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Admissions Q&A: USC Marshall

The University of Southern California’s (Marshall Full-Time MBA Profile) is looking eastward—specifically to the Far East. The school was the first to require international trips for students, it belongs to a conference focused on schools in the Pacific Rim, and it draws a large number of students from Asia. If they want to land a spot at Marshall, applicants need to be global thinkers who are comfortable with a diverse set of classmates, says Keith Vaughn, assistant dean of MBA admissions.

An initiative from new USC President C. L. Max Nikias to build a “critical mass of the world’s most brilliant faculty” has the Marshall school recruiting faculty from top business schools such as (Sloan Full-Time MBA Profile), (Stanford Full-Time MBA Profile) and the (Booth Full-Time MBA Profile), according to Vaughn. The school will graduate its first class under the new curriculum change next year, which front-loaded the first semester with nine core classes.

Vaughn earned his bachelors at Amherst College and worked as a commercial banker in the Bay Area. He first came to Marshall as a first-year adviser in the Career Resource Center before joining admissions. He became the director of admissions in 1997 and has been an assistant dean since 2006.

In an e-mail interview with Bloomberg Businessweek’s Kiah Lau Haslett, Vaughn explained the East-West connections the school has, how not to mess up the interview, and how the school compensates for its West Coast location and competes for jobs in the financial sector. Below is an edited portion of the interview.

Describe Marshall in one sentence.

USC Marshall is a leading business school committed to preparing future leaders by instilling a global perspective, entrepreneurial mindset, and collaborative spirit while enabling them to address critical problems facing business and society.

What does Marshall look for in an applicant? Where do you recruit, if you do? Who do you recruit?

Successful applicants will be competent, disciplined, and global thinkers. We want students who will add value and whom others want to include in their groups, teams, organizations, and communities. Based on the strong presence and interest of our university in Asia, we have spent considerable resources in search of talent there.

What are key mistakes students make? How can they be prepared for their interview? What makes a student a good fit?

Aside from the obvious, such as unprofessional dress during on-campus or Skype interviews, a failure to answer the questions on the application or during an interview may be a concern. Attention to detail in the application is also important, such as focusing on the school to which the applicant is applying, rather than using the forms or names from another school.

The interview is another important occasion for applicants to demonstrate their best attributes and focus on how their past successes will allow them to reach their future goals. It is meant to be a two-way conversation, so applicants should also be prepared to ask questions and demonstrate they have done research on our program.

What is the weight of things considered when applying?

The admissions process is a holistic one. Every respective component is important; one by itself will not get a student admitted, but one could jeopardize an opportunity for acceptance. In some cases a strong professional work history may trump a less-than-stellar academic record, or vice-versa, but simply having a high GMAT or GRE or GPA will not guarantee success. The admissions committee is searching for well-rounded applicants who possess intelligence, personality, self-discipline, and energy.

The number of applications for 2011-12 is 1,826. We have consistently admitted from 22 percent to 25 percent. Our 80 percent range for the GMAT is 640-740.

The number of applicants to the Marshall school is lower this year than in the past two years. Is there an explanation for this? What kind of applicants are you seeing?

Actually, international applications are higher than last year, especially from India and China. Domestic applications, however, are relatively flat, with the exception of our dip in applications from underrepresented minorities, which can be attributed to the recent inclusion of two other West Coast business schools in the ranks of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management [an organization that promotes diversity in business and awards full-tuition fellowships]. Prior to this last application cycle, USC Marshall was the only West Coast school in the group of 15 member schools.

What is the philosophy behind admissions?

The philosophy behind admissions is to select the best candidates from a diverse and competitive applicant pool to create a rich learning environment that will meet or exceed the expectations of all of our constituencies: faculty, students, employers, and the surrounding academic and social community.

Scholarships are awarded through academic merit. What factors are considered to receive a scholarship from Marshall?

All admitted applicants are reviewed for scholarship consideration. This is a competitive, merit-based process that reviews the overall strength of their respective applications: academic record, test scores, essays, recommendations, and interview. Applicants may be offered a half-tuition or full-tuition scholarship. If not awarded anything on matriculation, students may apply for another scholarship opportunity for their second year in our program. These awards are based on their overall performance in the first year and their respective contribution to our academic and social community.

How did the recession and financial scandals affect admissions, curriculum, and job searching? How did the school adjust?

The recession has created a fiercely competitive job market. To address this, the school has made changes in its curriculum to make sure our students are prepared for the recruiting process as soon as possible. For example, Marshall’s program starts a month earlier to hone management communication skills and ensure that students have strategic and integrated thinking early on.

How is Marshall different from other business schools?

The school is a pioneer in creating programs with a global focus. It was the first U.S. school to make an international trip part of the requirements toward an MBA degree for all its programs. These experiential learning trips leverage the connections the school has been building in the Asia Pacific [region] for 30 years and its strong alumni network overseas, as well as the connections of our international faculty, to allow our students access to business leaders at global companies and public figures abroad.

We are the only school contributing student research to the Business Advisory Council of APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation], a confederation of 21 Pacific Rim economies.

Marshall is focused on cultivating innovation and entrepreneurship, which is crucial to giving students an edge in today’s fast-changing business environment. It is evident in the programs we offer and the faculty we attract—individuals who have knowledge of emerging economies and changing industries, as well as those who are focused on social innovation.

Describe the curriculum. When was the last time it was changed, and how were the changes received?

The MBA curriculum went through changes in 2010. All but one of the 10 core courses are finished by the end of the first semester. This “front-loading” leaves more time for electives, which make up 62 percent of a student’s credits. We have found that this structure creates a rounded experience and a flexible, customized program that adds opportunities for students to develop skills that match their passions and career goals.

How does the school help graduates find jobs?

From day one, there is a focus on communications, presentation skills, and preparing students for interviews for the internships, which lead to the jobs they secure after graduation. Marshall’s career placement center also begins working with students as soon as they arrive, giving them individual guidance and access to year-round recruiting events, career workshops, and programs. At graduation on May 13, 2011, approximately 80 percent of our full-time MBA graduates had one or more job offers. This is quite competitive when compared with other institutions.

What companies recruit your graduates? What kind of jobs do they get?

A wide range of companies recruit from Marshall. American Express (AXP), Sony (SNE), Nestlé (NESN), Booz & Co., Deutsche Bank (DB), Unilever (UN), Intel (INTC), Ernst & Young, Target (TGT), UBS (UBS), Nike (NKE), Deloitte, and Bain & Co. are some examples. Marshall’s MBA students have typically focused on post-graduate careers in marketing, consulting, and financial services. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a larger number of students focus on media and entertainment, high-tech manufacturing, socially responsible businesses (predominately nonprofits and sustainable products/energy), and health care.

Some of the USC graduates whom Bloomberg Businessweek surveyed for the 2010 ranking mentioned an East Coast bias in finance, given the geographic location of Marshall. Additionally, there were no financial organizations in your list of top recruiting organizations for internships, and the big bank that hired the most Marshall grads, Citigroup (C), hired just two. Is Marshall at a disadvantage because of its location on the West Coast?

Students who go into finance get very solid training. Our finance department includes stellar faculty, such as Larry Harris, a former chief economist for the Securities and Exchange Commission who wrote the text that is the standard for those who start careers in trading, and Randy Westerfield, who is one of the authors of Fundamentals of Corporate Finance, a textbook widely used by business schools. With such programs as the Center for Investment Studies, MBA candidates get hands-on opportunities to manage funds totaling more than $4 million.

Each year, depending on the economic conditions, roughly a quarter to a third of our students are successful [at shifting] into post-graduate careers in financial services, including investment management, private wealth management, investment banking, company finance, accounting, and management rotation programs at top-tier financial services firms.

We are a “core school” for many of the smaller regional financial services firms on the West Coast and sponsor two employer site visits to Wall Street and Hong Kong, where we try to expose our students to key hiring managers in the major firms. This has proven quite successful over the years, and our students compete quite well for the finite number of opportunities in financial services when being considered next to students from East Coast competitor schools.

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