The MBA Summit: Straight Talk From Ross, Tuck & Haas Adcoms

The MBA Summit 2019: Soojin Kwon, managing director of full-time MBA admissions and program at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business (left), Luke Pena, executive director of admissions & financial aid at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, and Morgan Bernstein, executive director of MBA admissions at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business

Byrne: It’s also possible to come off as too scripted, too rehearsed, which is a real turnoff. Right?

Kwon: Yes.

Byrne: Let me ask you about how you evaluate work experience. The best MBA programs generally look for three to five years of work experience. Is there a kind of work experience that you’re really looking for when you assess a candidate?

Kwon: if you looked at the backgrounds of the students who are in our programs you would be astounded by the range and the diversity of what students have done. All of us probably have former professional athletes, musicians, teachers, Peace Corps volunteers, you name it, in our classes. It’s not just business backgrounds.

So it’s less about what kind of work you did but what did you learn, what skills will you bring, how well did you do in what you were doing in your prior life, how will you help the learning of your classmates by virtue of what you’ve done. There is no standard background that we’re looking for and we love reading about the diversity of backgrounds.

Pena: You just see an incredible range of experiences and backgrounds. That’s one of the reasons why I love working with the MBA program so much. You meet people who aspire to lead all across different industries.

I think that’s fundamental. Leadership is a concept that is necessary and applicable to every single effort in every single discipline. We do care about the outcomes. We care about what you as a candidate have achieved and yet I would venture to say we care even more about the behaviors that led to those outcomes.

So it’s not enough to have been successful within the context of your work. You also need to have earned those results in the right way and shown the kind of behaviors that suggest that you will continue to be successful and build on the potential that you show. Because you don’t transfer your outcomes to business school, but you transfer your behaviors and those are what predict whether you will continue to be successful.

Bernstein: These are all excellent points about what we in admissions are looking for in terms of diverse backgrounds and industries. As you think about what your path is going to look like post MBA, employers are looking to build out a diverse staff.

Byrne: Speaking of diversity or the lack of it, there are candidates who unfortunately are clearly over-represented in MBA applicant pools. The most classic case is a software trained engineer in India. If you’re in that pool, how can you stand out? 

Kwon: As long as you’re telling your story, no two people are going to have had the same experience. Even if you’re in the same firm, you’ve worked on the same project, even if you’ve had the same roles, your impact is likely to be different. What you’ve learned about yourself is likely to be different, what you want to do is likely to be different.

Everyone has a unique story. The danger comes in trying to look like the quintessential MBA applicant. It’s really not about that, it’s telling your unique story. If you give your story to someone else to read can they identify it as uniquely you or does it sound like everybody else?

So getting that kind of litmus test is also a way that applicants can differentiate themselves.

Bernstein: Another really important component is trying to make that human connection. If we get back to this analogy that choosing a business school is like dating, a lot of what allows for that relationship to blossom is making that human connection and feeling like you really see that person.

Now, I acknowledge that it’s difficult to make a human connection via an application. But I think one of the things that I always encourage applicants to do is to recognize that there is a real live human being on the other side of that application who’s reading it.

It’s not like you’re just submitting it into a computer that’s going to scan and score it. We’re real people, we have a staff of real people and that is what we’re trying to do in that process is to connect.

There are multiple people who are going to be reading the application. And the reason for that is that we recognize that we’re all coming in with potentially different biases or different perceptions or different ways of establishing a connection. So when you have multiple people evaluating applications, it increases the opportunity for candidates to stand out.

Byrne: Aren’t there other attributes that often allow someone in an oversubscribed pool to stand out? Let’s take the engineer who plays the cello in an orchestra or the investment banker who is a ballet dancer. That should make a candidate stand out against the engineer who is a member of the software club. 

Pena: It can be compelling but I worry that sometimes we encourage people to go out and pad a resume with things that may not be their true interests—just to look interesting and eclectic. The best way to stand out is not to try, which sounds paradoxical and counterintuitive but it has shades of what Soojin was saying a moment ago. You have to be comfortable with saying this is who I am, and these are my strengths, and these are the areas I have to grow.

I think we might all agree after reading tens of thousands of applications over the years you can tell when somebody is really trying hard to impress and putting up a façade. That’s not a compelling candidate, because that’s not what makes for a successful business school experience.

You’re not going to business school to show off for all of your classmates or at least you shouldn’t be. You’re going to learn and to grow. So you have to be willing to share those things. So I know when I read an application the candidates that stand out the most are the ones where I’ll finish an application and say, ‘I really know who this person is.’

The ones that I struggle with the most are the ones where I read the whole application and I say, ‘I have no better idea who this person is than when I started. None at all.’ So it matters less what are the interesting neat things on the resume and what can you convey, through yourself.

The guidance I often give candidates when they’re putting together applications, particularly the essays, is to give it to people who have a sense of who you are and ask the question, ‘Is this me?’ Not, ’Is this a good business school essay or is this a good MBA application,’ but does it capture the essence of me. If the answer is no you still have work to do. If the answer is yes, you’ve done good work.

Bernstein: I do think that sometimes candidates feel the pressure to come in and put out that laundry list of activities to pad their resume with things. But we noticed. ‘Oh, look, they just started this a year ago’ or ‘this was just something that was started this past summer right after they took the GMAT.’

I think in terms of engagement we’re looking for more sustained activities over a longer period of time. But I also want to add that we recognize that perhaps not everybody had access to the same opportunities To dive into these extracurriculars. Maybe they had family commitments or financial constraints and so we want to take that into account as well. The other thing that I would add that you were just mentioning Luke is that I think that often times when candidates approach the application they look at it as one component at a time.

Let me do my resume. Let me do my essays. Let me fill out the application form. And I think really those are the applications that tend to fall flat.I think the critical thing that some candidates miss is looking at it collectively. Thinking of each of those components as one piece of this pie and taking a step back and saying, ‘Alright, how is what I’ve outlined on my resume reiterated or confirmed in my essay. And how do some of the attributes my recommender will call out surface in my application?’

That way, there are some consistencies and there’s overlap. Because we’re not going to be able to remember 20 different things about every single candidate. Maybe we’ll remember two or three at most. So it can be helpful to figure out what are those two or three things that you want the admissions officers to remember and making sure that they’re repeated throughout your application.

Byrne: Connecting the dots.

Bernstein: Exactly.

Byrne: When the dots don’t connect, it raises questions. What are the red flags that you find in an application?

Kwon: A lot of applicants focus on the outlines of who they are. Hitting the right score, being in the range of the GPA, having their average years of work experience. Things that we’d see on a spreadsheet. We’re really more interested in what’s on the inside that comes through in the recommendation letters, in your essays, and then in the interview. What will you bring to the table? What do you know about yourself? I know we’re repeating this quite often but I really hope that applicants take away that it’s not just about the scores, the quantitative stuff.