What are the three best things an applicant can do before applying?
I would say one is to spend as much time getting to know the program before applying – so, visiting campus . . . getting to know the program and why you want to attend, talking to students and alumni. And understanding their own story. I would encourage an applicant to really think about the transformation that can happen in business school and how they want to transform their careers and their lives and what they want to do with their MBA. Our application process is very specifically designed to get to know who you are as a person. There’s a tendency for applicants to think they need to tell us what we want to hear. Focus on just being your authentic self. There’s no magic formula to finding the ideal group of students, but there are a core set of values that we share with our students, in terms of who we are as a business school and who they see themselves as, and how they want to live their lives and change their communities.
What are the worst mistakes an applicant can make?
The worst mistake an applicant can make is believing that they have to be someone other than who they are to be a great MBA candidate. Seventy-five per cent of the people who apply to our program could probably pass all the classes and academically succeed. But the reality is we’re taking a pool of highly qualified people and trying to create a microcosm of the world for the business school environment. You have to be who you are. If you do your research then you can authentically engage in a way that says, ‘Here’s who I am, and here’s why I want to attend your business school, and here’s what I can contribute.’ There’s so much pressure, if you really want to get an MBA, especially if you fall in love with a school – there’s so much tendency to feel that you have to be someone other than who you are to differentiate yourself.
What matters most to you about an application?
We like to look at our application process as taking different aspects of your life and sort of creating this mosaic of who you are. We’re asking about the same things most other business schools are asking about (but) we’re taking it to the next level and asking candidates to tell us, ‘How do you want to make a difference in the world?’ We’re going to put you through a transformative experience that might not always feel comfortable, but at the end of the day it is supportive, and impactful, and authentic, and that’s really important to us.
What things would make you immediately reject an application?
Careless errors. One example of a careless error is when an applicant is working on their essays, they are applying to multiple schools and have written various essays and are cutting and pasting. You could cut and paste another business school’s name into the application’s essay. It’s a careless error. If you’re making careless errors like that it kind of reinforces that you don’t necessarily want to come to Duke. You can avoid that by writing the essays for the specific school. Try to avoid the careless errors. Don’t plagiarize. If you think about the level of competition and how important this is, you want to stand out in ways that help you, not hurt you. Sometimes we do get submissions that are a regurgitation of information that can be found somewhere else, like on our website. Or you can even get a manufactured version of what they think we want to hear. You don’t have to give my website back to me. Find the nuances that really make Duke special to you. We don’t immediately look at a test score or a GPA and say, ‘This person will not be admitted.’ Every application . . . goes through the committee process in the same way regardless of whether a piece may not measure up with the averages at Fuqua.
In this process there isn’t any one thing that we care about more than the others, because we care about them all. You look at an application in comparison to your pool and you say, ‘This person brings something that these other candidates don’t bring,’ and it might not be a perfect GMAT score, it might be their engagement in community service as well as their undergraduate record.
When did you “skinny down” your applications essays, and why?
It’s the third year of this. We used to have maybe three, no-longer-than-three-page essays, and what we found is that there was a great tendency to overly manufacture the responses to those questions. Applicants didn’t understand that what we really wanted was to get to know them. What we got was two or three pages of what they thought we wanted to hear. Last year we asked a really interesting question: ‘If you had to describe why you wanted to go to Duke, to your mom, your significant other, or your mentor, what would you tell them?’ Why is it that you want to be a part of our community? Culture is really something we try to protect. It is a community that we try to preserve and protect and sustain.
We’re also asking applicants for a numbered list of 25 random things about them. It’s awesome to read them (see examples here). It helps you understand their story better, who they are, how they grew up, why they’ve made some of the decisions they’ve made in their lives. The people who do the best job with it are the people who are really representing their authentic self.