MBA Director Scott Carson explains recent changes at the No. 1-ranked Canadian program, and why it's looking for team players
Queen's University, located in picturesque Kingston, Ontario, became the first in Canada to offer a business degree in 1919. By 1963, the Queen's School of Business (Queen's Full-Time MBA Profile) was its own entity. Today, Queen's offers an undergraduate BBA, a one-year full-time MBA, and an executive MBA. In 2008, Queen's ranked first among BusinessWeek's top international business schools.
But what crowns Queen's as business school royalty is its student body, according to MBA Director Scott Carson. For almost two years, Carson has watched the students he helped handpick come into the program as strangers and watch them leave as dear friends. Carson's favorite story about Queen's camaraderie has to do with a student who, after competing in an on-campus case competition, lost track of his dress pants on his way to his car. Nobody had seen the pants, and the student gave up his search. Two days later after a particularly heavy snowfall, a fellow student tripped in the snow—over a pair of frozen pants. She had heard of a pants-less colleague, so she sent them to the dry-cleaner and express-mailed the pants to the student's home in Montreal. "Most people would think, 'What MBA students would ever do that?' But that's fairly characteristic of how students are treated here," Carson says.
In an interview with BusinessWeek's Mandy Oaklander, Carson reveals what Queen's is changing to increase its presence in the business world, what it isn't changing to get its graduates jobs, and what both mean for Queen's students. An edited portion of the conversation follows.
What do you look for in an applicant?
Our program is really quite unique. We're very team-based, so for the first two-thirds of the program, the students are placed in teams of six or seven, and half of all of their work and grades are team-based. We have a group of human resource professionals who act as team facilitators, so the facilitator can be called upon to help the team work through any issues that arise. We do not allow any movement out of the team; to leave the team is to leave the program. All of the team members have to function together and resolve problems together. So the number one thing we look for in prospective students is their ability to function in a team environment. We try to recruit students and generate graduates who aren't the stereotypical image of an MBA student—the kind who think it's all about them and who want to be the CEO the third week on the job. It's very much about "us" and the team. We are very conscious in the admissions process of who is going to work well in that kind of environment.
How many applications did you receive this year?
We do them in stages. This year we had roughly 5,000 inquiries about the program, and I'm not sure about the final number of completed applications—about several hundred. We're expanding the program from 75 students to about 115. It's a very small program, but it's very elite. We're very particular in our selection process. We'd have students with a GMAT of 780 who assume they're going to be admitted, and we won't admit them if we don't feel they're a good fit.
Why are you expanding the program?
We think that there are certain strategic advantages to being just a little bit larger: the ability to attract more recruiters to the school, to provide a larger audience, to obtain more outside speakers, to expand our footprint, and to generate more graduates. We feel that [at this new size] we can continue to provide a significant face-to-face personalized experience for the students. We wouldn't want to get any larger than 115.
Are there any common mistakes candidates make on the applications?
I think the most common mistake is in the references section. We ask for three references, and some people think they need the CEO of their company to write them a reference. Those are often not very good references; if there hasn't been much interaction between the applicant and, say, the CEO, then what you get is a fairly generic reference and not anything that really tells us much about the person. So we always counsel students to get references from people who know them well and who can speak to their strengths and weaknesses, which we ask about on the reference form. Because of the team nature of the program, we're not just interested in the academic background—we're interested in the person.
For example, right now there are two people in a boardroom with 110 pictures and bios, and they are putting together the teams by diversity, academic background, work experience, gender, and nationality. Our ability to put those teams together is largely based on what we actually know about the person. The more we can know that's not just about their score on a test, the better we'll be able to construct successful teams.
Do you prefer professional references or academic references?
We are most interested in a reference that knows the candidate. We would certainly want professional references, because we want to know how well the person has performed in his or her work background. But we've accepted references from a wide variety of different people. Some potential applicants think that they've got to have worked for a large multinational corporation or an investment bank or consulting firm. But we're just as interested in candidates who have worked in a startup or a family business. In odd cases like that, the references would come from different kinds of people; it depends on the situation. We're a very international program—40% to 50% of students are international—so we really look for very diverse backgrounds. The application and reference materials have to reflect that.
Queen's doesn't have an application fee. Is that because of the current economic climate, or is that standard?
No, it's just not something we've done. We don't want to put impediments in the application process. We are, by Canadian standards, one of the three very expensive programs [in Canada], so we're going to charge a lot of money for a student who's actually going to be coming through the door. But we want as broad a range of applicants as possible.
What are your financial aid packages like?
We have an arrangement with the Royal Bank of Canada, and they will lend domestic Canadian students virtually the full tuition plus living expenses, and then there's a repayment program. We also have a fairly significant scholarship program. Probably about one-third of students receive some form of scholarship.
Last year, 100% of applicants, both admitted and denied, were interviewed. Do you place special importance on the interview?
Yes. Our preference, of course, is to interview everyone in person. For very highly qualified applicants, we'll actually pay to bring them to campus. We'll line them up with students to have lunch with, and we'll sit them in the classroom with a name card and encourage them to participate in the class. For other students that want to come, we'll interview them here and allow them to attend a class. For international students, we'll do interviews by telephone. But we don't have any students admitted who have not been interviewed.
Are there any recent changes to the curriculum?
The curriculum is modularized, so we have the core, which all the students take. The core is two-thirds of the program, and it's done in modules of different duration depending on the subject matter. For the last third of the program students have the option to do a concentration in one of four areas, to make general selections of courses, or to go on an international exchange. About one-third of students go on an international exchange to one of 15 partner schools in South America, Europe, or Asia. It's possible to take some courses here and then go on exchange. In some cases, if the exchange is a short one, they can actually come back and take more courses.
Naturally, the economic climate has changed the context of content for some of the courses, especially in international business and economics and finance. You can't talk about a market economy today in the same way you could talk about it two years ago. A lot of the market mechanisms that were thought to influence the participation in the marketplace haven't been working. We've seen very significant activities by central banks and governments around the world. All of that is reflected in the kinds of discussions that go on in class.
You mentioned that Queen's values diversity, but only 24% of your student body is female. Are you doing anything to get those numbers up?
Yes. This year our class will be about 35% women. In part we are transitioning from an MBA program that was specific to science and technology. Up until three years ago, you had to be a science graduate or an engineering graduate even to apply, so we changed the program and restructured it. Part of the rationale was to open it up to a much broader base of students; the reality is that there are fewer women in engineering and science than in the humanities. As we transition, we are very strongly encouraging women to apply. We have two specific scholarships that are open for women only, and in our information sessions and MBA fairs that we attend all over the world, we make a special point of talking about the value of the program for women.
How many students are in a full-time MBA class at Queen's?
We will be teaching them in two separate classrooms; we'll split them in half. During the first eight months, we'll rotate about one-quarter of the teams between the classes. By the end of the eight months, everyone will have worked with everyone else. So we won't teach them in two completely separate groups, but in two classrooms. We'll take a great many opportunities to keep them together and to mix them up, too.
With 73 full-time faculty, you essentially have a faculty member for every student (before next year's expansion takes place). You also offer personal coaching and personal training programs. Why this degree of personal attention?
It's kind of the nature of the Queen's business school. By business school standards, [the school itself] is relatively small. There is no room in the entire school that will fit more than 80 students—there are no amphitheaters. We give that kind of individualized, personalized attention in all the programs.
Has the bad economy affected the quality of applicants?
The conventional wisdom is that when the economy is down, applications to graduate schools go up. But we've found that because virtually everyone coming here is leaving a job in the middle of a recession, they're obviously pretty optimistic about their prospects when they leave. We haven't really found that much of a difference [in the quality of applicants]; we seemed to have had relatively little difficulty in adding 50% to our class. There are some applicants who are out of jobs and who find that they might as well do their MBA now because they don't have prospects elsewhere. But for the most part, we found the students in the interview process to have the same reasons for wanting to come to an MBA program this year as they did in previous years.
Do you notice you're getting a lot of career changers?
We always do. Because we're a 12-month program, we get people who feel they can live one year without a salary, but perhaps not two. Our one-year programs are fairly attractive to career switchers. We haven't had any more this year than in previous years, but we always have a number of people who want to change from industry to industry.
Only 88% of students had jobs three months after graduation, and that's a pretty common story for B-schools these days. What is Queen's doing to set students up with jobs?
We're doing the things that we've always done. We make it very clear to students when they come in that the career center's activities are built into the program—there will be periods of time, especially in the summer and fall, when certain days or even an entire week are set aside right in the middle of the program for the career center activities. Each student meets individually with a career counselor to develop career strategies, improve résumés, and practice with mock interviews. We transport students to Toronto for a couple of days for meetings with companies and organizations. Unlike some schools where students can decide whether or not they're going to participate in any of the workshops or modules, here it's mandatory, and they're right in the program.
What are the main challenges facing Queen's?
I think that the employment market is one to start with. We have a relatively small number of graduating students compared to some other very large programs, especially in the U.S. We have fewer students that we need to place, but the market is down. A lot of students are going to have to take longer in finding a job, and they may not be getting their No. 1 job. They have to be flexible in what they elect to do. That's a problem that literally every program in the world is facing.
The marketplace in general means that endowments are down and fund-raising is down. The economic environment is a bit of a challenge, but markets go up and down, and there have been recessions in the past, so we'll just ride it through.
Queen's was ranked No. 1 internationally for several years by BusinessWeek. But some other international schools get better marks than Queen's (in areas such as general management, post-MBA pay, etc.). Why do you think Queen's is ranked No. 1?
The BusinessWeek rankings focus on two things: a survey of recent graduates and a survey of recruiters. I think that we do well on both counts because we very much focus on the experience. We work very hard in the admissions process to ensure that we're bringing in very high-quality students who genuinely will value working with other people. We do well in case competitions largely because students are really good at working with other people. Our students learn to appreciate others' strengths and differences; we're highly international with diversified student groups. When people graduate from the program, they have a deep affection for the kind of experiences they've had. It's a bit of a recruiter's dream—rather than getting somebody who's interested only in themselves, they're recruiting Queen's grads whose whole orientation toward the workplace is helping each other progress well. That's a very attractive quality in hiring an employee. My bet is that we do well because of those two things: Students are happy and the employers are happy.
Recent graduate comments are very positive from Queen's.
They are. The whole graduating class recently did an appreciation event for the MBA staff. There was a real genuine feeling of sadness at leaving. That's not the case with lots of MBA programs, especially ones at commuter schools where the program is just coming to class and going. Here, students live with each other for an entire year and they form friendships for life. In fact, a couple of years ago, we had one couple getting married in Toronto (two and a half hours away) and about 30 members of the class showed up. Someone was getting married in India and his entire team flew to India for the wedding. It's very common. What does a person who's finished a program here feel about the place? They have a deep affection for it. That's what gets reflected in the rankings.