mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with Sara Neher, Former Director of Admissions at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business

mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with Sara Neher, Director of Admissions at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business - mbaMission

Sara Neher, Director of Admissions at UVA Darden

Update: Sara Neher left the University of Virginia’s (UVA’s) Darden School of Business in December 2017. 

During our recent conversation with Sara Neher, the director of admissions at the University of Virginia’s (UVA’s) Darden School of Business, her enthusiasm for the program and its students was clear. Sara offered some intriguing insight and advice on a number of topics we believe would interest anyone applying to Darden or considering doing so, such as the following:

  • why she is such a fan of the one-essay application approach
  • how candidates best demonstrate that Darden is the right school for them
  • how she evaluates applicants within the context of UVA’s renowned Honor Code
  • the steps Darden has taken to encourage women to pursue an MBA
  • the traits shared by individuals who are most successful at Darden
  • her best advice for waitlisted candidates
  • what not to do during a Skype interview

mbaMission: Thank you so much for speaking with me today. I’m sure things are very busy there these days.

Sara Neher: It is an exciting time, yes.

mbaMission: I don’t want to take up too much of your time, so I’d love to just jump into it if that works for you. What would you say is the number one reason someone pursuing an MBA should consider Darden?

SN: Well, a couple of reasons. One is that we really focus on the experience the student has while they are here as a component of their learning. Learning in graduate education and business is not just about textbooks or what you might get from a professor; it’s also about the things you get to try out as a club leader or the interactions you have with your classmates and alumni. So we really focus on that holistically, the entire experience. As a result, we’re typically rated number one or number two for anything related to the student experience or faculty. A lot of that has to do with how amazing our faculty is.

They’re very focused on teaching, and they use the case method, which is a very high-participation experience, where you’re expected to be prepared for class every day, because you might be called on. And you will need to think about class participation as a big part of your grade, because in business, being able to participate in a board meeting is a real success factor. We want to give you as much practice as possible at shaping your ideas, sharing with others, and learning from what others bring to the conversation. Our faculty are masterful at leading those classroom discussions, and all of that together leads to a really connected student body, a really connected faculty and staff, and therefore, really connected alumni support.

mbaMission: Over the years, we’ve seen a trend toward fewer and shorter application questions among the top programs, and this year, Darden has just one 500-word essay that is required. What would you say is behind this trend, and how do you feel that having fewer or shorter essays affects the application evaluation process?

SN: We went to the one essay quite a few years ago, actually, even before Harvard [Business School]. And I really found that when we had multiple long essays, most applicants were only writing one essay specifically for us and trying to repurpose the other one from something they were writing for another school. Because we were all asking for so many things, I can understand that that tactic was very practical. But when we switched to one essay, what I really liked was that everyone started answering our question. They were actually reading the question we wrote, and the question we choose each year is based on something we really want to know about you and how you think and how you interact with others and how you are in the workplace. And it has been really beneficial to have that focus from the applicant.

So I find that applicants are doing much better with one essay than when there were multiple. We also ask for an essay that really is about something work related. I’m trying to imagine you in that case method discussion, so I want to know about some experience you’ve had that you might share with your peers and that other people might learn from. Our question is always trying to get at that. That does tend to be a little different from what some schools are doing, but I really like the focus people are applying.

And we always have some short-answer questions that allow us to get at a little more of the applicant’s personality, what is important to them, and their job goals. But I don’t need 500 or 750 words about your short-term goal, because I know you don’t know that much about it yet. And that’s okay, because I’m expecting you to come to business school and be open to a world of opportunities you didn’t know existed. But I need you to have done some research, and 250 words is enough to show that.

mbaMission: That makes sense. The Honor Code is a very important element of the UVA experience and environment, and it can be difficult for some people to adjust or adhere to, so how do you evaluate candidates within the context of the Honor Code? How do you assess whether someone would be a good fit with that kind of overarching ethical umbrella, so to speak?

SN: It is very different, especially as an educational environment, for a lot of students, both in the United States and in other parts of the world. And it’s different on two levels: one, on the level of trust you have to exhibit for your peers and your faculty, and two, the level of trust that they give to you. There are a couple things we look for in the application, especially in the recommendations. We ask recommenders to rate the applicant’s level of integrity, and sometimes we get negative comments that would indicate that the person may not be a good fit for us.

Also, the kinds of goals and values the applicant expresses in the short answers, in their community-based activities, can be informative. Are they involved in socially based community activities that might exhibit an interest in others, and trust, and trustworthiness? We see it in a lot of places in the application.

mbaMission: That’s really interesting. The Darden MBA program is unique in several other ways as well, so how can applicants best convey to the admissions committee that they truly understand what the Darden experience is like and how they would fit into it?

SN: I think there are some opportunities in the application where you can definitely show us things we’d like to see. One is taking initiative. Some of that we can see in your job progression, like if you’ve been promoted. But a lot of companies don’t promote young people, so we sometimes see it in the kinds of things you talk about in terms of your project work or things you’ve taken on and volunteered for. Or we see it in your recommendations and what your recommenders say about your level of initiative. We also see it in the interview, especially in terms of the genuineness with which people talk about Darden and the level of research they’ve done. I don’t ask the question of “Why Darden?” in the application, because when we did, all we got was sort of repeated comments from the Web site that could have just been copied and pasted. They may have been extremely genuine, but there’s no way to know in writing. Somebody could mean it and not mean it, and it would sound exactly the same.

But in an interview, whether that’s by Skype or in person or with an alum or here in Charlottesville, we can really get a sense for—in asking follow-up questions or just in how an applicant expresses their interest—the genuineness of that research and of that desire to be here. This is a place where you really have to be prepared for class, you are going to be called on, and we can get a sense of whether they are ready for that. Not that it’s any more homework than any other MBA program, but it’s homework you have to do every day, which is a little different than some programs.

mbaMission: We know that Darden doesn’t target a specific type of candidate and that you consider all applicants holistically, but in a broader, more general sense, what kind of person do you believe typically turns out to be most successful at Darden? Which characteristics tend to set students up for success in this particular program?

SN: I think there are several things. What does really well in the case method is an equal balance of two things, and one is a desire and willingness to share your ideas and opinions with others. You have to be willing to express yourself in person and in writing to other people, or it typically doesn’t work. And the second half of that, and the part I think sometimes people miss, is you have to also be a really good listener. You are not going to be successful here if you don’t listen to other people’s ideas and opinions and understand them and then work to find a better solution together. Sometimes, the sort of stereotypical person that people might think would do really well here is exactly the person who doesn’t or who we don’t want, because they just want to talk and not listen. So those are some important qualities we’re always looking for in applicants.

mbaMission: That makes sense. I read that increasing female interest in the MBA degree and enrollment in these programs is an important area of focus for you. What steps has Darden taken to address or achieve this?

SN: A number of things. For one, we’ve signed on to the [U.S.] president’s White House document and agenda on attracting more women to business school and to business in general. Those were really excellent meetings that our former dean started and then our new dean and some faculty attended. And they found them very energizing from an industry perspective, but there are a number of other initiatives, too. We’re working with the Forté Foundation on some of the pipeline-building and things they do on college campuses and in school. They produced a video on a college campus asking young women what the GMAT is, and it was hilarious. I think there’s a real lack of awareness, especially among young women, not only about what the MBA is, but also about what it takes to get an MBA—and taking a standardized test is part of that.

Our dean really understands that the research shows—and some of it is research Adam Grant and Cheryl Sandberg have done—that women tend to be more risk adverse and less likely to spend a certain dollar amount for an MBA, as opposed to just staying in their current job. It is a bigger challenge to make that mind shift and take that leap of opportunity for yourself. So we created a very well-funded scholarship grant out of our Darden School Foundation. I think we have 23 women here on those new scholarships, and this coming year, we expect to have at least twice that. So we’re very excited about the foundation’s commitment and our alumni’s commitment—we’ve had both male and female alumni giving to this effort to help us attract more women.

mbaMission: Nice. Dean [Scott] Beardsley has been in place just over half of an academic year at this point, so it may still be kind of early to ask, but how do you feel his tenure is going, and how do you think his leadership might change the Darden program going forward?

SN: I’ve been very energized. It’s been really exciting. I think some of it is just a new leader in general and some of it is the kind of leader that he is and the experience and network he brings to our community. He would tell you that Charlottesville and Darden have exceeded all of his expectations and even his French wife’s expectations. They are really loving living here and being a part of the community. So when he speaks to prospective students about making the transition to Charlottesville, he’s so genuinely excited about living here and all that we have to offer, and that’s been really fun to see.

He also has a very prestigious consulting background from McKinsey [& Company], so he has very clear discipline around research, projects, and how we make decisions, and he has instituted that with a little more speed than I think a typical academic institution would have. That’s been exciting. I think in the next six months or so, he has plans to focus on our entrepreneurship area and business incubator and to do more things in the scholarship arena—that would be the two that would really affect the MBA.

Then in the longer term, he has such deep connections with people and organizations all over the world that the way he defines global partnership is much broader. We were defining it before as more educational institution to institution, and he has more ideas around family-owned businesses and larger international corporations—like the World Economic Forum, which he visited for us in the fall—and how we could partner with those kinds of organizations to do different things than we were even thinking of before.

mbaMission: That’s good to hear. How involved are you personally in the application evaluation process? Do you participate in every single round, for every single candidate, or do you kind of focus or step in only in certain areas?

SN: I don’t do the first read of applications, the blind read where you don’t know anything about the person and you’re starting from scratch, but I read at the end of the process. I will see every application before a final decision is done. Depending on how many people have looked at an application before me, it’s sort of a different level of review, but there are multiple people looking at every application before it gets to me, so I know it’s in good hands. We have a lot of checks and balances. And then I interview candidates, but only on our busiest days, so some of the Fridays or Mondays when we’re interviewing. All of our interview assignments are random, but sometimes when people see me coming to get them, they get a little freaked out that there’s some reason for that. But it just happens to be that I drew their name, and they get to interview with me.

So that’s fun. I like to meet a few people each round and get to know them a little more deeply. It’s also really helpful to see what their questions are for me as the interviewer and see what’s on people’s minds. I really like staying in touch that way. This year, we’re actually going to be having an event in Mountain View, California, at the Googleplex. Google is hosting us in February, and we’re going to be interviewing round two applicants there. We’re also inviting all of our round-two admits from the west to come out and see a mock case by one of our faculty members. We’ll have a bunch of our alumni that are at Google and a bunch of alumni that are not at Google.

We actually have nine alumni in the San Francisco area who have been interviewers for us in the past couple years. So they’re going to help us there. Some of them work at Google, too. It’s been a lot of fun to put together. We have so much going on on the West Coast right now, especially with our entrepreneurship and innovation center and what our alumni are doing, so we’re really excited to showcase that a little bit and let some people interview closer to home.

mbaMission: I hope that goes well. The last time we interviewed you, you said you were just starting to experiment with Skype interviews. Is that now a standard practice, and if so, what impact do you feel this has had on the process of evaluating applicants?

SN: It is. I find that Skype works just as well as an in-person interview. When I meet people that I’ve Skyped with, I feel like I’ve met them in person. When I see them here at the start of school, I’m like, “Oh, it’s so good to see you again!” when really, I just saw them on screen. I think it requires a slightly different skill set, and some people are more prepared for the Skype interview than others. You know, when we do an interview in person, people know not to have their notes out or to look at their notes while interviewing. But with Skype, people try to tape their notes to the monitor or different things, and we can see that they’re looking down or to the side and distracted. So don’t do that!

If you treat the Skype interview as if it’s an in-person interview, you will be more successful. The people that assume that it’s exactly the same as if they were here in person, those are the best interviews. And we’ve expanded the way we use Skype. We offer everybody on the waitlist a chance to talk to one of two people on our team—one person who works with people living in the States and one who works with people living outside the States—and you can have a 15–20 minute Skype call with that person to get feedback on how you can improve your application to be admitted. And that has been great. Those used to be an email or a phone call, and having that as a Skype call now has made it really an opportunity for that applicant to have a second interview, to show themselves at their best and to get concrete feedback from us on whether there is something they can do, what it is, and how to go about it. We started that last year, and that’s been a really good expansion of our Skype usage.

mbaMission: Sure. What kind of guidance would you give to someone who finds themselves on the waitlist? And how does someone end up on the waitlist in the first place?

SN: The big thing is, if we tell you something we think you should do to improve your application, do it. If you don’t, it’s really hard for us to feel like you’re really that interested in us. One reason you could be on the waitlist is your test score. It may not be as high as we would like to see to have confidence in your ability to do the course work. And even if somebody doesn’t improve their score but takes the test again, that shows us that level of commitment. Because we all know the GRE and GMAT are not fun to do. I have actually taken them both, and I know they’re not fun. So, showing that level of commitment is really impressive, even if your score stays the same or goes down a few points; it’s showing us that you really do want to be here and that you’re going to do as much as you possibly can to make that happen.

Another reason people might end up on the waitlist is perhaps we didn’t see that genuine interest in Darden and an understanding of the case method. And we might ask you to write something on that or do a Skype call on that. Sometimes it’s about career goals, and we don’t understand why you want to do what you say you want to do, and we want to hear a little more about that. So again, we might ask you to write something or do another call to explain that. Sometimes we like to see another recommendation. Sometimes recommendations are five or six years old, and that’s just not really what we’re looking for. Maybe that person doesn’t give us any information, or it’s a professor who put “not applicable” for half the answers. I don’t put anyone on the waitlist that I think is inadmissible. That’s not a good use of their time or our time, because we’re going to have that call with you.

mbaMission: Sure.

SN: Everyone on the waitlist has a chance to be admitted. It’s really about what they do and how quickly they can do it. We reevaluate all the people from round one that were waitlisted before we send out round-two decisions. So, if somebody who applied in round two is similar to a waitlisted applicant from round one, I’d rather have the round-one person than the round-two person. That’s partly why I tell people to apply in round one, because you have a chance to improve your application. And the same thing happens in round three and in June, when we have our second deposits, and in the summer. So, we definitely think very seriously about who we put on the waitlist, and we really want them to do things to improve their application so they can be admitted.

mbaMission: Do you continue to consider people basically up until the very last minute before classes start?

SN: It depends on the year. Some years, we’re overenrolled, and we tell people earlier that we don’t have any room. Usually, we narrow the list a little bit at some point in the summer and tell five or ten people, “You’re our people.” So please tell us how long you can wait, because we don’t know. This year, I think the global environment, especially as it relates to student visas and the uncertainty that the U.S. government has about people entering the country, could mean that some people we’ve admitted can’t get a student visa, so we may have places available for others. But that may not be known until July or August.

So this year might be a year where there is some opportunity for people who are willing to be patient and wait until the last minute. I don’t like to do that, but there’s only a certain number of chairs in each classroom. And every year, we have one or two people who don’t get their visa. We offer them a deferral, and in my time here, those people have pretty much always come the following year. So we work very well with people who end up not getting a visa, and this year, I expect it to be perhaps a little worse than usual.

mbaMission: I see. To what extent are candidates’ career goals considered in the evaluation process? Do you confer with the career development office when you’re making decisions?

SN: Yeah, I guess some of it is only natural, since we are co-located on the same floor. This week, we have lots of first-year students interviewing for internships, so it’s really easy to see what’s happening, what’s successful, how it’s going, and really learn from our career colleagues in terms of what’s changing and trying to stay abreast of that. But at the same time, it does change; it is dynamic. The economy and who’s hiring changes from year to year. We really can’t predict that in the admissions office, so what we try to do is focus on core skills that are successful in a lot of industries and jobs and also on what I would say is the logic of what somebody says they want to do. I don’t actually care what you want to do. It’s actually the luxury of being at a general management school like Darden, where we have a really balanced portfolio of industries and companies.

If you want to do consulting, great. McKinsey was here on Friday. If you want to do technology, Amazon is here today. There are so many choices in so many different areas that we can accommodate changes in that from year to year. There is not one particular industry I’m looking for people to want to do or not want to do. I don’t think that’s the case at every school, but for us, that’s really true. I’m looking to see in the application whether you have done enough research to get yourself started. Have you figured out something that works with your transferable skills? I don’t care if you want to make a big change or a small change; I want you to understand what a big change means and that you will need to network with alumni and students to understand the language of your target industry.

I used to work at Procter & Gamble, and the consumer products industry has a lot of unique vocabulary. For example, a different scent of Tide is called a flavor. You’re not going to eat it, but it’s still called a flavor. And a stock keeping unit is the UPC code on the bottom of the box. So I will give tutorials for students sometimes. I worked with one person who was making a change from being a TFA [Teach for America] teacher to working for Colgate-Palmolive, and I said, “Okay, you need to come to my office, and I’m going to spend 15 minutes with you just giving you basic vocabulary, so that when you get to your internship, you don’t have to ask simple questions.”

And we can do that for people changing careers. We have people all over the building and in our career office that specialize in that. So, I don’t mind if you’re making a big career change, I just want you to understand what that means and that it might take a little more legwork on your part to make that happen.

mbaMission: Absolutely. Can you share any stories of outstanding applications or interview performance that you’ve seen in the past couple of years? What is something a candidate did or said that really stood out or impressed you?

SN: So many of them impress me. It’s sort of a cliché, but how people today want to improve the world through business is so motivating, so impressive. Something that’s popular right now is impact investing. Some people who say that don’t really know what it means, but some people do. Last year, in the same day, I interviewed four candidates, all in a row. It was a very busy day, and somebody was out sick. And I had a woman who was half Argentinean, living in the U.S., and working a full-time job, and on the side, she was working for Kiva, the online, nonprofit microlending platform—actually working for Kiva, not just making loans on it.

And the second person was really interested in impact investing and was a very traditional investment banker, so they absolutely had the finance skill set but really wanted to transition into something a little more social good oriented. They had really great ideas but didn’t know how to quantify the impact investing benefit. Then, the next guy I interviewed worked for the World Bank quantifying impact investing. I was like, “This is the coolest day!” The fourth person was also doing something in that space and really liked the videos of my dog on the video blog. So that was a fun day.

I just felt like these applicants really had ideas that could change the world, and we need that right now. And putting them together in a case method classroom where they can get to know each other deeply and share those ideas—I just felt like, “This is good. These are some really impressive people all at once.” There are people like that throughout and people who want to do all kinds of good things, but that was a particularly fun day.

mbaMission: I could see that. Before we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like people to know about Darden or about applying to Darden?

SN: Yeah, a couple of things. One I would say is always remember that GMAT and GPA averages are just averages, which means there are as many people below that number as there are above. I think sometimes people take themselves out of contention for a particular school when they shouldn’t. The only thing you really lose if you apply and don’t get in is the $250 fee. And we will actually do a Skype call with you in June and give you feedback on how to improve your application for us the following year, or for whenever. It’s sort of a $250 fee for direct personal feedback from an experienced expert. So I really encourage people to give it a chance. I went to business school, I worked at Procter & Gamble, now I work in education, and I also worked at a scholarship foundation. You can do anything with an MBA and be valuable to any kind of organization.

Darden in particular is a really special place where we want you to be successful, we’re going to know your name, the faculty are going to know your name, and they’re going to do everything in their power to make sure that you grow and learn as much as possible and that you are as successful as possible in whatever you want to do.

mbaMission: That’s great. Thank you again for your time and input. We really appreciate it.

SN: Thank you!

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