitation only.

After the interview, that person will write up an interview report. And then the initial evaluation plus the interview report as well as the application will be shared with the committee for a final decision. That decision would either be admission, waitlist or denial. For those who are placed on the waitlist either before or after the interview, we review those typically beginning in the spring and periodically over the summer as spaces become available and/or candidates do things to improve their candidacy. Every application is looked at by multiple people on the committee, and every application gets a thorough review.

mbaMission: What kind of advice would you have for a candidate who is facing the legendary Stern Essay 3, someone who is looking at this blank slate and shaking his or her head?

IG: Look at the application as a whole strategically. We are going to be assessing applications based on the [applicant’s] academic ability, professional aspirations and ability, and who they are as a person. Those are the three major areas, and the application gives you an opportunity to present yourself according to those dimensions. So your transcript from undergrad, your GMAT score, those kinds of things obviously provide some kind of insight into your academic ability. Your recommendations typically provide insight into your character as well as your professional ability. Your résumé, balanced with your work history form, can provide more context around your professional aspirations. Essay 1 typically talks about professional goals, but you have word limitations. So the nice part is that your work history form can explain in more detail some of the moves you have made throughout your career: why you left certain jobs, why you chose certain positions. Your résumé can cover some of your responsibilities of those roles. So Essay 1 is a little bit more on your goals and tells a story and doesn’t have to tell the whole story, because those parts of the application are complementary. So it’s really nice in that way.

Essay 3 is really an opportunity to talk about who you are as a person and really highlight that. So many people say to me, “I think my profile is just like everybody else’s. I’m 27, I have four years of work experience, my GMAT looks to be about your average, my GPA is about your average, I went to a typical undergrad school, my job is pretty much a normal corporate job, and I just feel like I am going to look like everyone else in your applicant pool.” Well, Essay 3 is a chance to not look like everyone else. It’s a chance to tell us what makes you unique—and to do it in almost any way that you want. Write an essay, do it as a puzzle, do it as a photo album, send an artifact that is important to you and tells about who you are. This is a chance for you to stand out, differentiate yourself, to explain the things that you can’t explain in your career essay or that don’t come out from your transcript and résumé. So my hope is that an applicant is excited that they have the opportunity to communicate these things in a much more free-form manner.

A lot of people with Essay 3 do wonder, “Where do I start?” And I give people the same answer, which is always “Start with your passions.” What do you love doing? What do you get excited about? Because typically, what someone is passionate and excited about is usually central to their personality and tells us volumes about that person. So I would start with where your greatest energy comes from. And as much as people may be a little bewildered when they begin the process, we have heard again and again and again that Essay 3 is probably the most fun part of applying to business school. Whoever thought that an application could be fun? But by the end of it, they are pretty excited about it, and the students here are always asking each other during our orientation program or preterm, “What did you do?” and it’s just a fun way for them to get to know each other.

mbaMission: Do you have any favorite Essay 3 submissions you remember that really just knocked your socks off?

IG: There are so many good ones. The ones that really stick with you are the ones where you can feel the person through the essay. Or you really get a sense as to who they are. You get to see their personality and spirit. You know, people are just so unique, and in the world of admissions, we love getting to know people. It’s really the ones that just speak to you, and I think those are the ones that are the most genuine and come from a real place within the applicant.

mbaMission: When you read an application, where do you start? Walk us through the process of reading a single application.

IG: Personally, I just read it from front to back. I read the core data forms, so I get a sense of the basic facts of the person. Then I go through the transcripts to look at the academic record historically, their standardized tests, their other academics, and then I go through their résumé and the recommendations and the work history, and then I get into the essays—one, two, three and sometimes four, depending on if they include the optional essay four.

I go through it pretty much the way people fill it out or submit it, because it’s one of those things where you’re really just compiling information and not really making judgments. Sort of gathering the pieces, and once you’ve completed the full application, you get a comprehensive feel for the entire applicant. Like I said, the whole application tells you different parts of who a person is, and to do a holistic individual evaluation, you kind of have to read the whole thing and then begin to make assessments.

mbaMission: Are there any red flags—something you might come across in a candidate’s application that would lead you to quickly eliminate that person or might at least heavily prejudice your opinion of them?

IG: Yes, there are some things that make it more challenging for an applicant. 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.” So things that can hurt you are weak performance in undergraduate or on the standardized test. Is it everything? Clearly not, but better it be strong than weak. We publish our averages and our 80% ranges so that people have a sense of how they fall vis-à-vis other people who have been admitted, and I would tell people to do the best they can. Obviously for undergraduate 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. There is the option of Essay 4 so that you can try to explain the circumstances. Help us understand.

Professional recommendations—we emphasize to people that their supervisor should write a recommendation and that their recommendations be professional, so to the greatest extent possible, that should be what we see. Occasionally we will see recommendations from friends or professors, and we just kind of read that and think to ourselves, “Well, we couldn’t have been more clear in the instructions. I don’t understand why we’re seeing this.” If that’s where you wind up, explain it. We know its not always possible to get your supervisor to make a recommendation, but explain it to us. We have podcasts on our Web site about the entire application process, and we have explicit instructions on our application, so we wonder, “Why is this person not able to follow basic instructions?” Or, “Why are they not explaining why they have not been able to adhere to them?” Learn each school’s admissions process prior to beginning; it will help you a lot.

Also, excessive typographical errors, poor grammar are things that could hurt. It’s just careless. And we know everyone can’t get every word perfect, and for some people, English isn’t even their first, second or third language. If there are 500 words in an essay, try to get as many of them right as you can.

And you should really have a super clear goal when you’re applying to the Stern business school. I don’t know why anyone would make a $100,000 or so investment in anything without carefully reading the prospectus and doing a lot of investigation. There are those who haven’t researched themselves, their future careers, and also haven’t researched the schools. You can tell people who are just throwing applications out there to everybody versus those who have taken the time to do it right. All the great schools are going to give you a great education and opportunities, but there are schools where you’re going to excel, where you are going to thrive and become the best you can be, and there are other places where it’s going to be a bad fit. People really need to investigate a lot more than they think they do. There is nothing like going and visiting the school, even if it has to be virtually.  We have students available via email, phone as well as student podcasts, videos, online chat transcripts, etc. Also, at NYU Stern, when we do our admissions interview, we do it on site, which gives people a great chance to “kick the tires” too.

mbaMission: Right. One final question: what is the international loan situation at Stern these days?

IG: We have a competitive international loan program. We’ve put in a lot of work to make sure that the funding would be there. We want students to be able to pursue their education, and we definitely want to be a partner in that endeavor. We believe in what an NYU Stern MBA can do for somebody, and we want to be sure that we match that sentiment with appropriate financial support.

mbaMission: Great. Thank you for your time—we really appreciate it.

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