The Gatekeeper To Chicago Booth

The reports of those sessions are then sent along with the entire file to a different admissions director for review. That person then recommends whether to admit, deny or send the file onto the admissions committee for review. At this point, every applicant gains a final review from Ahlm who says he rarely overturns a recommendation that comes from this process. About 44% of the interviewed applicants gain acceptance to a class with some 575 seats (for a detailed breakdown of Chicago’s application process, see “What Happens When You Apply To Booth).

In a lengthy interview with Poets&Quants, Ahlm explains why relatives should never be among an applicants recommenders, what he dislikes about his job, and how he feels about the increasing use of admissions consultants in the application process. He attempts to describe the often elusive quality of a candidate’s ‘fit’ with the school’s culture and why Chicago Booth remains one of the few top business schools that refuses to accept the Graduate Record Exam as an alternative to the GMAT—a decision that harks back to the days in the 1990s when Chicago MBAs jokingly referred to themselves as ‘digit heads’ due to the heavily quantitative nature of the program.

What have you learned as the director of admissions?

In my old job, a lot of what I thought about was positioning and marketing and how we think about the school. It is something I have always been passionate about. In my old role I kind of had this impression, maybe naively so, that if I had this role I could figure out what lever I could pull to make the difference. It’s a much more complicated and complex beast than I thought it was.

How so?

The students are a big part of the decision process. They have a lot of things that go on in their lives that can influence the decisions they make. It’s a very complex puzzle. It’s one thing to think about it from the perspective of Booth. It’s another thing to put yourself in the shoes of prospective students. You can’t possibly guess all the scenarios. You can only present the best possible case for Booth and allow them to make the best decisions with the information they have. That has been a very valuable thing for me because I do sometimes think that everyone is looking for the magic bullet. It applies to both ends. That was a big revelation that there wasn’t a magic bullet on either side of the process.

There is no formula, right?

No, there is not.

Has anything changed in the year and one-half that you have been head of admissions?

The biggest change was introduced in the year I took this on. We had always been paper-based. I won’t say we are the last to convert to an online system but we were certainly at the tail end of it. We found a great solution that the university had been using that we implemented last year right before we hit the road. There was the anxiety of pulling this whole thing together right as we got going. Part of this was being relatively new to the role and understanding how I wanted it to work. It created some challenges. This past year has been readjusting the way we do things. The way we evaluate candidates has not changed. It’s the process.  It’s been hugely helpful. It provides a tool that allows us to get greater access to information and to be able to work more collaboratively and remotely. It makes us much more efficient.

So you no longer have to deliver crates of documents to application readers?

The most liberating moment for me last year was when I took my iPad and sat down in the coffee shop and was able to do my work and have a cup of coffee without having to schlep bins of materials everywhere or be chained to my desk at home. To be honest, it was enjoyable. Because you’re not staring at this big pile of applications, you’re thinking the file in front of you.

What is the general consideration set for applicants to Booth?

Let me take a step back and explain what I think is important and is not really touched on so often. From my perspective, I am not going to say that I am not concerned about what other schools are in our set. I don’t spend time thinking about those things. I spend a lot more time thinking about what is the right fit for Booth and what is it we’re looking for. It was an affirmation this year that focusing on being transparent and getting the messages out that are distinctively us is what is absolutely critical.

At the end of the day, I know applicants apply to a variety of different schools and there mix is based on a bunch of things that I can’t control nor foretell. So I think about who in our pool do we really want because we think they are the best and the most ideal fit for us. How do I insure they are getting the right information so they can see that as well?

My time is less spent on what other schools are they considering because then you bogged down again in what levers am I trying to pull which confuses the situation. It’s best to stay focused on let’s get the right and most pertinent information to these people and let them make the best decision for them.

Everything we do at Booth is predicated on the notion that fit is critical. At times, we take an uncommon approach or the road less traveled. But it’s always to get to the purpose that we want to get the people who really want to be here and have the potential to thrive in this culture and in this environment. We feel this place is truly distinctive from our peers and that if we are good at communicating that then people should be able to self-identify.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.