The MBA Gatekeeper At McDonough

What things would make you immediately reject an application?

Acting in a way throughout the admissions process that would be described as dishonest or lacking integrity, rude, disrespectful, lacking good judgment. For example, we had a student who reached out to every alumnus on LinkedIn and sent us a list of these alumni, asking us to put him in touch with these people. And it was a list of about 40 or 50 people. That’s not great judgment. And it may have been a cultural disconnect.

There is another example of an individual who, during the holiday break, so the school was closed for a week, sent an email to the dean and about eight other senior administrators at the school—including myself—to ask about his application and to let us know he wanted to provide additional information for his file. And because the school was closed, he didn’t immediately receive a phone call back but he did receive an out-of-office message that said we would address his inquiry as soon as we got back. But because he just quote-unquote couldn’t wait, he decided to spam the entire dean’s suite and administrative suite at the school in hopes of getting an answer quicker.

Again, I think lack of judgment can really cause a few students to derail throughout the process. And they probably all have good intentions, but it’s the ability to discern what makes sense and trusting the process and that at the end of the day, we are all focused on trying to be as customer-centric as possible.

How often do you think your office makes mistakes and how do those manifest when an admit starts the program?

There are at least two mistakes that we did not make, if you reference back to the prior examples. But, seriously, I’d be lying if I said we never made a mistake, but thankfully, we get great feedback from our faculty. Increasingly, every year, they say how impressed they are with the incoming class—which makes us feel really good.

And I’d say when there is a mistake, it’s usually something we couldn’t have foreseen in the admissions process, or if there was a clue (suggesting a problem), we made the judgment call and erred on the side of the applicant and giving the applicant the benefit of the doubt and thought that maybe whatever was awry was coachable.

And sometimes that’s the case and sometimes it’s not. But I would say the mistakes that manifest themselves usually are defined around—not necessarily someone who’s flunked out of a class or couldn’t handle the rigor—it’s really more about their interpersonal skills and how they show up. How do they act on teams? How do they treat their peers or the administrative staff and faculty? How much of a sense of entitlement do they exhibit versus appreciation and humility? Do they give and get in the program both inside and outside the classroom? How do they present in front of corporate recruiters? Are they calm and confident and prepared or not?

Let’s say, reading between the lines, you can tell an applicant has a strong education, professional, and quant background, but their essay is lacking and they do not communicate their strengths well – what do you do?

One of the reasons we changed our essays about a year ago and only have one question now—Why you?—is to keep it open ended. It really gives the applicant the opportunity to express himself or herself in a way they feel makes sense as opposed to them feeling like there was a question we didn’t ask. It’s 750 characters, so it’s long enough for them to get their points across and allows us to see more about how they think and what they care about and their philosophy on life instead of just regurgitation of what’s on the website.

And so if someone isn’t the best writer, hopefully we can see through to what they’re trying to share in terms of themselves. But we do take it into consideration because business writing and your ability to communicate and articulate your thoughts in a concise way on paper is just as important as being able to communicate it orally. So it does matter. But if it’s someone that we really saw their potential and we thought with the essay, maybe they are not showing up the way they really could, then we give them a quick call, we invite them in for an interview. Maybe we ask an alum or student to reach out to them to learn more about their interest in the program. There are a number of different ways we could use other data points to get a fairer sense of that particular applicant’s abilities and interests.

What three things should an applicant do before an interview?

I’m not going to give you a one-two-three, but I am going to tell you how to prepare for it. Treat it as you would any job interview that you really want—even if it’s your second- or third-choice school. You never know what the outcomes are going to be in the admissions process so you want to go to an interview with your best foot forward at all times. Do your homework on the institution and provide concrete examples of events you’ve attended, students and alumni you’ve spoken to throughout the process, and I would say even give names. Be specific and give names. We love to follow and know that you’re connecting with our alumni and students in meaningful ways. So it’s really good to be specific and concrete with names.

Let’s say you’ve had limited exposure to a school. Be honest with that and upfront in the interview. But let them know despite your inability to attend events or to speak to staff that you’re really drawn to the school because of X, Y, and Z reasons. Now if you do go this route, don’t give reasons we could easily Google and see come up on our website—they really do need to be meaningful reasons and well thought out and your values align with the program so we can tell you’ve put some thought and time into why you decided to apply.

Remember to treat everyone in the process with respect. And warn the admissions team if you decide to cancel your interview or if you need to reschedule, if you’re still interested in being considered. Because you don’t want to ever just blow off your interview. It can be a deal-breaker at times.

What are some nonverbal cues you and your team watch for during an interview?

Personally, I always take note on someone’s handshake—whether it’s limp and wet or solid and strong. If your culture is not used to shaking hands, you should practice. It’s an extremely important business practice here in the U.S. and people can make snap judgments based on these initial impressions—for better or for worse. Also, I remind people to smile, breathe, pace yourself. These are not rocket science tips or advice. These are probably things everyone has heard before. But I think in the moment, sometimes people are nervous or you’re thinking about the next thing you’re going to say, so just take a step back, breathe, and relax and understand this is a two-way process. You’re trying to get to know us; we’re trying to get to know you. Think about it more as a conversation. Our interviews are not confrontational in any nature. We’re not trying to trip you up; we really are trying to genuinely get to know you and your interests and background and interest in the program.

If you’re doing Skype interviews, then be aware of your surroundings. Make sure you look directly into the camera and not at the screen. Because the way it comes across on the other side is you’re actually looking at them and having a dialogue. And so what you say has a greater impact that way as opposed to looking down at the screen and then it doesn’t even look like you are looking at the person. It makes it a little awkward on your end to do that, but believe me, on the receiving end, it makes all the difference.

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