The white supremacist protest in Charlottesville last year severely impacted MBA applications to the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the incoming Class of 2020.
Despite a 16.7% drop in application volume, Darden posted a record average GMAT score for its new crop of MBA students—718—five points higher than the previous record holders in the Class of 2019. The class also includes both a record number of company founders and a record 27 students pursuing dual degrees. The average undergraduate grade point average remained steady at 3.5.
That is quite an achievement for the school’s admissions team, headed by Dawna Clarke, the former admissions director at Dartmouth Tuck who arrived in mid-October, just weeks after the protest and round one deadline. The highly publicized protest in Charlottesville scared off many applicants, particularly from abroad, causing round one applications to fall by 27%.
‘WE TOOK A BIG HIT IN ROUND ONE’ IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE CHARLOTTESVILLE PROTEST
“We took a big hit in round one due to the events that transpired in Charlottesville last August,” notes Clarke. “We ended up being down 16.7%, and I was thrilled with the progress we made during the course of the admissions cycle.”
What’s more, the 335 incoming students are a highly diverse group, with 38% women, 29% international students hailing from 36 countries and 18% domestic minority students. The mix is not all that different than the previous year’s 336-strong class, with 39% women, 34% international from 36 nations, and 20% minority. The school also noted that 6% of the incoming class served in the military, including a Purple Heart, multiple Bronze Stars and recipient of the Global War on Terrorism medal, with 17 students still on active duty.
Most highly ranked business schools have been reporting lower numbers of internationals largely due to concerns over work visas and anti-immigration political rhetoric. Wharton recently reported that applications to its full-time MBA program fell by 6.7% (see At Wharton, Apps Dip But GMATs Climb).
HOW DARDEN OVERCAME THE APPLICATION DOWNTURN
Darden overcame the Charlottesville downturn by launching a series of initiatives, including more scholarship money, expanded open houses for prospective students, a competition among current students to use their personal network to recruit more applicants, greater use of webinars for candidates, and a dean who personally called admits to reel them in.
“I’ve worked for nine business school deans, and I’ve never seen any Dean make so many congratulatory calls to admitted students,” says Clarke of Dean Scott Beardsley. “The admitted students loved it!”
No less crucial, however, Beardsley had led a 717% increase in philanthropy for scholarships at Darden in the past three years. The Class of 2020 will be the first to take advantage of the Batten Foundation Darden Worldwide Scholarships, which will enable each student to have a global learning experience at no additional cost. That change is due to a generous $30 million gift Beardsley landed last year. “These scholarships are so valuable in us attracting and yielding talented students,” added Clarke.
‘TACKLING THIS CHALLENGE WAS EXTREMELY MOTIVATING FOR US’
For Clarke, executive director of admissions and financial aid, the first year was something of a whirlwind (see A Familiar Face Returns to Darden). Within 10 days of her Oct. 15th start date, she had one of four day-long planning retreats at her home intended to identify opportunities to tackle the headwinds caused by the August events. “For many of us,” Clarke says, “there was a strong social justice component in tackling this challenge that was extremely motivating for us. We collectively came up with several new initiatives.”
Among them were expanded Darden Showcase Saturdays to allow prospective students to visit Darden on selected Saturdays/holidays with a day of programming that highlights Charlottesville, a case class with a faculty member and interaction with current students and members of the admissions committee.
Admissions also launched “How’s Your Three,” a campaign and competition that enabled current students to identify prospective students they knew through their own networks. The school launched “eight webinars in eight day” campaigns and sent electronic admissions newslettesr to some 278,000 prospective students monthly.
THE DEAN’S PERSONAL CALLING CAMPAIGN TO ADMITS
Admitted Students Weekends had an increased emphasis on showcasing Charlottesville and the overall university in addition to Darden. “Our Dean and his wife hosted receptions in their Pavilion on the UVa lawn and we had events in the Rotunda,” says Clarke. “We communicated frequently with the Darden community about ways they could help us.”
Dean Beardsley, the former McKinsey & Co. senior partner who became dean in August of 2015, also personally did a calling program for admitted students.
“We wouldn’t have achieved these results if it weren’t for our Dean’s commitment to Darden becoming the most affordable top business school,” adds Clarke. “He and our development team have achieved a 717% increase in philanthropy for scholarships at Darden. Scott comes from a family of educators and talks passionately about education being the great equalizer in our society and the transformational power of a Darden MBA. These resources enabled us to attract and yield an incredibly talented class.”