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The MBA Gatekeeper At Indiana Kelley

Jim Holmen, adcom director at Indiana's Kelley School of Business. Photo by Kelley School of Business at Indiana University/Josh Anderson

Jim Holmen, adcom director at Indiana’s Kelley School of Business. Photo by Kelley School of Business at Indiana University/Josh Anderson

When participating in an interview for acceptance into the full-time MBA program at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, it’s probably fine to bring along a portfolio. It’s less acceptable to immediately begin presenting the portfolio and become annoyed when the director of admissions says he’s there to ask you questions. Seems obvious, right? The obvious error has been made before, says Jim Holmen, director of admissions and financial aid for the full-time MBA program at the Kelley School.

What Holmen says he and his team do like to see is an applicant who has spent time in self-reflection and can be honest with themselves and the admissions team. “A big part of the application process is helping us get to know them,” he explains. “And so the degree to which an applicant is honest and really allows us to get a glimpse of who they are and what they bring to the program is going to help us make decisions and certainly help the candidate insure they are applying to a program that’s a good fit.”

In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants, Holmen describes the process that he and his team of admission officials undergo to review more than 1,200 applications for about 185 seats in the school’s Top-20 MBA program, discourages applicants from “packaging” themselves for a school, and explains when an applicant should contact admissions after submitting a complete application.

What are the best things an applicant can do when applying?

Well, I guess at the start, some self-reflection. They need to understand where they really are, where they want to be, their strengths, areas for development, and professionally, where they’d like to see their career go. Because that will certainly help them identify the schools that can allow them to achieve those goals.

And then from there, it’s doing the research and understanding the unique qualities of different MBA programs, the cultures of different MBA programs, the opportunities that the programs will provide. They need to contact some current students and maybe some alums, do campus visits, and then start the application process.

Let’s say the applicant has done the research, picked out target schools, and are now ready to apply, what are some early stage mistakes they might make?

A big part of the application process is helping us get to know the applicant. And so the degree to which an applicant is honest and really allows us to get a glimpse of who they are and what they bring to the program is going to help us make decisions and certainly help the candidate ensure they are applying to a program that’s a good fit.

And so those candidates that perhaps over think the process, or who try hard to write what they think a business school admissions committee wants to hear as opposed to again, being honest with what they have done and what they want to do in the future, is a mistake. They’re over thinking the process, trying too hard to craft a story as opposed to letting it happen naturally. And to make themselves fit.

What piece of the application matters most to you and your team?

I just mentioned fit, and I think that’s a big part of it. The Kelley MBA program is delivered in a very collaborative culture, with a lot of teamwork. Our students are still competitive, but they’re smart enough to know they want to be successful with their classmates and not at the expense of their classmates. And so, looking at the students’ ability to work well within a team-based environment and having good things to contribute is important to us.

We’re looking for students who have given their future career goals some careful thought and are coming in with an idea of what gaps they want to fill, what new learning they want to take advantage of, and what opportunities they want to participate in to help them reach the next stage of their careers.

So again, beyond obviously demonstrating that they have the ability to handle the academic challenges of the program, we’re really looking at what they’re able to contribute, what they want to take advantage of, and the degree to which we’re going to be able to help them achieve their career goals.

What does your team like to hear from applicants about why they want to attend Kelley specifically?

There are probably a lot of reasons why students want to attend Kelley, but anything they say that demonstrates they’ve done some good research and they understand some of our unique qualities, that they understand our culture, and understand how they will fit within the culture, and how they want to contribute to the culture, that certainly is appealing to us.

We value students from all different kinds of work experiences and backgrounds. But, again, we want students who are going to be ready to share those experiences and I think their ability to understand what we are going to offer, coupled with what they are bringing into the program, the support we’re going to be able to provide to help them achieve some of their career goals—demonstrating that research and knowledge.