The Gatekeeper to Stanford’s Business School

As Bolton sees it, applying to an elite business school is a nerve-wracking, anxiety-producing process. In fact, he says, Stanford has stopped serving food at its admissions information sessions because attendees are so nervous they don’t eat. The web has only amplified the pressure and the tension. Every statement that comes from the admissions office of a Harvard, Stanford or Wharton is obsessively parsed for significance and meaning by thousands of MBA applicants, many with their own blogs, and hundreds of admission consultants. So when you ask him how often he reverses a decision by his admissions team, he says: “It would be a number.” And when you ask how many of the 389 students in the Class of 2012 have GMAT scores below 700, he says, “We report the things that we report.”

Pressed, he still declines an answer. “One question,” he explains, “just leads to another question which leads to another question. There is no end to this. We’ll be asked, ‘How many marketers who are Portuguese who studied architecture in undergrad and live in Minneapolis are there in the class?’ There is a lot of information that applicants want that has no value to them in the process. The more they focus on how we make the sausage, the more of a disservice they do to themselves.”

For the record, Bolton came to Stanford in 1996 after a stint as a junior consultant with McKinsey & Co. He did a summer internship with Goldman Sachs in 1997 before joining Goldman in New York when he graduated with his MBA. The Texas native returned to Stanford for the admissions job, just before Sept. 11, 2001.

So in the nine years that Bolton has led admissions, how has it changed? Bolton says that undergraduate grade point averages are getting more attention at Stanford. That shift is partly a reflection of the change in leadership at the school last year to Garth Saloner, an economist who taught management and strategy at Stanford since 1990, who succeeded Robert Joss, a former banking executive, as dean. “Garth is incredibly different than Bob,” says Bolton. “Garth tilts more toward intellect, and Bob tilted more toward leadership potential.”

An increasing number of students are not only getting their MBAs at Stanford. They are also enrolled in joint programs with the university’s schools of law, medicine, bioengineering, public policy, and environment and resources. “We went from two joint programs to six and nearly 20% to 25% of our students are in them,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in a decade, it’s half of our student body. We have a lot of people who want to go deep in an area. They believe that an MBA or another graduate degree is not enough.”

He says that a few years ago Stanford looked at creating a special program to directly attract undergraduate students at the same time that Harvard Business School launched its 2+2 program that accepts undergrads and then defers their admission for two years until entering Harvard’s two-year program. The reason: to better compete for the best and brightest undergrads who might otherwise be lured by medical, law or engineering schools. Instead of a specific program, Stanford decided to increase its deferrals. This year, he says, roughly 10% of the incoming class was actually admitted two or more years ago. “I just felt they are going to be in the same classroom so there shouldn’t be a different standard for them,” Bolton adds.

Bolton thinks there is a lot of information in the marketplace that misleads candidates. As an example, he notes that he recently downloaded an application from one GMAT test prep company that purports to help candidates narrow down their selection of schools based on such personal criteria as undergraduate grade point average (GPA), GMAT score, work and leadership experience. Bolton plugged in his 3.7 GPA, his two years at McKinsey, his GMAT score, and other requested data. The program told him the best he could do was Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He sighs when telling the story. If there was an iPad and an app when he applied to business school in 1995, he might never have applied to Stanford—and his life would have been very different.

For our interview, he arrives with a bottle of Diet Coke and an iPad. Bolton recently lost his Blackberry on a business trip in New York and says he would be lost without the iPad which he loves. His favorite apps? The New York Times Editor’s Choice and an application that features several versions of the Bible which he reads while on the road. In a non-descript conference room at the school’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Bolton settles into a chair.

Why in the world would anyone leave Goldman Sachs to become the admissions director of a business school? You could have made a lot more money, had a lot more fun and been called a vampire squid if you stayed at Goldman.

That’s true. As much is being leveled at MBAs now as there ever was at Goldman Sachs. So I’m not sure I avoided much tarnish. I got a call from the previous director of admissions and she said you should apply for this job. You would love it and you would be great at it. She had just gotten married.

This is a hard job to do if you are a newlywed. Actually if you look across our ten school group (a group that includes Harvard, Wharton, Chicago, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Berkeley), I believe only Dee (Leopold of Harvard Business School) is married. Everybody else is single.

This year I’ve been on the road more than most others just because we are lower in terms of staffing, and I don’t think it’s going to be a great year in terms of applications. I’m out of the office more than half the time, and between mid-June and today (Oct. 4), I’ve spent two weeks in the office. There’s just a lot of negativity out there about the MBA right now.

We have a story about an entrepreneur who is saying that the MBA is generally a waste unless you want to become a consultant, an investment banker or work for a Fortune 50 company.

What we need is licensing like doctors and lawyers (Bolton says this jokingly). Kaufman says you can read everything in books. Well, then, your medical doctor doesn’t have to go to medical school. He can read everything in a book, too. Would you go to that doctor? I don’t know. Your pilot doesn’t have to practice flying a plane. He can read lots of books and fly. Would you want to fly in a plane with that kind of pilot?