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


Symonds: Right. So Jim, if we’ve got a talented individual from Deloitte, one of the big four, someone else from JP Morgan, sand omeone from one of the big tech giants, what you’re trying to uncover is what they’ve done in that period of tenure with the company, right?

Holmen: Sure. One of my favorite students was a successful working actor for seven years before joining us at the Kelley School. The last three years before joining us for the MBA, he was in the cast of “Mamma Mia” on Broadway, singing and dancing eight shows a week. And he decided he wanted to become a banker. But if you look at the Broadway actor, the consultant, the engineer, they were all able to identify accomplishments. They were all able to talk about ways they had an impact. They were all able to demonstrate quantitative skills and academic potential, and they all had future goals where an MBA made sense. And so really, again, it’s not about the brand name of the company, the traditional or non-traditional nature of your experience. You just take whatever you’ve done and figure out how it has prepared you. What will you be able to contribute to your classmates and in the classroom? What are the transferable skills? How have you left your organization a better place? And those are the things that will help you stand out. We certainly like the people from Deloitte, from the premier companies, but we love people with different backgrounds as well.

Symonds: I’d love to have seen the look on the faces of your colleagues when they heard “Abba” coming out of one of the interview rooms.

Simpson: I suspect that some of the banks that interviewed him, interviewed him initially because it’s like, “We’ve got to figure out what this guy is doing.” Because he certainly didn’t have a banker’s resume.

Symonds: So take the actor, take the individual who did psych, or international relations, there’s not a lot of quant on their transcripts. The GMAT can then play a role to demonstrate that they can handle discounted cash flows and some of the core quant material in an MBA program. Sherry, you’ve volunteered to ask the question about the importance of the GMAT, or the GRE in this whole process. Is there a minimum score that you’re looking for?

Hubert: Let me start off by saying that the GMAT is not going to make or break your success in an MBA program. It’s not going to make or break your success in your career or life. And so it is one data point and not the only that we use. At an individual level, it really does help us understand your quantitative aptitude, but it’s really just for that first year, specifically for those first-year core quant courses. At the aggregate level, it is important as well, as we look to craft a class that our averages, our ranges overall are ones in which U.S. prospects feel are necessary and prestigious. There’s some perception of quality that people attach to an aggregate class GMAT average. So we’re looking at the crafting of the class, and what that aggregate overall average is. But at the individual level, it’s more about, “Can this person handle the rigor of the program?” And then at the individual level, there’s lots of different ways to demonstrate your ability to handle the rigor. It’s not just your GMAT score.

So what I tell people is, “You need to prepare. You need to practice. You need to be in the right frame of mind to take it during the test. But after that, if you want to retake it? Excellent. But if not? Move on. And figure out where else you can shore up those gaps or demonstrate your aptitude in a different way.” Some schools take the executive assessment depending on the program type that you’re actually interested in. And at some schools, you can ask to waive it depending on your academic background. So there’s lots of different ways. You can take courses online. You can take Coursera courses. HBS has a great three-course curriculum that you can take to shore up your skills. There are all these courses that you can take to demonstrate your aptitude. You can go to a community college. I went to Temple University and took a statistics course before I started. So there’s all different ways that you can demonstrate your ability to do the work. We recognize that your GPA is what it is. You can’t change that.

And so look at other ways to demonstrate your ability. If you’re a liberal arts major, you’ve got to be resourceful. Figure out how you’re going to shore up that gap and demonstrate to the admissions committee that despite whatever the test score is, or whatever your GPA was, if it’s on the lower end of whatever the ranges are, that you can still do the work and have the rigor that’s needed in the program.

Symonds: That’s a welcome message. But GMAT score averages have increased by 15, 20 points at many of the schools, certainly the schools on this stage. So an applicant looks at those averages and believes they have to get close to them.

Simpson: If you’re preparing now and it’s nice and early, then I’d say, “Work hard. Give it your best shot,” and then this conversation’s redundant. But if it isn’t redundant and you go through and you’ve taken it a couple of times and like, “No, this is me. This is my level.” Then you need to, as Shari said, pick out the other things that show your quantitative ability.

Right now, we’re closing the class. We have a wait list of people, some of whom have fantastic GMATs. But I’m looking, thinking, “What’s missing from the class? What do we need?” It always comes down to who will add the most in the one and a half, two years of the program, and for 40 years to come.

The later admits we’ve made, the GMAT average ended up being lower. Now, I could have artificially inflated it to be higher, to squeeze our average up. Our average is going be the same as it was last year, I’d imagine. Fortunately, I’m not under pressure to push it artificially. I’m under pressure to make sure that 480 people are amazingly well-rounded individuals who can make a difference in whatever field they go into next, and we’re given the freedom to use the different tools to assess that potential. So my advice is to prepare, give it your best shot, and then make sure you complete the story of why, A, you can pass exams, and B, can add value to the school community.

Symonds: At CentreCourt last year, Stanford’s MBA admissions director shared her concern that she doesn’t want applicants put off by the fact that the school has an average nearing 740. She told us,”I don’t want them to not apply to this school because they self-select away when they see our average GMAT score.”

Linderman: Absolutely. So I think we use the word “holistic” a lot, but it’s very true. When I mentioned in our review process that we look at these different competencies in these different categories, that’s why we highlight that, because for every strength, there’s a weakness, and we want you to sell us on your strengths. We know that many times those strengths can overcome something that can’t be changed, like a test score, like an undergraduate GPA. You’ve already graduated. There’s not much you can do about that now.

But there are things you can do in other aspects of your profile. As Shari said, your GMAT score is one data point amongst many. Highlight the others, and show us why we should overlook that other data point. Many times we do, because we really are invested in the person and all the other things that they bring to the table.

Hubert: You had asked about minimums, and there’s usually no minimum, but you have to be realistic. There are ranges, and so I think many schools are starting to share their ranges, not just the average or the median. Know that in an 80% range, that means that there’s other people who are in the top ten and bottom ten percent. There are people who are in the program because we believe they’re bringing something else to the table. They really are unique and will contribute, and have demonstrated that in their application.

They may be the exception. They’re not the majority, but they exist. If you fall into that range, you just have to figure out, “Okay, how am I going to really shore up those areas and demonstrate that despite this one little score, “You need to pick me. I should be that one exception.”

I don’t know that any of us are happy with the rankings and the way that the GMAT is distributed across those and paid attention to, but it is something that you guys pay attention to. So, as long as you pay attention to it, we kind of have to pay attention to it at an aggregate level. That’s why I say there’s an aggregate level that we have in the back of our minds, as an admissions committee, but there’s also this individual level that goes to the heart of crafting a diverse class.

Simpson: Can I just add one point to that? 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.

Symonds: Jim, it’s easy to dilute the importance of a letter of recommendation, but a powerful letter of recommendation can make a world of difference, can’t it?

Holmen: You know, that’s a tough question to answer. We do ask for references and I think in 98% of the cases the reference does just confirm the good things you have already shared about yourself. What’s sometimes interesting to us is who you chose, because sometimes that tells us more than the actual recommendation. There many be a question of judgment there, or the things that stand out, if the recommender is rating everything high but there’s one thing that they rate a little bit different, even though it’s still high, that may make us take a look at that and compare it to our impression of that quality through our interaction with the applicant.

Having a good recommendation is certainly positive. It doesn’t necessarily take someone who is not competitive in other ways and offset a significant weakness in their application. For us it’s probably not one of the more important parts. It’s valuable but not one of the more important parts of our process.

Symonds: Okay. Kristen, you were describing that your team is reading perhaps 50 applications a week, and so you have this experience of knowing what a consultant or an investment manager does as a day job, and that’s reflected in the résumé. So, what is the opportunity in a recommendation? What are the insights and perspectives that you would then love to discover in that part of the letter?

Linderman: Our recommendation, and I know some of my colleagues maybe have the same questions, because there are some common questions that are asked. So, it’s not just a list of day to day responsibilities. It’s highlighting the accomplishment that you had and what you actually did in that accomplishment. A résumé might give us a bullet point of, “Here’s the accomplishment. Here’s the quantifiable results.” Whereas the recommendation letter can expand on that and tell us really, “How did you accomplish that?” What were the steps you had to take? Who did you have to influence along the way and how did you go about doing that?”

Our questions also ask for an area of improvement, or a piece of critical feedback that person may have given to the applicant. I think that’s also very telling in both directions. Sometimes it can be a bit of a red flag and I will say our recommenders are very honest. I would like to agree with you on professional judgment, because there are some recommenders that do no tell us great stories about the applicant or tell us very much. If a person chose the CEO, for example, thinking that was going to make us excited but the CEO only met that person in the elevator, it doesn’t give us that story of what the person has actually done.

Critical feedback can highlight an issue and then say how the applicant has addressed that issue. I think that also helps us and goes a long way in judging that this is someone who realizes that they are humble and they know that they have strengths and weaknesses, and they’re actually trying to work on those weaknesses and make improvements. That also really helps us in the process.

Jim Holmen of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business

Holmen: With that point in mind, a recommendation that has some rich examples is going be more powerful. Don’t make any assumptions that your recommender is going to remember everything about you. You want to start the process with them very early. Give them plenty of time, because that’s one piece of the application process that once you ask them to write it, you’ve lost control and you have to hope that they get it in on time.

My advice is to take them out for a cup of coffee. Share your résumé with them, and maybe have a little discussion to remind them of some of your accomplishments or things that you might hope that they share as examples. You will likely get a more powerful letter that way.

Symonds: Now, if you’ve only joined your recent employer four months ago, it’s delicate to talk about business school plans already. What about the scenario where the recommender says, “You know how busy I am. Why don’t you write the recommendation and I’ll sign it.” Can you tell when applicants have written their own letters of recommendation?

Hubert: Yeah. There’s usually a similar language in their essays, a similar word type. So you really shouldn’t do that. Find the person who’s willing to make the time and if you ask them, “Hey, Do you have the time to write me a positive recommendation?” If they hesitate in the slightest, move on. Give them two to three months ahead of time. Like Jim said, take them to coffee. Let them know all the different things about you, refresh their memory, give them an early deadline, a deadline before the real deadline.

Then, continue to follow up with them. Make it easy, so that they can write it for you, because there’s never an appropriate time for you to write the recommendation for your recommender. If you have to, it means you haven’t chosen the right recommender.

Symonds: You’ve possibly given us the ideal segue for my final question, which was of classic mistakes. David, can you embrace my final question on the classic mistakes that this audience can avoid.

Simpson: Just a final thing on recommendations: Give them the advice not to write too much or too little. Now, I don’t really mind if it’s coming from the Brits. They never write much. One or two lines, that’s fine, but if I get pages I’m like, “Ugh, I’ve got to read all that. That’s not good.” It’s not in your control, but you can advise them. In terms of clangers that you shouldn’t do in your application, don’t leave your markup comments from when someone’s giving you advice. That’s not great. We know that you get advice. You should be asking for advice. You should be asking people to take a look and say, “Hey, does this reflect me? Does this make sense?” They shouldn’t be writing it for you, but when we see markups in terms of suggestions or replacements, it’s going to put us off quite a bit.

Another obvious one is getting the name of the school wrong. We want to know that you care about coming to our school, and you’re giving it the respect that we deserve, and that you deserve as an applicant. Mistakes are a reflection on how hard you’ve thought about and how much you want to come to a school, so don’t make mistakes.

Symonds: Obviously knowing all the lyrics to “Dancing Queen” helps, but, Jim, anything we should avoid? Any of those classic mistakes?

Holmen: Just remember that spell check doesn’t replace careful proofreading. Spell check is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t catch the applicant who I love and ends his essay with, “And that’s why I am so interested in attending the University of Michigan.” It’s like search and replace didn’t work there.

Symonds: And you do see that?

Holmen: Oh, yeah.

Symonds: We joke about it, but you do see that every year?

Holmen: Mm-hmm. Many schools ask a similar question about goals so there’s that tendency to cut and paste and edit, but you’re going to serve yourself well to start from scratch and take a look at the nuances of each school’s question. Make sure you haven’t mentioned other schools in your application to another school.

Symonds: Shari? One classic mistake? Can you limit yourself to one?

Hubert: I feel all the good ones have been taken. But let me point out a mistake not having to do with the application but the process.Be very respectful of everyone that you interact with throughout the process. We definitely have had incidents where we have folks come to campus and they’re perhaps not as respectful of our front desk staff, or other staff members on our teams.

Everyone counts. We’re all human beings. We call this the admissions office. We don’t call this the Deny Office. We’re not gatekeepers, even though it might seem so at times. We want to admit you. We want to help you achieve your goals and aspirations. That’s not just myself and my colleagues here on the panel. It’s every single person from the operations coordinator who reads your applications to the front desk who greets you. Showing a lack of respect to anyone in the process can really impact decisions in the committee if we get wind that you’ve been disrespectful.

Symonds: And that etiquette extends to interviews as well and following up. So, Kristen, this is the last piece of advice for this aunreading your application is, “Do they just not have an example of that trait, so they just decided not to answer it? Or are they, again, not following the directions?” That’s a different red flag. And if I ask you for a one-minute video, please don’t submit a five-minute video. Again, that’s a question of judgment, of why did you choose to not follow the directions that were given. Really, be mindful of what each school is looking for, what each application is asking for. There’s a reason, as I said, why it’s asking what it’s asking, and it’s in your best interests to follow the directions and answer the question, or do what’s asked.

Symonds: We called this the Admissions Director Panel for a reason, and not the Denial Director Panel. I hope that the degree of insight and experience that was shared in the last hour will really help all of you as you put together applications. I’d just like to thank the four of you for such a wonderful and insightful panel. Thank you very much.


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