mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with Dustin Cornwell, Former Director of Admissions at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business

Update: Dustin Cornwell left Southern Methodist University’s (SMU’s) Cox School of Business in September 2014. 

We had the pleasure of chatting with Dustin Cornwell, who is the director of admissions at Southern Methodist University’s (SMU’s) Cox School of Business and who provided us with some interesting insights on various aspects of the MBA program it offers. In addition to addressing Cox’s identity as a business school, Dustin shared his thoughts on the following:

  • What drew him, as a veteran of the admissions world with more than a decade of experience, to want to be a part of SMU Cox
  • The unique nature of the school’s primary mentoring program
  • Cox’s new business analytics concentration and one-year master’s degree
  • The program’s compelling dual degree and specialty programs, including its MA in arts administration and exciting CFA Fast Track offering
  • What makes an applicant stand out in a positive way and what he sees as red flags
  • What alumni tell him was their “favorite and most memorable” part of the Cox experience

mbaMission: Thanks so much for joining me today, Dustin.

Dustin Cornwell: You’re welcome. I’m happy to be taking part in this.

mbaMission: We’ve been trying to for a couple years now to interview admissions directors to get beyond the surface-level questions and the things you can basically pick up on a school’s Web site. We want to get people learning more about different aspects of the experiences the programs have to offer.

DC:  That’s great. I think that is key for candidates, too, standing out with their story, because part of what the admissions committee does is looking beyond the stats and seeing what’s really there. Somebody with the same metrics as somebody else might get admitted and the other person might not, you know? And it’s because of other things in their background, their goals, their work experience, that kind of stuff.

mbaMission:  True. So when I think of the Cox MBA, I think of small class size, I think of Dallas—and I’ve heard from a variety of people that Dallas has a tremendous trajectory for the next couple decades. And I was surprised when I looked through the employment stats and saw that the percentage of graduates entering the financial industry is just slightly higher than the percentage entering the energy industry. So, do you feel that you’re an energy school, or a financial school, or basically, what you feel your professional identity should be?

DC:  Sure. Well, about half of our students are interested in some aspect of finance. That tends to be our largest area of concentration. And within finance, we have four tracks. So within a concentration, sometimes there are different tracks. Energy finance is one of those. So energy is kind of a subspecialty within our finance concentration, and we see some overlap there with students looking at working in the financial aspects of the energy industry. We see a lot of students who are going into other roles in energy as well, things like consulting opportunities, project management opportunities, things like that, particularly for our students who come from an engineering undergrad background. Primarily, though, when students are interested in the energy industry, it tends to be more on the financial side, the investing side—investing in the growth of that industry, because it is booming right now in the United States—or working with wealth management, working with corporate finance with one of the energy companies, something along those lines. So they are kind of intertwined within our program.

mbaMission: Sure. So how would you describe Cox’s identity as a school?

DC:  That’s a tough question. It’s interesting talking with alumni and talking with students. I think it means different things to different people. The thing that really attracted me to come work here at SMU Cox was the strength of the alumni. I’ve worked at three other MBA programs in the past, and I’ve been in the industry for over ten years, and I think every school’s going to have a core of dedicated alumni. That’s going to be true just about anywhere. You’re going to have people who really enjoyed their experience and want to give back. I think what’s really distinctive here is how large that group is, how many alumni want to stay involved. And you see that in so many ways.

For example, when we have events for admitted students on campus or for prospective students, we often invite alumni to come and mix and mingle and talk with students about their experience. And I always have more volunteers than I need when I send out an invite to alumni, and I haven’t had that experience in other places. So that’s something that kind of struck me right away when I first started here over two years ago. And also, alumni join us for a number of events we have on campus, whether it’s as guest speakers, on panels or to talk to our current students, even tailgating events for football games in the fall. Typically, that’s associated with undergraduate alumni at most schools. You really have that affiliation very strongly with your undergraduate school, and here we get a lot of MBA alumni who come to those events and hang out with current students and have that sense of identity as part of SMU Cox. I think that really strengthens it.

So to get back to your question, I think in the Dallas–Fort Worth area and across Texas, SMU really enjoys a very strong reputation. It’s well known in the area. It’s something everybody’s familiar with, and it has the identity of a high-quality program. Students are well qualified for their positions, regardless of whether it’s marketing or finance or any other area, and they give back, you know? They really have that affiliation and affinity for the school and want to stay involved. So all those types of things are what come to mind when you’re talking about the identity of Cox.

mbaMission: Right. I’m pretty impressed by the Associate Board Mentoring Program and how vast it is. I think the number was like 260 executives who volunteer to be mentors in that program. Can you tell me more about how it works? Would a student ever not participate for some reason?

DC: Well, students are not required to; it’s not a requirement, but it’s very rare for someone not to. I think there have been instances in the past where students have opted out for whatever reason, but it’s very rare. I mean, 90% or more of our MBA students do participate in that program. The way the program works—and I think this is one of the distinctive features of our program—you’re not just assigned a mentor. I think at a lot of programs, you say, “I’m going to be focusing on X industry” or “I want to work at such-and-such a company,” and they assign you a mentor, someone who works there or someone who works in that industry. And that’s as far as it goes, and you kind of have to build that relationship.

Here, we do something really great where we hold a couple of receptions during the students’ first semester in the program, and we invite all of our Associate Board Mentors to come. And we have all the full-time MBA students attend those events. And ahead of time, the students get brief biographies about all of our mentors—what their professional and academic backgrounds are, what they’ve done in their industry, that type of thing—so they can go through that and decide who they really want to meet. They can prioritize who they’d like to meet at these events. So at the event, they can spend their time actually talking one-on-one with the mentors. They can hopefully meet a dozen or more different mentors during the receptions. Then afterward, the students will make a list of their top five or six choices. So after having met them and read about their backgrounds, they can prioritize who they want as their mentor.

Now, we do a one-to-one matching process. So if ten students want the same mentor, nine people are going to be disappointed, unfortunately. They maybe won’t get their first choice, but the idea is that you’ve got a lot of people out there who can help you in your career, and hopefully you’ve met several people who you feel would be good matches for you. And we try to give every student one of their top few choices on their list, so that they are excited about working with that person. Then the mentor and the mentee are notified of the match, and it’s up to the student to make that first contact after they’ve been matched. We want the students leading their own professional development and their own networking strategies, so we have them contact their mentor and set up the initial visit. That might be going to lunch. It might be visiting them at their office, whatever it is, and it goes from there.

And many students stay in touch with their mentors throughout the program and beyond. I’ve talked with many alumni who have stayed in touch with their mentors well beyond their time here at Cox. And how often they meet and in what way they meet is really up to them, whatever works with their schedule and their style. So for some people, it’s a lot of phone and email contact. Other people meet on a pretty regular basis with their mentor in person, so it’s really up to them.

mbaMission: I was impressed also that a lot of mentors make themselves available even if they’re not actively mentoring someone. There’s a willingness to just do their part and be in it for anyone who needs or wants help.

DC: Absolutely. I mean, the associate board, that’s a more formalized mentoring program, and these are really high-level executives, people with 20, 30 years of experience who are very accomplished in their careers. There are other, more informal mentoring opportunities within the program, too. For example, we have second-year students who serve as mentors for our first-year student teams. So we’ll have a second-year student who will work with five of our students in their first year and help them navigate the elective course selection process, how to balance searching for a job and maintaining your activities, doing well in class, things like that. So someone who’s just gone through it helping them through that.

We also have other more informal mentor relationships with more recent graduates. So people who are maybe one to five years out of the program can address that transition period from school to the work force and how to make that transition. What are the steps to take? How do you get yourself noticed within your company if you want to be on the ladder to rise to higher-level positions? That sort of thing. So all those different points from being a student to being a recent alum to being a more experienced alumnus, those are all important targets for our students to have contacts with.

mbaMission: Are there any aspects of the program that possibly are not as well known right now that you want to highlight?

DC: Yeah, one of the newer programs that we’re really excited about is our business analytics concentration. Business analytics has had a lot of media coverage the past few years—big data, that type of thing—and we offer quite a bit of course work in that now for our students. That can be done as an MBA concentration, which many of our students are doing, and it’s a great complement either to marketing or to finance. Really being able to work with data and do data analysis, that’s very helpful in marketing research. It’s also very helpful, of course, in analyzing financial data. So we’re seeing more and more students being very interested in that, and we’re actually seeing some candidates specifically looking at Cox because we offer that.

This fall we will be launching a standalone, one-year master’s degree called a master of science [MS] in business analytics. So for candidates who don’t necessarily want the full package of the MBA but want to focus more narrowly on business analytics, they can do that in a one-year program, and that’s a good option for recent college graduates. In our full-time MBA program, typically students have at least three years of full-time work experience before they enroll, whereas the MS in business analytics would be open to anyone who has a college degree. So it can be a one-year master’s degree for recent graduates who want to get more data analysis experience.

mbaMission: Great. Well that’s a natural segue to the fact that Cox seems to have a variety of complements, as I would say, for a school its size, like the JD/MBA, the MBA/MA in arts, the MBA/CFA program. Are these programs particularly popular? How many students enroll in these programs?

DC: The CFA track, that’s brand new this year. That’s not really a dual degree in terms of education, but we did that because we have such an interest in finance. We know many of our students are pursuing that, so we wanted to give them a way to do that in a more structured manner and really help them be successful. So at the end of the first what we call module—we divide semesters into two parts, so module A and module B—so at the end of the first module of their first year, students who’ve done well in their introductory courses in accounting, finance and statistics and who want to pursue a finance concentration are eligible to take part in the CFA Fast Track, is what we call it.

What that allows them to do is take more of their finance courses earlier in the program. They’re able to defer some of their other core courses to the second year, ones they would normally be taking in the first-year core, so they can move forward more quickly in the finance track. And that will help prepare them better for summer internships and to sit for the CFA exam. We also provide review courses and things like that specifically for that exam, so that students can take either Level 1, 2 or 3. Most students would be doing Level 1 after the first year and Level 2 after the second year of the program, but some students come in already having passed one or more levels of that. This year, I believe, we have about 15 students who are in that pilot program. This is the first year we’re doing it, so we don’t know yet what the outcomes will be, of course, but students are pretty excited about it, and it’s a good option for them. We’re hoping to grow that slightly, maybe 20 to 25 students next year. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes.

The MA in arts administration and MBA is a dual degree, two-year program where students can get an MBA from the Cox School and a master of arts administration from the Meadows School of Arts on SMU’s campus. We have about ten students per class in that program, so in the first year, those students take all the same core courses that our MBA students do, and in addition to that, they take one arts management course each term the first year. Then, in the second year of the program, those students spend a semester over in Italy. They have a study abroad semester in the fall, and they’re really hands-on with arts administration and fine arts work there in Italy. Then when they return to campus for the spring semester, they take some additional business courses to complete the MBA portion of their degree, along with doing their internships in arts management.

A lot of people don’t realize Dallas has an amazing arts community. It’s been growing by leaps and bounds, and we have an arts district downtown that is phenomenal. We have the opera. We have all kinds of theatres. We have all kinds of music organizations. So a lot of our students do intern here in Dallas, but we also have students who work in many other places. One of our students was interviewing for a summer internship with the Seattle Opera just the other day. So, we do place students around the country in terms of internships and full-time positions out of that degree as well. We’ve had that program for a number of years.

mbaMission: Is Cox targeting any particular type or group of students?

DC: Like most MBA programs, we’re really conscious of wanting to reach out to women. I think women by and large are underrepresented in MBA programs. We’re a member of the Forte Foundation, which is a great consortium of business schools and top corporations here in the United States, and other organizations that are committed to success for women in business. So that’s something we’ve really increased our participation with. They hold a number of MBA fairs in the fall for prospective MBA students, so we attend those and follow up with candidates from that, and we also have been very proactive at getting our admitted students and current students to attend their annual conferences. They hold a great annual conference every summer, and incoming students are able to attend that in June before they even start the program. Of course, our returning students can attend that conference as well.

At those conferences, many of the employers are there. They have a career fair portion, so students can get an early jump on looking for an internship or a full-time job by networking with the companies that are there. We’ve seen students who’ve gotten internship interviews out of the contacts they have made at the conference. And it’s just a great way to network with women in other MBA programs and talk about the issues women are facing in the business world, how they are dealing with those—and to hear from a lot of prominent women who are in leadership roles, when they have panels and discussion groups. I think it’s just something good, especially for our incoming students, to be able to discuss and think about prior to starting their experience here at Cox.

mbaMission: Is there a particular peer school that you feel like you guys are competing with for candidates?

DC: I think our biggest overlaps are Rice [the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University] and UT Austin [the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, Austin], certainly our largest overlaps in terms of our applicant pools. I think Rice is a very similar school to us in many respects, with strengths in energy, a very similar class size, it’s a private university—there’s all kinds of similarities—located here in Texas, obviously.

UT Austin’s enrollment is more than twice the size of Rice’s or SMU’s. So they are certainly a competitor for us, but it’s a different experience. It’s a larger public school, larger class size, that type of thing. So I think candidates look at it slightly differently. Certainly they consider both the programs, but in terms of what they’re looking for, in terms of fit, that may affect how they view the different schools. I think some of the other schools that we see quite a bit of overlap with in terms of applications are Vanderbilt, Emory, Indiana, Washington University and then here in Texas, we do see some overlap with Texas A&M, and then locally also TCU [Texas Christian University] and Baylor. We see candidates who look at those schools as well.

mbaMission: How important are rankings internally? Do you have a target or a mandate to achieve a certain ranking?

DC: No, and I think a mandate to achieve a certain ranking, that would be very difficult for any school to accomplish, because there are so many factors that go into that. As admissions officers, we have some level of control over the admission rate. Obviously, the selectivity of the average GMAT and GPA of our students, certainly we can control that, but rankings encompass so many different things in terms of job placement rates, alumni rates, peer ratings, that type of thing. What I always tell students about rankings is that they’re a good starting point. I never tell candidates, “Don’t look at rankings.” You need to look at them as a starting point and look at what is in the ranking. How is that ranking computed? What factors are they considering, and of those factors, what is important to you as a student? What is it you’re looking to accomplish in your MBA, and what school might be the best fit for you?

If you look at any of the schools in the top ten, for example, or even the top 30, you’re going to get a great education at just about any of them. In terms of the faculty there, in terms of the resources the schools can provide, you’re very likely to get a good education and learn a lot at any of those programs. What you have to kind of drill down and look at, though, is what experience do you want? Some people thrive in a large environment. They want to meet a lot of people. They want to have hundreds of companies recruiting on campus. They really want that type of an experience, and there are a number of schools that have anywhere from 300 to upward of 800 students per class. That might be a great fit for that type of student.

We hear a lot of our candidates say, “I want that personal attention. I want to have a small class size. I want to know my classmates. I want to know my professors personally, and I want to make sure that I’m not lost in the crowd.” And so a program our size fits that person well. They’re able to know their classmates very well and to really have an impact on campus, maybe be a club leader, maybe get involved in student government and leave their mark on the school. So I think you can use rankings as a starting point, but you really have to look a lot more closely at other factors when you’re making a decision.

mbaMission:  I agree completely. So you’ve kind of touched on this a bit, but in terms of “fit,” what kind of student do you think is a good match for Cox and who might not be such a good match?

DC: Sure. What we like to see is applicants who are focused on why they’re pursuing an MBA. They have a career goal in mind, and they’ve done their research enough about our program to know that we’re able to help them in achieving that goal. Many candidates don’t know exactly what they want to do. They know they need to get an MBA to gain more experience, perhaps, or if they’re switching careers from marketing into finance or vice versa, for example, that’s a good reason to get an MBA. And I always encourage candidates, when I’m talking to them on the road and at recruiting events, to take that next step further. Okay, now you’ve identified why you need an MBA, what do you want to do with that? How are you going to make that transition? If you are making a rather dramatic career switch from one industry to another, think about the skill set that you have, be ready to talk to recruiters about how you can transfer what you’ve done to that new position.

I think many students, because they are early in their careers, haven’t had to do that before. And many students may have only had one or two full-time jobs by the time they apply for an MBA. So that’s something that maybe isn’t obvious to them, right? And so we want to really encourage students to think about that. An MBA goes by so quickly. I have talked to so many students who say, “You know, I’ve got two years to think about what I want in an MBA, so I’m going to take some time to take different courses and figure out what I want to do.” And I have to kind of stop them and say, “Listen, your internship interviews start in September or October of your first semester. So if you don’t know what you’re looking for in terms of a job, you’re going to miss out on a lot of the early companies that are coming to campus, because if you say something like that in an interview, they’re going to pass on you.” Corporate interviewers want to hear, “This is what I want to do. This is why I want to work at your company, and this is how I would be an asset to your organization.”

If students are not able to do that, they’re probably not going to get job offers at top employers. I think that is a surprise to a lot of students. They don’t realize how early that starts and how it’s so important to be thinking about that before they ever set foot on campus for their MBA. So to me, the applicants who can really articulate that well in the interview and in their essays—and can back it up by explaining how they’re going to be able to do that—I think that makes them a very good fit for our program. The other thing that we really look for is communication skills. We require interviews for all the students that we admit to our program, and our staff do all the interviews. We don’t have alumni or current students conducting admissions interviews. It’s always done by the admissions staff, either in person or by Skype.

So you’re getting to talk to somebody who’s on the admissions committee when you apply to our program, and you get a chance to tell your story. It complements what you put in your essays. You get a chance to spend 30 to 45 minutes with us really telling your story and explaining why you want to come to our program. So that’s something we want to see, students who are confident, who can tell good stories about their experience, who can explain to us what their vision is for their future and who really understand why SMU Cox might be a good fit for them. Show that they’ve done the research about programs, that they know what they’re getting into and why they want to be here.

mbaMission: You stated that you like to see candidates who can articulate their goals very clearly. Does that mean, then, that applicants who are not so sure might not benefit from being forthright about that? If a candidate expresses a desire to use the MBA experience to explore where he or she might ultimately want to go, would that be a red flag for you?

DC: There are different levels of that. I think for somebody to come in saying point blank, “I don’t know what I want to do,” that would be a red flag—somebody who really can’t articulate any sort of goal or industry or direction. But somebody who says, “I am really strong in quantitative skills. I really enjoy finance, but I don’t know what company I want to work for or even specifically what aspect of finance I want to go into. That’s something I want to explore through electives early on in the program,” that would be okay. That at least gives you a starting point, so when they meet with their career coach, they’re able to say, “Okay, here’s what I do and don’t like to do. Here are my skills. Here’s my experience. Help me understand what my options are.”

Some students may not have thought of consulting careers, for example. They might know they like finance but not really know what the difference is between private equity and wealth management and corporate finance and energy finance. There are all these different areas, and students may not have had exposure to all of them yet, so the MBA program certainly can open their eyes to opportunities. But I think you have to come in with some direction. You have to have some idea of where it is you want to go, because we can’t start from square one. You need to have at least walked down that path a little and meet us halfway so we can help you get where you’re going.

mbaMission: There’s no penalty for being honest as long as you’re thoughtful, I guess.

DC: Exactly. And we don’t expect you to know exactly where you’re going to be ten years from now, but we want you to have an idea and be able to talk intelligently about that, to have done some research, to be aware of the companies in the industry that you might be looking at, to be able to maybe name four or five and say, “Here are some companies I’ve thought about pursuing, and here’s why. I’d like to know more about which way might make the most sense for me.”

mbaMission: Are there any other significant red flags for you?

DC: Well, I think like many MBA programs, we look pretty closely at people’s quantitative backgrounds, and we do accept students with any type of undergraduate degree. So that could be engineering. It could be business. It could be liberal arts. It could be fine arts. It could be social sciences. We get students with such a broad range of backgrounds, and I think that’s great. That makes the classroom a lot more interesting. For students who have not had a lot of quantitative preparation in their undergraduate degree, we really need to be confident that they’re able to handle the quantitative rigor of our program. The first semester, students take finance. They take accounting, they take statistics. We’re throwing a lot of quant at them pretty early on in the program. So for students who maybe haven’t had that level, we really want them to be able to demonstrate their ability with quantitative skills on the GMAT.

We’ll look at your GMAT score, and if you haven’t done anything like that in your undergrad, you might want to take a finance course or an accounting course or a business calculus course at a community college or online prior to applying and show us your grade in that. Show us that you have the ability to do that, because that will get your mind working. It will also show the admissions committee that you’re serious about the program and that you have the ability to succeed. We make all our incoming students take a course called “MBA Math.” That’s a self-paced online course created by a professor from Dartmouth University, and students teach themselves the different aspects of finance, accounting, statistics, and they take quizzes to show their progress and their mastery of those concepts prior to coming into the program. So over the summer, everybody does that.

If you’re somebody who has a business degree and has been working in finance, you’re going to go through that very quickly. You’d be able to pass those quizzes very quickly, just spending a couple of hours doing that over the course of the summer. If you’re somebody who has not had an introduction to any of those courses, you might be spending 30 to 40 hours of your time over the summer learning those concepts and showing that you can do that. Either way, we want everybody to be coming in knowing the basics. You come into the class on day one, you know the terminology. You may not know all the details, but you at least know what a T account is, what debits and credits are, what a Z score is, because the professor’s going to expect you to have that basic level of knowledge coming into the classroom.

mbaMission: Is there anything else that you think people should know about the school or about the program?

DC: Well, one of the things I always like to highlight about our program, and I think it’s such a phenomenal aspect of the program, is our Global Leadership Program. It is a required experience for all of our full-time MBA students, and it is included in our tuition, so students don’t pay separately for it. Students go on a ten-day trip abroad at the end of their first year as kind of a capstone, if you will, over the first year. We’ve run four trips every year, and about 30 students go on each of the four trips. Over the past few years, we’ve typically run two trips to Asia, one to Latin America and one to Europe. On each trip, you’ll go to two different cities, and you’ll be doing corporate visits. You’ll be having alumni receptions. You’ll be really learning about business, meeting with government officials in many cases. How is business done in that country? How is it different from the United States? Who are their main trading partners? What are the major issues facing that region or that country?

We have some students who have traveled extensively before they’ve come into our program, so for them, they like traveling, they enjoy it, they’re really excited about it, but then we always have some students every year who have never set foot outside the United States, and this is truly their first experience leaving the United States and getting some international exposure, and that’s so valuable. We have a mix of those types of students on every trip, and they help each other out, and they travel together. It’s been phenomenal. This, I believe, is the 15th year that we have run this program, and everybody takes part. When I talk with alumni, almost to a person, they cite that as their favorite and most memorable aspect of the program. That’s something we’re really proud of, and I think that just emphasizes that we believe being familiar with global issues and international business issues is key. I don’t think you can get an MBA today without some significant exposure to that.

Every business pretty much is an international business at this point, so we want our students to have had that experience as part of their program. Students can also do a semester abroad if they want to. We offer that option as well, but everybody has to take part in the Global Leadership Program.

mbaMission: Thank you so much. This has been great, and I think applicants will learn a ton about the program and the school.

DC:  Excellent. I appreciate you taking the time.

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