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Behind The Scenes: How A Business School’s Admission Committee Decides

Students stroll through the front doors of the Questrom School of Business

Students stroll through the front doors of the Questrom School of Business

On a chlly winter day in Boston, the group is huddled in a windowless, nondescript room. Piled high on a side table is enough junk food—potato chips, popcorn and Oreo cookies—to put an extra five pounds on every person in the room—evidence of the likelihood that the locked-door session will test everyone’s endurance.

The seven people around the rectangular table in room 112G are enacting a scene that is playing out at business schools all over the world as admission committees decide the fate of tens of thousands of applicants to their MBA programs.

In this case, the group is the MBA admissions team at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. Led by Assistant Dean of Graduate Admissions Meredith Siegel, the seven members of the committee will present dozens of candidates today, mull over the pros and cons of each application, and ultimately decide whether to admit, reject, or waitlist an applicant.

A RECORD $50 MILLION GIFT HAS HELPED TO ENERGIZE THE SCHOOL

For BU, this is an uplifting time. Less than a year ago, the school received a $50 million naming gift from alumnus and long-time retailing giant Allen Questrom and his wife, Kelli. The gift, the largest ever received by the university, is going toward the endowment of 10 faculty chairs and will result in a new graduate program facility.

Ken Freeman, a former corporate executive who is now in his sixth year as dean, not only reeled in the unprecedented gift, he has put new life into the school which for years competed neck-and-neck with Boston College behind the two giants of business education in town, Harvard and MIT. “We have basically turned everything over,” he says. “There is no aspect of the school we haven’t touched. We have strived to create a warm, welcoming, scrappy, collaborative culture.”

That could explain the quality of the school’s first round applicants. Siegel, who has done MBA admissions at both Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business and Northeastern University, says it is one of the best pools she has seen since joining the school in the fall of 2009. (The school agreed to allow a journalist into their deliberations as long as the identity of the applicants remained private).

Among the dozens of candidates the group will review today is the usual array of wildly diverse professionals wanting an MBA degree: Math and engineering undergrads along with English and history majors, consultants, analysts, military officiers, non-profit managers, and entrepreneurs. They hail from all over the U.S. and the rest of the world, including Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Thailand, all wanting to come to Boston for an MBA experience.

TWO COMMITTEE DAYS: 93 ADMITS, 22 DINGS, 51 WAITLISTED, 8 DEFERRED

Today’s crop is so strong, according to the committee members, that the vast majority of applicants will receive acceptances. Few snacks will be eaten (they tend to disappear on days when the dings outnumber the acceptances). Some candidates ultimately will be offerred scholarship money to boot. By the end of two full days of meetings in mid-December, the group will admit 93 applicants, deny 22, put 51 more candidates on the waitlist, and defer eight would-be students to get more feedback from career management on their employability at graduation.

In a typical year, Questrom receives about 1,100 applicants for just under 150 seats. Roughly 20% of the applications flow into the first of three application rounds. Overall, the school admits 35% of the candidates, turning down the vast majority of those who want to come to BU. “Our goal is not to keep people out,” insists Siegel. “Our goal is to build a class that will be excited by the opportunities here. I would never say that we’ve gotten every decision right, but we have a thoughtful system and the number of mistakes are reduced on both sides because of it.”

The entire committee meets 15 times in an admissions cycle, while subsets of the group will gather for other sessions to take a second look at candidates who were initially declined for an interview. All decisions of the committee must be unanimous. In this closed room, acronyms and unfamiliar words and phrases abound. There’s  “TBI” which means the candidate has yet to be interviewed. There are behaviorals, answers to behavioral questions that start with “Tell me about a time when a group project you were working on failed….” And there are oblique references to such things as CELOP (more on that later).

‘THERE IS NO FORMULA’

Questrom is looking for a mix of the typical admission metrics: a strong undergraduate GPA, solid work experience, a track record of achievement, leadership ability, a good GMAT or GRE score, favorable recommenations, smart answers to both the written and video essay questions, and professional poise and presence in an in-person interview. “There is no formula,” insists Siegel. “The more factors a candidate brings that are above average, the more successful the candidate will be.”

But then, there are other hurdles for candidates. “Unlike in life, we get to pick our family,” says J.P. Matychak, dean of student experience, who sits in on admission committee meetings. “We are looking for non-arrogant, genuine, gritty people, ready and willing to take on the world.”

Those attributes are integral to the process because the school’s culture emphasizes community and high degrees of collaboration. “Our candidates,” Matychak makes clear, “are more than a piece of paper.”