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: What are your red flags? Luke?

Pena: I’m always cautious about this question. I think of the psychology of the application. You think about a top trained musician and that musician doesn’t sit down to play a performance in Carnegie Hall or wherever and think about all the mistakes she or he might make. An athlete doesn’t get ready to go take the court and wonder if he or she is going to miss this shot. So I think about the psychology of approaching this with positivity. I sometimes worry that if we talk about what not to do, then we’re putting our applicants in the mindset of well I’ve got to watch out for all these landmines. If I step here, there goes my application.

I’m dodging the question a little bit but I acknowledge that I want all of our applicants to approach the application with lots of confidence. 

Byrne: No, that’s fair.

Bernstein: I’ll give you a red flag. But I’ll reframe it as perhaps a tip. I’m just thinking about what are some of the common things that surface and this is a very specific one but I think a very real one: self-awareness in candidates. 

I think one of the areas where sometimes we see the self-awareness or judgment comes into question may be, for example, when a candidate says something like, ‘If the admissions committee feels this is important for me to do, please let me know and I will go do it.’

I think candidates are concerned about showing quantitative readiness, achieving a certain GMAT score or quant sub-score and then write in an optional essay that if the admissions committee feels that I should retake the GMAT, please let me know and I will do it.

We would hope that a candidate would have the self-awareness to know after  some research and reflection to say, ‘Hmm, maybe I’m not quite at the level where I need to be to be my most competitive or to put my best foot forward and I should go and do this on my own.’ I don’t think we would necessarily discard that application into the deny pile. But it would give us pause in terms of judgment and self-awareness. 

Byrne: So here’s a question you’ve heard over and over again, but many are obsessed with it: Does it matter if I take the GMAT or the GRE?  

Kwon: No. I think most schools these days accept both and they’re not looked at any differently. The advice I would give candidates is to take practice tests of both to see which one feels more comfortable for you and then focus on studying for that one. Don’t waste hours and hours of your time studying for the GMAT if you feel like I’m just not increasing my score when I do these practice tests. Try the GRE, it’s okay.

Pena: Yeah, take the one in which you can do better. Give yourself the best chance to showcase your ability, your aptitude, your preparation, all of these things. All of the schools now get enough of both of the exams so we don’t have to use the comparative tools. That means we know what good performance on the GMAT looks like, and we know what good performance on the GRE looks like. So take the one where you feel best prepared to succeed.

Bernstein: I would just reiterate what both Soojin and Luke have said which is whether or not one perceives one to be easier or hard, they’re both perfectly legitimate for applying to business school. Do whichever one you think is going to allow you to perform the best and then move on. There are so many other elements of the application and I think we focus so much on the test scores that I would just encourage people to get that out of the way to focus on everything else.

Byrne: Like letters of recommendation. Having read some of them, I’m often surprised at how honest some recommenders can be in a way that is hurtful to the candidate they’re recommending. Do you see that as well?

Pena: We see all manners of reference letters. I usually tell candidates you’ve got to select a recommender based on three criteria. Do they have knowledge of your work? Do they have the desire to advocate for you? And thirdly, do they have the time to be able to write a good endorsement?

Knowledge, I think, is self-explanatory. They have to know what you’ve done, how you’ve accomplished it and be able to provide that detail. They have to want to advocate for you. This sounds obvious and yet I’ve talked with candidates who have over thought this and said maybe I’ll select somebody who actually doesn’t really like me that much or we don’t have a good relationship and want to be bold. No, don’t do that.

Kwan: It is a bold choice. A bold bad choice.

Pena: You want somebody who’s in your corner. But those first two things don’t matter if the recommender is not going to be able to dedicate the time to really articulate why he or she is enthusiastic about. So, those three things really are critical to be able to get a good reference and a good recommendation. 

Byrne: A good recommendation comes from someone who knows you well, not someone who is famous or well-known or even an alum of the school, right?

Pena: Well we care a lot at the Tuck School about our community and we care what the community has to say about applicants. So when we hear endorsements from alumni, students, or faculty, we do pay particular attention to that and I acknowledge that. Yet it also reframes our expectations for what we hope to see from the candidate. So if you have somebody from the community who is willing to advocate for you, to put their reputation on the line, we’re going to expect you to live up to what may, in fact, be a higher standard. 

So you have to think very carefully as a candidate about the fact that yes the Tuck School will pay particularly close attention to community references.

Byrne: Soojin, would you say knowing the candidate really well would generally trump whether or not you have a relationship with the school?

Kwon: Absolutely, because we’re looking for insight into how you interact with others in a professional setting. That’s going to give us an idea of how you’ll interact with your teammates in business school and how you might interact when you go out into the world again. So, an alum may know you on a personal basis but this is a professional school that you’re going to go to.

Byrne: Morgan, can you give me an example of a recommendation letter that surprised you recently.

Bernstein: Sometimes candidates may ask recommenders who haven’t perhaps fulfilled the desire component of it. So, this past cycle there’s always a few where the recommender actually does not recommend the candidate for business school.

Byrne: Ouch.

Bernstein: And may flat out state something that they don’t approve or believe in business school or don’t believe that this person should pursue an MBA. It’s unfortunate that happens and ultimately gets submitted to the admissions committee. Again it calls into question the self-awareness and judgment of the candidate.

All of that can be avoided if the candidate does his or her homework upfront and prepares their recommenders. You need to sit down and go through a recent performance evaluation, talk about business school, why they want to go, give that recommender insight into what specifically they want to do.

I think if at some point you’re going through that process and you get an inkling that your recommender is not quite on board with this, it’s okay to step back and say thanks but no thanks and look for someone else. Because I think although many of us would prefer recommendations from current supervisors, I think it’s more important to have somebody who has the time and the desire to write a recommendation that’s going to support your application.

Pena: I agree with Morgan. A good recommendation is a natural extension of a relationship that’s already been built. So if you already have a strong relationship with that supervisor or with whoever the advocate is, I think it’s naturally easy to then have the conversation about why this path. If you haven’t invested in those relationships, then these are much more awkward stilted conversations.

So I encourage candidates to start investing in these relationships now before you apply to business school. Don’t wait until the last minute. Don’t wait to ask until you’re just getting ready to submit, but start investing in the relationships that will build you this network of advocates as early as you possibly can.

Kwon: A delicate way to ask if you don’t want to get a negative answer is, ’do you have the time to write a recommendation letter.’ It’s not saying would you write me a good one or will you write one. It’s hard to put someone in the position of saying no I don’t want to write you one. But if it’s around time, that’s a less awkward way to say no.

Byrne: That’s true. If I’m inclined not to recommend or to point out something that’s negative about a candidate, that’s an easy way out. We have some good questions here from our live stream audience. So let me get to them. Here’s the first one. What is one trait you look for during the interview?

Kwon: We know that candidates are going to be nervous oftentimes and they’re going to feel like they have to have certain answers prepped and so their answers can be a little bit canned. What we hope to find is that they feel like it’s a conversation where we’re getting to know each other. Again, I’ll bring up the dating analogy. We want to a sense for what this person is like and how might do in a job interview for an internship, for example. So we hope that we’re getting the real them as opposed to the over-rehearsed, over-polished, canned them.