mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with University of Michigan Ross School of Business Director of Admissions Soojin Kwon Koh

mbaMission was fortunate to have had the opportunity recently to speak one-on-one with Soojin Kwon Koh, Director of MBA Admissions at Michigan-Ross. Here, we offer some highlights from the interview, followed by a full transcript.

  • Ross will be increasing its class size from about 440 to 500 with its new facility
  • Ms. Kwon Koh discusses how she reads an MBA application
  • Ms. Kwon Koh elaborates on employment issues and her willingness to see candidates consider more than one career goal in their essays

mbaMission: Thank you for joining us. I’d like to start with a standard question we’ve been asking all the admissions directors: what should Ross be known for that it is not currently known for?

Soojin Kwon Koh: We’re a lot more international than prospective students realize. Globalization is integrated throughout the whole MBA experience, from courses to independent study and internships. More than half of our students travel overseas each year. As an example, our MBA Class of 2008 spent more than 6,000 days collectively in over 30 countries outside of the United States as a part of their coursework—that doesn’t include internships. They can go abroad for our Multidisciplinary Action Projects, or MAP, a course called “Global Projects” and  a number of other strategy and operations courses that have gone to places like Cuba, Turkey, Ireland, the Netherlands, China, India, just to name a few. We also have a Center for International Business Education that offers study abroad opportunities with 11 schools in nine countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.

mbaMission: How are those international opportunities sourced?

SKK: Well, a lot of them are through MAP. Our MAP office and other staff travel the world, talking to companies and alums to source projects. Because we’ve been doing it so long—since 1992—we’ve got a really strong roster of companies that have done repeat projects with us, and word of mouth gets us projects as well. Over 600 organizations have partnered with us to sponsor over 1,300 MAP projects around the world.

mbaMission: Is Ross currently focused on strengthening any particular academic areas or offerings?

SKK: We’re a general management school, and we have maintained our general management focus. But even during these tough times, when short-term cost cutting has been the goal on everyone’s mind, we’ve continued to hire new faculty in a variety of areas, including accounting, finance, operations, management and organization, and marketing. So we are staying as broad-based as we have always been, and continue to invest in the research issues that are important across the business spectrum.

mbaMission: You’ve mentioned Ross’s international aspects and opportunities. When evaluating applicants, how do you screen for whether someone has genuine international interest and whether they would be effective in the international environment?

SKK: We look for people who are open-minded and have worked in diverse environments whether it’s in another country or in an industry where they work with people of varying backgrounds and experiences.

mbaMission: Obviously, there’s been a pretty significant downturn in the economy in the last little while, and I’m curious about how you view candidates who discuss a primary and a secondary career goal in their essays.

SKK: We think that having two goals can be and practical. As this economic downturn has shown, sometimes people may have to pursue an alternate career path. We advise our students to do a thorough career self-assessment and identify which careers might be a good match for them based on their interests, values and priorities. We encourage them to reassess as they go along. Students should think more broadly about the skills they want to use and develop, and the kind of environment they want to work in.  Chances are, more than one industry or function will fit that bill.

mbaMission: In the Ross essay question that asks, “If you were not pursuing the career goals you’ve described, what profession would you pursue instead?” do you expect applicants to offer something that’s kind of an ideal or something more pragmatic?  For example, “If I don’t become a banker, I’d like to go into corporate finance” versus “I recognize that fundamentally, I’m successful as an educator of others, so if I weren’t to become a banker, I would become an elementary school teacher instead.”

SKK: I think that’s the essay question applicants have the hardest time with. We’re not looking for a specific type of answer. I think some applicants think, “Oh, they’re looking for a career that’s closely related to my primary career goal. If I’m not going to be an investment banker, then my alternate career should be corporate finance.” That could be the right answer if that’s truly what you would want to do if you weren’t going into banking. Or it could be that there’s this other side of you that wouldn’t have come out if we didn’t ask this question. We’re hoping to get to know you better by understanding what your interests and passions are.The other thing we’re looking for in that question is how that alternate career can make you more effective in solving multi-disciplinary problems. Many applicants seem to forget to address that part of the question.

mbaMission: How does Ross view class visits?

SKK: We highly encourage prospective students to visit and sit in on a class, get a feel for the class dynamics – with the professor, with each other – walk around the campus and get a feel for the culture. Visits can help applicants make informed decisions about which school to apply to and ultimately attend, because they’ll get better sense of fit. Some schools are going to be a better fit based on someone’s personality and goals, and you can’t really make that determination based on view books or Web sites or rankings. You really need to experience it firsthand.That said, we understand that applicants’ budgets and schedules are tight, and it may be tough for prospective students to visit all the schools they’re considering. At a minimum, prospective students should talk to current students and alumni at each school. On our Web site, we have profiles of student ambassadors. Ambassadors are students who have volunteered to answer questions. Prospects can e-mail ambassadors to find out what the school is like from a student’s perspective. Ambassadors aren’t part of the admissions committee so they can’t comment on issues related to the admissions process, but they can answers questions about what it’s like to go to school here.

mbaMission: Do you have any information as to the number of applicants admitted and the number who came to campus to visit?

SKK: We do track the number of visitors, and we do track the number of admits, but there’s no correlation between the two.

mbaMission: Right. As you alluded to earlier, different schools have different personalities. What kind of personality would you say is attracted to the Ross community?

SKK: I would describe our students as collaborative and very team oriented. I think people who value relationships and people are attracted to Ross.  Our students are also very action-oriented.  They take lot of initiative. Our community is very student-driven, from the clubs to our conferences to some of the classes that are here – much of it is driven by student interest and student initiative. The people who tend to have the best time here and, not coincidentally, the people we look to bring into our community are those who really want to get involved in things and not just go to classes.

mbaMission: And how do you think candidates can reveal those kinds of traits in their application?

SKK: Obviously, the essays are a great vehicle to reveal fit. Recommendation letters are also very helpful in giving us a third-party perspective on your level of initiative and impact. The interview certainly plays an important role, too. Even on the application form itself, where you list extracurriculars and other information, each part helps us develop a mental picture of each applicant. So really, every part of the application process provides us with an opportunity to evaluate fit.

mbaMission: Can you talk a little bit about the interview experience at Ross and what an applicant can expect? Are there any differences between an on-campus interview, an alumni interview and a student interview?

SKK: To begin with, our interviews are by invitation only. We make the invitations based on an initial review of the application; it means you’re someone we want to get to know more about.Interviews are conducted by students, alums or staff. On-campus and off-campus interviews are weighted equally. They have different benefits. Interviewing on-campus obviously gives you an opportunity to visit, sit in on a class, meet with students, get a sense for what the school’s vibe is. Interviewing off-campus with an alum gives you the opportunity to talk to someone who can provide a perspective on all aspects of the experience during and post-MBA.

mbaMission: What is the process of evaluating an application at Ross? Can you walk me through the different phases?

SKK: We started reviewing our applications electronically last year, which enabled us to get to the actual application review process more quickly. Obviously, when we receive thousands of applications, we can’t review them all simultaneously. Each reviewer is randomly assigned a list of applications to review. Each application gets multiple reviews. Some applicants might be invited to interview after the first evaluation, while others might be invited after the second evaluation. What we’re looking for in the application review is whether someone has the academic ability to do well in our program and what they’ll bring to the table in terms of professional and personal experiences. We want students who will have something to teach their fellow students. We’re also looking for whether they’ll be a good fit in our community based on their essays, recommendation letters, etc.The interview is used as a gauge of fit as well as communication skills. As I mentioned, interviews are conducted by second-year MBA students, alumni and staff. Interviews are conducted blind, meaning interviewers don’t see a candidate’s application; they only see a copy of an applicant’s resume. Once the application reviews and interviews are completed, the Admissions Committee will make recommendations about each applicant as to whether we should admit, deny, or waitlist. Then I review all the decisions as a whole, by round, to see what the class is shaping up to look like and make decisions on the overall composition of the class. Then I submit our final recommendations to the Associate Dean for review.

mbaMission: When you sit down to read an application, where do you start, and what is the order you follow?

SKK: I look at the resume first. I view that as kind of the introduction to the applicant – to get a sense of the big picture. What does their work experience look like? Their education, interests, and extracurriculars? Hopefully that can be summarized in one or two pages. Then I look at their GMAT score and their transcript to get a sense of where they are on our academic spectrum, and then I turn to the essays. While all four essays are important, the first essay—the why MBA, and why Ross—is the best opportunity for an applicant to explicitly make a compelling case to be part of our class. The other essays are opportunities to reveal your fit in indirect ways.  Finally, I look at the recommendations, which is not to say they’re the least important part of the process.  On the contrary, I view rec letters as a way to gauge consistency in the picture the applicant has painted of him/herself and the applicant’s self-awareness.

mbaMission: I think you touched on this a little, but can you share some of the common mistakes people tend to make in their applications?

SKK: There are two main things that come to mind. On their resumes: applicants often give us a job description or a list of responsibilities rather than highlighting results and impact.The second common mistake I see is that applicants use the essays to tell us about us rather than themselves. They cite a laundry list of classes, clubs and faculty in their essays (sometimes from the wrong school), and use that as evidence of school research without really understanding what they’re about. We already know what we’re about. What we want to know is what the applicant is about and why he or she will benefit from and contribute to our community.

mbaMission: These days, it’s not uncommon for people who are applying to business school to have been laid off. What would you say to someone who’s been laid off, possibly even months ago, in terms of applying to Ross?

SKK: They should still definitely consider applying. We understand that great employees at all levels within an organization can get laid off, especially during times like this, so there’s no need to feel like your chances are automatically less than those of someone who is still working. We’re going to look at an applicant’s entire professional history and not just the last year. And we’re going to look at all the pieces of the application, not just the work history.As with all applicants, we’re going to want to know how the MBA fits into your goals and why now. We’re going to want to know what you’ve been doing since the layoff. That can be addressed in an essay and the interview. A layoff can be an opportunity to showcase your initiative, your maturity and your resilience. Some folks have taken this time to get more involved in volunteer work or investigate a career path that they’re passionate about. The important thing is to address it and show us how you’ve dealt with it.

mbaMission: Great. What can you tell us about the school’s new building and the kind of impact it has had on the Ross community?

SKK: Oh, it’s been great. It’s a fantastic new building. It’s very open and very conducive to community-building. Our new winter garden space lets in a lot of light and has a lot of seating that lets people gather informally. The classrooms are state-of-the-art. We also have a lot of group-study rooms, which is very important to kinds of projects students are engaged in.We’ve also got a great new fitness center on-site for students, faculty and staff that has all of the latest equipment, and a new café that has stations for different kinds of hot and cold food and sources much of the food locally. Also, the building is LEED certified, which is in line with our focus on and commitment to sustainability.

mbaMission: Do you expect to see more applicants this year? Do you have any predictions as to what will happen going forward?

SKK: I think the days of double digit growth are over, and international applicants will look for options closer to home.  But I think there will continue to be strong interest and a need for MBAs.

mbaMission: How many more students do you think you’ll be admitting for this fall?

SKK: The numbers aren’t final yet; classes don’t begin until September 8.  But right now I’d say we’re looking at a class size of about 500.  Our new building has enabled us to accommodate a larger class.

mbaMission: Are you focusing on any particular countries to yield additional applicants?

SKK: We’re looking at different strategies for each region of the world, taking into consideration market potential. We’d, of course, like to see students from all regions of the world in our class.

mbaMission: Can you talk about the international student loan situation right now and what’s going on specifically at Ross with regard to this issue?

SKK: We secured a loan program through the University of Michigan’s Credit Union to cover our current and incoming international students with very good terms. We’re also in the final stages of another international student loan program with a different bank to cover students who will be coming in next fall, in 2010.

mbaMission: What can you tell us about the discrepancy in application volumes between Round 1, Round 2 and Round 3 at Ross? I think more and more candidates are feeling compelled to apply early, and I’m wondering whether you would encourage that or whether you feel the opportunities are relatively equal for applicants across all rounds.

SKK: Percentage-wise, we get about a third of our applications in Round 1, about 55% in Round 2, and the remainder in Round 3. I think a lot of people would rather take the extra time, over the holidays especially, before they hit the “Submit” button. We encourage people to submit their application when they feel that it is the best possible application that they could submit. So, if you can get everything lined up and completed and you feel really good about it by October 10, then I would encourage applicants to apply in Round 1. But if it takes you a bit longer, and you want to take the time to look at your application again and maybe have somebody else look at it, then Round 2 is fine, too. For international applicants, we highly encourage them to apply in Round 1 or Round 2, because there may not be enough time to get visas lined up if they apply in Round 3. The other thing to mention is that all of our scholarship decisions are made around Round 1 and Round 2, so it’s to everybody’s advantage to apply during one of the first two rounds.

mbaMission: While you have an audience of about 35,000, is there anything else you would like people to know about Ross?

SKK: Sure. It seems to be a growing trend for business schools to be doing field activities or hands-on learning experiences, and in that regard, Ross, I think, provides the best opportunity to get real world experience during an MBA program. With MAP in particular, the Multidisciplinary Action Project, students work on diverse teams and tackle strategic and operational issues for companies, nonprofits and startups all around the world. About half of our projects are international, the other half in the United States.  MAP is part of our core curriculum; we dedicate seven weeks, full-time to just MAP.  That’s a meaty learning experience.We think that this way of applying theory makes it easier for students to really own the knowledge they’re learning in the first 3 quarters of the first year. It also prepares them to deal with the uncertainty of working in the real world, where problems and solutions aren’t defined for you. You learn how to ask the right questions, identify the real challenges, and solve problems. From a practical perspective, action-based learning and MAP in particular are helpful for career switchers and for students with fewer years of full-time work experience by virtue of the seven weeks of full-time experience in an industry or a function. That’s comparable to a lot of summer internships, which are often ten weeks. And because of the long history and scope of our MAP program, we’ve really got the experience to get projects that are good from an educational standpoint as well as valuable for the sponsors.

mbaMission: Great. Thank you for taking time to speak with us about Ross.

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