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.

  • somsquared

    Where’s your proof, fatty?

  • Joe

    You must seriously have some severe mental issues. A grown woman not a child. Also, lets all act shocked that an entrepreneur wants to go to Stanford.

  • Joe

    This is the most illogical statement I have read in years. Reality is likely the exact opposite.

  • somsquared

    Not sure why the “onus of proof” is on me. The child very well could have refused to go to Booth. The only fact that is known is that the child chose GSB. Your assumption also cannot be proven.

    When someone chooses to attend a school, they are effectively refusing to attend any other school. Your attempt to protect Booth gets an F.

  • I disagree

    The onus of proof is on the troll. Not me.

    The absence of proof that the child refused to go to booth, means that the troll (and you somsquared) are making accusations that can not be proven.

    I dont have to prove anything at all.

    All I have to say is the troll’s original assertion that the child “refused” Chicago Booth is baseless.. The troll can not prove it. You can not prove it.

    Period. Point made. I win!

  • somquared

    The solid number 3 school is Yale SOM. Although, it is very hard to break it into the first or second spot, with time Yale will be 1 or 2 in few years timeframe

  • somsquared

    Agreed that Columbia really shouldn’t Be considered for the top 10. CBS Follies are correct in pointing out that Booth at #3 is the biggest joke of all time.

    Would love to see an editorial piece on how much geography plays a role into bschool prestige. Fascinating to me that Columbia, NYU, UCLA, and especially USC struggle to compete at the highest levels when they have so many resources in their respective backyards. Anderson is a great school filled with great students. I’d put them up against any Kellogg or Booth student any day. Where’s the love??

  • somsquared

    You’ve got some far-reaching assumptions there… how do you know that the child didn’t refuse to go to Booth?

    The answer is that you don’t know. Your argument smells just as $hitty as the other. Try again.

    Booth’s yield is objectively bad. Booth probably benefits the most out of geography than any other M7. Booth needs the Midwest much more than the Midwest needs Booth. If Booth were in LA or New York, fat chance it would even be top 10.

  • Hahaha

    The CBS Follies had it right– Booth IS number 3. Columbia is hardly top 10. And Wharton is barely top 8.

  • I disagree

    His statement is factually incorrect, so he is a troll.

    Based on your own post, there is one child in Stanford. One child, not multiple children. Not sure where the troll got the info that they “refused” to go to UChicago either. Was any member of the Booth family on record that the children refused? The answer is no. This troll id implying malice where there is objectively none to be found. It is more likely that the child simply prefers to be at a school where he is just one of the guys, rather than be a minor celebrity as the son of the naming donor. It happens all the time to “celebrities” where they go to places their name is either not recognized/recognized less or unvalued/valued less.

    He also implied that this article amounts to Booth “advertising so hard”, which is a trollish statement, considering that this article is comparable to an article about any M7 Admissions Q&A.

  • What Troll?

    That’s not actually trolling. The guy whose name is on the school, i.e. Booth, his child is attending Stanford GSB.

  • BoothOrBust

    It is very simple. Let me walk you through the facts, and then the one assumption that I took, which I think is reasonable because it is based on a 5-year trend.

    Booth applications have been trending up, and Kellogg applications have been trending down. Five years ago, Kellogg had a 1.5k advantage in applications. The gap has narrowed every year since then. Last year Kellogg had about a 400 advantage. If Kellogg’s trend continues or if their app volume stays flat compared to last year while Booth’s goes up 12%, them they would erase that 400 app difference.

    So yes, it is based on hard data and an assumption based on a 5 year trend.

    I dont need to “sit down” because I was not “jumping into conclusions”. The Only assumption I made is that Kellogg, does not reverse its 5-year consistent downward application trend and at best stay flat from last year. Hardly “jumping” into anything there.

  • somsquared

    Can we be honest here? The CBS Follies had it right– Booth sucks and is perpetually overrated. Hardly an M7. The stats tell everything.

  • M7Bound

    Thank you Jeff for the clarification. BoothOrBust needs to sit down before jumping to conclusions. Also, I doubt the new building momentum will reflect in this year’s application cycle considering it was unveiled only in March(?). Perhaps next year. But I guess we’ll have to wait until summer to find out.

  • Jeff Schmitt

    Hi, M7Bound. Schools won’t be releasing full numbers for 2016-2017 until this summer, so it is hard to tell, especially with the momentum that Kellogg enjoys with opening a new building.

  • M7Bound

    Where are the application cycle numbers for the 2017 intake for all other BSchools? Are you making an inference about Booth surpassing Kellogg for the first time based on any hard data/evidence, or is this just an unwarranted assumption?

  • BoothOrBust

    troll much? This article is just a regular article about any M7 school

  • BoothOrBust

    If Booth application went up by 12% then this would be the first time that it has more applications than Kellog and perhaps regain the upper hand in acceptance rate (It already has consistently topped Kellogg in yield)

  • Insider

    It’s sad that Chicago Booth is advertising so hard while Booth’s own children refuse to attend Booth..