Admissions Director Gregory MacDonald describes the admissions process for the university's Simon business school
Gregory MacDonald is the executive director of admissions and administration at the William E. Simon Graduate School of Business at the University of Rochester. Prior to joining Simon in July, 2005, MacDonald spent 15 years working in undergraduate enrollment, including six years in the undergraduate admissions office at Rochester.
MacDonald says that Simon is the perfect size to provide students with a highly personalized experience from the start of the admissions process through graduation day and beyond. He spoke with BusinessWeek.com reporter Kelly Bronk about the admissions process at Simon and how to avoid common mistakes that applicants make. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
How do application numbers look this year?
This is our third consecutive increase. This year—for fall of 2008 entry—was a significant increase over last year and we're very pleased that some of our efforts focused on increasing certain populations have yielded very nice results. We're also seeing a real strong surge in our specialized master's programs, and we don't plan to increase the size of the class significantly. We like our positioning as the smallest private in the top tier of MBA programs and we tend to grow on a limited scale. But obviously, the larger applicant pool has allowed us to become even more selective and have more control over the quality of the incoming class.
How many students are admitted into each class?
Right now we're targeting the first-year MBA class to be 185 students and we're targeting about 90 in our MS programs. Both of those targets look to be well within reach this year.
Are there any major changes to Simon's application process this year?
Yes, actually we're in the process of phasing in an alumni interview and making that a requirement. The interview has become a much more important part of the selection process in recent years and we've been putting a lot of our resources into training our alums worldwide on conducting interviews with our prospective students. So in addition to having an interview with a Simon admissions staff member, we're also getting feedback from our alums on our prospects and ultimately factoring that into our final decisions.
With such a large international applicant pool, how hard has it been to establish that international network?
Well, actually, we've become experts on time zones. We've had to be pretty open-minded about doing a lot of interviewing during off-peak hours, and luckily our prospective students have been very open-minded, sometimes doing interviews at 6 o'clock in the morning or 6 o'clock at night. We're doing these as face to face interviews as often as we possibly can, but sometimes, depending on the region of the world, it's just much more practical to do the over the telephone. It has been a logistic challenge, but actually it's quite gratifying. I think our alums are enjoying being reconnected with the school in a new way and in a very important way. That's not to say that alumni gatherings aren't important, but they tend to be more social. These are more like professional development networking opportunities that our alums are participating in, and everyone who has conducted some interviews, their first question is "How can I do more of these? When is the next round of interviews, when are they beginning? How can I adjust my work schedule to participate?" We're absolutely thrilled with the way that our alums are responding to this.
When a student walks into the interview, what kinds of questions should they be prepared to field?
We expect them to have a very clear answer to why they are applying to our program. We expect them to do the research. We expect them to know what are the distinguishing features of the Simon Graduate School of Business and why they think they're going to be a good fit. That's first and foremost. Then we're going to ask them to tell us more about their career aspirations, and ultimately, that's what we're looking for. We're looking for students who appear to be a good match for what we have here and who will be good citizens. This is a very tight, close-knit community and if we make mistakes on the admissions side, because we are so small, it is noticeable. So we have to minimize our risk and put a lot of time and effort into the screening process to make sure that we're getting the students for whom Simon is an excellent fit.
What kind of student is a good fit for Simon?
First and foremost, students who are going to do well in an economics-based curriculum with really sharp quantitative skills or who are really open-minded towards sharpening their quantitative skills. Our students graduate from Simon with the reputation among recruiters of having expert problem-solving skills. That has been our reputation for quite some time. Now we're looking for students who are not only able to frame and analyze business problems, but also communicate solutions. And that's been the hallmark of our new FACT (frame, analyze and communicate) based curriculum. We're looking for students who are going to do well in that framework, who have thought about their learning style, who have thought about where their skills and abilities are, and who have looked at Simon's strengths as a top-ranked business school and see it as a good fit.
How should students approach the essays?
My advice on the essays is to really read the question and to think about the answer and map out the conclusion before the applicant actually starts writing the essay. Occasionally we see students who start answering the question and get off track and don't seem to bring it back to answering the question. There are some choices in the essay options, and I would say to students to take some time to think about which essays they are choosing to write and why, and just reading the question very, very clearly. And to use the essay to really distinguish themselves, not as something that they just need to get through on the way to completing the process, but actually taking advantage of some unstructured parts of the application to really let themselves shine.
When should students answer the optional question?
If there's a gap or red flag or something in their background that is not easily understood. Because we go over the application so carefully, if there's a blemish on the record, students are better off offering their own explanation for what might be perceived as a blemish, rather than hoping that we don't see it or hoping that we draw our own conclusions. I think it's better that the student offers some conclusions, rather than letting us use our imagination.
What tips do you have for students in preparing their résumés? How should a business school résumé differ from a professional résumé?
We expect to see a professional résumé that's suitable for applying to a top-ranked business school. So they can go and get help, they can talk with co-workers, they can talk with classmates, they can talk with trusted advisors. It's probably best to have a mentor or someone they respect professionally to look at the résumé before submitting it. But expectations, clearly defined objectives at the beginning of the résumé, are helpful, and nothing with any gaps. Again, if there are any gaps in the résumé and if it doesn't flow chronologically and isn't easy to follow, that can be disadvantageous for the candidate.
When you look at a student's undergraduate transcripts, are there any "must-have" courses?
There are no must-have courses, but for the Simon school there is a must-have expectation that the student is going to be successful in a strong quantitative program. But that can be satisfied through a variety of quantitative-type courses, so we do have liberal arts majors, we do have social science majors, we do have engineers. There are different ways to demonstrate ability to do quantitative work. It's also through the GMAT and obviously the coursework. But we do see students who are using the year they're applying to school to brush up on some quantitative courses if they've been out of school for a few years. Some students use the pre-MBA year to enroll in some part-time courses at local colleges or community colleges to really give them the confidence they need to do well academically the first year.
How important is an applicant's quantitative GMAT score?
Well, for us, we put equal emphasis on the communication of business problems, not just the solving of business problems, so to us, the verbal score is equally as important as the quantitative score. That said, we do have a strong quantitative program and we want to see that students have shown evidence that they can be successful in our quantitative program based upon either their recent pre-MBA coursework or their undergraduate record or their GMAT score. And also, sometimes the types of things that they are doing at their job on a day-to-day basis to keep their quantitative skills sharp, that's another indicator.
How important is previous work experience?
At the Simon school, we're probably more open-minded than most in the top-tiered schools regarding the professional work experience expectation. At Simon, we expect about 10% of our students to come to us directly from their undergraduate program. If they are deemed to be very strong academically, with above-average maturity and interpersonal skills, and most importantly, a drive and a determination to get an MBA earlier than their peers, they should be looking at Simon. Some of our most successful alumni came to us precisely through that route. That said, two-thirds of our students have five to six years of work experience before they come to the Simon school, and about one-third of our students have zero to three years of professional work experience before joining us.
What are some common mistakes that applicants make?
I think the obvious. Sometimes there are word processing errors where we all see essays about why I want to go to our competing school. That's just an indication that students are perhaps applying to too many schools and they're just logistically having trouble keeping all of their applications straight. But I would say more serious problems are people not making it clear why they're applying to that school and not doing their research—the "more lines in the water, the more fish they're going to catch" approach.
Ultimately, it's not about getting admitted to as many top-tiered programs as possible, but it's about getting into the MBA program that they're best suited for. They're only going to one school and that should be their goal.
Also, I've seen some students who, if they had visited prior to submitting their application, they probably would have been able to submit much more thoughtful applications. My advice would be to try to visit every school before you apply so that you have very good, vivid reasons why you are applying to that school.
Who should—and shouldn't—write a letter of recommendation for an applicant?
The people who should not write a recommendation for you are the people who really don't know what your true strengths and weaknesses are—people who cannot write with vivid examples of your skills and your abilities and maybe even write anecdotally about some instances about where a student has done an admirable job. As far as the types of people, for our students coming directly from college, obviously a faculty recommendation would be good and the second recommendation from someone who observed them at an internship would also be helpful. For people with professional work experience, if it is appropriate to share their graduate school search, a current supervisor. If not, maybe a previous employer, obviously a trusted adviser, a mentor and someone who has seen them in a variety of settings and can talk about their personal and professional growth over a number of years. Those tend to be the best recommendations.
International students make up 50% of the class of 2009. What is Simon doing to sustain and continue to grow such a diverse student body?
Well, the first thing that we're doing is getting outside of our primary markets and getting into some tertiary markets that we've not been exploring as much lately. We've really been developing new relationships and reaching out to key influencers to tap some untapped markets for us. We've really been trying to reengage our alumni and have been seeking their assistance in uncovering prospective students, whether it be at their former undergraduate institutions or at their current places of employment. And like the MBA where we offer a highly personalized experience, we try to offer a highly personalized admissions experience because this is a significant decision that prospective students are making, to take a couple of years away from employment and other pursuits to complete their graduate education. We don't take that process lightly and we try to be as helpful as we can all the way through enrollment. And it doesn't just end with the offer of admission—the assistance continues all the way through until they graduate.
Why do you think Simon is such an attractive school to international students?
Well, for a couple of reasons. One, our successful record of placing international students is a big part of it and our reputation, our strong alumni networks in international locations. But the primary reason is our prestige of our faculty and the high-level research going on here. Many [students] have read textbooks in their undergraduate programs written by or edited by Simon faculty. So I would say that, quite easily the reputation and the scholarship that comes out of this small but mighty program is probably the primary attraction.
What is the relationship between Simon and the University of Rochester as a whole?
Under the leadership of our current president, who is in his third year, Joel Seligman, now more than any time in our previous history, we regard ourselves as one university. The Simon School is physically located in the absolute center of the university and we've been making very serious efforts to let the university community know about the exciting things business leaders are coming here to speak about, and encouraging undergraduates to come in and listen to some of the talents that are coming to speak primarily to our graduate business students. And we're looking for new ways to partner with the college and keeping an open mind towards younger sources of talent from our own college who don't want to wait to enter into a top-tier MBA program.
What kinds of financial aid opportunities are available for admitted students?
The Simon School has been very generous over the years with incoming students, especially in our MBA program. Through the generosity of the Simon Foundation, we award approximately 15 full-tuition fellowships per year. Three years ago we started a scholarship weekend early in March where we invite our top 40 candidates to come in and compete for those 15 awards. Almost all of those candidates are receiving at minimum a partial scholarship. Many of them are getting those partial scholarships increased, and then obviously some of them are getting all the way up to full-tuition awards. We offer a variety of partial awards ranging anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 per award. There's no separate application to be considered for a merit-based scholarship.
What are good reasons for students to want to attend Simon?
To accelerate their career opportunities and get themselves on a new or different or faster path to where they want to go. Our success on the placement size has been a primary driver in the increase in applications we've seen in the past few years, and just the reputation that Simon graduates have for being expert problem solvers, particularly in the area of finance. The skills that our students leave here with make them among the best as far as succeeding in the companies that they're going to.