Admissions Q&A: Chicago Booth’s Kurt Ahlm

kurt ahlm booth

Kurt Ahlm, Associate Dean, Chicago Booth Admissions

Booth has arrived.

That was the big takeaway from the 2017 U.S. News MBA rankings. The perennial powerhouse of The Economist rankings, the Booth School of Business finally shed its also-ran status, joining Harvard and Wharton in this year’s fabled “Big Three.” An anomaly? Hardly! The jump has been a long time coming, the culmination of the dreamy designs, painstaking planning, and fundraising finesse of its previous deans.

Applicants have taken notice. Since 2002, GMAT scores have risen by 40 points, increasing year-over-year and topping out at 727 with the 2018 Class. Employers have liked what they’ve seen too, with pay rocketing by over $45,500 during the same period. That doesn’t even count the near 18% hike in three month placement, where Booth now consistently hovers among the best.


Top students?  High pay. Happy employers. Mission accomplished, right? Think again. You see, the secret behind Booth’s emergence is rooted in never being satisfied with where they are. Booth is always in a perpetual state of some change,” explains Kurt Ahlm, the associate dean of student recruitment and admission, in an exclusive interview with Poets&Quants. It is this type of fluidity that attracts the unique type of student to whom Booth caters.

In a nutshell, that student is consumed with, in Ahlm’s words, an “innate sense of curiosity.” It is far from a tagline. Instead, as Ahlm notes, it is the foundation of the culture, an approach that guides the structure of the program and the composition of its community. “We look for people who are forever students of life,” Ahlm explains. “These people have this innate commitment to learning and exploring the world around them. They are compelled to ask questions, think about how things connect, and dive deeper. That’s just baked in whether you talk to students, staff, or faculty.”

A Career Services Event at Booth

A different student body demands a different type of MBA program. That’s where Booth differentiates itself from all others. Forget a cookie cutter core at Booth. Here, students have only one required course to complete. They don’t have to re-take courses that they’ve previously mastered. They control their own experience based on what they hope to ultimately achieve. In other words, think of Booth as an all-you-can eat buffet — one that trusts its students to manage their own caloric intakes and sugar levels.


The flexibility of this custom-tailored curriculum resonates mightily with already-successful adult students. In the 2016-2017 admissions cycle, for example, Booth enjoyed a 12% increase in applications to the full-time program according to Ahlm. By using a guiding hand instead of an iron fist, Booth is able to tap into applicants’ deepest career yearnings. “Broadly speaking, people go back for an education because they’re trying to do something else with their career and their life,” Ahlm observes. “Everyone looks, thinks, and defines it differently. What Booth does exceptionally well is provide access to people at all different stages of life and all different parts of the globe. We afford them every opportunity to choose a path that is distinctively right for them.”

This offers two key advantages to Booth students. For one, the early deep dive into their interests gives them an inherent advantage during the recruiting and internship phases. Even more, it immediately brings out the best in students because they can focus their energy where their passions lie. “Our mission is to be an institution that’s creating enduring impact, great ideas, things that really move markets and organizations forward,” Ahlm states. “To do that, we feel that we need to have a place where people can fully engage. Every decision that they make, every class that they sit in, and every opportunity that they are faced with is something that they are purely invested in. These decisions are things are not prescribed. They are things that people are really committed to because there is something that is driving them towards that.”

Alas, being so different can create misunderstandings for any organization. Booth is not immune. Ever hear that Booth is the school for quant jocks? Make no mistake: Booth’s academic rigor and quantitative nature is a defining feature of the program. The confusion, however, sometimes comes with the applications of this quantitative analysis.


“In a world like this, where different data is everywhere, having the ability, comfort and confidence to navigate a very data-driven landscape is really important,” Ahlm emphasizes. “What we’re really about is leveraging data in its entirety from qualitative to quantitative. How do you really use information to analyze situations and provide the right frameworks to problem-solving? That’s much broader than the mathematical applications when you think of a quantitative approach.”

kurt ahlm booth

Madhav Rajan will become the new dean of Chicago Booth

Another confusion stems from the nature of big city programs, which are often derided “commuter schools.” In such environments, the stereotype is that students don’t foster the wider and more intimate relationships often attributed to smaller and more rural programs. This distortion is amplified by Booth’s decentralized approach, which eschews the cohort model in favor of ala carte course selection. From the outside, such factors would seemingly hinder the formation of tight bonds. Quite the opposite happens says Ahlm, who has worked at Booth for 15 years and holds an MBA from the school. Thanks to a quarter system and shared interests, Ahlm sees students fostering long-lasting relationships that are deeply meaningful.

“You’re taking classes with the 1st and 2nd years from the very beginning. Because we don’t have a prescribed approach to learning, the community becomes small fast because you’re getting to see, work with, and interact with so many students across classes you’re choosing your courses based on interests. You’re choosing your clubs and your teams based on those interests and passions you bring to the table. Because everyone respects that we all get better because we support each other, the community becomes incredibly tight and collaborative.”

You could describe Ahlm as Mr. Chicago. A Northwestern grad, Ahlm is a shameless promoter of his city — even more so now that his beloved neighborhood Cubs claimed its first World Series in 108 years. Recently, Poets&Quants sat down with Ahlm to learn about new developments at the school and its vaunted Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. We also asked the questions that you want answered: What is Booth looking for its infamous essay question? What constitutes a fit with the Booth culture? What can you do to increase your odds of being admitted? Of course, why study in Chicago over anywhere else?

Here are his thoughts…

Next: How to answer the dreaded “essay” question and what Booth is doing to appeal to women.