Earlier this year, the University of Chicago awarded an M.D. to its youngest student ever—a 21-year-old who had become a college freshman at the age of nine.
When Kurt Ahlm, the 38-year-old associate dean of student recruitment and admissions for Chicago’s Booth School of Business, is asked if he would ever admit a teenager to the school’s MBA program, he laughs.
“I’d have to see the application,” he says. “Who knows? It’s hard to say. I never say never, because you never know what can happen.”
Indeed, you never do, especially when as many as eight out of ten applicants to a school are typically qualified to attend and succeed in the MBA program. Since becoming the sole gatekeeper of admissions in April of 2011, Ahlm has seen applications to Booth’s full-time MBA program fall by 3% to 4,021 for the Class of 2014 from 4,169 and has made a peculiarly unique part of applying to Booth—a four-slide PowerPoint requirement–optional for this year’s crop of applicants. Booth’s MBA candidates can either submit the presentation or an additional essay to help Ahlm and his team “broaden our perspective about who you are.”
AT 38 YEARS, HE’S AN OLD HAND AT THE MBA ADMISSIONS GAME
Though Ahlm has only been in charge of who gets into Booth and who doesn’t for the past 18 months, he is no stranger to the admissions game. After his 1996 graduation from Northwestern University with a bachelor of science degree, he signed up to work as an undergraduate admissions officer for Northwestern University—a job he kept while earning his master’s from Northwestern in higher education administration. With that new degree in hand in 2000, he joined PricewaterhouseCoopers as a recruiting manager.
But the university life beckoned. Little more than two years later, in the fall of 2002, he left the corporate world for the MBA admissions office at the University of Chicago. Over those years, Ahlm has climbed the ladder from senior associate director of operations to director of full-time admissions operations to senior director to associate dean—while also earning a Booth MBA part-time in 2009. It was Ahlm who dreamt up the infamous PowerPoint presentation part of the MBA application, a requirement that befuddled many an MBA applicant to Booth over the years.
A lifelong Chicagoan and a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan, he and his wife had lived a home run’s distance from Wrigley Field for ten years before moving to the western suburbs with their three young children aged six, four and one about two years ago. “We’re now surrounded by (Chicago White) Sox fans so we have to wave the flag a little bit higher these days,” he says.
CHANCES OF A BOOTH ACCEPTANCE ARE TOUGHER THAN A BALLPLAYER’S ODDS OF GETTING A HIT AT WRIGLEY
The odds of getting into Booth’s MBA program are slightly less than the chance of a major league ballplayer in a Cubs’ uniform getting a hit at Wrigley. Booth accepts about 22% of its applicants, while the Cubs’ team batting average is hovering around .239.
Ahlm’s admissions team deploys 45 to 50 second-year MBA students dubbed “admissions fellows” to read applications and do campus interviews of applicants. Booth’s sprawling alumni conduct applicant interviews off campus, while a separate group of students also volunteer to help MBA candidates with any questions they might have about the program.
The Admissions Fellows do a first read of every MBA application and then turn it over to an admissions director who also reviews the file independently and makes the call on whether or not to interview an applicant. Slightly less than half of the applicants get pass the first screen for an interview. Second-year MBA students or Booth alumni who only have the benefit of the candidate’s resume—not the full application file—conduct all the interviews. The reason, says Ahlm, is to allow “for great conversation to flow organically as the candidate and the interviewer get to know one another.”
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