The MBA Gatekeeper At Duke’s Fuqua School

Duke University's Fuqua School of Business

Duke University Fuqua School of Business

How often do you make mistakes in admitting people?

We never make mistakes – we create learning opportunities. If someone’s not necessarily represening themselves in the way we thought they did, then it feels like a mistake, but it’s actually a learning opportunity for all of the people involved. I like to think that we’re doing the best job with the information we have in hand, in an imperfect process.

Reading between the lines of Applicant X’s submitted materials, you can see they are very bright, hard-working, and experienced in business, but their essays don’t communicate their assets well. What do you do?

That’s when we look to the other criteria to help us make those decisions. We look at what recommenders say. If you don’t get people who know you well and can speak to your strengths and weaknesses, it doesn’t help you in the application process. A lot of times people think that the recommendation has to come from the CEO of a company, but if you’ve only ridden in the elevator with them two or three times, it’s not going to help you.

We also have the interview. The interview, the letters of recommendation, are sort of the part that you can’t necessarily manipulate or control. You certainly can control your essays and how you submit and when you submit, but those two pieces . . give us an additional perspective of who you are and what you’ll bring. We don’t expect that every application that comes through our system is going to be a beautifully written, grammatically correct representation, but we do hope that it represents them accurately and it illuminates their strengths. If it doesn’t represent who you are and sell to your strengths, there’s not a whole lot we can do. Have somebody else review them after you’re written them. Give them the essay without the question, and if after reading your essay, they can tell you what the question was, you know you’ve done at least a good job in answering the question, and then what you want to do is take a look at your experiences to see if you have illuminated yourself in a way that will help differentiate you in a really competitive applicant pool.

What do you and your admissions colleagues disagree over the most?

It’s a pretty stressful process to sit through the admissions committee, at least the way we do it, because we have so much conversation. We don’t really argue. We respect each other’s opinions, but sometimes there’s a need to make hard calls because we have more qualified applicants than we have seats in the class. My job is to shepherd that process so that we build the diversity that we want in the incoming class and bring the impactful students into the program, and that we find some diamonds in the rough who we know are going to make a difference in the world. My question is, ‘Will Fuqua be different, in a positive way, because this person has walked through the doors?’

What did an applicant do that made you want to shake them, metaphorically speaking?

This happened a couple of years ago. We did have an applicant hack into our online application system one year and then view his admissions decision earlier than was intended.

Had he been admitted?

He had not. But even if he had he wouldn’t have been after we discovered that. I can’t remember exactly how we found out about it. When you’ve been doing this for so long you get to the point where there’s nothing really that surprises you. That’s probably the worst thing I’ve seen a person do, other than the person who significantly plagiarizes their essays.

Sometimes it’s disappointing when we see really, really great applicants apply in our last round of applications. You want to admit them. But you have very limited space left in the class.

Sometimes it’s disappointing when you feel like someone’s breaking up with you because they didn’t choose to come to your school.

What’s the oddest thing you’ve ever received in an application package?

Oh, good lord. A GI Joe doll dressed up in a business suit with  . . . a little cellphone. This was back when we had paper applications. It was a waitlisted candidate who sent it in. We thought it was cute. It’s oftentimes interesting to see how creative people can be (but) we don’t encourage that. It’s a risky thing, right, because if you send something in and it’s not received well, it can hurt you. If you send me in a 21-page manifesto that you’ve written that really doesn’t tell me more than what you did in your application, it’s kind of tough to sit through and read all that. We encourage students to follow the rules.

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