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The University of Virginia’s (Darden Full-Time MBA Profile) may be about a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C., but that doesn’t stop it from providing students with the training they need to succeed in a the big-city business world. In the foothills of the halcyon Blue Ridge Mountains, Darden’s dedicated faculty, sense of community, and focus on the case-method style of learning make it a thriving environment for go-getter MBA students.
Sara Neher, Darden’s assistant dean of admissions, studied at UVA as an undergraduate and received her MBA from Emory’s (Goizueta Full-Time MBA Profile). She says one of the most important things applicants need to demonstrate is growth through their prior work experience.
“Even if you were doing a highly administrative job because it was all you could get in the recession,” she says, “you can still help us see what you learned by watching others and finding mentors and role models in the organization.”
Neher says her best advice for prospective MBA students is to take the time to reflect and get a clear picture of where they see themselves in the future. She says she sees a lot of students who are too preoccupied by their current jobs and the B-school application process to take the time to assess what they really want.
So, is a Darden MBA in your future? Neher talked to Bloomberg Businessweek’s Victoria Taylor about the GMAT, UVA’s honor system, and why the case method caters to women. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
I went to Washington & Lee University in nearby Lexington, Va., so I know how gorgeous Charlottesville is. What, besides that, makes Darden special?
We are lucky. We live in a beautiful place with history and culture. When you add a wonderful educational experience to the community of Charlottesville, you get a pretty unique formula. The three things we focus on are: the case method, the overall community, and our top-ranked faculty. The case study [is based on] participatory learning with decision-making. The community is highly interactive, just like the undergraduate University of Virginia. Our faculty focuses on teaching as their primary desire, love, and activity, so they really get to know the students. Through those things you end up with a complete leader.
Darden is known for its focus on the case-method style of teaching. How does that factor into the types of applicants you get?
We see applicants who are eager to participate in class, defend their opinions, and persuade others. Sometimes that’s not who you think it is. Sometimes it’s the very introverted applicant who says, “I know to be successful in business I need to push myself out of my comfort zone, and so I’m seeking the kind of experience where I’m going to be forced to make decisions and convince my peers that I’m making the right decision.” But certainly we’re only going to admit people who have shown that they are eager to have that kind of conversation.
What is the most important component of the application?
It would be different for each person, because it has to come together. If you know that your quantitative work in undergrad is not going to be very strong, you might need to focus more on the GMAT. Different parts [of the application] might take on a little bit more importance, because they need to balance out something you can’t change. If you have less work experience, you really need to convince us that your intellectual ability is strong, because you’re going to have less practical experience to draw from. We are always looking for intelligence, strong communication skills, and the desire to make an impact on the world and share your perspective. We’re looking for all those things, but how each person shows it to us and what part of their application becomes the most influential will be different.
What are you looking for in terms of work experience?
Usually the average is four to five years of work experience, but it’s most important to me that people have made the most of whatever experiences they’ve had. I know you don’t always get your first-choice job out of undergrad, so I want to make sure you showed progression in whatever job you did take, and you learned from those jobs. Even if it’s a horrible job, you should have learned from it. People can still show us things, even if the work experience itself may not seem like what they think the ideal is. But certainly, working for a Fortune 400 or 500 company is positive.
Is Darden doing anything to encourage women applicants?
We are. I really wish, as a woman myself with an MBA, that more women would see this as their primary option coming out of undergrad. It is flexible and affects the way you think and interact with others. I think women traditionally are more nervous of the case method. That’s unfortunate, because I think the case method is actually better suited to women. It’s all about listening and multitasking. You have to absorb all the information, and women with families don’t have time to worry about the peripheral.
We are doing some women-only events; those even begin in July. And we have a one-to-one program where if a woman is interested in Darden, she can contact us over the summer, and we’ll match her up with a current student or an alum. There are some phenomenal women alumni who are supporting us as mentors. One of them is Carolyn Miles, who was just named chief executive of Save the Children. One of the things I’m doing this summer is bringing together people from across our school, not just admissions but alumni relations and our foundation and our chief financial officer of the Darden School, and I want us to brainstorm what we could do to attract more women to business school. I’m excited about what we might come up with. I know we have a fundraising campaign for scholarships for women going on, and I want to find out what the alumni think of that and what they can contribute, both with their ideas and their dollars.
Does a certain percentage of each class have to come from within Virginia?
We do not have an in-state quota, primarily because so many Virginians will leave Virginia to go to work in places like New York and Washington, D.C., or overseas after graduation [from college]. We want to attract them back to Virginia, so I don’t have any quota. There is a $5,000 tuition discount if you are an in-state student, but that means you have to live in Virginia. So even if you were born in Virginia, like I was, and left and came back, like I did, you wouldn’t qualify.
What is the best advice you have for someone who is applying to Darden?
The best advice I could give is to spend time figuring out who you are and what you want, and to do that as early in the process as you can, because you’ll make better choices about which schools to apply to and which ones to visit. Find some people in your undergrad alumni or friend network who are doing jobs you think sound interesting. See if you can have an informational interview with them this summer before you’re even thinking about applying. See if you can shadow them for a day. Find out exactly what a consultant or a banker really does, and that will make your essays and interview better. It will help you make better choices for your career path. I see a lot of students who get so wrapped up in their current job and in the application process, but they don’t really think about this as a way to take time to assess what they want for their life. People who don’t do this and come to school without this kind of grounding get lost when they come. There are hundreds of things you can do, and they get overwhelmed. I would say: Start this summer. Think hard about who you are and what you’re good at, and you’re application will be more genuine and more interesting to me if you have that kind of sense of self.
What percentage of recent graduates was offered jobs?
At this point, the percentage who were offered jobs is more than 90. We had some great additional movement right after graduation, which is frustrating, since [our placement] stats are done [laughs]. But companies were really moving in May. I don’t know what the percentage is exactly, but it’s definitely more than 90 percent now, and the students who are still looking have pretty specific things. One of them really wants foreign exchange trading in Hong Kong or London, and he’s willing to wait for it.
What were some of the companies that hired Darden’s 201l grads?
We have more people going to than we’ve ever had before. The [former] CEO of Medtronic (MDT), Bill Hawkins, is a Darden alum, so a couple of people always go there. Someone is going into the —I think that’s kind of cool. We had a bunch of people go to Disney () this year, which is exciting, because it’s good to know that those stable companies are hiring.
So they’re going all over the place?
Yeah, they do. Because Darden’s a general management, case-method school, you’re really qualified to go do anything. You can concentrate in your second year or you can do a wide range of electives and not have a concentration. You can really position yourself for whatever it is you want to do. The companies recognize that you’re working hard. That’s a reputation that Darden maintains: We have a very high work ethic. Oh, we have six people going to Amazon.com (AMZN). That’s a lot of people going to Amazon (laughs).
It’s really exciting to see that they do go anywhere after graduation. I think nine of them are starting their own businesses, which is really exciting. Many of them will stay in the [Darden Business] Incubator when they graduate and stay in Charlottesville, so it’s always fun to see them around.
How does the UVA honor system come into play at Darden?
It’s exactly the same honor system. Darden students elect their representatives to the honor committee, and those students go and serve on the University’s honor committee. If there is any incident at Darden, those students have the same trial by peers as the undergrads. And the process works exactly the same.
Part of what I do look for in the application process is certainly integrity, but also I really prefer to have at least 10 percent of the class coming either from UVA (McIntire Undergraduate Business Profile) or from a school like Washington & Lee or Davidson that have really strong honor codes. I think that, with only two years at Darden and a large number of students coming from international schools that don’t have those concepts front and center, I need the students with the past experience to get them up to speed in the first week of school. That has worked really well. We just did the student year-end survey, and the marks for how they feel about the honor code and how they believe their peers are working in the honor code were extraordinarily high scores, some of the highest scores on the survey, so that made me really proud.
What would the typical Darden student look like?
I think the typical Darden student is someone who is active and engaged and is eager to share his or her own ideas. That’s really what they have in common. Otherwise, they are tremendously diverse and bring different things to the table—but they all have something to bring to the table. I am not going to let anyone into the class who does not have positions of strength and I think about it that way when I’m reading an application. Someone who has just started a business or just made an amazing impact on their company, I might think, “wow, I need this person in the classroom”—even though their GMAT is low—because others will learn from them. When I meet the student, I love it because I’m learning from them. What will other people learn from you at Darden? That’s what’s most important. So they all have that desire to teach others and share their experiences. It’s really a fun place to be.