The MBA Gatekeeper At UNC Kenan-Flagler

Kenan-Flagler MBA admissions director Sherry Wallace

Kenan-Flagler MBA admissions director Sherry Wallace

The ancient Greek exhortation “know thyself” predates business schools by a couple thousand years, but MBA program applicants would do well to take it as timeless advice. Because if you’re striving to get into a highly selective business school, the committee responsible for deciding whether or not to admit you will want to know all about you. And while they’ll be looking at transcripts, test scores, and recommendation letters, most of the information that differentiates you from everybody else will come from you. Know yourself, and you can give them what they need.

Now, that doesn’t mean they want to hear absolutely everything about you. They want to hear about your attributes, skills, interests, and experiences which are relevant to business school, and to the business world. And they want to know your motivations for obtaining an MBA, and for getting it at their particular school. For admissions officers at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, those personal drivers provide key information.

“Do the self-assessment first. Know why you’re interested in getting the MBA in general, but also know, why Kenan-Flagler?” says the school’s MBA Admissions Director Sherry Wallace. “What is it that you’re trying to accomplish? I’ve talked to candidates sometimes and I haven’t always gotten the sense that this was a well thought out mission.


“That becomes very evident in admission interviews when a candidate’s not very fluid about speaking about their goals, and their vision. I’m surprised at how many people don’t have a good answer for, ‘Why the MBA?’

Kenan-Flagler saw a 23% increase in MBA applications in the 2014-2015 admissions year over the year-earlier period, to 2,300 from 1,912, after a previous jump from 1,494 in 2013. For the class entering in 2014, the school admitted 741 applicants, for an acceptance rate of 38.8%, and enrolled 281. For the class coming in this year, the school admitted 797 applicants, for an acceptance rate of 34%, and enrolled 276.


The latest rise in application volume has, in part, driven the school to stop offering interviews to all comers. The “Campus Open Interview Season” Kenan-Flagler has been holding each fall will be replaced by an invitation-only system at the end of October.

“We’re not going to guarantee an interview, because in some cases there’s nothing an applicant is going to do in an interview that’s going to change that outcome,” says Wallace, who has worked 17 years in the Kenan-Flagler admissions office.

In addition to on-campus interviews, Wallace and her team may conduct phone or Skype interviews with applicants who can’t come to the school, and sometimes admissions officers will travel to interview applicants, either when there’s a “critical mass” of interviewees available in one location, or if the officers are on other business and can add in interviews.


Kenan-Flagler admissions officers use the interviews, and other application materials, to evaluate not only what a person has done, but what they are likely to do in the classroom and the career space. Like the oracle in the Temple of Delphi, where the Greek “know thyself” maxim is inscribed, adcom members look into the future. The predictive element of the process cuts both ways: the school’s admissions committee analyzes the information presented in order to anticipate whether the applicant will use the MBA program as a springboard to success, or whether their deficiencies will hamper their progress. Applicants’ behavior in the admissions process is extrapolated into projections about how they would behave in school, in job interviews, and in the workplace.

Consider punctuality: “Sometimes candidates are late for interviews,” Wallace says. “That’s disappointing. Most of the time, we’re going to proceed with the interview. But most of the time this leads us to wonder, ‘If this happens in their admissions interview, will this happen when they’re meeting with recruiters? When they’re meeting with a study group? What kind of responsibility are they taking?’”

With this year’s jump in applications came a rise in the number of applicants who didn’t appear to have concrete reasons for applying – and their applications showed it, Wallace says. “Sometimes I think there’s just been a casual, ‘I’m just throwing this out to to see what happens,’ rather than, ‘Here’s my plan for a transition, here’s my timeline.’”

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