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

Byrne: I would have thought you look for a professional presence.

Kwon: That’s not one of the first things that came to mind.

Byrne: What’s the first thing that came to your mind?

Bernstein: The first thing that came to my mind was demonstrating curiosity. That sort of gets back to self-awareness and I realize this is a common phrase here today. But I think curiosity about how they approach their world, how they approached their community, their job. Candidates are coming into business school with a certain level of achievement and experience. But we’re also looking to see demonstrated curiosity in terms of recognizing that they still have so much more to learn and that they’re going be proactive about that.

The second thing is a question that many of our schools have actually removed from the essays: Why Ross, why Tuck or why Haas? We felt like we were getting rehearsed answers. And let’s be honest, it was taking up valuable essay space in terms of word count. I think many of us, at least Haas, ask that question in our interviews. Because if you make it to the interview stage, we’re looking for you to demonstrate a little bit of knowledge and curiosity about our program. What you hope to get out of it and what you’re going to contribute. So I would say the interview is a great opportunity for that.

Byrne: Luke, any specific advice for a re-applicant? That’s another question from the audience.

Pena: Many schools will either directly or indirectly give encouragement and advice to how you might strengthen an application in a future year. If you’re applying to a school that gives that feedback, listen and pay attention to it and follow it. We’ve invested the time to be able to share that feedback with you, and we want to see you act upon it. So that’s a big component of it, and then also reflection.

Thinking back on where did I show my areas for strength, where did I show my areas for growth, what are the ways that I can sharpen this and tell the story of who I am and why the school is a right match for me. That reflection can go a long way and that includes both individual reflection and also getting that core group around you of family, friends, mentors, whoever it may be to help guide you on how you might better tell the story of who you are and what you will bring and contribute to the community.

Byrne: Shouldn’t you have something new to say about yourself when you reapply? Perhaps it’s a promotion or a new assignment?

Kwon: I would imagine if a year has passed since you’ve applied, something new has happened in your life. You’ve had a new project, it doesn’t have to have been a promotion, you might have a new test score, you might be involved in a new activity, or find a new passion. So we do require one piece of new information in the form of a letter. Tell us what’s happened in the last year and why you’re still interested.

Byrne: We’ve received a lot of questions from non-traditional MBA applicants who wonder how they can strengthen their application and make it competitive with people who have real business know-how and experience. Morgan, what do you say?

Bernstein: I think that this gets back to one of the earlier questions about work experience and what is the preferred work experience coming into an MBA. I think that the message that we all deliver loud and clear is that there really isn’t a difference at this point between traditional and non-traditional candidates in terms of how we’re evaluating people and what we’re looking for.

So, this is one of those trigger words for me because at this point there really is no traditional or non-traditional applicant. Though they may sometimes feel the need to artificially craft their application into a way that is more business-like, the downside is that the application comes across flat. You don’t really feel like you get to know the person because they were writing about something that wasn’t true to who they were and their experiences.

So, my advice would be don’t try and put a square peg into a round hole. Just be you. Showcase your best experience: professional, personal, and extracurricular, focusing on you, not the person sitting next to you or the person across the room from you.

Pena: That’s good stuff. I just want to make one point that I think sometimes gets lost in all this. Outcomes do matter. Results do matter. They matter on the test scores, which is why we ask for them.

Yes, we take all these things into context but we would not ask applicants to take these exams if we didn’t care how they did on them. That applies to professional experience as well. This is where the lines have completely been broken down between traditional and non-traditional candidates. We want to see that you’ve done well in any field and that you’ve had the behaviors underneath that drive the outcomes you’ve achieved.

The other thing that I’ll add is we want to see how you’ll contribute your experience. It’s fine to come from some kind of work that may be less represented if you understand how that adds value to the community and you are willing and eager to contribute that experience and that perspective.

Bernstein: You were talking about outcomes and it just got me thinking about the actual outcomes of some of our non-traditional students. As I reflect on the graduating class right now, some of the most successful students in their job search process have been ones who may have considered themselves non-traditional. In the pool of graduates going into consulting or going to work for some of the top tech firms  are the students who came from teaching or social impact or a non-profit, roles where perhaps they didn’t have that opportunity to have demonstrated quant strength coming into business school, but had the curiosity, and the patience, and the resilience and are now seeing some very successful outcomes.

Byrne: If you are an applicant who’s wanting to leverage the MBA for career change, which let’s face it is probably the majority of MBAs, do you evaluate that person differently in the application process than you would someone who wants to stay in his or her own industry?

Kwon: Differently, no. We look at everybody the same. We want to know that you have thought about what you want the MBA for, that you have an idea of what you want to do, and how you will go about pursuing that because recruiting starts really fast. Students come to campus and within two weeks recruiters are on campus, and you’re having to develop your stories and practice your interviews. So, you have to come in with a pretty good idea of what you want to do.

Byrne: But let’s face it, career goals are evaluated in admissions. If you want to get a job in private equity and you have no experience in finance, the MBA isn’t going to help you get that job. So you might be more skeptical of a candidate who expresses a goal that doesn’t line up to their past.

Pena: Yes, we look for awareness. To us awareness is a balance of ambition and reality. So we want candidates to be ambitious, we want candidates not to come to the MBA just to do the exact same thing that they were doing before at the same level, in the same role.

I had a mentor who used to tell me nobody changes the world through low ambition. So we do want people who aspire to great things. Yet what needs to come with that is a sense of reality. What does the realistic path actually look like? If you are looking for an enormous jump in your career, we would like to see that you know this is an enormous jump and that you understand it may take several steps to get there. You need to have that self-awareness.

Byrne: I think the takeaway here is that self-awareness is in great demand. And do your homework. Talk to alumni, visit a school, know what you’re getting into, know how the programs differ from each other and maybe you’ll find the right fit. Soojin, Luke and Morgan, thank you so much for a terrific discussion.

THE COMPLETE 2019 MBA SUMMIT

Candid perspectives from MBA students, admission officials, and employers

STRAIGHT TALK ON HOW TO GET INTO A TOP BUSINESS SCHOOL

IS THE MBA STILL WORTH IT? THREE ALUMS REFLECT ON HOW IT SHAPED THEIR CAREERS

USING YOUR MBA FOR SOCIAL IMPACT

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.