Kelley's Jim Holmen discusses the MBA program's "holistic" approach to admissions and how it's helping students in a tough job market
Applicants to Indiana University's Kelley School of Business (Kelley Full-Time MBA Profile) should know that there's no formula for the perfect application, according to Jim Holmen, the school's director of admissions and financial aid. What the admissions committee wants to understand about applicants is "how their past experience will help them, both in the MBA program and as they transition to their post-MBA career," says Holmen. Beyond tips for approaching the application process, in a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek's Sommer Saadi, Holmen discussed some of Kelley's unique features, such as MBA academies and personal Kelley teams for each student, as well as how the dynamic community in Bloomington affects students. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation. Have there been any big changes to the application process at Kelley for the coming year—anything students need to be aware of? No significant changes to our application for the coming year. We're providing a few more opportunities for international students: We're going to start accepting the IELTS in addition to the TOEFL and providing some additional streamlined ways for them to submit academic records. But other than that, it's a very similar process. Regarding the recruitment effort for international students, is that something Kelley has been focusing on more? What prompted the change or the allowance of another test for international students? In certain countries we hear that there may be some difficulty scheduling tests, so this allows more flexibility and more options. But the other piece is we try to interview a significant portion of our international applicants. So not only will we have the English test, but we have the opportunity to talk with them as well. The combination of the two really does provide us a good sense of their potential and their English proficiency. In general with the application process, are there certain components that students should be more focused on or is it a comprehensive approach to trying to get into school? We certainly don't use any formulas; there are no weights assigned to the various criteria. We do take a holistic approach to our review of every applicant and if there are any deficiencies we'll look to see if there's enough strength in other areas to balance it out. But all the factors are important. It's a rigorous academic program, so their past academic record [and] their success on the GMAT are important for us to assess their academic potential. Their past work experience, their accomplishments, the impact they've had at work, in the community, in clubs or organizations—all help us assess their management and leadership potential. The interview and their essays help us get to know them at a deeper level, [and] also assess some of their communication skills, their self-awareness, their social awareness. And then we take all that information, along with references and whatnot, and make the best decision we can as we attempt to fill our class. Do you have any specific tips for the application or résumé process? Do you notice any common mistakes or missed opportunities for students when it comes to their essays or presenting their résumés? Read the instructions carefully. Most of the programs now use online applications and they are fairly intuitive, so there's the tendency to jump right in and start working on the application. As much as our processes at the surfaces seem similar, candidates can put themselves at a disadvantage if they make assumptions and just start working on the application without really understanding what the school is asking or looking for. Specifically to the résumé, if they focus mostly on responsibilities, they're missing an opportunity to help us really understand what they were able to accomplish in their work. So coupling any discussion of positions or responsibilities with specific examples of accomplishments helps us really understand the impact they had on the organization. When it comes to the essays, there's not a right answer or way to approach an essay. The essays provide applicants with the opportunity to bring their application to life, to really help us better understand the nature of some of their experiences, and their reasons for pursuing an MBA at Kelley. It's not that everybody has to take great risks in their essays, but I think there are always those candidates who try to be so careful that the essay comes across very flat. Granted, not everybody has had some amazing experience, but even in their regular, everyday world there are interesting things that people do that we'd love to learn more about. Do you have any other tips for how an applicant can stand out, not only in the essay but with the other components of their application? If they are provided an opportunity to interview, they should definitely take advantage of that opportunity because that really does [allow] us to get to know them better. It also provides them the opportunity to get to know the school a little bit better. When we receive an application from someone who has already provided us with the chance to get to know them a bit, it's always nice compared to the applicant [for whom] the first time we've ever come across their name is when we receive that application. Looking at the class make-up for Kelley, it appears that applicants typically have about five years of work experience. For someone who doesn't have a lot of work experience, what can they do to make themselves stand out or prove that they're ready for the commitment? While the average is five years, we do have a range of experience within the program. We have some students with limited experience, at least in terms of months or years, and then a few applicants with more extensive experience. What it boils down to is: Has whatever experience they have gained put them in a good position where they have clear goals? [Do] they know how their past experience will help them, both in the MBA program and as they transition to their post-MBA career? It's up to the applicant to help us understand why now is the right time. Shifting gears for a moment: For the students who were fortunate enough to get into Kelley and are now deciding if that's the MBA program they want to attend, what do you think it is about the school that makes it unique? What is it about Kelley that you think would make it a better fit for someone? One set of programs that are really attractive, to both applicants and then our students when they arrive, are our MBA academies. We have eight different academies that are all focused around different business functions—business marketing, consulting, consumer marketing, corporate finance, entrepreneurial management, investment banking, investment management, and supply chain and global management. Each academy is led by faculty [whose] passion [is that function]. All students join an academy based on their functional interest. They then spend time throughout their two years in academy activities. We have some dedicated academy weeks spread throughout the two years when no other classes meet—you spend the whole week with your academy—which allows them to travel to visit companies. Most of the academies do live consulting projects, so students are able to apply the things they're learning in the classroom to real-world business situations. Each academy also has a liaison, a member of our career services staff who has an expertise in that functional area, and so the academy experience is really bridging their academic experience but also complimenting the work they do with our career services office in their search for great internships and full-time positions. In reference to career placement, what does Kelley do, or what unique features are there specific to career services, for students? The career services staff has been working exceptionally hard over the last few years, given the job market, to make sure our students are well-prepared and that they have good opportunities. The staff has grown considerably and most are people with significant corporate experience who often spent a lot of time on the other side of the table as recruiters and working with different functions as well. They begin working with our students very early. The class coming in this fall started working on a curriculum with our career services staff on June 1. And we're devoting a full week prior to the start of classes—we have our complete and traditional orientation program but also then a complete week of work with our career services staff—[to building] a very structured curriculum so that they're ready to hit the ground running with their internship search as they embark on their first year. We have also developed something called Empleo Teams, recognizing that in an economy like the one we're in, there are lots of different opportunities that may not have always been traditional paths for MBA students, but we have students who are interested. So we have Empleo Teams formed around different areas—some are geographic teams, some are around different functions. It helps pull together students who are interested, faculty and staff resources, and other things to expand their job search. As I was exploring the website, I saw that there was a feature on how each student gets a personal Kelley team. Could you expand on that a little bit? When our students come in, there's a whole team of individuals who are working with them to help them chart their course through the MBA. And that team includes faculty members, an academy director, career services staff, MBA staff, alums, even their classmates. Each person's team may be a little bit different. But the idea behind our program [is that] there's a great deal of flexibility and opportunity. There may be several students who have a similar end goal, but there's not one single path that they all must follow to achieve that goal. So in working with that team, they're going to figure out the right combination of activities, both in and out of the classroom, to help them reach their goal, based on their past experience and their needs. I also wanted to talk about the location of the school. Bloomington might be a harder sell than let's say New York, LA, even Dallas. How do you think the city plays as a factor in the program? It's certainly true that our students can't take a class in the morning, hop on a subway to visit a firm at noon, and be back in time for their afternoon class. But the reality is, through the travel opportunities the academies [provide,] we have groups of students who get together, with some school support, to visit [companies] around the country. We have no trouble getting companies to come down to Bloomington and our students out to visit corporations as well. We're less than an hour from Indianapolis, which is a major city. Bloomington, Ind., doesn't mean isolated or lack of opportunity or lack of interest from recruiters. The recruiters come because of the strength of our students and the education they know that they receive. And actually, many of them enjoy spending time in Bloomington. The biggest misconception is that being in a small town in southern Indiana somehow minimizes the MBA experience. If anything, it enhances it. It's a dynamic community. The university has about 40,000 students and that brings a tremendous amount of energy, diversity and opportunity to the area. The community really revolves around the university and so there's lots for our students to do. Probably 90 percent to 95 percent of our faculty, staff, and students live within a three- or four-mile radius of campus so it really helps build the Kelley community in general. The opportunities to work with faculty are significant and faculty show up at MBA social events. It's just a really nice environment to spend a couple years when you're going through a rigorous academic program. Great. Is there anything you want to make sure our readers are aware of? I would just hope that they give us a good look and if at all possible, make a visit to campus because it's one of those situations where they really get a much better understanding of who we are and what's possible when they have the opportunity to meet our students, meet our faculty, see our beautiful building, and see what a vibrant community Bloomington is.