Update: Niki Da Silva left the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management in January 2018.
Recently, the director of MBA admissions and recruitment at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Niki Da Silva, took some time out of her busy schedule to speak with us about several aspects of the school’s program. During our conversation, Da Silva was able to shed some light on the following:
- A lesser-known (and rather unique) area of growth for the school
- The philosophy behind “integrative thinking” and how it is executed at Rotman
- The hands-on opportunities provided through the school’s notable (and competitive!) Capstone course and “live cases”
- Rotman’s international student body and how its diversity compares with that of other programs
- The evaluation of candidates based on their stated goals and projected employability
- Prepping for the video component of the school’s application and using the practice feature
Da Silva also offers some valuable insight on the type of student who thrives at Rotman, discusses the interview and application review processes and encourages candidates to consider the long-term investment aspect of earning an MBA. Read on for the full interview…
mbaMission: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I really appreciate it. So I guess my first question stems from Rotman’s reputation for filling the ranks of Canada’s Bay Street. Would you say that that is a fair reputation? Is Rotman a “finance” school?
Niki Da Silva: Yeah, it’s a great question, and in some ways, it is a fair reputation, but what I would actually say is yes, it is a fair reputation, but we are more than a finance school. So to give you a little bit of context—we like to slice and dice our employment statistics around industry as opposed to function. So we typically have about 45% of our class go into finance as an industry. Not all of those roles are financial analysts, investment bankers, it could be a marketing role in a bank in the industry of finance, but regardless, I think with a placement number that’s that large, we do have a justified strength in placing graduates in finance. We also have a number of accolades, being a top ten school in the world for finance. So there definitely are lots and lots of external measures that show that Rotman is strong in finance. And a school that’s literally blocks away from Bay Street rightfully should be strong in finance, in my opinion. It’s one very natural advantage that the school has.
We are also one of what is becoming a smaller and smaller number of 20-month programs with an internship, which we know in the finance industry is kind of their preferred method of recruiting. It’s, you know, “Let’s make offers to the students who we saw for our four-month interview over the summer and see how many we can convert to full-time.” So we also have this kind of natural competitive advantage in the internship game. So I think all three of those things—our proximity to Bay Street and the school’s reputation and our faculty leadership in finance—all result in yes, we do tend to fill the ranks of Bay Street. That’s where our students want to go, so that’s all very good from my perspective.
NDS: The caveat would be that you want to focus on your strengths, but even with 45% of our class going into financial services as an industry, the majority of our students—and we have a massive program, 350 full-time MBA students annually, so we’re looking at by far the largest full-time MBA program in Canada—so even though we have these compelling percentages of students going into financial services, the raw number of Rotman students doing things that are not finance is, in many cases, more than the total number of students in other schools’ programs. So that’s the argument that I would make to say it’s not totally spot-on to think of Rotman as just a finance school, because we are so much more than that.
mbaMission: Right. So what would you say are the school’s other strengths? I looked at your stats earlier, and I know that 5% of the class goes into health care. I think 5% goes into technology. Are there any particular areas where Rotman shines that you think might get overshadowed by finance typically but that really deserve attention, too?
NDS: Yeah, there are probably two perspectives on that. One would be, I think, that with Rotman having this historical reputation in finance, a lot of students may assume that if you’re good at finance, your school doesn’t rate as strongly in the other big MBA placement game, which is consulting. Interestingly, what we actually find is that with our problem-solving methodology and integrative thinking, the focus at the school is so tightly aligned with what consulting firms want that I think most people are actually surprised to see the roster and caliber of big strategy consulting firms that do hire here. That said, I think that the biggest maybe unknown or budding industry for us at Rotman is actually business design. We’re one of the few schools who has a business design focus in second year. We have a Business Design Club with over 200 members of our student body. We host a design challenge, and business design has actually drawn a number of amazing recruiters from firms like IDEO, Nike, Target—
NDS: So it attracts this creative type who’s interested in a role that focuses on innovation, on process innovation, on strategy, and kind of similarly on the back end, it brings recruiters to the school who don’t want to go to a place that just turns out investment bankers and consultants.
NDS: So that’s probably our biggest hidden gem, because in many ways, it’s the exact opposite personality to being a finance school.
mbaMission: For sure. That’s really interesting. That’s not something that is typically accentuated by a top MBA program. When they’re evaluating schools, people will often go down the list—finance, consulting, marketing and on to a couple of others—but business design is a good niche.
NDS: Yeah, definitely.
mbaMission: I think when candidates think of Rotman, they think “integrative thinking,” like “case method” comes to mind when they think of Harvard. But for some people, it’s still a bit of a buzzword. Can you explain what the philosophy is behind integrative thinking and how it’s executed at Rotman?
NDS: Of course. Quite candidly, I think one of the challenges when you look at something as complex as integrative thinking versus a more traditional teaching methodology is that it is deep and complex and harder to explain than to experience, but I’ll give it my best shot.
So, what integrative thinking is really about is teaching our students to start by asking the right questions to structure a problem. The synonym we would use in the full-time MBA program is integrative thinking is a model-based approach to solving problems. So what we teach our students to do is start by structuring problems in the right way. I think a fair criticism of the MBA industry in many ways is that MBAs are far too focused on “We’ll analyze the options that are out there. We’ve been given a problem. We’ve been given a case. Let’s figure out what the best possible solution is,” and they haven’t been trained to actually stop and ask questions and frame the problem themselves, which as we all know, once you get into the real world, is what your job is actually going to be. Your boss isn’t going to come in and say, “Luckily, I’ve spent my evening framing the problem for you. Now I just need you to choose from the options.” You have to figure out what the real problem is, not just the symptom of the problem.
So our students start with deep structural training and learning how to actually frame problems in the right way and ask the right questions. Then we move them through the problem-solving framework or methodology in model-based problems. “What are our assumptions, and how can we model what the current situation is?” And this always sounds and feels complex because, particularly if you’re not from an engineering or quantitative background, you don’t necessarily think that everything you do involves some sort of model or construct of reality, but we try to ensure that our students understand that in every problem, you’re using an implicit model of how the world works. And what we’re trying to do is tease out those assumptions, so we can map it all out. Here’s the model of what’s happening. Here are some proposed models of what we are suggesting might be better options or better solutions. And then, ultimately, let’s finish off the problem-solving process by designing a strategy that builds a model that optimizes all of the potential options out there.
Sometimes that’s a model from a particular industry. Sometimes that’s a model from an option that’s obviously available, and sometimes it’s creating an entirely different model to solve the problem. So it is fundamentally a problem-solving framework and a way of thinking about problems, but it also involves slowing down the process and thinking about how you’re structuring and defining your thinking before you start solving.
mbaMission: That makes sense. And so it finishes with the Capstone course, correct?
mbaMission: Can you give us an example of a project that students have undertaken in the Capstone course?
NDS: Absolutely. The idea of integrative thinking is always best explained with an example of how you would execute on that in a classroom.
NDS: So in the Capstone, we actually have real firms. We had four firms come in this year and work with our MBAs, and our delivery mechanism is something that we’ve termed “live cases.” So, unlike the very traditional methodology of what we would call “cooked” cases—where there’s a teaching note, you kind of know what happens, your faculty are guiding you through a problem that has already been solved—these are real problems, real-time, and even the executive teams at these firms don’t necessarily know what the problem is and certainly don’t know what the optimal solution is. So they come in and really explain the issue they’re facing to the class. The class then works in teams and selects the problem that is most interesting to them.
Probably a good example was we had a company who is an insurance aggregator, and they came in and said, “Listen, we’re a Web site that gives potential clients quotes on insurance. They enter some data, and we spit out a quote on what their range of options might be. The problem is, we have this great product, we’re giving great information, but no one’s actually calling us. So our conversion rate is woefully low.”
So our students looked at that, and the ones who took on that particular project in the Capstone, what literally happens is they then sign off on all kinds of NDAs [nondisclosure agreements]. They literally are logging into the live system at the company, getting something like 80,000 lines of code, of data on user behavior, consumer behavior. “Integrative thinking” and “model-based problem solving” kind of envelope the buzzword of “big data,” and most of the really complicated problems in MBA curricula are big data. We just have a different label for it in many ways.
So they take all this information and start to model what’s actually happening right now, and by modeling what’s happening, they start to slowly peel away what some of the assumptions might be, right? It could be that the quotes are just not competitive, so of course no one’s calling through, and the students can compare and contrast if that’s in fact true. They may think that it’s just a marketing problem, like there’s no immediate call to action on the Web site, and it’s not obvious what you should do next. Why are people not picking up the phone? So in working through and starting with that structuring, that helps guide them down the path to why is that happening, and how could we optimize this model and increase the conversion rate?
NDS: So that’s the hard work through the majority of the Capstone. Each group comes up with their model and their pitch to the executive team explaining their model and why this new strategy that they’ve built, and that the model explains, will solve the issue of increasing the conversion rate. And the really cool thing is they work alongside our faculty in the Capstone, so they have lots of support and guidance and coaching, and then the very best teams physically go to the head office of these firms and get to pitch to the senior executives and showcase their solutions to them. And we have had lots of stuff already implemented, which has been really rewarding for students.
mbaMission: Yeah, that’s really cool.
NDS: It’s a little bit different from a typical case and really gives our students what we hope is a different skill set and something that’s actually required. To be job ready, you’ve got to navigate through this stuff and figure it out and be prepared to present your recommendations to the boss, even when you don’t know if you have the right answer.
mbaMission: That’s really cool. I like the competitive aspect of that. I didn’t realize that it was competitive like that. That’s perfect.
mbaMission: So switching gears a bit, I understand that the class is typically about 50% Canadian. Is that right, and is that your target? Or would you guys like to be maybe a little more fragmented?
NDS: That’s a good question, and it’s actually something that differentiates us, because we’re much more international than the typical North American program but less international than, say, a European program that’s closer to 70% to 90% international students. So there are two things that we factor in, and we really don’t have any sort of hard target in terms of citizenship numbers. There also are so many people living in Canada who are not even Canadian citizens, so citizenship can be a little bit of a misleading stat for us, but it is what it is, and we benchmark year over year, and every other school uses it as well. We’re not where we think we want to be, probably plus or minus 5% to 7%. We look pretty closely at what’s happening with the market and where the demand is for Canadian programs, and right now, 57% of all GMAT test takers who are sending score reports to Canadian schools are international. So we’re kind of close to what the general market demand is.
NDS: Actually, some of our newest firms that have come on board this year—a lot of global firms like Microsoft Global and recruiters based out of the United Kingdom or Huawei Technologies—a lot are coming to us now that we’ve expanded, because it’s this new talent pool for international students. So the high international percentage is something that we think we’ll maintain, and I could see it possibly increasing slightly in the future, but that wouldn’t necessarily be something we’re targeting doing.
mbaMission: Right. And as an identity for the school, does Rotman feel like it’s a Canadian MBA program, an international MBA program or just a solid MBA program, period?
NDS: I think I’d put us in the last bucket. In many ways, I think any good MBA program in 2013 should be international by nature.
NDS: And I think it would be hard for us, knowing that our student body is fairly evenly split, to say that we are just a Canadian program.
NDS: And we do certainly see that flavor in the classroom, so I would say we’re a global player in the MBA space, and we are doing our best to position ourselves among the elite business schools of the world, regardless of where they’re located.
mbaMission: Right. What type of student would you say thrives at Rotman?
NDS: That’s a great question. I came here about, well, almost two years ago now, but it still feels relatively new, and that was one of the big things I was trying to figure out. That’s one of the most important things that the admissions committee has to understand in getting that ultimate call on “fit” right. I think the kind of person that thrives at Rotman and also what makes a Rotman student unique or different is that there really is a highly intellectual feel about the school, being part of U of T [University of Toronto], which is the top-ranked Canadian university in the world. We have students coming to study here who really have a demonstrated intellectual curiosity. They want to learn the way businesses work. They’re in it, I think, for this transformational experience, not just the transaction of the MBA. So they’re genuinely intellectually curious, which makes them different. I think there are other programs where there’s much more of a transactional feel—“I’m here for a reason. It’s about my next job.”—whereas there’s time in a 20-month program to really explore other interests.
The other thing that makes Rotman really different is our diversity. So we value tremendously people who come from not just different countries, but different backgrounds, whether that’s academic or industry, and we really, truly embrace those students, support those students. Those are always my favorite stories to tell at orientation: “Did you know you have a professional poker player in your class? Did you know you have a former national censor or a schoolteacher who taught sixth grade in DC?” Those kinds of profiles, they’re not just anomalies in our class. There really is this individualistic culture, which I think is very much part of U of T’s identity as well, but there’s this real value in diversity, in being an individual in the program, and you feel like you have a place, even if you are a nontraditional MBA student.
mbaMission: I see.
NDS: And I think it would be a silly oversight to not talk about the skills that any MBA student should have, which are, of course, the people skills around demonstrating leadership potential, communication skills, team skills, but the last thing and probably final important differentiation with our students is there’s a real focus on self-development. So we have this really interesting thing at the school called the “Self-Development Lab” that is literally run by a Harvard-trained psychologist who focuses on the individual quality and your individual presence as a leader. And we literally run these labs on how you’re showing up nonverbally and in group settings. You get tons of intensive feedback about making you a more authentic version of yourself as a leader, which means we should attract people who are self-aware, who have some resilience, who actually have that as a valued outcome of their MBA experience. So there really is a difference in the personalization of leadership development for our students.
mbaMission: Great. Can you take us through the life cycle of an application at Rotman? I mean, after an application is entered online, what is generally the evaluation process, from beginning to end?
NDS: Sure, absolutely. So essentially, an application comes in, assuming it’s all complete, of course, and we have one person in the office who is responsible for putting together complete applications. The first step in the process is they actually all come to me for what we call a quick scan, which is really just so I can get an understanding of what are their basics, bio demo stats, what are their career goals, and I’ll note anything that we really want to probe further on or better understand. The file is then assigned to one of our six assistant directors, who starts with the first thorough read of the application and determines if the candidate looks like someone we’d want to invite to interview or not.
If not, they then go back to me for a final read, if ultimately we’re going to decline them. If invited to interview, that process happens kind of simultaneously, so we do a more thorough review of the file, review the resume, essays, look at references and then the interview invitation will go out. Prior to the interview, the file is read again from cover to cover, and after, the interview rating and the rest of the total assessment of the file go into the system, and then decisions actually happen by committee. We meet weekly, and the committee reviews all the files completely, and we have a conversation around making admissions decisions and scholarship decisions at the same time.
mbaMission: Okay. From an interview perspective, we see interviews changing so much—is there any special approach to them at Rotman? Or anything else unique about your application process?
NDS: Well, we were the first school to introduce a video component into the process.
mbaMission: Oh, right, of course.
NDS: So that’s one unique feature that candidates always ask lots of questions about. Relative to that, there’s maybe less anxiety about the actual interview. The interviews are conducted by our team, so they are conducted by someone on the admissions committee. They’re typically behavioral in nature. We do have a standardization of the process, so we screen for the same competencies with every single student. We just ask different questions to get out those competencies, based on the person’s resume or application package.
mbaMission: As far as the video component, how would you recommend someone prep for it, perhaps so they don’t have too much anxiety about dealing with the technological aspect of it? Can you offer any advice on that front?
NDS: So they actually get a practice question that they can do as many times as they want. It’s not recorded. The school never sees it. That gives them a real opportunity to make sure that they’re confident in the technical aspect of the video—the lighting, the sound, everything’s working, it’s all good. They know that the question comes up from us, and it is a video question, of course, so they get comfortable with how that part works. There’s literally a timer on the screen that counts down how much time they have left to think, and then how much time they have left as it’s recording. They get a minute and a half to respond.
So practicing, I think some people skip the practice, and I have no idea why on earth you would skip the practice. Actually doing the practice is a good thing, even if you just want it to be over. The questions that we ask in the video—and we’re very transparent about it—are conversational, they’re about getting to know the personality of the applicant. There are things like “Tell me about a book you’ve read that had an impact on your life.” They’re not things you can prepare for.
The worst videos are by people who, like, write notes after they hear the question or try so hard to present this very polished image, and it just it doesn’t work. It should feel like, this is going to be me talking to my classmates or having some sort of conversation with a faculty member in the coffee line. You should be able to feel like yourself.
And I think the worst thing people can do is not be authentic. I’m not sure why. I know candidates continue to do it, but you just think, you’re going to be in this program for two years of your life, and it’s going to be exhausting to have to be someone that you’re not. So just embrace who you are and have fun with it.
NDS: It’s easy for me to say, obviously, being on the other side, but we are seeing, I think increasingly, this year relative to last year, that people are just being themselves and having fun with it, and that’s been great.
mbaMission: Sure. When you pick up an applicant’s file to review it, do you start with the resume? Do you read through it in a particular order? Do you have a specific approach you use?
NDS: I think everybody kind of has their own perspective on it, but yeah, what I tend to do is look at their resume first, just to get a broad overview of education and background. It also gives you a sense of whether they have other interests beyond just their jobs. There’s a section on there that explains the things they like to do. Then I tend to focus on some of the stats, whether it’s GMAT or GPA, anything that they’ve submitted. And then I kind of feel like I have a quick snapshot of who this person is, so, now, what do they want to do? Why are they getting their MBA, and where do they want to go next? Because we really do place a heavy value and emphasis on admitting people who we think will be successful in what they want to do post-MBA, so employability does play a significant factor in our decision.
mbaMission: Can I interject and ask, part of the MBA experience is to go and explore, so, recognizing that a lot of people tend to change their goals while in business school, how do you assess whether they’re employable or not?
NDS: That’s a great question, and we actually encourage—I mean, every school is different—but we would actually say that if you don’t know what to do post-MBA, you should say that. You should be honest, and then we’ll talk to you about it in the admissions process. You probably have maybe an idea, maybe it’s not a job title at a specific company, but you probably know the kinds of things you want to be doing on a daily basis. If it’s working with people, if it’s analysis or, I mean, no one really has no clue.
NDS: Or if they do, they should not be investing a hundred thousand dollars in an MBA program until they figure it out a little bit. But you’re right, lots of people, even the ones who think 100%, “I know exactly what I want to do,” will come in, and they’ll have an experience that changes their mind. They’ll shift. So what we really look for is, do they have an understanding of what they’re great at, what they want to do, what they’re passionate about doing? Can they articulate that? Do they seem flexible? Are they coachable? Are they resilient? Because even if you know that you want to be a strategy consultant at McKinsey [& Company], you might come into an MBA and, unfortunately, that’s probably one of the most competitive jobs for any student, and you might not land there for your first job out of the MBA program. And we want to ensure we’re admitting people who are still going to feel like they had a good experience and are open to coaching, to other options, to working really hard. If they don’t get that summer internship, are they going to come back and try again, or are they just going to kind of give up and feel like they’re entitled to a specific role because they were admitted to Rotman?
NDS: So I guess it’s really more about employability in the broadest sense of the term, not necessarily whether they will get that specific job that they originally had in mind for post-MBA. We actually spend a lot of time in our interviews talking through expectations, and sometimes I’ll say to someone, “It sounds like you’re really interested in consulting. You might also be interested in internal strategy. That might not be something you’ve ever considered, but I imagine you’ll explore this during your time at the school” to kind of open doors and approach the MBA with some flexibility.
mbaMission: A little preliminary career coaching.
NDS: You’re right. I think that’s a missed opportunity as part of the admissions process. You’re not doing the candidate or the school any favors if you’re not being honest about what the career prospects are like.
mbaMission: Right. Are there any red flags, any consistent mistakes that people tend to make when applying to Rotman?
NDS: Yeah, there are a couple. One of the biggest—although I think it’s a red flag for a reason, and it should be—is a sense of entitlement. I was just speaking to one of our assistant directors who interviewed someone today who was asked a question like “Looking back on Rotman, what will success mean to you?,” and they kind of reframed it and said, “Well, I want to tell you about my expectations of the school.” And it became a very aggressive, arrogant conversation, and unfortunately, we know that this is a tough program, and there are going to be ups and downs and stresses and failures, and we do try to screen out people who just have unreasonable expectations and believe there’s this sort of culture of entitlement.
So we’re working really hard as part of our interview process to say, well, it’s one thing if they frame it that way, but then let’s push back and try to suss out if it just came out as ambitious—because there’s a fine line between entitled and ambitious—and it’s great to be ambitious, but we need to know we’re admitting people who have some resiliency, who are going to actually work hard and put in the 200 hours of case interviews that they are going to have to do if they actually want to get to McKinsey and not think that just by virtue of being admitted, “I’m at Rotman, therefore I should get a job wherever I want.”
NDS: It’s tough to screen out those kinds of things, but that is I think one of the biggest mistakes that people make—focusing too much on what the school will do for them and not enough on what they’ll contribute to the broad community of the school.
mbaMission: One thing that I wanted to ask you, and I don’t know if anything new has happened on this front, but Dean [Roger] Martin, who’s a rock star dean, is transitioning, and you have an interim dean. Is there a deadline for his replacement? How’s that search going, basically?
NDS: I will happily send you a press release. We actually just made an announcement about this, so you’re not behind the ball at all.
mbaMission: Oh, great!
NDS: It is about who our next dean will be, and it is Tiff Macklem, who is the former senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada.
mbaMission: Oh wow.
NDS: He was kind of Mark Carney’s right-hand man.
mbaMission: That’s incredible.
NDS: Yes, it’s very exciting.
mbaMission: Well, you replaced one rock star with another rock star.
NDS: There you go. That’s the hope, right?
mbaMission: So next time we interview, we’ll ask you about his priorities.
NDS: Exactly. He doesn’t officially start until July 1. As someone coming in externally, I’m sure it’ll take him a little while before he’s clear on exactly what he wants to do.
mbaMission: Right. That’s one thing I think some applicants don’t really understand, that these MBA programs are big institutions with lots of moving parts, and you can’t kind of narrow a school down to just one simple thing. You have to consider curricula, environment, professors, even buildings, because so much shapes an environment. And it takes a long time to put your mark on it. Dean Martin’s mark will be on Rotman for a long time, but then, eventually, it’ll take on a different personality under the new dean, but it takes a while.
mbaMission: Well, I think we’re running short on time, but is there anything you want people to know about Rotman that we haven’t discussed?
NDS: Yeah, I guess what I would say—and this maybe applies not just to Rotman but to the MBA decision in general—is that I think, unfortunately, far too many candidates look backward at just the history of an institution, whether that’s via rankings or talking to someone who graduated five years ago, and don’t spend enough time understanding the vision and trajectory of the school. And quite honestly, I think that’s one of Rotman’s biggest strengths. If you look at, kind of to the point you made about Roger Martin, since he joined us in 1998, we have literally doubled the physical capacity of the school. I think the increase in enrollment is like 300% just from the size of the program. Our number of faculty has also grown tremendously.
There’s this real trajectory and momentum that is exciting to be a part of, but if you think about the value of your degree, and the MBA should be a long-term investment, plotting out the trajectory of where an institution is heading is something that I think applicants should factor into their decision. Twenty years from now, when you’re up for that promotion to the C-suite, what are people are going to be saying about your alma mater? I think we’re in a great place, where we’re working really hard to continue that trajectory. That would probably be the one thing that I’d want people to know.
mbaMission: I agree 100%. We do presentations around the world and online all the time, and whenever people ask us really superficial questions on rankings, we’re like, “If you’re really going to make your decision based on rankings, then I guess you should try to project out where that ranking is going to be 30 years from now.”
mbaMission: I mean, of course they understand we’re being facetious when we say that, but we hope they get the point and maybe consider rankings as just one element of their decision rather than giving them so much weight.
NDS: Right. And I don’t believe all candidates even know how the rankings are calculated or what the weightings are. They have some value, of course, but people just put way too much emphasis on them in their decision making.
mbaMission: Absolutely. Well, Thanks so much. You’ve been with super generous with your time, and it’s been great speaking with you.
NDS: Oh, no problem. Thank you, too. I really appreciate it, Jeremy.