The Gatekeeper to Stanford’s Business School

Derek Bolton heads up Stanford GSB MBA admissions

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.”