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Niki da Silva explains what sets Ivey apart, and what it takes to land a spot in one of Canada's top-ranked MBA programs
The University of Western Ontario's Ivey School of Business (Ivey Full-Time MBA Profile) is benefiting from Canada's resilient economy, said Niki da Silva, director of admissions and recruitment for Ivey's MBA program, in an interview. "Part of the reason Americans are interested in Canada is the strong coverage in the press, which has our banking system being admired by other countries," she said. Still, da Silva said one-third of Ivey graduates go into finance, particularly investment banking, while a third go into consulting and a third pursue careers in industries from consumer packaged goods to media. Of the 600 to 700 applicants to the school each year, Ivey ultimately enrolls 140 to 150 students after a rigorous application process designed to find those with the greatest leadership potential, said da Silva, who recently spoke to Businessweek.com reporter Francesca Di Meglio about everything from tips for writing standout application essays to the global economic crisis's influence on Ivey. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation: Is there anything new happening on campus about which people should know? There is a lot going on at Ivey. We've broken ground on a new business school that we expect will be ready in a few years. We also launched the biggest fundraising campaign in the history of the school. Because of the fundraising, some interesting work has come out, [including] "Leadership on Trial," in which three faculty members from Ivey traveled around the world talking to business leaders and published a manifesto about what happened to leadership during the economic crisis. As a result of that study, we received a commitment from an alumnus of the school to establish a new institute for leadership. What are the basic requirements for applying to Ivey? The first step is meeting the laundry list of eligibility requirements—a GMAT score typically 600 and above, undergraduate transcripts that usually show a strong B average in the last two years of the program, and the online application, which includes three essays and reference letters and has applicants sharing their work experience, of which we require a minimum of two years. After evaluating the application, we invite eligible candidates to interview. Above and beyond meeting all the eligibility requirements, the interview is an important part of the process. How important is the GMAT and GPA to the application process? The GMAT and GPA are important to initially demonstrate that you have the intellectual horsepower to get through an intensive, rigorous, 12-month program. We use them as academic benchmarks. We also work in partnership with career management, and we understand that some of our recruiters, particularly top-tier banks and management consulting firms, are also going to look at a candidate's GMAT score and undergraduate GPA. It is also important to ask "Does he have the right profile to achieve the career goals he stated in the application?" What is the biggest mistake many candidates make? Beyond embarrassing blunders, like not proofreading, the biggest overall mistake is not taking enough time to customize their application. We see a lot of strong applications building a case for why [they're pursuing] an MBA, but not necessarily [demonstrating] the passion and connection to why [they want] an Ivey MBA. Many candidates make the mistake of taking on too many applications at one time, trying to repeat content across schools, and ultimately selling themselves short in the admissions process. How can an applicant stand out? Ivey hosts information sessions and mock classes called "First Class on the Road," where candidates can come participate in a case study. There are on-campus visits, class visits, open house events, etc. Someone can stand out by attending those events, doing his research, and really starting to build a relationship with the school. When we see that application come in, we know that person, have seen him interact in a classroom setting, and have that much more information about his fit with the culture and case method at Ivey.
If applicants can't visit because of geography, they can stand out by focusing on their leadership profile. We received a really interesting application a couple of weeks ago from someone who has built a career in talent management in the entertainment space. He did an excellent job translating his leadership behaviors to show how he went from being a young talent agent to someone who is quite influential in the firm and is doing some unique, visionary things to try to grow its business. He stood out by understanding what we're about and [demonstrating] his fit with the philosophy and values of the school. What tips do you have for writing the application essays? It's a good thing to be spending a lot of time on the essays. It's about so much more than filling three 250-word essays. It is about reflecting on your achievements and projecting what you hope to achieve in your career. Be yourself. We're not looking for you to say one specific, standard kind of answer. We're really looking to understand what it is that makes a candidate unique, what his passions are, and what brings his story to life above and beyond standardized test scores, résumés, and the like. The best piece of advice would be to resist the urge to get too much help from family and friends. The essays should sound like you. When you're done writing the essay question, give the answers to someone who knows you really well without telling him the questions. See if he can read through your content and steal from a page of Jeopardy to come up with the question. If that's too difficult, you probably haven't been specific enough. Who is the ideal Ivey candidate? The ideal candidate won't be someone who you can define by statistics, GMAT scores, or undergraduate grades. What we are looking for is someone who is a high achiever, who has demonstrated a track record of success either within the professional realm or in the community. We are looking for someone who continues to achieve and overachieve and has demonstrated leadership. Ultimately, the ideal candidate is committed to building a career where he will contribute to his own organization and broadly to the society in which he operates. How would you describe the culture of the school? Ivey, with its one-year, case-based program, is an intense experience. We fill our classrooms with people who are driven, motivated, and ambitious. Still, the program is held on a campus, so there's a real culture of community. Students build relationships inside and outside the classroom. Our students would say that Ivey is a place where you can dive in and soak up every ounce of all things MBA for 12 months. What makes Ivey unique? As Canada's oldest business school—we've been around since 1922—there's been a laser-tight focus on branding Ivey as a leadership school, giving MBA grads a toolkit of broad business skills but not stopping at those functional skills. The opportunity to be so engaged in the learning process, to contribute, to be challenged, to make mistakes in a classroom setting, which doesn't cost you anything, allows students to get a head start and build their leadership skills. How have things been going for Ivey MBA students amid the economic crisis? It certainly has been more challenging. The Canadian market was not as hard-hit as the U.S. market. That said, two things happened that allowed Ivey to achieve similar placement rates in the 90-plus range over the last year or two. We're expecting similar numbers to come out this fall. First, we have a world-class career management center that continued to work hard to leverage these 90-year relationships with recruiters. The second part of the recipe was our students, who really stepped up their game and prepared for interviews and more technical questions and did extra research and more [mock] case interviews.