Admissions Q&A: Chicago Booth’s Kurt Ahlm

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University of Chicago, Booth School of Business

What are some new developments in the full-time MBA program, such as extracurriculars, classes, services, etc.? What will be the benefits for students?

At a high level, Booth is always in a perpetual state of some change. As far as new initiatives and classes, over the past year, we’ve been in an interim state. Since Sunil (Former Dean Sunil Kumar) left and the interim dean stepped in, we have been keep some major initiatives going. We officially launched the Hong Kong Center that will be opening in another year. That has been a big priority in terms of keeping the momentum going. To provide some context, our Asian executive program is located there. The University of Chicago is going to be using that campus as well, so there should be a lot of development happening within Asia, specifically leveraging the campus in Hong Kong to then strengthen our presence there.

Our Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation took on some additional funding from Michael Polsky to expand its reach to incorporate the University of Chicago, which is another initiative that has been evolving. These things came into motion a year ago and have been advancing pretty aggressively.

The scope in terms of programming, especially pertaining to entrepreneurship is broadening pretty extensively both at Booth and the university. As far as course offerings, we’re always in the process of adapting our curriculum. We have a strong commitment to a lot of the disciplined courses. We’ve added some new labs and things like that. The curriculum is in a process now where we’re going through our annual assessment process, so curriculum will start to be rolled out in the next couple of weeks.

Almost every year, retroactively when students come back, there is always that sense that Booth is in a perpetual state of motion; that’s in terms of constantly re-assessing where we are at and where we’re going. The program is in a steady state of evolution. By and large, people might see that we are evolving globally, in terms of commitments being put into social enterprise, such as our Social Enterprise Initiative that is a few years old and continues to evolve. There is a lot more programming; we’ve put a lot into our Board Fellows program, which is helping students proactively get on boards of nonprofits. We have initiatives at Polsky, such as the New Venture Challenge, a competition for new business ideas.

We’ve also been doing a lot with the City of Chicago with different incubator spaces. I think a lot of people who are coming back are beginning to see the broadening and the breadth of the relationship between the University of Chicago and Booth. This partnership has reach into entrepreneurship and global endeavors. I think people are beginning to understand the mission and the reach of Booth goes far beyond Chicago and they’re seeing an aggressive expansion and a broadening of our reputation in a lot of different areas.

As I said, this place is in a steady state of change. People are seeing that we are constantly trying to progress and evolve with the needs of the market and our students.

In the past, you’ve talked about the importance of “fit” with the school culture. How would you define fit? What traits and experiences make up the DNA of a student who would thrive at Booth?

A Chicago Booth Classroom

I would break it down into three areas.

First and foremost, this is a place that really values a real commitment to that innate sense of curiosity. A lot of people talk about curiosity as a common buzz phrase. We look for people who are forever students of life; 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. This is a place that really values people who are curious and constantly trying to make connections and ask those deeper questions.

Another thing that is really compelling about our students — and this is also descriptive of staff and everyone I’ve had interactions with — is that there is this courage that people have. They are inspired to take risks, share their opinions, throw ideas and concepts out there, and express what’s on their minds. You can be a deeper thinker and highly curious, but you also have to have the courage to put all that out there. We talk a lot about part of what makes Booth unique is that it is a place where ideas compete and people collaborate. To make that happen, you need to have that courage to take some risks and really share what’s on their mind.

I also think that plays into the fact that people here create their own path and define their own impact. They can look at a whole range of opportunities for making choices and creating experiences that are unique to them. It takes a type of mindset to really embrace and follow that.

The final thing is, at the core, this is a place that is ultimately supportive. You’re not going to take risks or share opinions unless you feel supported in that process. As an institution, your ultimate hope is that we all help each other rise and do things that will allow people to achieve their goals and allows us to grow stronger because we’re supporting people in their learning process and commitment to finding their impact.

What is the best piece of advice that you could give to an applicant with his or her heart set on Booth?

It would be taking the time to affirm that interest. Get to know us. We’ve invested a lot in terms of making our community accessible to prospective students. Many times, you can read and investigate a lot of different channels. You can interpret fit in a lot of different ways. Ultimately, it comes down to your own experience with the community first-hand, whether that’s connecting with alumni and current students personally, virtually, or coming to campus. The more you have opportunities to really engage and truly affirm that sense of interest and fit for yourself, the more compelling it becomes. It’s really critical for people to take the time and experience it first-hand as best as you can. I know that for people across the globe, it can be challenging. Again, we have a global presence. We have lots of opportunities to engage and connect with this community. For us, the more you can experience it and engage with it, the better it is in terms of making that ultimate decision.

It is one thing to do the academic piece of applying to business school — which is checking out the website, reading Poets&Quants, and doing a lot of investigation — the more you can engage and internalize, reflect, and ask some deeper questions about if this is the right place for you. You have to think of it as, this isn’t just a two year commitment. Ultimately, we’re not admitting someone to an MBA program per se. We’re admitting them into what we like to think of as a life-long community that will be supporting you through various stages of your career and your life. This is a big step. We want people to understand: Is this the type of community that they feel is going to be a great place for them? When you’re talking with adcoms, alumni, and anyone associated with them, those are natural questions that come up on both ends. What do you know? What do you like about them? What are you trying to do? Why does this place feel like it is the best possible MBA program for you? Again, it’s not just a short-term, but the long-term. They only really get a real deep sense of that by fully engaging. That’s why it is so important to take time and invest beyond simply learning the academic components of “Why Booth.”

Next: Booth stereotypes debunked and the benefits of studying and working in Chicago.

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