Admissions Q&A: Chicago Booth’s Kurt Ahlm

kurt ahlm booth

Booth students cutting loose

Every business school comes with stereotypes. Tell me about what you hear as the worst stereotypes about Booth and tell us how you would dispel such impressions?

I don’t think we have bad stereotypes. We have a great reputation for finance. There’s good reason for that. We have a rich history in terms of defining marketplaces, organizations, and institutions around the world. We’re very proud of that.

One of the things I like to re-focus people on is that, ultimately, Booth is a place that really wants to make sure that students are looking for an opportunity to fully engage in their education. Sometimes, I think we get overshadowed by people thinking we are one thing and not something else. There is this notion that a lot of schools talk about flexibility and choice. Booth has always been at the forefront of really defining an experience that any student can take full advantage of and create their own experience and curriculum based on everything they want to achieve. Many times, that’s not what people understand about Booth. We really try to do a good job of articulating to people that you can really do what you want. You don’t have to take classes that you’ve taken in the past and go down very different avenues of learning. If you want to dive deep into finance, you can do that. If you want a general management or entrepreneurship approach, you can do that. The breadth beyond finance is vast and I think a lot of people don’t necessarily understand that.

The other thing that sometimes comes up a lot is that Booth is highly quantitative. Again, I wouldn’t say that is a bad stereotype. 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. That’s not given full context. 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. We’re really a place that focuses on giving students tools and abilities to become very good critical and analytical thinkers. Again, this is something I think is highly, highly critical to being successful not just in short term but in the long-term.

As both of these elements come together and students understand them more specifically, I think students understand that Booth sets people up to really be agile throughout their career; They address the core competencies they wanted and create experiences that set them up well and also have the right critical thinking tools to adapt as markets and organizations adapt.

The last thing that comes up quite a bit is that we’re one of the few schools that don’t have a traditional cohort model. Sometimes, I think there is this conflict when a school gives its students a lot of ability to set their own course and has respect for every individual to create their path and define their own impact.  Sometimes, it is very hard for people to reconcile when you think about, where does community come from? Without a cohort system, are you really individualistic in your approach?

kurt ahlm booth

Kurt Ahlm, Associate Dean, Chicago Booth Admissions

One thing that is often misunderstood is students here respect the fact that everyone is defining their own path, have a lot of flexibility in the curriculum, and can change courses every quarter. 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; people are able to foster and create relationships that are incredibly powerful and meaningful to them and not necessarily prescribed. That connection is very important for people to understand, especially with this misunderstanding on how community is shaped and formed here at a school that has great respect for the individual,. Because of the way we’re set up, we have an incredibly tight-knit and supportive community of alumni, students and everyone else.

Let’s talk about your Chicago location. What does the second city offer, in terms of career development and entertainment that makes it a great place to live for two years?

You’re talking to a native Chicagoan. I think Chicago is an amazing city. It has a lot of access to industry. It ranks second to New York in terms of global headquarters being established here. We have a great base for entrepreneurship, which is growing. The tax base is growing. We are uniquely positioned with a lot of incubators that exist in the city. We have the evolution of the Polsky Center. We’re doing more with Hyde Park and, again, with the broader city around entrepreneurial endeavors. The university is situated here in Hyde Park, with the Polsky Center being a southern anchor to the city. There are just a lot of things going on and Hyde Park, which is developing rapidly along with the University of Chicago. We also have what’s called the Chicago Innovation Exchange, which is an incubator that was started a few years ago that’s affiliated with the University of Chicago, that Polsky is working with now to really make Hyde Park and the University of Chicago a very central place for entrepreneurship within the City of Chicago.

The relationship that this school has with the broader community (and obviously being part of the city) creates a very vibrant and dynamic place to go to school. There’s just a lot happening and a lot you can get involved with. Our community initiatives that we have in place, such as our board fellow which is run by our social enterprise initiative, are also important. So we also do a lot to engage along with the university in community endeavors, all while being an integral part of what’s happening in the south side of Chicago (and the broader city itself).

We’ve got great restaurants and sports. The other thing that ‘s often underappreciated is that we have two international airports that connect with anywhere in the world. Students really take advantage of the fact that they have such great access. It’s a global city that’s incredibly diverse. It’s a city of neighborhoods, so it’s really appealing to people from all over the globe. It’s affordable, which is another thing people think about with their MBA experience. It’s also a very user-friendly city. The public transportation is great. It has great access to outdoor activities at the lake. Everything you can imagine is happening here. It’s a great backdrop for what your experience will be like as an MBA. You really do have literally everything at your back door here.

You’ve just closed out the latest admissions cycle. Tell us a little about the Class of 2019.

I will say that we are still closing out the second round with a round to go. I can say my impression of the class is that the quality is high. We continue to see good indicators in quality, not just in terms of GPA and GMAT but the representations of roles and organizations that people are coming from along with the breadth and the depth of the talent of the pool. Global representation is also something that we are looking at; we have some very good representation around the globe.

Anecdotally, it is not necessarily surprising that we continue to see a lot of diversity within the roles that people are coming from to where they want to go. From media and entertainment to social enterprise to traditional consulting and investment banking to bringing in people who are really entrepreneurial or have ideas for really setting down their own path, the breadth and diversity is really good. We continue to really attract top people from around the world and Booth is becoming more of destination in terms of doing their MBA.

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