CentreCourt: The MBA Gatekeepers At MIT, London, Duke & Indiana


David Simpson has some solid advice for today’s MBA applicants.

“Don’t sleep walk into business education,” counsels the director of MBA admissions at London Business School. “Even if it’s the well-trodden path at your company or industry, you need to think about why are you doing this and who are you doing this for? And the answers need to be: ‘I’m doing this for my long-term future,’ and, ‘It’s for me and those around me.’

And when it comes to GMAT or GRE scores, Simpson makes this confession. “This year, my favorite incoming student has a 600 GMAT. I told him, ‘I wish you didn’t have a 600, but you’ve still got a great background.’ He’s a medical doctor who wants to stay in healthcare. He will make a big difference in the world. My second favorite has a 780, and does something far more straight-forward and familiar in terms of the banking, consultant and engineering categories. By the way, we need you guys, so don’t think we’re only after diversity.”

Simpson made those remarks at an all-star admissions panel at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in Boston on June 30th. Moderated by Matt Symonds, the co-host of CentreCourt with Poets&Quants, the panel featured the MBA gatekeepers from four highly prominent business schools. Simpson, head of MBA admissions at LBS; Kristen Linderman, associate director of admissions at MIT’s Sloan School of Management; Shari Hubert, associate dean of admissions at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and Jim Holman, the director of admissions and financial aid at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in Boston on June 30th.

Symonds: So as we’ve said, you know, CentreCourt really is about finding out about the right programs for you, but also improving your chances in what can be a very selective admissions process. So, I feel blessed to have such a well-qualified panel sharing this with me. What we want to start with was just a sense of where we are in admissions. We hear these stories about rising application volumes and in the U.S. falling numbers from the international market. Shari, what are you seeing in terms of admissions this year at Duke?

Hubert: For us it’s been strong in terms of our current domestic volume. The international volume has been a little flat, and I think with a lot of the rhetoric and noise that we’ve heard from a political perspective, that is cause for concern from certain countries. So we really worked hard to make sure that we’re sending out communications to our international students across various countries to say, ‘Hey. We’re open, we’re welcoming. These are the resources that we will provide you should you decide to come to study in the U.S.’ Not only is the U.S. still a great place to study, but in particular our school at Fuqua has lots of resources for international students. So I would say it’s a mixed bag, but we’re still very optimistic and are expecting a really strong class coming in. Our orientation starts August 1st and so we are looking forward to welcoming a great group, but we’re still making the class.

Symonds: Shari raises the spectrum of politics, David, which wasn’t usually a discussion with admissions but something’s that has been happening in the U.K. in the last couple of years.

LBS Admissions Director David SImpson

Simpson: With Brexit and any political situation in any country, you think about what you have to do to be a step ahead of that. It’s being able to deal with ambiguity and preparing yourself for what might come next. We’ve seen a stack of things like all of the old schools come through with the global financial crisis and the dot-com boom and bust and so this is another one of those for us. In some ways, I think it’s going to provide some great opportunities. In the U.K., we need highly talented migrants. That’s what business schools do.

Symonds: There is still the reality, of course, that there is a tremendous return on investment when you come out of a leading business school. Certainly, that’s something you see at MIT Sloan.

Lindema: Absolutely. In terms of trends and politics, there’s also a shift in individuals who want to make a difference and get involved in public policy. They see the MBA as a way of getting that return in an integrative way, not just for themselves but for the world at large. There are a lot of opportunities for individuals to take advantage of the MBA and use it in a way that they wouldn’t have thought of previously. Our political situation is really creating that opportunity for more of these non-traditional candidates to utilize the MBA and move it in a completely different direction.

Symonds: Jim, of course, the full-time MBA program is still the flagship for most business schools, but we’re also seeing a shift in offerings toward specialized master’s degrees and the online MBA. That’s something that Kelley can speak to.

Holmen: We do offer a strong online MBA program and a number of master’s programs and interest in those programs has remained strong through all of this. I represent our full-time program and we have seen a slight decline in applications the last two years. However, we have seen stronger than usual yield. So we’re on target this year for surpassing our enrollment goals. Applicants recognize that even in times of political uncertainty, spending two years getting an MBA puts you in a much stronger position regardless of what the political or economic outcome is. The degree makes you well placed for the opportunities that will be there.

Symonds: We want to pull back the curtain and understand the admissions process. So Kristen, can you walk us through a day in the life of a Sloan admissions office?

Linderman: For us at Sloan we do not review any applications until after the deadline has passed. That day after the deadline is an extremely busy day for us. There are many eyes that look at every single application that comes through our application portal. So we start off by reviewing everything and being able to give it out to our admissions committee to read. That committee is made up of only professionally trained admissions committee members. No faculty, no staff, no current students are involved in that process, and they are trained to really look for what makes a strong Sloan applicant. For us, that really falls into two categories. One, we like see demonstrated success. So things like your career progression, your test scores, your academic background, and then also your leadership attributes. We want to assess your ability to work on a team, think outside the box, put forth your ideas and stand your ground, But at the same time we want to make sure you understand how to take others’ perceptions and their backgrounds into consideration.

It takes us about five to six weeks to read through the applications in any given deadline. We meet on a weekly basis to calibrate and often times we will all look at the same applications or several applications and get a sense of what all of us think. After that five- to six-week period when all of the reading files come back to us, we then meet as a smaller committee to make our interview decisions. Looking at what the readers have recommended, do we agree? What is our interview capacity? Usually we’re going over that capacity and adding in extra slots because there are really so many of you that are so strong that we’re willing to add some extra time to meet with you.

And then we invite you to an interview. Usually it is an in-person interview. We travel to about 15 hub cities. We try to invite a candidate to the city that is nearest to where we happen to be and give you at least one week’s notice. Again, we interview using professional admissions committee members. So, you’re meeting with a member of our trained staff, having a behavioral interview, looking at the same kind of competencies that I mentioned before. And then again, a leadership admissions committee meeting follows that interview period where we look through what the interviewers have had to say, what did the reader have to say and start to make those final decisions.

Symonds: How many applications might an admissions committee member read every day?

Linderman: Each member would read at least 50 applications in any given week.

Symonds: Right. And do you do it thematically looking at everyone in investment banking, or consulting or tech? Or is it an eclectic mix of candidates?

Linderman: It is an eclectic mix. They’re pretty randomly assigned. I would say mostly the only factor that comes into play for us would be our interview travel schedule. So, if we have a city that we’re having to have some other reason to travel to earlier on in the process, we might look at everyone who is chosen in that interview city. We try to look at all of those interview decisions together. So, most of the reading is done by the time we make an interview decision on a candidate, but that might be a prioritization for us.


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