When her only son, Josh, was applying to college a few years ago, it was as if Dawna Clarke had changed places.
For nearly 28 years as an admissions officer at three of the best business schools in the world, she had been in a position to grant a person’s wish to go to their dream school—or for that matter, to deny them entry. Now, vicariously, the admissions director of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business was experiencing what it was like to be on the other side, to anxiously await the verdict of others who would decide the fate of her son’s education.
“I got to experience first hand the amount of time an applicant invests in visiting schools, writing essays, studying for standardized tests, determining which schools are the best fit,” she recalls. “The most memorable aspect of the process was knowing what it feels like to check a school’s admissions site and see how it feels to receive a letter of denial.”
If anything, the experience reaffirmed in her the value of treating applicants with care and sensitivity. “One of the most valuable qualities an admissions professional can have is empathy for the experience of the applicant,” believes Clarke. “So many of our applicants have so much going for them. Denying them admission is difficult for us and even more so for the applicant.”
Clarke’s son will graduate from Middlebury College next year, but the lessons of her son’s admission experiences still linger. After all, in her years reading MBA applications at North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Virginia’s Darden School and Tuck, Clarke figures she has assessed some 47,000 MBA candidates. Unfortunately, more than 35,000 were turned down for admission or waitlisted.
With an open interview policy and a formal process for giving rejected and waitlisted candidates honest feedback on their application, Tuck already had a reputation as one of the most transparent, helpful and compassionate admission staffs of all the top business schools.
For Clarke, who made campus visits to 23 different universities with her son, that wasn’t enough. “We want to be the most customer friendly admissions office of any business school,” she says. “Part of that is being open about information and completely transparent. A prospective student’s first interaction with the Tuck School is going to be with the admissions office. If they find us to be helpful and accessible, it hopefully sends a message—and those behaviors are so ingrained in the culture here, anyway.”
Admission consultants confirm Tuck’s reputation. “They go above and beyond customer service,” says Stacey Oyler, a consultant with Clear Admit who once worked in Tuck’s admissions office. “They even give feedback to candidates on the waitlist. At other schools, ‘it’s don’t call us, we’ll call you.'”
Like many admissions officials, Clarke came to the business of judging candidates by accident. As an undergraduate at Alleghany College in northwestern Pennsylvania, the New Jersey native (and Bruce Springsteen fan) had volunteered to give tours to prospective students. When graduation approached in 1985, she had interviewed with Chubb Insurance but felt no passion for a career in the field. Instead, the dean of Alleghany asked if she would be interested in working in the school’s admissions office.
“My initial intention when I started college as a pre-med student was to go to medical school. I changed my mind when I did an internship at a hospital and my sponsor told me that if I wanted a family in the future, it was not possible to balance a career as a physician with a family. In retrospect, I placed too much emphasis on that experience and that one person’s opinion.”
She was and is a people-person, an engaging extrovert whose enthusiastic tours made her the perfect ambassador for the small liberal arts college. She assumed the job as an admissions counselor at Alleghany for a year before moving on to the University of North Carolina to study for a master’s in education. She finished her master’s while working as an associate director of admissions for Kenan-Flagler.
Three years later, she switched to the University of Virginia’s Darden School for a 15-year stint in the admit office, the last five as director of admissions. In the fall of 2005, she moved north to take over the top admissions job at the Tuck School.
From a small office at the Tuck School in Hanover, New Hampshire, Clarke leads an admissions staff of eight full-timers, four seasonal readers and about 30 second-year MBA interviewers. Hanging on her office wall is an unsolicited gift from a waitlisted applicant: a large and intricately knitted Tuck logo. The accompanying letter from the MBA candidate said it all: “I want to be a stitch in the community.” Laughs Clarke, “I thought it was really funny. It’s creative. The day I got that I pulled his file to refresh my memory. It did get our attention. I traipsed it around the school and showed the dean. That is a real anomaly. And I definitely wouldn’t want people to think they would have to do something like that to get into Tuck.”