mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with Amanda Carlson, Assistant Dean of Admissions at Columbia Business School

mbaMission was happy to be able to speak one-on-one recently with Amanda Carlson, Columbia Business School’s (CBS’s) assistant dean of admissions, about the MBA program’s resources and admissions processes.  She graciously shared some interesting insight on the following topics:

  • What she feels are CBS’s greatest strengths and resources
  • Her department’s recent efforts to add transparency to the admissions process
  • The CBS interview process and the mind-set of the school’s interviewers toward applicants
  • The trend of ever-increasing GMAT scores and the truth behind some common admissions “myths”
  • What raises red flags for the school’s admissions committee

Read on for the full transcript of the conversation.

Amanda Carlson, Columbia Business SchoolmbaMission: Amanda, thanks so much for speaking with us—I really appreciate your time. I’d love to start with a question about culture. We recently saw the CBS second-year flash mob video and were struck by what that seemed to show and say about the sense of community at CBS. I heard it took a whole year to plan! Can you give me your take on the intensity of the community at Columbia, and can you describe the culture a little?

Amanda Carlson: The admissions committee was meeting that night shortly after the flash mob had taken place, and one of the students sent a link to a member of our team, so we got to see it that very night! It was really something, and it just really warmed our hearts, and it was a perfect example of how our students really care about giving back to the community.

Our culture embraces people that really want to maximize their opportunities. There are so many different opportunities at Columbia—academic, professional, social and volunteer—and I think our students recognize that our community-driven culture can help open up opportunities that otherwise might not come about.

There’s a lot of comradery among the student population, and it’s very respectful in terms of the students appreciating what each other’s respective priorities are. I think an overarching kind of mind-set is that our students will maximize all opportunities as they come while at the same time being cognizant of giving back to the community and the school.

mbaMission: People typically think finance when they think of Columbia Business School. Would you agree with that? What do you feel CBS should be known for?

AC: What should CBS be known for? We’ve earned a great reputation as a very strong finance school, but we are so much more than just finance. One of the things that people often don’t necessarily recognize is that Columbia puts a tremendous premium on our core curriculum. All of our students receive fundamentals—such as statistics, accounting, marketing, finance—that teach them how to be good stewards and great leaders. This core has evolved in such a way that it is woven throughout the curriculum, and this is a great way for students to learn to connect the dots among all the different classes. It encourages our students to think much more broadly and holistically about the different aspects of each of the classes within the core.

So our brand really does go beyond finance. Columbia certainly has terrific and tremendous finance programs—don’t get me wrong—but at the heart, it’s about creating a pathway that teaches our students how to connect the dots, and that in turn creates great future business leaders.

mbaMission: Great. Aside from the obvious advantage of being located in New York City and so close to Wall Street, what is it about Columbia’s finance program that allows it to stand out so much?

AC: I think it’s about the people that make up our community. When I think about the different types of professors we have here, we’re very blessed to have obviously research faculty but also real-world practitioners who come to campus and teach.

What’s so special about our research faculty is that they’re able to slide seamlessly between their research and practice—consulting for governmental bodies or for different multinational companies—and then they are able to apply that learning, that research, that experience to our students’ academic experience in the classroom.

And the practitioners we have are people who may work at boutique investment banks and private equity firms or in asset management as value investors. These people are practitioners by trade, and their real-world experiences make them invaluable to our students. They come here and are able to teach the students exactly what’s going on in real time, as things are happening. And I think that having both types of faculty, that’s a tremendous asset academically as well as professionally for students who are looking for related post-MBA roles.

mbaMission: Beyond finance, can you speak about the hidden gems that Columbia has? Is there a department whose profile you feel needs to come out from the shadows and that Columbia Business School should also be known for?

AC: Where do I start? There are so many little pieces that collectively make up this experience. Well, I just finished my own executive MBA, the EMBA Global Asia program, which is a program that Columbia has that’s run in conjunction with London Business School and the University of Hong Kong. I took most of my electives here, and I think about a class like the retailing leadership class I took with Professor [Mark A.] Cohen. It was extraordinary—Professor Cohen used to be the chairman and CEO of Sears Canada. It was a three-hour class that met on Wednesday afternoons, and for the first 20 or so minutes, we would talk about what’s new and different in the retail industry. So whatever topic was trending in the news—like holiday shopping—would launch the class for about 20 minutes, and then we would transition into a specific retail case. Later we would hear from a CEO or CFO of a major retail company, which once again showed how the lessons learned in the classroom were being implemented in the real world. This past semester, we heard from Michael Gould, who’s the chairman and CEO of Bloomingdales. He’s an alum of Columbia Business School and a member of our Board of Overseers. We also heard from Jerome Chazen, one of the founders of Liz Claiborne. He’s also an alum and a member of our Board of Overseers. We heard from the CEO of Maidenform, the CEO of Gerber Childrenswear, the former CEO of Sears. I mean, it was just extraordinary to be able to hear from so many people who have obviously had tremendous experience in retail and to be able to ask very direct questions in such a small group. I think experiences like these are something we should be known for here at Columbia.

I think the Demming Center [The W. Edwards Deming Center for Quality, Productivity, and Competitiveness] is at the cutting edge of showing how integral “operations” is in the business space. I took a strategy operations class with Professor Nelson Fraiman where our class paired up into small consulting groups, and we partnered with entrepreneurs in Latin America that the professors had set us up with. And in addition to the cases we did in class, we had a team of executives from IBM come in and talk to us about all the different opportunities there are to work at IBM, and also what they were doing.

mbaMission: I’ve been in this business a long time, and I feel like I know the schools really well, but I think you opened my eyes to a few new things that will help applicants a lot. That’s great. So, you are the “new” assistant dean of admissions for CBS, though I put that “new” in quotes, because I know you’ve been in admissions for more than a few years. Are there any changes in the process that you foresee?

AC: In the application process?

mbaMission: Yes, in the application process going forward. Anything you see changing for CBS? This year, for instance, there has been a slight de-emphasis on essays as word counts have come down, and some schools are trying new group interview techniques. Are you looking to make any big changes to Columbia’s process, or do you think it is fine that way it is?

AC: I feel like what we’re doing has been pretty smooth, and it has served us well. Our admissions team evaluates applications for a number of different programs. We have the August intake, which is the one that has about 550 students in it; we have the January intake, which has about 200 students; and then we have a whole variety of executive MBA programs.

We are evaluating a lot of different applications at one time, so our process needs to be efficient and sound, which fortunately I believe it is, but we are constantly looking to improve. One thing that we’ve worked very hard on this year is trying to give people a much more transparent time frame in terms of when they can expect to get a decision. Within about six weeks or so, they’ll learn whether they’ll have an interview or their application is not going to be moving further in the process. And then after somebody has been interviewed, we’ve told them—and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of sticking with this—that we’ll get them a decision within two weeks after their completed interview report has been submitted.

So we’re trying to make small tweaks in our process to make the whole system be more transparent for applicants and much more, I think, palatable, because the rolling admissions is something that has caused confusion for people at times. We want to make it as easy to understand as possible.

mbaMission: When you yourself evaluate an application, where do you start? Do you go page by page, or just start with the person’s essays or resume? Can you take us through how you would look at a file?

AC: Absolutely. Everyone on our team has their own internal processes as to what we’re most comfortable with and how to get a good sense of the applicant—how to understand who somebody is—but at the end of the day, each application receives the same time and attention and is evaluated using the same measures. One of the things I look at first, certainly, is the resume, so I can get an overarching perspective relatively quickly of where someone has come from since college. Then I try to assess where this applicant wants to go by evaluating their essays. Next, I will look at the letters of recommendation, and then I look at the kind of skeleton details that are provided in the application. So, for example, where does the person live? From where have they come? What is their hometown? What are the specific reasons they’ve had for leaving jobs and making the transitions that they have throughout the course of their career? We can probably make some educated guesses based on a person’s resume, but I look to other parts of the application to kind of fill in the gaps for me. And then the last thing I look at is whether the applicant has gone through the interview process already, and if so, I would then go look at the interview report.

mbaMission: Can you walk us through the entire process? When a file is submitted, what happens next?

AC: That’s a good question. We evaluate all the applications online—no paper, of course. When an application comes in to us, it gets put into an electronic queue and given a time stamp. Then, we have a team that—without getting into too much nitty-gritty detail—will assign members of the admissions committee a number of files per week.

So somebody who’s reading an application can recommend that the applicant be interviewed or denied. If the recommendation is for an interview, then the candidate will be interviewed, and if the recommendation is that somebody is denied admission, the application would go to a second member of the admissions committee before being evaluated before the larger committee.

mbaMission: So let’s say an applicant is denied by the first admissions reader and that person’s application is passed on to a second committee member. If that second committee member also doesn’t want to move the applicant forward, I’m assuming that person is done, right? But what if the second person disagrees and says, “Let’s interview this person”?

AC: Then we’ll interview them. Anytime somebody says they would like to have an applicant interview, they go forward for an interview.

mbaMission: Okay. And so after someone is interviewed, does that person’s application then make its way to your desk? Do you reconvene in a group and evaluate applicants that way?

AC: We meet as a group. If one person says denied, and the second person says denied, it’s basically, “Okay, then, we agree with that.” If the applicant goes forward to an interview, they would have the interview, and then the committee would convene to evaluate the applicant during the final read.

mbaMission: Right. So, let me switch gears a bit. In the admissions mythology, there is this sense that a “safe” GMAT score is a 700 total score with an 80th percentile on both sides of the test [Quant and Verbal], but Quant scores in particular have really been going up, meaning the percentile for some previously high scores has dropped. So these days, even a 48 out of a 51, for example, will not be an 80th percentile quant score. Should candidates be worried about the percentiles, or are you looking at their Quant scores in absolute terms? Do you know what I’m saying?

AC: I know exactly what you’re saying, and what I can tell you is a resounding, emphatic “No.” That is not accurate and not the way we do things. I understand this whole application process is so daunting; it can be so intimidating. I think people should try to relax and not get caught up in some of the noise they may hear from I’m not quite sure what sources. People do not have to have this 80/80 type of a breakdown to be admitted. I can’t be emphatic about that enough.

It’s amazing to me how high so many of these scores are, but it’s something that we take in context with the larger academic aspect of their application—what somebody did as an undergrad or what their undergraduate major may have been and what classes they took, and how did they do. And we also consider it in concert with what they’re doing right now for work. There are a host of factors that go into our evaluation, and our goal is to try to get a holistic view of the person rather than fixate on one score or another.

mbaMission: What would you say is a red flag for you? What would stand out and give you pause when you’re reading a person’s application?

AC: That’s a great question. I think one thing that raises not a red flag but more like a yellow flag is when somebody’s really interested in making a career change—and I know that a lot of people come to business school to make a career change—but there needs to be some consistency in their story. So if, and I’m going to make up an example, if somebody wants to go from working in marketing at a financial services company to working in real estate development, what can they claim that shows demonstrated commitment to this interest in real estate development? I mean, is there volunteer work? Is there academic background? Are there continuing education classes? Is there a membership in some type of professional organization that would show that this is actually coming from some place genuine and it’s not just a pie-in-the-sky idea of what they think they might want to do with their MBA?

So that’s something that we look at very, very closely. There’s so much for our students to do when they are at school, and we want to make sure that they’re realistic in their expectations about what we can facilitate for them, about what the folks in our career management office can assist with. So we really want to ensure that those yellow flags are addressed before we accept somebody into the program.

mbaMission: As you of course know, CBS has its own admissions timetable. Can you discuss the differences between rounds? Should an individual who applies in the regular decision round feel that he has negatively identified himself by not applying early?

AC: Thank you for asking that. Again, I have an emphatic “No” to the second part of that question.

mbaMission: I think that’s something a lot of candidates worry about, so I appreciate your clarifying that.

AC: Great. And let me be really clear: we receive the bulk of our applications during the regular decision period, and that’s when we admit most of our applicants. We know that people are kind of shopping around, trying to figure out what programs are the best fit, and that’s something really important to do, and that takes time.

So if people are still trying to figure things out and don’t know if Columbia is an ideal fit for them, then they absolutely should apply during the regular decision period. In the early decision period, there are some candidates who know that this is a dream school for them, and I think that applying early decision will serve them well, because they want their decision sooner. They would like to know in August or September that they’re locked down and have the opportunity to come here next year, if Columbia’s where they want to be. And we want to give them that option.

So in terms of the rolling admissions process, basically what it boils down to is that we read applications in the order in which they are submitted, and again, as I referenced earlier, we’re trying to be very transparent with a particular time frame of when candidates will get a decision.

That’s really what the difference is and how our approach works. It’s not: if you submit your application on X date, you’ll get a decision on Y date. It’s: we’ll read the applications in the order in which they’re submitted. You’ll hear something within six weeks, and then however long it takes you to set up your interview and for your interview feedback to be submitted, we’ll get you a decision within two weeks after that. Hopefully, knowing that type of a time frame will make people feel much more comfortable with rolling admissions.

mbaMission: The next question that I have—and you kind of touched on it with your example of the marketing individual who wants to enter real estate development—is about why CBS asks about goals in its essays. So many students change their minds when in school. What’s the benefit of a goal statement?

AC: That’s a great question. I think what so much of that boils down to is that there are 24 hours in a day, and recruiting starts just six weeks after a student steps foot on campus, so recruiters are coming—and again, we have this blessing of our location in New York—and there’s so much to take advantage of, from brown bag lunches to recruiting receptions to different guest speakers. We had more than 450 speakers come to campus last year, and somebody could really have their head spinning in terms of figuring out “what is it that I want to do?” while at the same time going through the various opportunities available in every 24 hours at Columbia.

You don’t get a second chance to do business school, and we don’t want people to miss this opportunity to really be able to achieve and maximize what they can from their business school experience. So we want people to have a pretty good idea of the path they’d like to pursue. I feel like our students can really be kids in a candy store, given everything at the Office of Student Affairs Career Management. It’s not that they can’t change their minds, but they need to understand that it’s important to have some type of a general focus and to keep their eye on the prize so they can maximize all the abundant resources there are at Columbia.

mbaMission: Let’s shift a little to interviews. Can you start by walking us through a typical admissions interview? What can an applicant expect, and what should applicants do to prepare?

AC: Sure. I always encourage applicants to prepare for a business school interview just like they would for a professional interview, and to put themselves in the shoes of the interviewer. If you were interviewing somebody for your alma mater, what would you want to know? Most of our interviews are conducted by our alumni, and the interviews are blind, so the only thing the interviewer knows about the candidate is what they tell the interviewer.

I also encourage applicants to try to be relaxed and natural. Look, when we do interviews, we’re always rooting for the candidates, and I think our alums bring that perspective as well. It’s their opportunity to talk about Columbia just as it is to learn about what the next generation of Columbia students is going to look like, and we’re always championing people.

So I think the candidates should kind of take a step back and think, “Okay, if I’m interviewing somebody from my alma mater, am I going into it thinking I really want to like this person or I really don’t want to like this person?” Of course you’re going to want to like the person. So that really should put people at ease when they’re meeting with us. But all that said, you should still prepare as you would for a professional interview. Reread your application. The admissions committee is of course going to look for consistency in your story. It should not come as a surprise to anybody that if a person who’s interviewing says, “Well, I’d like to go into health care” to the interviewer but said, “I want to go into real estate development” in their application, that’s clearly going to be something that gets our minds percolating.

mbaMission: How often does that happen?

AC: You’d be surprised. Of course, I’m making up an extreme example, but inconsistencies happen more than you might think.

mbaMission: What should someone expect during a Columbia interview itself?

AC: We don’t give the interviewers a script per se. They’ve got some general guidelines as to what they should be asking, but there is nothing that should take a candidate by surprise. Think about goals. Think about fit. Think about larger business issues. Think about community. When I meet with people, I always think to myself and will even sometimes be forthcoming and just say, “Look, I’m not trying to trick you or trap you. We’re just trying to get to know you a little bit better.” And I think the more relaxed and natural people can be, the better they’re going to do.

mbaMission: Right. And interviews are typically about a half hour long?

AC: They can last anywhere from half an hour to an hour. A few weeks ago, I went down to Washington, DC, because we had a large number of applicants who needed to be interviewed. Some were 30 minutes and others 60 minutes. One thing I’ll say is that the length of your interview in no way hints at your chances of admittance. I’ve had 30-minute interviews where people were admitted and 60-minute interviews where they weren’t. The reverse of both of these is certainly true as well.

mbaMission: And so you occasionally jump in if there’s too much demand, or do you look at someone’s file and say, “Wow, that’s an interesting person. I’d like to talk to that person”?

AC: No I don’t cherry pick interviews. If there’s a need due to high demand, geographical constraints or other circumstances, then I’ll jump in. Or if we have to Skype interview somebody—that’s when the admissions committee would actually do the interviews.

mbaMission: And when do you use Skype to interview people? Is it just when they’re just so remote?

AC: Yes. Perhaps somebody is a part of the military and deployed abroad, or they’re off doing something in a distant location—that would generally be when we use Skype. It’s certainly not ideal, that’s not what we strive for, but if we need to do it that way, we’re able to.

mbaMission: Right. And why do you primarily use alumni to conduct your interviews?

AC: The alumni bring an invaluable perspective to interviewing prospective students. And we of course love to keep our alumni engaged. We love to hear their perspective, and it’s really heartwarming when we hear from the alumni that they’ve really connected with somebody so much so that they’d even like to give a candidate a job offer or an internship over the summer while they’re here. I also think it’s beneficial for the candidates to be able to hear from somebody who’s gone through the program. They can ask them all the nitty-gritty questions that perhaps a member of the admissions committee who hasn’t gone through the program wouldn’t be able to answer quite as well.

mbaMission: Let me ask just one more question on interviews. What if an interview just doesn’t go well? Let’s say I am a candidate, and I have just a disastrous experience—I don’t know, my alumnus woke up on the wrong side of the bed and was totally disengaged and I could tell, or even I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, and I’m generally a great interviewer, but I just floundered for some reason. Is there anything I can do, or is that just life?

AC: We are always open to hearing that feedback. We may not always be able to accommodate somebody with a second interview, but it is not unheard of that if somebody gives us that feedback, we might bring them in to meet with us or match them up with a second interviewer. That’s not unheard of, but we wouldn’t guarantee that for everyone.

mbaMission: Right. The vast majority of alumni are great, of course, but when you’re dealing with such a large and diverse group, every once in a while, someone just misses.

AC: Sure. The way I look at it—and I mean this from the bottom of my heart—is that when we bring people in, we really really want to like them, so we want to do everything we can to give them every shot to put their best foot forward.

mbaMission: Definitely. So many people perceive the admissions committee as being so negative and punitive, like they’re just sitting there waiting to reject people, and it’s really not like that at all.

AC: No. Not at all. We wouldn’t be in this business if we were like that!

mbaMission: That’s a great way of ending this interview—on that note. Thank you so much for this.

AC: Sure—thank you!

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