Business Schools

A Chat with Darden's Admissions Director


Dawna M. Clarke is director of MBA admissions at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business (No. 9 on BusinessWeek's 2000 Top 30 B-school list). Clarke has worked in the admissions office at Darden for more than 11 years and is completing her second year as Darden's director of admissions. Before her arrival at Virginia, she spent three years as associate director of admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill's MBA program. Jeff Webb is a second-year MBA student at Darden, as well as a BusinessWeek Online MBA Journal Writer.

Clarke and Webb's comments came during a live BusinessWeek Online chat on Dec. 13. They were responding to questions from the audience of about 250, and from BW Online's Mica Schneider. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion:

Q: Darden is tracking a substantial increase in first round applications this fall -- 49% over last year. What's your application forecast for the rest of this admissions season?

Dawna: I would expect a fairly substantial increase in our applicant pool, which is great timing for the Darden School because we're expanding our entering class by 25%. Typically, that class size is 240, but next year's will be 300. This should be great news for prospective students, because we'll make an additional 120 offers of admission. And because the pool is so strong this year, we're also planning to extend deferred offers of admission.

Q: That's a substantial increase in students, Dawna. But I wonder if Jeff has any doubts: can Darden maintain its tight community with so many extra students?

Jeff: I believe so. Because of the organization (of the class) into sections and learning teams, I think the strong community culture will continue to thrive. The new facilities at Darden should also help (bring students and faculty together).

Q: Jeff, you remember the admissions process from two years ago. Would you put it into perspective for current applicants?

Jeff: My perspective hasn't changed much. I would start the by deciding what matters in a school (prestige, size, location). Once you determine that, identifying your strengths and weaknesses and putting a good story together are crucial. I believe fit is most important -- which you can only determine by getting to know students and spending time at the school.

Q: Are wait-listed applicants admitted at the end of the final round, or is it a rolling decision?

Dawna: It's a rolling decision. We've made wait-list decisions in the past as early as February and as late as July.

Q: Were more international (non-U.S.) first-round applicants wait-listed because they didn't complete an interview? If so, how can they remedy that?

Dawna: We particularly value an interview for international students. Because Darden is known as a case-method school with a heavy emphasis on class participation, it's important that we gauge international students' oral communication skills. Yes, international students are sometimes placed on the wait list because they haven't interviewed. But we do make accommodations to allow them to interview. For example, many international students visit the school. If they're unable to, we'll arrange an alumni interview in home country. If a Darden graduate isn't available there, we'll offer a phone interview if the admissions committee feels it's necessary.

Q: If these applicants haven't interviewed yet, does that mean a longer wait for a decision? If so, why bother applying in the first round?

Dawna: We make arrangements for alumni interviews from October through the end of the season. If an international student on the wait list is interested in interviewing, we'll meet at any time that's convenient for them. If they apply in the first round, we have more time to arrange an interview.

Q: Does the fact that you have more first-round applications mean that your team spends less time with each file?

Dawna: No. Applications are given just as much time as they were in previous years, because we've increased our staff.

Q: Why would you recommend Darden over other top business schools, and what do you think its greatest strength is compared with other programs?

Jeff: What I've really enjoyed about Darden is the collaborative, supportive atmosphere. Students helping students, professors spending time with students outside of class, and community events all make for a great experience. Add to that terrific classes and faculty, a nice location (if you like the outdoors), and I'd say it's a pretty good setup.

Dawna: I agree with everything Jeff said. There's also great momentum at Darden, thanks our new dean, Bob Harris; Darden emphasizes the case-study method, which is a practical way of learning about real business issues; and the quality of teaching at Darden (is high). In the most recent BusinessWeek survey, we were cited as No. 1 for teaching!

Q: Jeff, if you had to point out one thing that the school doesn't do well, what would it be?

Jeff: I'd say Darden has room to increase the visibility of its "brand" with companies that recruit here, and especially overseas. I'm convinced the education here is as good as at any school, but the school needs to get the word out.

Q: What's the most important element of Darden's MBA application? The GMAT score, essays, recommendations, or perhaps an interview?

Dawna: We look at so many factors, and it isn't formulaic. Admissions criteria include academic credentials, professional experience, professional potential, and personal qualities. One distinctive feature of our admissions process is the importance we place on interviews. Darden's interview provides another vehicle for students to market themselves to the admissions committee. Anyone can schedule an interview online on a space-available basis.

One of the advantages of coming to Charlottesville to interview is that we let applicants sit in on a class with a first-year host. (Applicants may also) take a tour of our new facilities, have lunch with a second-year student, sit in on an information session with me or a member of the admissions committee, and see Charlottesville.

Q: How much will a below-average GMAT score (say, 560) hurt an applicant? Darden's GMAT average for the class of 2003 was 681.

Dawna: The GMAT is only one of several admissions criteria. The importance of the GMAT can vary from one applicant to another. For example, in the case of an English major who has never had quantitative coursework, the GMAT would be more important than it would be for a math major who excelled in quantitative courses, or for an applicant whose work is quantitative in nature. I've counseled a lot of students on strategies to improve GMAT scores, and I highly recommend courses such as Kaplan's or Peterson's.

Q: Jeff, you were a Navy SEAL before B-school, do you have any recommendations for military members on the best way to highlight their experiences? How would you describe your adaptation to business school given your nontraditional background?

Jeff: First, translate your experience into English -- learn how to tell your story without acronyms or military speak. Next, capitalize on your unique experience -- very few of my classmates have the hands-on leadership and management experiences that I have (of course, I didn't know a debit from a credit when I started here!) Such experience is a huge advantage when applying to B-school, and in a job search. Former military types have done pretty well here from what I've seen.

As for the transition, it was smooth for me. I expected it to be traumatic, but the environment here made it easy. But I do miss jumping out of planes and blowing stuff up.

Dawna: Darden is a great MBA program for candidates with a military background. Our first-year general management curriculum allows them to gain exposure to many different functional areas. Military candidates also contribute greatly in terms of leadership and team building.

Q: Jeff, in your introduction to our readers as an MBA Journal writer, you refer to your time as Navy SEAL: "The SEAL motto -- "the only easy day was yesterday"" Can you apply that motto to life at B-school, or is your second year a breeze?

Jeff: Second year presents new challenges -- like finding a way to pay off your debts. The coursework is more interesting, and you choose all of your classes, so classes SEEM easier. I'm still spending the same number of hours doing work or working on the career search as last year, just with more emphasis on the career at this point.

Q: How has the job search been so far for you and your friends?

Jeff: It's a rough year, especially for consulting and banking. Job offers from both are down roughly 75% (e-mail Anne Harris, assistant dean for career development, for the actual numbers). We're all broadening our job searches, and considering jobs/careers that maybe we didn't think about when we arrived at Darden.

Dawna: The career services staff has added three professionals. They're trying to increase the number of recruiters, as well as activity among current recruiters. We're pleased with the ratio of recruiters to students: This year we'll have roughly 140 on-grounds recruiters for 250 students.

Q: If someone were coming in for an interview, how would you recommend that they prepare? And how can an interview hurt a student?

Dawna: I recommend that applicants do as much research on the Darden School prior to their interview as they can. In our application, under interview instructions, we say that the interview's purpose is to focus on interpersonal and communications skills. I would encourage applicants to know that our interviews are comfortable and conversational. The goal is to assess qualities that can't as easily be evaluated based on a written application. Some qualities we look for are self-awareness, team experience, knowledge of Darden, maturity level, extracurricular experiences, and general attitude.

An interview can hurt students who haven't done their research and as a result ask questions that are answered in the brochure. Occasionally, applicants come to interviews with their own agenda and don't really answer the questions we're asking. I'll reiterate: Most interviews help candidates rather than hurt them. One of our goals during interviews is to make a candidate feel relaxed and comfortable so we can get a more accurate reflection of who they are.

Q: We have some questions from people interested in the Consortium, a 13-school organization that aims to increase the number of minority students enrolled in B-schools. How many individuals eceive a Consortium for Graduate School in Management fellowship each year? How many were granted during the previous year?

Dawna: The number of Consortium fellowships we award varies from year to year. Last year we offered 14, I think. This year we plan to offer as many as we're able to based on the applicant pool. We typically don't see Consortium applicants' applications until January because their first deadline isn't until Dec. 1.

Q: From the rumor mill: One audience member has heard that if students don't rank Darden their No. 1 choice on the Consortium application, the prospective student may expect a rejection from Darden. Would you comment on this?

Dawna: Absolutely not true! The ranking on the Consortium application has no bearing on the admissions decision. However, with all applicants we do look for evidence of fit, and it's important to convey your knowledge of and enthusiasm for the school in your essays. The Consortium ranking is only key with regard to the allocation of the actual fellowship money -- not admission.

Q: How does Darden view candidates who are currently out of a job, either from layoffs or from taking time off prior to business school to pursue travel, leisure, etc?

Dawna: All of us are well aware of our current economic situation. We look not only at current work experience but also a person's potential. I would encourage applicants to be honest about the situation they're facing, both in essays and in your interview. This may be a case where an interview may be especially valuable for applicants who can cite extenuating circumstances.

Q: A question about round three applicants: Given that Darden has five rounds, is round three considered late? Is there a lower acceptance than rounds one and two?

Dawna: No, it doesn't have a lower acceptance rate than the other rounds. We reserve space for candidates for each of our five deadlines, and I hope you'll stop by and introduce yourself.

Q: How much emphasis does Darden place on post-graduate work experience as opposed to experience overall, whether it may be post-graduate or not?

Dawna: We place a heavy emphasis on post-graduate experience, primarily because Darden's a heavily team-oriented MBA program and our primary teaching method is the case method. I've found that post-graduate experiences tend to be much more substantive than experiences that students have during college. Obviously there are exceptions to this, and we take those into consideration in the admissions process.

Q: Is it true that Western European students (Germany, France, Great Britain, etc.) are underrepresented at Darden, and that you are looking to recruit more students from that region?

Dawna: Overall, our international student body is 30% of the total. We'd like to see an equal distribution between Latin America, Europe, and Asia, and we've significantly ramped up our recruiting efforts throughout Europe. Beth Flye is our senior associate director and the primary contact for European recruiting. We would encourage European candidates to contact us at flyeb@darden.virginia.edu.

Q: In the past, Darden students have complained that their workloads were too heavy. What has the school done to ensure that students' work/life balance is a healthy one?

Jeff: The school has ensured we have too much work to possibly complete (mostly in the first year). That really teaches you as an individual to organize your time. You just have to set your priorities; plenty of people sacrifice their studies to an extent to spend more time with their families.

Q: This is a difficult year for technical professionals. As a result, a lot of them are applying to B-school. Are these applicants at a disadvantage because of the sudden increase of such applicants?

Dawna: No, you're not at a disadvantage. Primarily because we're a general-management school, we attract a wide variety of prospective students from different functional areas and industries. Students with a technical background coupled with an MBA tend to be recruited very heavily.

Q: With the large applicant pool this year for business schools, do you think there is anything that would set apart an applicant who has fewer years of work experience?

Dawna: Yes. The quality of the applicant's experience, as well as the applicant's potential for leadership, is something that he or she should emphasize. We're very interested in applicants' experiences outside of the classroom and work setting, such as involvement in community activities, athletics, hobbies, or other personal interests.

Q: Has the pool of international applicants increased or decreased due to tightened national security and visa complications?

Dawna: It's really too early to tell. Our international applicant pool is extremely strong, and we're going ahead with plans to have a healthy increase in our percentage of international students next year.

Q: Have you finished evaluating applications for Round1?

Dawna: About 98% of the decisions have been made for round one.

Q: Any notifications going out this week? If so, how will you let admits know that they're in?

Dawna: Yes. We let them know via phone calls as well as letters.

Q: How selective was round No. 1? Darden accepted 17% of its total applicants in 2001; does that sound about right so far this year?

Dawna: For round one, the selectivity ratio was about 10%, but I expect it to be closer to the 17% by the end of the year. Remember that we'll be taking significantly more students this year as a result of our class expansion.

Q: What advice can you offer those who don't make the cut at Darden this year?

Dawna: Write to ask me for feedback on the strengths and weaknesses that were perceived in their applications this year. We're glad to offer feedback on what candidates can do to increase their chances for admission next year.

Q: Any parting words of wisdom for Darden hopefuls?

Jeff: Use your personal network to contact students at Darden and learn about the school. I think that people who truly want to come here and make the extra effort to learn about the school, and make sure that there's a fit, have a better chance of getting admitted. If any of you prospective MBAs want some more inside info on Darden, drop me a line at darden02@hotmail.com.

Dawna: It's a great time to consider Darden. There's so much energy and momentum here now as a result of our new dean, new facilities, the Batten Institute -- which is a primary research branch for Darden. We hope to meet applicants who participated in this chat here at Darden.


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