The MBA Gatekeeper At Cambridge Judge

Cambridge University's Judge Business School

Cambridge University’s Judge Business School

Conrad Chua

Conrad Chua

As far as business school admissions officers go, Conrad Chua is unusually outspoken—especially for someone who has an influential perch at tony Cambridge University. For the past five years, he has headed up MBA admissions for the Judge Business School at what is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world.

His candid and thoughtful observations on the admissions process, the value of the MBA degree and those omniscient rankings of business schools often hold great insights. When Chua does presentations on rankings, he starts by showing a cartoon which in its first panel portrays two senior B-school deans agreeing that rankings fail to accurately measure the quality of their schools. In the second panel, the deans are seen poring over the list and muttering, “So how did we do?”

As Chua put it in a recent blog post, “Rankings are important but imperfect. They should be just one data-point that a candidate uses in determining which school to apply to. It is more important to apply some of the analytical skills that MBAs are supposed to have and examine the data with a critical eye, understand what the data is telling you, understand what the data is not telling you, and make your own decisions.”

A STANFORD UNIVERSITY GRAD WITH A MASTER’S FROM LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

For the record, Judge is ranked 12th best among non-U.S. schools on Poets&Quants 2013 composite list. Earlier this year, The Financial Times, the most consulted global ranking, put Judge 16th best in the world, ahead of British rival Oxford as well as such U.S. schools as Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and New York University’s Stern School.

Chua is as self-deprecating as he is opinionated. After sitting down for a brief video interview with Della Bradshaw of The Financial Times last month, he confessed that “I don’t do this often and I find it terribly uncomfortable watching myself on video. I keep asking myself why didn’t someone tell me that my glasses look like they were about to slip off my nose?”

Like most people who find their way into admissions, Chua came to Cambridge from an unusual route. He joined Judge in June of 2009 from the Global Career Co. where he was in charge of business development and relationships in Asia. Chua’s resume reflects extensive experience working for various government agencies involved in aviation, maritime, human resources and national marketing.  He earned his master’s degree from the Sloan program at the London Business School in 2003 and his bachelor’s in both economics and electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1994.

CHUA ADMITS ABOUT A THIRD OF THE SCHOOL’S APPLICANTS TO AN INTIMATE MBA EXPERIENCE

In a typical year, Chua accepts roughly a third of the school’s applicants to enroll a relatively small class of just under 150 students into Judge’s 12-month MBA program which starts in September. In 2012, applications fell 22% to 778, the result of then new U.K. student visa regulations that ultimately discouraged prospective applicants from British MBA programs. Chua now says the market has a better understanding of the new regs and their impact and that applications are now trending upward.

The Class of 2013 numbered 141, with average work experience of 7.2 years and an average GMAT score of 681. It was an exceptionally diverse and global group, reflecting 44 nationalities, including 18% from North America. On average, a Judge MBA speaks three languages. But the MBA program’s relative newness (it was launched in 1996) and the small size of the class makes for a slender alumni base of about 2,000 MBA grads, only twice the size of INSEAD’s annual output of MBAs.

Chua recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants in Cambridge.

How is the value of the MBA degree holding up in Europe among would-be applicants and potential employers?

By and large, the MBA is more established in the U.S. Within Europe, the MBA is most established in the U.K. There are traditional links with the financial services sector where many of the top companies have MBAs in the ranks and there’s a general upward trend. But in large parts of (continental Europe) such as Germany, the MBA is quite a new program. I think it’s a challenge for employers to understand the value of an MBA. In Germany, typically the top ranks of companies have been drawn from PhDs. Now more German business schools are emerging. Many of them have links with corporates so quite soon, in the largest economy in Europe (Germany), people will begin to accept the value of an MBA and that will have a snowball effect in demand.