The Gatekeeper to Stanford’s Business School

Derrick Bolton, director of admissions at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business

Derrick Bolton, director of admissions at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business

The phones in Stanford University’s Business School admissions office aren’t ringing as often as they did. The number of applicants showing up at Stanford’s information sessions around the world is down as well. For Derrick Bolton, who racked up 240,000 miles of flying last year as dean and director of admissions, it has meant an even heavier schedule than usual to drum up interest. “I don’t think it’s going to be a great year for applications,” he says. “So we’re trying to do more to get out and spread the word about MBAs in general and Stanford in particular. There is so much negativity out there about the MBA right now.”

Bolton cites the blame that business schools have gotten for the still lingering global economic crisis, along with a still difficult job market for MBAs that has led to lower starting salaries and fewer job offers. But the key issue, he thinks, is the fact that business is suffering something of a backlash. “If you look at Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor of California or Carly Fiorina’s campaign for the Senate, all the negative ads about them are anti-business,” he says. “It’s all about how they outsourced jobs, took big pay packages, and then laid off a lot of staff. People are getting vilified for that. I don’t think it’s fair.”

As head of admissions for Stanford’s B-school, Derrick Bolton is the gatekeeper at the world’s most selective MBA program. Last year, Stanford received more than 18 applications for every one of its 390 seats for this fall’s incoming class. All told, only 6.5% of the 7,536 applicants to the Class of 2011 were given invites. Those students have average Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) scores of 726  out of 800, the highest of any school in the world (Harvard is seven points lower at 719).

With the round one admissions deadline today (Oct. 6), Bolton is expecting the competition to lighten this year. When all is said and done, he believes applications to the best business schools could fall by as much as 10%—not that it will have much impact on Stanford due to its tough admission standards. For the Class of 2012, applications fell by 4% to 7,204, still significantly higher than the 4,868 Stanford received for the Class of 2008.

In a wide-ranging interview on Stanford’s campus, Bolton says that he has been putting more emphasis on applicants’ undergraduate academic records, that as many as one in four MBA students at Stanford are now pursuing joint degrees with other university schools, and that 10% of the school’s incoming class were applicants whose admission had been deferred a couple of years ago. He also addresses the famous ‘torilla’ essay controversy, saying that the woman who wrote the essay was not accepted into Stanford because of it—but rather despite it.

Bolton, who has spent just two weeks in his office since mid-June, also disputed estimates that as many as half of Stanford’s applicants are using consultants to help them get into the school’s MBA program. “If I believe that estimate, I would just start charging $2,000 per application and give them consulting services myself,” he says. “Why would I let that margin slip away?”

Spoken like a true MBA because, of course, that is what Bolton is. He graduated from Stanford’s program in 1998. Yet, Bolton could just as easily come off as a CIA officer in Islamabad.  He weaves and bobs his way around questions, often reluctant to surrender what you might consider fairly harmless details, including his age. Unlike many administrators at the school, Bolton has no resume or biography on Stanford’s website. Why? “It’s not about me,” he says plainly. “The more people try to get into my head, the more of a disservice they do to themselves.”

  • zezo123

    Wow. I went to an admissions event in Singapore and spoke to him for a few minutes. Obviously most of his answers were ones he’d given 1000 times before but I never suspected this whole image about Stanford. Any specific details or stories around this corruption you mention? I’d be very interested in hearing them because it’s my dream B-school.

  • If you are denied, give yourself time to detox and cool off, but not too long. Planning needs to start as soon as possible.

  • Hallelujah19990

    He got in, because he is a friend of adcom’s member. Or he is a son of a successful politician there. How did Derrick Bolton got his first job McKinsey? Of course, by contacts. He sells nonsense to applicants.

  • GM

    Take it from one who knows Stanford, THEY ACCEPT SOMEONE WITH GMAT 590. VERY WEAK PERSONALITY AND NO ACHIEVEMENT AT ALL. HE IS JUST GOT THE CONTACTS WITH STANFORD GUYS,  in my country, believe it or not, graduates from stanford and harvard are not succeful at all, very normal jobs, and even Mckinsey and Bain has interviewed one of Stanford graduates and he didn’t make it. and still struggle. 

  • Hallelujah19990

    @3152250622a7109c5d1d30430c744546:disqus  The problem with Stanford GSB admissions group has to do with beggar spots filled with choosers. What I mean is this: imagine putting Stanford MBA graduates in Apple retail stores, what do you expect from such retail experience? Elitist  crap. The people you deal with when you visit GSB should be beggars (or retail sales people): instead, you end up dealing with all those Stanford MBA types, who could not find leadership jobs in the industry. After all, Derrick Bolton wants leadership in the applicants. Sounds like post-MBA leadership went to work there in admissions group. 80 percent of people in that group are ex-Stanford MBA.So, don’t expect them to respect you!! It is simple as that.

  • Hallelujah1990

    So true. He works for his handlers at BCG, Bain, McK and Goldman Sachs! Everyone knows that about Derrick Bolton. Stanford GSB ad com is the most corrupt entity on the earth.

  • Dr. Nick Riviera

    I get your point, but I think you did not get mine. I mentioned 2 consulting firms but I wasn’t limiting to consulting.

    The cases I mentioned may not be the rule but I have never seen in my years of experience that kind of behavior by any AdCom member, from any top 10 institution. People work their asses out to get a great application (and also at work!) and being treated rudely when they visit the school is just of bad taste.Or maybe he does not like people from certain countries…

  • Mahe

    nice interview John.

    @ Dr. Nick, everyone is entitled to their opinion. I think you may be focusing on few observations to generalize. Many online reviews of Stanford GSB events (involving Derrick) are favorable and even appreciative.

    Regarding MBB applicants, they get admitted to top B schools if their application/profile is strong, which is usually the case. To compare the top duo, or the top four say, the stats for the class of 2013 are as follows (taken from the schools’ websites):

    Pre MBA industry = “Consulting”:
    Stanford GSB: 17%
    HBS: 21%
    Wharton: 22%
    Chicago Booth: 17.2%

    Pre MBA industry = “Finance” (combining PE/IB):
    Stanford GSB: 29%
    HBS: 25%
    Wharton: 37%
    Chicago Booth: 35.3%

    These figures may change from year to year, depending on the applicant pool etc., but I guess you get my point.

  • Dr. Nick Riviera

    This guy is one of the reasons many people do not apply to Stanford any more. He is elitist, only likes fancy backgrounds in companies such as Bain, BCG and so forth and does not treat people coming from other places equally. He is not appreciated by almost anyone in the GSB and everyone there, every year, asks why do they keep this guy. Stanford people are very friendly and easy going and this guy is totally the opposite. I have clients that got almost humiliated when they visited. That is why less people apply to Stanford, and that is correlated in the numbers. Though I always recommend applying to the top duo, people now know that what’s on Stanford page is bullshit and do not want to waste their time, or money, in their application to the GSB.

  • Ali

    Hi John, great interview! Do you have a similar figure for Harvard:

    “For Stanford’s Class of 2011, 80% of the undergraduate grade point averages were between 3.24 and 3.96.”


  • Roald Wilson

    This was a fabulous interview. Why does Bolton go out of his way to play down Stanford when other admissions directors go out of their way to play up their schools? Is it because they want people to self-select or do they not want the maximum number of applicants possible?

  • Bruce Vann

    Shiela said what I was gonna say.

  • Sheila Taylor

    FYI it’s Coke Zero!! No sugar! Get a life Mo Hassan.

  • Hi Randy –

    In the immediate absence of a Berkeley-Haas admissions q&a, can I point you towards our Stanford vs. Berkeley comparison?

    All the best,

  • Randy

    great article. What about Berkeley-Haas?

  • Couldn’t help but notice that repulsive bottle of liquid sugar on the table even before I read the article. I thought people at Stanford were smart?

  • Harvard’s applications are rising dramatically. You know that. Also, you did’t ask him for the percentage west coast types in the applicant pool and in the class.

  • Arthur,

    Bolton is not only predicting a decline at Stanford, he’s pretty much predicting a decline for all the top schools. I think he’s right and for the reasons he mentioned in the interview. It’s worth noting, as well, that at most of the top schools applications are at near-record highs (even accounting for some schools which had a dip last year) so that a 10% drop at a highly selective schools isn’t that big a deal.


  • The reason why Bolton expects fewer applications is that Stanford is a regional and California’s in bad shape.

  • applicant2013

    Hey John, I’m surprised at the kind of things you can get the directors to say. It’s really amazing, this website.

  • Yep. I find that frustrating, too. If business schools want to encourage a wider pool of applicants, they would publish the full range. That would give a greater number of people confidence that there is at least a chance. The fact that they don’t, sends a deliberate message: Don’t bother applying if you’re not in the range they publish. They don’t want to invest the time examining a lot of applicants that have little chance of getting in.

  • jtbb

    Hi John, thanks for that data point! It’s still definitely a notch above all the other Top 5 or Top 10 schools (which, off the top of my head, are usually around a 3.1-3.8 with a 3.4 or 3.5 average). What surprises me with most schools, by the way, is that they all publish the entire range of GMAT scores (so we all know what the lowest score was, which is often surprising) but for privacy protection reasons, only the middle 80 per cent is offered for GPAs. So in terms of the GMAT, we know what the spread is between the bottom GMAT and the bottom decile GMAT, but we don’t know whether the lowest GPA was a 3.23 or a 2.0 – just that 90 per cent got higher than a 3.24.

  • For Stanford’s Class of 2011, 80% of the undergraduate grade point averages were between 3.24 and 3.96. The actual average was 3.66. So Stanford took some applicants–about 10%–whose GPAs were below 3.24. Again, this is only one data point so you just don’t know. Good luck to you!

  • Learn about the different scholarship programs and make sure you understand

    them well. By doing so, you improve your chances of being selected for the

    scholarship. Be prepared for the paperwork. There will be forms to fill out

    and essays to write.

    This is how the organizations evaluate your application against those of

    other candidates. Some easy scholarships can be awarded simply on the basis

    of a short essay.

  • Another fascinating interview! Plenty of food for thought and not a few contradictions in a wonderfully articulate piece. I felt as though I were sitting in on a frank discussion rather than an edited spin session.

    However, as a member of the enemy camp with 12 years of experience in admissions consulting, I would love the chance to sit down with Derrick one day and explain to him what it is that I really do…


  • Jtbb

    I’m glad I didn’t read this until AFTER hitting “submit”. I felt pretty shattered after reading the reiterated comments on the GPA trend. All said, I submitted the most honest thing I could, and I can sleep easily with that.

  • Trevor

    Thanks for the interview. This is great context. Derrick is so candid and there’s no spin. I love it and I hope you do these with all the top schools.

  • Dark Man X

    Terrific interview. So timely. Thank you.

  • You’re absolutely right. It’s like comparing oranges and apples. I fixed the sentence, using average GMAT scores for both. The result: Stanford is seven points higher than Harvard.

  • Dark Man X

    Those students have median Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) scores of 730 out of 800, the highest of any school in the world (Harvard is six points lower at 724).

    This is incorrect.

    724 is the average.
    730 is the median.

    You cannot compare the two.

  • Thanks Paul!

  • Another great interview, John, congratulations. I can already see some of the essays that Bolton’s responses will provoke … 🙂

    –Paul Bodine