A Candid Interview With Tuck’s Head Of MBA Admissions

Luke Anthony Peña, executive director of admissions and financial aid for the Tuck School of Business. Tuck photo

Don’t call him a gatekeeper. At Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, Luke Anthony Peña is in charge of admissions, but there’s one title he’d very much like to avoid.

“We know about the stress and anxiety that the term ‘gatekeeper’ can create,” says Peña, whose official title is executive director of admissions and financial aid. “It’s a common term in the admissions lexicon and media coverage of admissions, and yet my colleagues and I think differently in light of the stress and anxiety that so many applicants have going through this process. I sometimes worry that ‘gatekeeper’ conveys to applicants that admissions officers hold all the power in this relationship, and I don’t believe that to be the case. I believe applicants are in charge of their own journeys — applicants hold the power of agency, applicants have control over when they apply, where they apply, how they choose to apply.

“It’s the thinking that when you apply to Tuck, you own how you state your candidacy, but our role is not to judge arbitrarily and authoritatively,” Peña tells Poets&Quants. “It’s to recognize and acknowledge how a candidacy aligns with our criteria. So I think differently about that term because I want applicants to feel like they are in the driver’s seat, and they have control over what they present and our job is merely to recognize greatness when it comes in the applications.”

NICE? TUCKS HAVE LONG DEFIED MBA STEREOTYPES

Peña came to Tuck from Stanford GSB, from which he graduated in 2012 before becoming director of MBA admissions. He served in that capacity for five years until joining Tuck in the summer of 2017. It didn’t take long for Peña to make an impact: just one year into his tenure at Tuck, the school was making headlines with its approach to admissions, particularly the focus on four key attributes linked to the school’s mission of wise leadership and collaboration: Tuck students, the school posits, are “Smart,” a nod to academic achievement and strong test scores; they have “Accomplishments,” to be revealed in resumes; and they have “awareness” and “niceness,” qualities which emerge in essays and interviews

Nice? Tuckies have long defied MBA stereotypes in the nice department. Maybe it was the open interview policy at the school which allowed admissions officers to better evaluate the interpersonal skills of candidates. In one survey after another, applicants have long singled out the school as one of the few that gets to know its candidates best through the application process (see Most Transparent MBA Admissions: Tuck, HBS, Ross & Fuqua). Maybe it was the close-knit bonding that occurs in a highly collaborative culture where MBA students live, work and play together on a residential campus. Maybe it was being located in Hanover, N.H., where students can’t disappear into a big city.

The admissions changes reaffirm the school’s values and branding. They are a key development of Peña’s goal to make Tuck’s application process the most enjoyable and least stressful among top business schools. To that end, the school also reconfigured its essay and short-answer questions, announcing the changes at the end of June: “Tuck students are aware of how their individuality adds to the fabric of Tuck,” reads the first essay prompt. “Tell us who you are and what you will contribute.” And: “Tuck students are nice, and invest generously in one another’s success.  Share an example of how you helped someone else succeed.” Both essays are 500 words. The four short-answer questions, requiring answers of 50 to 75 words, ask applicants about short- and long-term goals, how they developed those goals, and how Tuck can help them achieve those goals. Tuck also announced a set of new reference letter questions.

A B-SCHOOL APPLICATION WITH A HEART

Altogether, the new application could be described as a B-school app with a heart.

“My colleagues and I believe that the admissions criteria are really important markers and signs of what the admissions team is looking for,” Peña says. “We believe that the admissions criteria are reflections of the values and cultural of the school. We looked at our existing criteria and while they were accurate, we felt they didn’t match the spirit of accessibility and transparency that we’re proud of at Tuck, so we started thinking and discussing amongst ourselves, ‘How can we simplify and streamline the criteria in such a way that they are accessible, that they are digestible, that they are transparent, and that they are easy to understand for applicants?’

“We brainstormed with our admissions team, with our students, with our alumni, with our faculty, and we sourced a number of different descriptions for the Tuck community. Then we refined them to come to a few words that are simple in concept but rich in quality. And that’s how we arrived at our four new criteria, which we believe are perfect reflections of what has long defined the Tuck community.”

STEADY AS SHE GOES

Dartmouth Tuck ranked No. 10 in the latest U.S. News & World Report MBA rankings, down from No. 8 the year before. The school also ranked 16th in The Financial Times Global MBA Rankings. Its highest ranking is in the latest Poets&Quants list, where it has been No. 7 for the last two years.

Like most admissions directors, Peña says he doesn’t worry much about rankings. But he acknowledges that they have an undeniable impact on the school’s admissions process — not least in the caliber of applicant.

“I believe that many applicants use rankings to begin their search process, to identify schools that may have a sense of quality that they’re looking for,” Peña says. “I also believe that the discerning applicant will start their search and then quickly begin to form their own ranking. I often advise students that the best way to think about the ordinal arrangement of schools is not to rely on one particular ranking or another particular ranking prepared by somebody else — I encourage applicants to form their own ranking. Rank the schools according to your own preferences, your own criteria, and then prepare accordingly for the application process.”

THIS YEAR’S CLASS PROFILE EXPECTED TO STAY STEADY 

As in the rankings, so too has Tuck remained steady in key metrics. The school’s Class of 2019 (the Class of 2020 profile will be published at the end of August, Peña says) was 44% women, 23% minorities, and 29% international (not counting dual citizens and permanent residents). All those metrics will stay steady for the next class, Peña says. Same goes for GMAT (Class of 2019 average: 722) and GPA (2019: 3.51). Tuck has 293 students in the Class of 2019 and expects 288 in the Class of 2020 — maintaining the school’s “distinct scale,” he says, adding that “the class size this year will return to what we believe is the right size for the Tuck School.”

“Our markers of quality are very consistent from last year,” says Peña, adding that MBA applications are actually up at Tuck, which he considers an encouraging sign in light of the waning popularity of the degree. “You can expect to see similar metrics along the lines of GMAT, GPA, etc. The Class of 2020 will be similarly strong to the previous classes. You should not expect to see great variation in the class profiles.”

Peña recently spoke with Poets&Quants about the changes and the Tuck experience, fleshing out what he thinks ‘nice’ really means and how some applicants have uniquely gotten his attention.

See the next pages for our interview with Luke Anthony Peña, which has been edited for length and readability.