The MBA Gatekeeper At UNC Kenan-Flagler

How often do you make mistakes in admitting people?

This is a really tough one and certainly something we think about often. I have seen very few cases where I would say we made a mistake. Have I met a student once everybody came, that might seem a little less dynamic than we would have thought? Absolutely. The jury’s not out yet. Even watching someone from when they enter to when they graduate, we see 22 months. We are searching for people that are going to have impact for the rest of their careers and their lives. I don’t know that we really have the ability to judge just from the two years we see, whether this person was a mistake or not. I love the job but sometimes I am very aware of times when we have not been able to offer admission to some people who I know are special, and who I would have loved to invite to the class. There are just some absolutely wonderful people who we all believe could come here, be successful, we wish we could have, that we have not been able to choose. It does haunt you sometimes, where the person’s going to go on to do things, and we say to ourselves, ‘We were crazy.’

What application caused your biggest-ever disagreement with an admissions colleague?

We discuss and debate candidates all the time. We hold a committee meeting. Applicants who are being recommended for admission, we vet them pretty well and discuss the pros and cons. The most passionate debate I can remember was one with a colleague. We worked together for a long time. There was a candidate once that was just an incredibly interesting, very smart person, who had distinguished himself with his global acumen, done very well academically, very well spoken . . . a truly global citizen. One of my colleagues felt very strongly, ‘We’ve got to admit this person.’ I felt, ‘This person has not really given us a good reason for, “Why an MBA?” I’m not sure this is where they need to be.’ Just because you have all these other things doesn’t mean you want a business degree. My colleague was being more, ‘This person’s so incredible.’ We have to admit him.’ I’m assuming I won. There are a lot of amazing people. I want amazing people who make a case for why an MBA makes sense.

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

I don’t know if I’ve had that kind of reaction. I have been disappointed sometimes when an applicant . . . didn’t use me productively. Arranged, met with me, and then proceeded to ask me a bunch of questions that my answer could just be, ’It’s on the website.’ I don’t know if that’s just a lack of sophistication or it’s just being lazy.

If someone goes over the essay word limit, what do you do?

It depends on how much. I do not count the words. I imagine people go over the word limit all the time and I never know it. If somebody is just clearly in excess, the first thing I do is just question why. Is this person over the word limit because they didn’t read the rules? Did they just decide, ‘Rules don’t apply to me?’ What does that say about them? Did they go over because they’re not capable of editing themselves? It’s a lot easier to write a lot than to be judicious and thoughtful about what I need to say. If someone does make that decision to go over, my hope is that the value you gave me by going over is greater than the risk that you took by now making me question your judgment.

What’s the biggest difference between male and female applicants?

Goodness. They’re a lot more similar than different. Women tend to have higher GPAs, and men tend to have higher test scores – that’s in our pool. Women tend to be more practical, maybe a little; they ask a lot more questions around funding and next steps. Women are certainly less represented in our applicant pool than men. Getting people who bring some of the viewpoints that might uniquely be brought by women, we’d like to see more of that.

What non-verbal cues do you watch for when doing an applicant interviews?

For me, one of the biggest discriminators of someone I feel very comfortable recommending versus somebody I might not is how well they listen, and obviously, being an active listener is going to reflect differently whether you’re face to face with the person. It’s important for a person in the interview to show that they are able to take direction and contribute to a give and take of a conversation, as opposed to… ‘Here are my 10 points, and no matter what you say, I’m going to give these 10 points.’ When they seem committed to their script and their talking points, I will do everything possible to take them off of it. I need to make them let me control the interview. Is this someone who is going to be able to be responsible and contribute to a real conversation in an interview? If they do this in an admissions interview that’s also going to happen when they are interviewing for a job. Certain communications styles are going to be cultural. I am not a big stickler for certain things. Whether they’re making eye contact, some of that has everything to do with culture and not a sign of anything we can read.

I do look for people who are non-verbally engaged, people who are present. We look for energy. We also look for people who have a point of view, because . . . they’re going to share their experiences and their points of view in the classroom, in their small group team. How they share their experiences or articulate their thoughts in an admissions interview is how they’re going to do that in other situations.

We generally expect people to be in business attire unless we tell them differently. If a person comes in and doesn’t look buttoned up, or if they’re in their pajamas on Skype, that might be a problem.

How often do you get recommendation letters that turn you off from an applicant?

Many applicants would be surprised to know how often their recommendations don’t help them, or even hurts them. We seldom get feedback that is, ‘This person is horrible, do not admit them.’ What we do get that sometimes speaks just as loudly are  . . . we get a whole lot of people who fall short of the ‘strongly recommend.’ We very specifically ask for recommenders to comment on areas of development. Sometimes when you can see a whole lot more opportunities for improvement, you are seeing potential red flags. Sometimes it’ll be comments about their impact, or how their teammates worked with them. Sometimes we’ll see comments about their maturity or communication ability. If we see something in a recommendation that is a bit of of a red flag, we will try to see if we’re seeing that theme in other places. If we see one recommendation that is quite lukewarm and one that is quite glowing . . . that can be interesting – we’ll try to see if this is a recommender who has a bone to pick. Sometimes we’ll reach out to an applicant and ask for an additional recommendation.