MBA Admissions Director Alison Merzel describes what the Fisher program has to offer, and why Columbus isn't the "cow town" some think it is
Ohio State's Fisher College of Business (Fisher Full-Time MBA Profile) was founded in 1933 and now boasts more than 100 faculty members. But the school keeps the student side of its MBA program small—about 150 students per class—on purpose. The small student body makes it easy for students to take an individualized approach to creating their own course of study within Fisher's flexible curriculum. Alison Merzel, director of admissions at Fisher, explains that Fisher is not a "traditional lock-step MBA program."
Merzel, who received her Master of Labor and Human Resources from Fisher, says she looks for students with strong leadership abilities who will add to Fisher's tight-knit community. To find them jobs in a tough economy, she says the school maintains a network of corporate contacts with local, national, and international companies. Although many students end up working in Columbus after they graduate, Merzel refutes Fisher's reputation as a regional program, explaining that the city draws in graduates because it is simply "a really nice place to live."
In an interview with BusinessWeek's Rachel Arndt, Merzel explains why the Ohio capital's reputation as a "cow town" is off-base, the ins and outs of the application process at Fisher, and how the school is working to make sure every graduate has a job. An edited portion of the conversation follows.
Are you seeing more applicants now than in the recent past?
We are seeing an increase in international applications, although our domestic applications are relatively flat.
What is the most unusual or difficult essay question on your application?
We have a question that asks individuals to evaluate themselves based on certain personality characteristics. Students have the chance to be creative with the question. I don't know if you would call it challenging in the traditional sense, but it makes students think a little bit outside of the box. We choose characteristics that we think are important for success in the Fisher MBA program and ask applicants to choose two. These characteristics include creativity, curiosity, empathy, integrity, global outlook, and others. To justify their choices, students can write a traditional essay or submit a physical object, image, or photograph.
We also ask the references to evaluate candidates according to the same criteria, so it's fun to see how the responses match up.
What's your advice to students on how to answer that question?
We want substance. We're not looking for students to provide answers based on what they think we want to hear. We don't want them to use flowery language or references to literary geniuses or impressive political figures. We want to know about them. We want them to provide compelling information that separates them from other applicants. Applicants should try to make themselves stand out by being creative in their answers. This might mean a little bit of extra work, but if they take the effort to be creative, that's going to show their interest in our program and their dedication to putting together a strong application.
What do students say is the hardest part of the application process?
It depends on the student. It's a time-consuming process, especially for students applying to many programs. A big challenge for most applicants is the GMAT. Everything else is pretty much done—a lot of students just tweak their essay responses according to each school's essay question (most schools tend to ask similar questions). The GMAT is especially challenging if standardized testing isn't your thing.
Getting through the admissions process is tough. There's a waiting game. It takes a lot of effort and time to produce successful applications for many different schools.
Do students apply in rounds?
We have rolling admissions with deadlines. But we really just evaluate applications as they come in, so the deadlines are relatively soft, unless the student is applying for a particular fellowship opportunity. So, as the applications come in, we consider them and make decisions. The same is true for financial aid.
Does it benefit students to apply earlier on in the process?
In terms of the availability of merit-based funding it does. That's because we award financial aid at the same time we're making admissions decisions. The earlier you apply, the fewer students have already been offered admission to the program, which means less financial aid has been awarded. Our class is small, too—only about 150 students. We always recommend that applicants put together stronger applications rather than apply early. If that means that you have to wait until a later deadline so you can make your application as good as possible, that's fine. We would certainly encourage that vs. submitting a weaker application for an earlier deadline.
What do you look for in applicants' essays?
As I mentioned earlier, we really want to know more about applicants through their essays. An application is just a black-and-white representation of a person and nothing more, so what an applicant writes is very important. Unless we've met applicants in person, the only way we can learn about them is from what they write. So we want substantive information that demonstrates how the person will add value to the Fisher community. We're interested in students who want to take on leadership roles, and they should be able to demonstrate that in their essays. To do this, they can write about interesting personal experiences, how they will add value to the Fisher community, and how they'll leave a mark when they graduate.
What are the mistakes that applicants tend to make in the essays?
I can't believe how many spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors I see in essays. It's definitely important to have somebody proofread the essays and the résumé before the application is submitted. Sometimes students even use the wrong school name because they use the same essay for multiple schools. Mostly, the errors we see are careless ones.
How important is an applicant's quantitative GMAT score vs. the verbal?
We place more emphasis on the quantitative score, especially for applicants with nonquantitative undergraduate backgrounds. The amount of emphasis changes based on the quality of an applicant's undergraduate academic record. If somebody graduated with a weak undergraduate GPA, the only other quantitative measure we have is the GMAT, so we'll weigh the score more heavily than we would for someone with a strong GPA.
What's the typical amount of work experience applicants have?
The average is about three to five years. That means applicants usually have strong professional experience. But that doesn't mean that someone with extensive co-op or internship experience and a high level of professional maturity wouldn't be considered. There's not necessarily a minimum number of years.
How do you evaluate applicants with less work experience?
Every student in our program has to be able to contribute something. So applicants with less work experience should have strong leadership experiences in student organizations, extracurricular activities, and co-op or internship experiences. These abilities will enable students to be able to actively contribute in class. Sometimes students with less work experience don't add as much value to the program as other students, so they end up taking more than they give. And that means they're not getting as much out of the program as they should.
What do you look for in applicants' letters of recommendation?
We want to make sure the people writing the letters know the applicant well. Applicants should never get letters from people who have never given them feedback before, because the applicants probably have no idea what the people will say. It's much safer to ask a supervisor who has given a formal performance review in the past or a colleague who has provided some peer-to-peer feedback. The reference should really be able to speak to the applicant's abilities to succeed in the MBA program.
How do interviews work?
We give interviews by invitation only. All students who are admitted to the program will have had an interview. Students have the option of on-campus interviews, or interviews via telephone or Skype.
What mistakes do applicants tend to make in the interviews?
For the most part, applicants don't make too many mistakes in interviews. Sometimes, though, in international interviews, applicants prepare their answers in advance, which is obvious in a phone interview. You can certainly prepare the kinds of answers you want to provide, but you shouldn't read your responses word-for-word. Don't make it look like your answers are prepped, and avoid providing information that doesn't directly answer the question but comes instead from a prepared response.
The interviews are pretty conversational. We really want to find out whether the person would be a good fit for our program. When we offer an interview, we're at the point where we want more information about applicants than their applications give us. We also want to evaluate how well the applicant would fit into Fisher culture and whether the school would be a good match.
How does financial aid work?
All of our admitted students are automatically considered for merit-based funding—there is no separate application process. The majority of admitted students usually qualify for some kind of scholarship—anything from a $1,500 scholarship to a full-tuition waiver in the form of a university fellowship or something like that.
How do you attract women and underrepresented minorities?
We have a large recruiting event in the fall, also by invitation only, that is geared toward women, minorities, and military personnel. At the on-campus event, we really try to sell the Fisher community. Because we're a small program, we can take a personalized approach to the admissions process. For instance, we like to connect prospective female students with current female students and female faculty members. The same is true for underrepresented minorities. We want these applicants to feel comfortable at Fisher. A lot of times female candidates with weaker quantitative backgrounds are somewhat intimidated by the program, so we help them understand how they can be successful. Overall, we're extremely customer-service oriented and make sure that we address each candidate's individual needs.
Do you have any special programs to attract women and minorities?
We're a university partner of NSHMBA [National Society of Hispanic MBAs], and we offer scholarship programs through that organization. We have opportunities for students to get reimbursed for certain test preparation. We also pay for our students' memberships and attendance at national conferences for both NSHMA and NBMBA [National Black MBA Association].
The Graduate Enrichment Fellowship is a university-wide competition designed to attract underrepresented minorities at the graduate level by offering a full-tuition waiver and monthly stipend during the first year of the program, followed by additional support during the second year. We historically have a high success rate of "winning" these fellowships.
What percentage of the student body is international?
It's usually between 35% to 40%.
In a nutshell, what kind of person would be a good fit at Fisher?
We are looking for somebody who wants to take a leadership role, who is not afraid to take risks, and who wants to add value to the community in a meaningful way. We'd like to see people who are team players but individual enough to create their own paths. Something that differentiates our program from others is our flexibility. It's not a traditional lock-step MBA program. After students take the required core curriculum, they can customize their degrees based on their own interests. We want our students to take advantage of a myriad of courses, student organizations, and activities so they can create their own portfolio of experiences and graduate with skills that will make them marketable to recruiters.
Are there any stereotypes about Fisher you'd like to dispel?
Sure, and I don't know whether they need to be disproved or embraced. People have the sense that we're a regional program, a large state school with students from only Ohio or the Midwest. But the university has a worldwide alumni network. Our graduates can end up in jobs anywhere, not just the Midwest, though they may, indeed, choose to stay here. I think there's a misperception that Columbus is a bit of a cow town. But it's a dynamic, vibrant city with a lot of industry and a lot of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. Often people come to Columbus and end up wanting to stay. This is often reflected in career-placement statistics that show students staying in the Midwest. It's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since students stay in the Midwest because they came here for school and ended up liking it. Even students who come to the program and think they'll end up elsewhere find that Columbus is a really nice place to live, especially considering the cost of living and the available opportunities. It just so happens that people come here and really fall in love with the city and want to stay.
This misperception is a good reason why students should research MBA programs and visit campuses so they can really get a feel for what the different programs are like. They should do research beyond the surface. If you're going to invest two years of time and money somewhere, it makes sense that you're investing in a program that's the right fit for you and your personality. You might be surprised at what a program has to offer, even if you weren't initially considering it.
What is the school doing to help students find jobs in a tough economy?
The career management office is really utilizing the faculty, staff, local business community, and alumni to help find opportunities for our students. Fisher research centers have partnered with local businesses to create new opportunities. These partnerships have, for example, provided a lot of internships.
We're reaching out to all our connections. Fisher and Ohio State have strong partnerships locally, nationally, and, in some cases, internationally.
We also have a very diversified career placement office; we haven't historically had a stronghold in one particular industry or functional discipline, and I think that's helped us. Our students are placed in all different kinds of industries and areas. It's not like we've lost a recruiting stronghold because we only focus on finance or investment management, for example.
How do this year's job placement figures compare to those of years past?
We're actually doing pretty well. We're probably about 10% down from where we were last year. But we're continuing to get leads and continuing to make progress. Basically all of our internship and full-time placement data points are above the national averages.