Born in Korea, Koh emigrated to Michigan at the age of three when her father got a job as an engineer at Ford Motor Co. She earned her undergraduate degree in economics and political science at Yale University and then went on for a master’s in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Koh ventured to Washington, D.C. in 1992 for a stint as a presidential Management Fellow in first the Department of Commerce and then the House Appropriations Committee. Koh ended up as a policy analyst for the Senate Budget Committee.
But after four and one-half years, she decided to make a career switch. Koh moved back to Michigan, spent nine months working at Wayne State University on federal relations and applied to Michigan’s MBA program. After graduating in 1999, she went to work for Deloitte Consulting for five years until coming back to the school in the fall of 2004 as senior associate director of admissions.
In her five years as head of admissions, she has seen it all. A few years ago, one applicant turned in a digital disc that contained a mock interview with David Letterman that was dated 20 years from the time of his application.
“What do you attribute your success to?” asked Letterman.
“It was my education at Ross,” the applicant replied.
“I thought this was odd,” laughs Koh. “So I shared the story with a colleague at another school and was told she got the same disc with her school as the answer. It didn’t help this person’s case.”
Our interview with Koh:
When you applied to business school 14 years ago, do you remember what it was like?
It was paper-based. It was a lot easier. You didn’t have to scour the web for every bit of tips and tricks and everybody’s different viewpoints on programs. There weren’t as many rankings at that time. There was a little anxiety, but it wasn’t as stressful. It was still competitive, but there wasn’t this sense of hyper competitiveness. Now people think it is a make-or-break-my-life decision and it’s not. It’s an opportunity maker, certainly, but a lot of applicants these days think that ‘If I don’t get into this one school, my future is doomed!’ And it’s just not the case. There are so many great options out there. As long as you are realistic about the schools you apply to and you give a great effort, you have a good shot.
Michigan is a public institution, yet the business school is quasi-private in terms of the cost of tuition and resources devoted to the school. So my question is how elitist is the admissions process at Ross? If an applicant went to an Ivy League undergraduate institution, would he or she have an advantage over an applicant who went to a state school?
No, it’s not an extra point in our mind. It’s another potentially differentiating factor. We don’t say, ‘There’s this group of applicants who came from Ivy League schools, and there’s this group of applicants who didn’t,’ and look at them differently. That doesn’t happen.
Okay, let’s go at it this way. You have one applicant with a 3.8 GPA from Wayne State University and you have another applicant with a 3.8 GPA from Harvard. Which one would you perceive to be the more desirable applicant?
I would have to see the transcripts. I would want to know how they got that 3.8. What else did they do when they were in undergrad. At Wayne State, they could have been working 20 to 30 hours a week, taking all of the upper-level classes, and president of so many things. So we can’t take a GPA and a school in isolation.
But Soojin, you know that a lot of companies hire MBAs from great schools largely because the institutions are great screens of talent. Aren’t many schools, including Michigan, using undergraduate schools and companies where applicants work the same way, as a screen to avoid risk and admissions mistakes?
At least for us, I can tell you definitively that just the fact that someone went to a certain school is not an influencer for us because of those other factors I mentioned. I feel that the screen for admission to undergraduate is more focused on academics, which is only part of what an MBA program values. So the full-time work experience is probably more valuable to us because they are demonstrating their potential performance after they get the MBA. So the undergrad is a factor. To your point that there are firms and organizations that have a very rigorous screening process, it depends on how they do their screening and what they value in that process.
I will acknowledge that there are definitely some industries have a much more rigorous screening process than others and that does help give us a little more confidence that they have made it though a process that will be similar to one when they graduate the MBA program. Consulting firms do rigorous screening. Teach for America does a lot of heavy screening. Google does intensive screening. Organizations like that give me a little more confidence that these are individuals who have made it through a process similar to what they’re going to confront as MBA graduates.