Admissions Q&A: Chicago Booth’s Kurt Ahlm

kurt ahlm booth

Chicago Booth students in class. Courtesy photo

For more than a decade, your classes have seen increases in their GMAT scores. What do GMAT scores reflect to you personally and how have you been able to consistently raise the academic performance of your classes year-after-year?

First and foremost, the GMAT is helpful in terms of leveling the playing field. It allows us to do a little more of an apples-to-apples comparison globally. It’s a good metric to get a deeper sense of everyone who is in the pool, so it serves a very practical purpose obviously.

In terms of why we’ve seen increases, I think the broader narrative here is that we’ve spent a lot of time really trying to better articulate what Booth is all about. In the process, we’ve been giving people a deeper perception of the breadth and depth that this program offers students. More people are beginning to understand that Booth has a lot to offer students in terms of setting them up for long-term impact and having an effect on the world. I think we’re telling a much more complete story and attracting a much larger group of people who are starting to put Booth at the top of the set of schools they are looking at. For us, again, it is trying to be more clear about who we are, what we represent, and what we offer students in terms of the type of impact that they can have with a good degree.

Another thing that differentiates Booth is that when we talk about impact, we look at it from the perspective that this is an MBA program that really allows students to define own impact. What’s different about that is we provide a lot of opportunities for people to engage with their learning in the ways that are right for them. Broadly speaking, people go back for an education because they’re trying to do something else with their career and their life, whatever that might be. 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. I think people really value that the true value proposition at Booth is that you can define what impact means and can create experiences that are definitively unique, whether that is the program you choose; the curriculum path you choose; or the career you’re going for. That’s what career impact means to us. It really allows students to focus on what they want to do in their lives and we help to facilitate how to get there.

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Outgoing Booth Dean Sunil Kumar takes a selfie

Among full-time MBA programs, Booth has ranked near the top for attracting women, with women comprising 42% of the Class in both 2017 and 2018. Talk to us about what you’ve been doing to increasing your percentage of women and the competitive landscape for landing the best female candidates?

This may be a bit of a broken record here. High level, we’ve put a lot of effort in the past decade (and the last 5 years in particular) in trying to articulate more clearly what Booth is all about. We do a lot in from the standpoint of giving prospective students a lot of access to our current students. We have admissions fellows who work closely with us in a variety of capacities to help us do a lot of outreach to prospective students. We leverage groups like the Chicago Women in Business group, for not only promoting programming that they’re doing but also connecting them with prospective students. We host what’s called the Booth Women Connect Conference here in Chicago, which for the last several years draws close to 1,000 women who attend this event. We talk a lot about the impact that women are having in industries, markets, and organizations around the world. This is facilitated a lot by alumni, faculty, and students.

There are a lot of signals that we are putting out that make us very accessible to women in terms of how they gather information, how they engage with us, and get to understand what Booth is all about. We do a lot through effective storytelling like blog posts and the different videos that we promote to our student population. We do a young alumni featurette. We help people understand that Booth is really appealing to very diverse populations of people. I go back to the notion of the value proposition. This place really sets anyone up to be successful in terms of defining what they want to do and ultimately how they will get there. The more people begin to understand Booth and the breadth and wealth of opportunities that we present, it begins to appeal to a broad range of audiences. Like a lot of other populations at Booth, women are really receptive to what we have to say in terms of the opportunities that we present. I think we are getting much more engagement because they are beginning to understand more completely what differentiates us from the marketplace and what makes us a special place to go to school.

You have one of the most unique essay questions, where applicants are given a visual illustrations of Booth experiences and told to write about which image resonates with them. Even more, you don’t specify a length to the essay or even a format you can do a PowerPoint to express your views for example. What is the thought process behind this?

We always go through this process every year, where we’re really trying to assess what the essay is ultimately trying to do. For us, it always comes down to a sense of authenticity in the response. We have this phrase at Booth that we really want to teach people how to think not what to think. The essay — with changing the format, using different visuals, changing it into a PowerPoint or opening it up or whatever the case may be — is truly always trying to get back at this sense of how do people think and approach the question and what is the logic that they use to break it down.

People will generally ask me: How do you know if it is successful or not or what stands out as making it successful in a response. It is really hard to show or tell people what a great response is because a great response stands out in the context of the overall application. We’re looking at people’s work history, recommendation, GMAT score, and undergrad record — all these data points. People who are successful in the essay, for us, usually understand that there are gaps that exist in the entire application or things that are missing, so they use the essay and the way the question is framed to fill those gaps in a way that shows that there’s a sense of logic and deeper thinking that is going into the entire application rather than just looking at it as separate tasks.

Here’s another thing we learned from being methodical on how we use the essay to better understand how people think and approach problems (very typical Booth). When we talk to people who go through the essay process with us, they find that the exercise itself, because it is a little atypical, forces as them to really think and reflect and dive deep into what ultimately they want to put on paper. They walk away with a deeper sense of who we are as an institution and the culture that exists here.

Again, everything is about how you approach a problem, make sense of things, and really think through and go about things. It’s not just necessarily going through the motions, but really applying a deeper level of thought and connecting all the dots in a way that — for us an admissions committee — we know this is someone who is showing really sound critical thinking in evaluating a problem at a deeper level. Those are all things that us that there is a sense of fit with Booth.

There is this notion of authenticity in terms of people really understand what the story is that they are trying to tell or what makes them a compelling applicant. The thought process would be, these are the things that are staples within an application, the required elements that pretty much everyone is going to ask for. Then, the nuance and the authenticity comes from the elements of, how do you approach the essay question? What are these things about you that are distinctive and weren’t covered? It has to be relevant to  what is it about a Booth MBA that is going to make sense to you? It is not necessarily people using this space to write why they like Booth. When people understand who we are and what this place reflects and what the culture is all about and really try to put into context what the essay is asking, those elements really come to life in the way that people attack the question. So it’s very hard to point to exactly what that one answer is because it depends on all the other elements of the application come together and this question really completes the narrative.

Next: Who is a fit with Booth and best advice for applicants.

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