The MBA Gatekeeper To Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business

Dawna Clarke at a staff appreciation luncheon at Tuck

Dawna Clarke at a staff appreciation luncheon at Tuck

In the past eight years at Tuck, Clarke has evaluated roughly 20,000 MBA applicants. In a typical year, the school will receive about 2,500 applications for 280 seats. Clarke will accept only one of every five candidates, and this past year applications to the MBA program were up 7%. This fall, she’ll welcome an exceptional class of MBA newbies, with an average GMAT score of 719 and a GPA of 3.5 (see table at right). The average incoming MBA at Tuck boasts five full years of work experience, and 15% of the class already has advanced degrees to their credit.

For her, the job is a passion. “In admissions,” believes Clarke, “you see the best in people every day. People put their best foot forward. They are telling you the highlights of their life and what they’re most proud of. And it can be very inspiring because we hear some rough stories about what people have overcome. The power of resiliency and the human spirit is felt in admissions. We had an applicant who lived in a cardboard box at one point in his life. People are very open about the challenges they have faced in their lives.”

In an interview with Poets&Quants, Clarke reveals what Tuck looks for in an ideal MBA candidate, reflects on what has recently changed in the way Tuck evaluates candidates, tells us about the Tuck applicant who took the GMAT 17 times, and explains why she prefers a GMAT score over the GRE, among other things.

Dawna, your experience in helping your son find the right college makes me think of you as a helicopter parent. Are you?

I’m not a helicopter parent, but I am involved. At one point, we were flying to Puerto Rico for a conference and Josh was on spring break so he came with me. One of the schools he applied to was releasing its decisions while we were on the flight. It was one of his top choices. As soon as we reached the airport, we tried to get to a place with Wifi to find the result. I remember Josh going onto his laptop and logging in to get the decision. I’m hovering over his shoulder waiting for the outcome.

Is he admitted, waitlisted or denied? You feel that anxiety for them. Every single time since then, when we are releasing decisions and it is Friday at 5 p.m., I get a pang in my belly for breaking hearts. Here is this great kid who has so much going for him. We turn down so many good people every day.

I thought the whole process was fascinating from the perspective of an admissions director. I got lots of good ideas about what to do and a few about what not to do at Tuck.

Like what, for example?

I came away with a reinforced view of the power of personalization. I work at a school that is able to be very personalized because of its scale. But when I went through the admissions process with Josh, only one school out of 23 even did a one-on-one tour. The tour was very customized as a result and it made an impression. I also gained an even greater appreciation for the kindness of people. When we wrote to an admissions office to ask for 15 minutes of time on a campus visit, some schools allowed it and some didn’t. That is one reason I am such an advocate for having an open interview policy. If people are coming a long distance to visit, you should give them the opportunity to be heard. Going through the process with Josh gave me great empathy for what it’s like to be an applicant.

Yet, at every highly selective university, the vast majority of applicants—many of them fully qualified to attend and do well–are turned away. What percentage of your applicant pool is in the zone for admission?

I’m guessing it’s 75% to 80%. Most people don’t bother to apply unless they know they have what it takes to get into the school. This year, the quality of our pool was very strong. Narrowing it down from 2800 applicants to 280 is getting harder, not easier because so many of these applicants are impressive. I felt this more this year than ever before. We just have too many good applicants for the number of spaces available. We had a lot of discussions over candidates in committee this year, in part because of the application increase and also because the decisions were harder.

So if eight of ten applicants are “in the zone” but you can only admit two in ten, you have a lot of tough calls to make. What’s a typical tough call for you? 

The tough calls fall into categories such as someone has exceptionally strong work experience, their recommendations are glowing, and they knocked it out of the park during the interview.  But they didn’t do as well as we expect on the quant side of the GMAT. So we will ask what can we do to make sure they are more quantitatively prepared for the program? Sometimes we do a conditional offer and ask them to take two quant courses. There are times when we discuss someone in committee who is outstanding academically and presented themselves well in interview but are light in their work experience. So we have to struggle with whether they should wait another year or so or take them now.

Comments or questions about this article? Email us.