mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with UVA-Darden Director of Admissions Sara Neher

Earlier this year, we were quite fortunate to interview Sara Neher, Director of Admissions at UVA-Darden, who was particularly candid in sharing her thoughts. Some highlights include:

  • Darden’s reasons for shifting and introducing some flexibility into its previously standardized curriculum
  • Darden’s introduction of Skype-based video interviews and shift away from an open interview policy
  • Neher’s encouragement of first round applicants and discussion of the changing application volume in the various rounds

mbaMission: My first question is the question I ask everyone and the one I’m most interested in personally. What is Darden not known for that it should be known for? What are its hidden strengths, and what are the special gems or programs you think people should know about?

Sarah Neher: That’s an interesting question. I wish we were so well known that everyone knew all the things about us that I think are wonderful. I’m always surprised when somebody says, “Well, Darden’s a finance school, right?” and I say, “Well, Darden’s a general management school.” But I get the opposite, also: “Well, not too many people go to finance,” and then I say, “Well, actually 40% of our class will go to finance.”

It’s just such an interesting question, because I think it is dependent so much on people’s own lens and their own perspective when they start the research process. I think one of the things that I wish people did know more about is really how innovative we have become in recent years, and I think that that’s in part because of the great research going on at the Batten Institute, but it’s also because our faculty are really invested in sustainability and innovation and entrepreneurship, and those are all areas that there’s just a lot of learning going on. And so what we’re teaching, the cases we’re writing, they’re all changing by the month. And it’s really dynamic and exciting. It’s being integrated in the first year, but you can also spend your entire second year doing courses in these areas, because the second year is so flexible. So, I think that’s probably what I would say at this point.

mbaMission: What do you think Darden does uniquely well?

SN: I think that we teach people how to make decisions extremely well. And that’s really through the case method and the level of personal interaction that it requires. Decisions are not just about analyzing data, they’re also about understanding people and their motivations and their perspectives. And I think that you will learn that here, from the combination of the case method and the level at which you’re going to be expected to participate, and that you’re going to want to participate with the faculty and the staff, and your clubs and activities.

mbaMission: Is Darden working to strengthen any particular academic areas?

SN: Well, I would say last year’s hire was in the sustainability area—strategy and sustainability, environmental sustainability. That was certainly an area that we were strengthening. We’re good there now, and [Samuel L. Slover Professor of Business Michael] Lenox is really amazing and impressive. And then this year, we’ve hired a few faculty, two women, and I’m not sure if there’s a third person—but they’re in different areas, so I don’t know that that’s really a trend.

mbaMission: Darden made significant changes in the admissions process when you came on board, switching from open interviews to interviews by request. What was the thinking behind that change?

SN: The biggest reason I felt like we needed to change that was really just a fairness issue. What I saw the first year I was here was, because international students were rarely able to come here for an interview, they were on an “interview by invitation” process. They did not get to interview before they applied. And domestic students or international students living in the United States, if they had enough funds, could come here beforehand. And I felt like that was not the best way to get the best class possible or, really, to treat everyone equally.

In addition to that, when I met with my peers at other schools, we were all trying to figure out ways that we could reduce the economic burden on people applying. And requiring people to make a trip to Charlottesville before they could even apply seemed like an undue burden. And it seemed like it was limiting the diversity we could have in the class in international, socioeconomic and geographic [ways]—it was limiting us. And we have seen that diversity grow in our application pool with the change. It has really nice side benefits, like allowing us to travel more in the fall, because we’re not having to be here to interview. But those weren’t the underlying, core issues. And the first year, we thought, “Oh, if this doesn’t work, we’ll switch back, no big deal,” but it has gone really well.

mbaMission: How do you make sure people really understand what they are getting into at Darden, with regard to both the workload and the case method?

SN: I don’t think anyone can really understand what it’s like to be in business school until they come to business school. And Darden is certainly uniquely participatory, and that requires you to be on your toes and do your preparation in a way that isn’t true at a lot of places. I think, luckily, that’s pretty well known, so [applicants] at least know it’s going to be more work than other places, from a preparation standpoint, but I think unless they come and visit a class or meet with our faculty, that’s hard to really get a sense for.

What we did do this year was create a really wonderful video of [Associate Professor] Peter Rodriguez teaching an actual case class, and that has really helped people understand that level of participation and why you need to do the work to be prepared to discuss in class. We’ve gotten really good feedback from that, and we’re doing one this fall that will be on how you teach accounting in the case method, with [Robert F. Vandell Research Associate Professor] Luann Lynch, and I think that will really help people understand how it works but also what it takes to be a part of it. Using more video, I think, is really the only way to get [the case method] across to a broader audience that can’t come here. You can actually watch the video of the full class as well, which is about 75 minutes. So, if you really want to see a full class, you can. [Watch the Darden Case Method Video featuring Professor Rodriguez online at ]

mbaMission: Darden moved from a rigid curriculum to a more flexible curriculum. Can you comment on what some of the specific changes were and how the switch has been received?

SN: The first-year curriculum had always been a prescribed core for the entire year, and what we found was that in the third quarter—so, in the winter and early spring—people were really identifying what their summer internship was going to be. So now you can take three electives in your fourth quarter, in addition to two core classes, that are really designed to prepare you for that internship.

So, whatever you’ve chosen to do your internship in, you can take courses that will support that. Some are general, the electives, but for the most part, if you’re going to go into finance, you can take “Valuation” with [Associate Professor] Yiorgos Allayannis, and really get that out in your first year, so you’re ready to go right into that bank and wow them. And [that class] was one of the most popular second-year electives, so why not make it available earlier? Or, you can take advanced topics in consulting with [Professor] Jeanne Liedtka and really be prepared to be client ready for the summer, not when you graduate, and really, again, close the deal on the job. And that has gone really well. People have felt very prepared for their internship; they’ve loved the electives. It’s not a huge choice list, so they’re still able to work in their learning teams; a lot of them are still taking the same classes, so it hasn’t created a bunch of movement. But it’s really allowed people to do well, and people are getting jobs at the end of the summer, which is ultimately what a lot of people are interested in.

I don’t know this summer if we’ll see something radically different. I don’t think it will be impacted by the courses [students] took fourth quarter—it will be the economy—but I think it’s gone well. I don’t think there are any changes planned for the first year, and the second year is completely flexible already. I know that there are committees looking at everything, as there always are at Darden, but I think anything that would change would be several years away, and we’d have a lot more information about it before anything would change.

mbaMission: Speaking of jobs, how did summer students and both first- and second-year students do with their job searches?

SN: Really great. Obviously, we were very concerned. We were really fortunate that, because we’re a general management school, we had companies step in as banks disappeared. Because, suddenly there was no Lehman Brothers, Barclays took all of those people. We had other companies—Danaher, Honeywell—that came in and were excited to get a chance at those people. So, I think we feel really great about it and like things went well, but we don’t yet have final stats. We also have a very proactive career development office and a very helpful faculty; they’re very helpful.

The career development office led what they called goal sessions, which were basically lead-generating sessions for students, by function, with faculty and staff that had either worked in that function, consulted in that function or who teach in that function. And those generated a lot of opportunities for people to tap the network that is Darden. The alumni were already being tapped, but this was to really get the faculty and staff in that have a lot of connections. We did the same for internships. This is what this place is—it’s connected, and we are going to help everybody. So, I was helping people find internships, and so were people on my staff, and it was much easier. I know all the students, so I can sell them really easily. I’m obviously confident in them, and it was really fun, actually, to find some connections that worked out into jobs.

mbaMission: What would you say to someone who is applying who is unemployed or has been laid off? Can you compare the Admissions Committee’s view of someone who got laid off three months ago with that of someone who might have been laid off a year ago? Is there a difference, in your opinion?

SN: There is. I have a higher expectation of what you should have been doing in the interim, the longer ago you were laid off. So, I want to see that you’re doing something with your time that’s going to move your plan forward. I would expect to see people take some time to figure out what that plan might be—they might be changing course; they might be going in a totally new direction. And that’s fine, but I want to see them, after a little bit of time, figuring out what that is. So, if they’ve been laid off for three months, I think that’s reasonable. After three months, I think people need to be volunteering, or they need to be finding another job. If they’re not looking for a full-time job or can’t find a full-time job, we want to see them trying to volunteer or shadow people in the industry or function they want to enter. I had someone this year who got laid off but knew they wanted to start a restaurant someday—maybe not even right after business school, but that was sort of a side passion for them. So they ended up working as a waitress and then got into the kitchen a little bit and got to do some managing, and spent five months working in a restaurant. And that’s because it was something they were passionate about. It wasn’t for the money; it was to learn something on the ground that they could put into practice. And that would be great to talk about in class: they fired people, they hired people, they dealt with a lot of interpersonal issues and that will be good fodder for class and for learning, and also help advance the person’s life plan.

mbaMission: How are candidates’ files reviewed at Darden?

SN: Each file is reviewed at least three times, and it may be reviewed as many as eight times, because there are eight people on the Admissions Committee. We spend a lot of time with your file. It is very important that we read everything about you. We don’t triage by score—every reader gets a set of files, and they’re randomly assigned initially so that we really are treating everyone equally and giving everyone the same amount of time. And we will read everything that comes as part of your application: your essays, your recommendations, everything. The first two readers combined will make a decision about whether to invite someone for an interview. If someone’s invited for an interview, that could be here, or if they’re overseas, that could be overseas. Or, we’re going to be trying Skype this year. We’ll also do some by phone.

mbaMission: Will the Skype interviews be with video or without?

SN: Both, probably. We’re going to try the video and see how it goes. We’re going to use video with some of our recent grads this summer. We already know them, so we can see if we actually can get a sense for them via the video or not, and see if it’s a distraction. But I think we’re going to at least try it in some places. Next. the evaluation comes in from the interviewer, it’s read again, and then it’s read by me last, and I will review all the files and make all the final decisions. If [the application] doesn’t go to interview, it will come to me sooner, after a second read instead of after a third read.

mbaMission: When you read the application, how do you do it? What do you read first?

SN: I am looking at what my previous readers have highlighted for me, but I’m also going to look at most of the transcripts, the interview. You would be amazed at how often the interviewer uses the same language to describe someone as the recommenders do. It is uncanny. You are who you are. I think our interview process draws that out a little bit because it’s a little bit longer and a little bit more personal than some, but you can’t really trick us. Someone who’s recommending you has known you for a while, and the interviewer often uses the very same language to describe someone. That is so comforting, to feel like you’re really getting an accurate picture of someone. And then you read their essays and get that. When I’m reading, I’m looking for inconsistencies, to make sure there isn’t something that I’m missing or that doesn’t make sense to me. But if everything is consistent and we want you to be a part of our class and we think you’ll add value, then it’s an easy decision. The hard ones are in the middle, where something is inconsistent or we’re not sure we’re getting enough of a picture of you. That’s challenging. It’s also amazing, the stories people have and what we learn about business and different parts of the world and the United States. It’s just a wonderful job. I love to hear people’s stories.

mbaMission: In those cases where people are “in the middle,” what happens?

SN: Sometimes if we still don’t feel like we know who you are, that’s a problem in and of itself that will prevent you from getting in. We feel like at that point, we’ve given you many opportunities to let us know who you are, and if something’s still not feeling right or is inconsistent, or we don’t feel like you gave us enough information—we feel like your essays were incredibly vague and could have been written by somebody else; not written for you, but just don’t tell us enough about you, that I could have had the same story—then you haven’t done your job, and you won’t get in, no matter what your scores are. If I really like you but I’m concerned about your ability to do the work, you’re also not going to get in. And that’s also not based on one score or one grade; that’s going to be [based on] what everyone says about your work ethic or your drive. And then if I don’t feel like you’re a leader, you’re not going to get in. If you haven’t been showing us that you’ve been involved in enough activities and that you’re willing to take initiative and work with others, I’m going to be concerned about that. So it’s not so much that you could provide us with anything else at that point. I really want to see it in the application and in the other pieces. But sometimes we’ll call or e-mail someone and ask a question, or we’ll find out if someone’s going to be at an event and talk to them there. But this is an opportunity, these applications, and it’s pretty thorough. Please give it all that you can in the space we provide.

mbaMission: How much coaching do you feel is appropriate for a recommender? Do you think it should be a completely hands-off process, or do you think it is okay for applicants to discuss their goals for business school with their recommenders?

SN: Please sit down and talk to them. It will be a good process for you, too. It will be introspective for you. When I write a recommendation for someone—which I’ve done a fair amount, especially in my previous job—I ask the person to send me their resume. I ask for bullet points; never write actual paragraphs, because that leads to too much of your own language potentially going into the recommendation, but bullet points that cover your key accomplishments or the reasons you want to go to that school. I also ask for the mission statement of the school or something from the school’s Web site so that I know what that school is about, so I can think about how that person would be a fit for that school. A little bit of a package to give to the person so that they’re ready to write the recommendation. And then sit down with them and talk about the goals and the purpose and the why. Hopefully there is someone that you do that with anyway, a mentor or a manager that already knows your career plan. But if not, certainly spend that time.

mbaMission: How can a candidate best reveal his or her fit with Darden?

SN: This is an excellent question, because I think each school I talk to and each staff member at each school that I talk to has a different feeling about this question of fit. I do think we want applicants who have really thought about the schools they’re applying to, but I think until you’re actually there, if you haven’t visited, it’s hard to know. I don’t always expect people to reveal as much about fit as I think some schools might. I think that if you tell me who you are, what you’re about and what you want to accomplish, I’ll be able to see if you’re a fit or not. It’s more important to me that we get personal details, because one of the mistakes people make is regurgitating the Web site back to us. You telling me that you want to take so-and-so’s class or the case method is important because of what we put on our Web site is just a waste of your word count. It shows me that you can read our Web site, but it doesn’t show me anything about who you are. Really spend that time with personal examples, incidents, specific stories that you think tell me something about yourself that would make you a fit for the case method. For example, something about presenting at a board meeting and the questions you were asked and how you had to manage that on your feet and what kind of preparation you had to do beforehand—that would completely tell me that you could accomplish the case method, right? But it doesn’t tell me exactly what I already know about the case method that I’ve told you on the Web site. Really personal examples from the workplace or from an activity, that’s how you can convey that the best. The best essays are always about a moment in time and not a laundry list or a chronology of everything you’ve ever done.

mbaMission: Do you judge applications differently in Round 1 versus Round 2? Is it better to get in during Round 1?

SN: It’s always better to do the first round. The main reason for that is because every seat and every scholarship dollar is available, so it’s open. In Round 2 it’s pretty similar in terms of the admit rate, but I would say that there are fewer scholarship dollars available per person because people from the first round accepted them. It’s impossible for us to make it even, so I would say always try to apply in the first round if at all possible. I welcome people to apply in the third round, especially if they’ve had job changes or life changes, but please explain why you’re applying in that round. If you’re reading an interview like this, you’re pretty prepared, so you should explain why. And it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I wanted to take the GMAT again” or “I wanted to make sure my recommenders had time.” That’s okay. Your chances aren’t going to be as good as if you’d applied in Round 1, but having a reason like that is fine.

mbaMission: What kind of discrepancy in volume do you see from Round 1 to Round 2 to Round 3?

SN: It used to be a lot different. Round 1 has really grown in the last few years and is almost the same size as Round 2, slightly smaller, and then Round 3 is maybe a quarter the size of those, maybe a third. It’s pretty small.

mbaMission: What did you see in terms of application volume last year? Do you have a prediction as to whether the volume will increase or decrease this year?

SN: We were flat this year, which I felt was really fine, given that we lost our international student loan program earlier than many schools did. I felt like we really had very strong domestic growth, and it pretty much equaled the decline from India. If you look at GMAC’s data, GMAC’s test-taking in India is down, and so I expect that to be the trend going forward. But I think that there are some markets really growing, so I don’t expect the applications to go up this year, but I expect that we might be steady again. If you look at a 20-year trend, business school applications will go up preceding a downturn in the economy, and then they’ll level out, and then they’ll start to go down as the economy recovers. So, if the economy really takes off, as I hope it does, we could see a decline in applications. But I think it could be flat.

mbaMission: Has the student loan situation been resolved?

SN: The rising second years and the incoming students all have loans sufficient to cover all their expenses, and they’ve had that for a couple months now, and that’s all going fine. I think everyone’s expecting more banks to enter the arena in the next year, which will increase the competition, which will change all the rates, so we might want to change our programs to take advantage of lower rates. So I can’t really predict what it will be.

mbaMission: So all incoming students this year have loans?

SN: Yes.

mbaMission: Is there anything else you want people to know about Darden or about applying to the school?

SN: There are always things I want people to know. I would say, never be afraid to interview because you think it’s going to be competitive. Don’t try to differentiate yourself from others; try to be your best self. These are sort of cliché, but people get caught up in “There are so many consultants applying” or “There are so many bankers applying.” I still want the best and most interesting bankers or the best and most interesting consultants, so don’t let that dissuade you. I would say, do try to watch some of the videos and things, because you can get a much better sense for the program [that way] if you’re not able to come to Charlottesville. We will be releasing our list of our travel cities; we’re going to be going to over 60 cities this fall, so hopefully you can come visit us as we’re traveling. And the dean will be at many of those events. Our events are unique in that there’s usually equal numbers of alums to prospective students, so you really get to talk to a lot of alumni. And that’s really valuable, because I think very highly of our alumni, and I really believe that you can get a really good sense for the program if you talk to people who have been through it. We do not do PowerPoint at our events. You can get that from the Web site. So take a look at those things and those videos on the Web site beforehand, and come and talk to people.

mbaMission: Thank you so much for you time. I think you’ll help a lot of people.

SN: I hope so. I think this process should be a lot more transparent than it is.

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