Monday, June 30, 2014

How to Find and Show Fit with an MBA Program

What is fit? Fit, defined simply, is the linkage between what an MBA program has to offer, and what strengths/abilities/experiences you need in order to achieve your goals. MBA programs are different from each other on many levels, many of which we will explore in this article. One of the most important things an applicant needs to do is figure out which programs really suit their needs, and once they have found such a program, demonstrate this fit in their application and interview. Here's why:

1) It will help you find the right program for you.

This should be self-evident.  If you are going to spend 1 or 2 years of your life at an MBA, and develop skills and a network that will last for many years beyond that, you want to be sure you are in the best possible program - for you.  As noted earlier, not all programs are created equally.

2) It will help you craft a strong application demonstrating why it is best for you.

This is important. In your application to an MBA, you need to demonstrate why their school is the best choice for you. This works on many levels.  First, if you can demonstrate in your application that there is good fit between what the school offers and what you are looking for, you give the appearance of being a safe choice.  In other words, if the school offers you a seat, you are likely to take it - because you have shown you value their school.  Schools are protective of their yield (the percentage of offers made that are accepted by applicants), as a high yield can lead to increased prestige and even higher rankings too. In addition, demonstrating fit in your application makes you a safe choice because it shows the chances are high that you will be a happy student once enrolled (because you'll be getting what you wanted), as well as a happy alum once you leave the program. Failing to demonstrate fit in your application makes you a bit of a wild card: if they admit you, will you choose to enroll, will you be happy there? What if it turns out this program is not what you were looking for or what you really need? This would not benefit you, or the school.  

Given the importance of having a strong fit with a program, it is no wonder that one of the most typical and most important questions you need to answer in essays (and definitely in interviews) is: Why do you want to attend this school?

The list that follows below includes some characteristics of MBA programs that demonstrate how programs differ from each other, and can be used for research, or even towards making clear examples of fit in your essays and interview. It is not exhaustive, but it does serve well as a good starting point.

The Courses

Obviously this is a good initial place to look when considering programs. What do you want to learn, and in particular, in which areas do you hope to be able to do deep dives?  Exploring lists of electives is a good way of seeing which programs offer the education you are looking for.  Moreover, how are the courses organized? If you want to go into HR management post-MBA, it might be wise to study organizational behavior before your internship. Is this possible? What for the banker aiming to go into consulting?  Obviously the MBA offers the typical basket of skills, but will one program make you choose between important electives, where another might allow you to take both? As you consider the ideal courses for you, and even their timing or availability, some programs will rise to the top, while others might eliminate themselves from contention.

Other Academic Opportunities

This section is necessarily broad, because there are so many possibilities to consider.  Here are just two: 
a) Capstone (experiential) programs: are they offered, and if so in the industry or even with a company that will add value to your experience?
b) Overseas trips or study experiences: can you build networks in the places you need to? How much choice do you have in choosing where you might study, and what you might do there?

Clubs and Extra-Curricular Opportunities

What personal goals have you established for your MBA experience? Do you want to be in a place where not only you but your entire family can benefit from the international experience? All programs have some variety of Partners Clubs or events for family members, but further research will help you to find the programs that are ideal for you. What else is important to you? If you desire to be in an Asian Marketing Club, a South American Business Club, or to even create a new club, you'll find quickly that not all programs are created equally.

The Professors

Who will be teaching the programs you wish to attend? Some professors offer benefits over others, such as industry or region-specific experience, a network in a certain field or a research interest in a particular and focused area.  As such, this area of your MBA experience should definitely not be overlooked.

The Characteristics of the Program

Do you value teamwork, or hands-on learning? Again, not all programs are created equal.  Are you interested in learning via case studies or lectures from professors? The difference in the experience here is substantial. Are grades given to project teams, or individual members? How is in-class participation graded?  Are courses graded on curves, with only (for instance) a fixed number of As offered to students? This will define, in many ways, the amount of competition or collaboration between yourself and your classmates. 

The School's Reputation

By this I don't just mean "is the program known for its strength in marketing or finance".  This is of course important, but in addition, does the school have a reputation for helping students change careers? Has its graduates been successful gaining employment in certain industries or functions, or in certain parts of the world? What companies come to recruit on campus? Is the brand or name-recognition of the program high in your own country? If so, it may help to open valuable doors for you. 

The School's Mission

What does the program exist to do? What kind of leaders are they aiming to create? Does this agree with what you want to do in the future, how you see the world, or how you aim to change yourself? 

Atmosphere / Culture and Other Students

This is why it is important to a) visit campus and b) talk with alumni of the program. Because without doing both, it is hard for you to truly envision whether this school is where you want to spend the next 1 or 2 years of your life.  How do students interact with each other in class, on campus, and in social events?  All schools attempt to forge bonds amongst members of their student body - but not all bonds are created equal.  In terms of the other students in the program, this is on one hand very obvious, and on the other difficult to figure out.  You may be able to access demographics of previous classes, but you won't know more about your own classmates until you actually choose a program.  

The Location of the Program

This is not about the weather.  Rather, what opportunities does the program have regular access to?  The proximity of a few top Californian MBAs to Silicon Valley is one obvious example, although it should be noted this entrepreneurial region is visited by MBAs from all over the US (let alone other countries too).  What kind of opportunities are you looking for in your MBA, and beyond? If your goal is to land a job in a top Canadian company, than Rotman, Ivey or Schulich might inch closer to the top of your list.  If learning Spanish or French as a third language is of value to you, programs in Spain or France might work better.  If, on the other hand, your goal is to become a specialist in Asian business, a program in China, Singapore, or even Japan might fit best.

For More Reading

I'd suggest looking through my delicious links. I have over 18,000 of them (!) and the most popular tag is "MBA". Search for the following set of tags: MBA+fit and I'm sure this will put you in the right direction to kick off your research. Add a school name (for instance Booth+MBA+fit or Stanford+MBA+fit) to specify articles for one particular program. 

John Couke

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Interview with Russell Davis, Duke Fuqua's Assistant Director of Admissions

I am pleased to offer this interview with Russell Davis, Assistant Director of MBA Admissions at The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University

Can you tell us a little about your background?

Moving into higher education was a career switch for me back in 2001, and one that I have found to be very gratifying. I started working at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in 2005 and joined the Office of Admissions in 2008. Prior to joining Admissions I was the Director of one of Duke’s Executive MBA Programs. In my first career I was a serial entrepreneur involved in three start-ups in the US. I was born in Houston, Texas. My father was an ex-pat so I was very fortunate and lived in a number of international locations growing up including Singapore, Hong Kong, London and Japan where I attended St. Mary’s International School. I actually lived in Japan the longest growing up, for three years.

Why did you decide to become involved in Admissions?

Two of my start-up experiences were ‘new concept’ start-ups. I spent a lot of time educating the consumer while at the same time creating excitement. When I made the move to higher education I quickly discovered that working in Admissions was where I wanted to be. It gave me the opportunity to leverage my skillset and passions, educating prospective candidates and creating excitement about an MBA Program that I believe is truly special. I enjoy working across cultures, and learning from and engaging with people who have different backgrounds from me. I am quite certain this comes from my international upbringing. My primary area of responsibility is MBA recruitment in Asia. Nothing puts a bigger smile on my face than knowing I have helped someone reach their dreams.

What is it that you like about the Duke MBA? What makes it different from other MBA programs?

More than anything, it’s the people – students and colleagues – and the culture. We have a very unique culture at Duke, something we call ‘Team Fuqua’, where our students truly appreciate being part of something special, and they know they are stronger and have a better chance to fulfill their potential because of the people around them. We have a student driven community that provides almost limitless opportunities for a student to develop the soft skills that will ultimately set them apart in their careers. At the Duke MBA we have a general management curriculum that enables students to fill their gaps and specialize in areas that are most important to them. Duke’s Faculty are highly ranked across all areas. When a student goes to a top business school, recruiters and sponsoring companies know their potential hires and employees are going to be smart and are going to learn the hard skills – finance, marketing, accounting, strategic thinking skills, etc. Ultimately, however, it will be the soft skills – their ability to work with others, to work across cultures, to influence, to be a future leader in their organization – that will enable an employee to have the greatest impact on their organization. These are the skills our students develop and hone as a result of the Team Fuqua culture. And to be honest, the thing I hear just as often from recruiters I speak to when discussing our students and why they are so desirable – our students are likable! 


When you are reviewing an applicant’s application, what are you looking for, what is the process?

At the Duke MBA we are looking for students who are the right fit more than anything else. When a candidate begins reviewing business schools they are looking at the curriculum, the teaching methods, who the target employers are that are hiring students from the school and the industries in which the  students are entering as well as the geographic locations where students are going. Next, they look at their own profile, their GMAT, their GPA, how many years work experience, and how these data points fits into the different schools’ class profiles. After they make this pass, it typically results in a short list of schools for them to focus on. Then they look at where the school is located, how is the quality of life and what is the student culture like? They are trying to determine which school is the best fit for them. Fit is a two-way street and we are doing the same thing. Of course, we need the applicant to demonstrate they can do the work, and that their professional and personal background brings something to the table. Next, we want to see in the application that the applicant ‘gets’ the Team Fuqua culture and truly wants to be a part of it, be an engaged partner and make the most of the two-year MBA experience, because that is what creates the richest learning environment for everyone. How do they do this? In their application we are going to learn a lot about them. We are going to learn about their past experience – where they’ve come from – and they are going to tell us where they want to go, what their post-MBA goals are. In their application it is their responsibility to tell us how Duke can help them achieve their professional and personal aspirations as well as demonstrate that they truly understand what makes Duke unique and how they are the right fit for our program. They do this by doing their research, by digging into the resources and programs that will help them achieve their goals and then highlighting them in their application. When an applicant does their research, it comes through in their application. And when they are the right fit, passion also comes through!
I know candidates hear this all the time, but we truly do take a holistic approach when reviewing an application. We look at every element closely and weigh all components of the application equally. We dig deep. For example, when we look at an applicant’s GPA, we look at the coursework – was it challenging, we look at trends in grades, we consider the quality of the university and the rigor of the major. We do not have minimum score requirements for GMAT, TOEFL, GPA or minimum or maximum number of year’s work experience. I have heard of schools that will not look at a candidate if they do not have a certain GMAT or TOEFL score. That is definitely not us because we put so much emphasis on bringing in the right students.

We know how important language skills are in an MBA program. What kind of a TOEFL score are you hoping to see? How do you assess an applicant’s English?

Of course, a student must be proficient in their English skills, both speaking and listening, to be successful in an MBA program and the TOEFL score is one of the ways to get a sense of a candidate’s English. However, we also know that test scores don’t always accurately reflect a candidate’s true abilities. So in addition to the TOEFL score we will look at the candidate’s writing abilities in their essays and other areas of the application as well as in any email exchanges we may have with them. We will also get input from a candidate’s interviewer. Lastly, I do my best to engage with as many of our candidates from Japan in person as I can which obviously provides our office with first-hand insight into their English abilities. I meet with all Japanese candidates who make the trip to Durham for a campus visit, or have a colleague meet with them if I am traveling, and I travel to Japan multiple times a year to connect with our potential candidates and applicants in person. I can tell you that we had quite a few applicants who were admitted with a TOEFL score under 100 this past year, this is not uncommon. 

Can a high GMAT offset a low GPA? How about the other way around?

Good question. The GMAT and GPA give the admissions committee a sense of the applicant’s ability to do the work. A top MBA program is very rigorous and requires a solid quantitative aptitude. We do not want anyone who starts our program to not finish the program, nor do we want them to struggle such that they are not able to make the most of the MBA experience. There is so much more to the MBA experience than sitting in the classroom and doing the coursework, and we want the student to be able to take full advantage of everything their two years in Durham has to offer. I do advise candidates to review our class profile and get a sense of where their scores fit in. If they see that they are on the low end on both, I would suggest they put some effort into raising their GMAT, because there is not anything they can do about the GPA at this point. So yes, a higher GMAT can offset a lower GPA, as well as the other way around. Bottom-line, I often tell candidates, it’s ok to have a blemish on your application, they just don’t want to have too many! 

Do you look at an applicant's entire GMAT history, or do you only consider their highest overall score?

When assessing an applicant’s application, we only consider the highest GMAT score they submit. We will look at their test history, but rarely does the history have an impact on their application. I will add, if the applicant has only taken the GMAT once and the score is on the lower end, and especially if their GPA is also lower, the Admissions Committee may wonder why the applicant didn’t take the GMAT a second time in an attempt to improve it and their application. 

Duke seems to emphasize a teamwork approach in the MBA program. How do you look for this in applicants?

As mentioned earlier, we review every element of the application closely. We are able to see many different sides of an applicant and view them through multiple lenses in the application process. We get their recommenders’ insights into them in a working environment, we get the interviewer’s perspective and of course we learn much from the applicant themselves. At the Duke MBA, the vast majority of our interviews are conducted by second year students, if on campus, and alumni if off campus. No one knows better who is a good fit for our program than those who have lived it. We want to see that the applicant values others’ perspective, has an appreciation for diversity and understands how a diverse learning, and team environment makes them better. 

The three words candidates hear most frequently from business schools when promoting their programs are ‘teamwork’, ‘leadership’ and ‘global’. My advice to candidates is to ask ‘how’? In their research, an applicant should be able to understand how the school delivers in these areas.

Can you tell me about your application rounds? When do you see the most applicants?

At the Duke MBA we actually have four rounds. We have what we call our Early Action Round, followed by Rounds 1, 2 and 3. The Early Action Round is for those applicants who know Duke is where they want to be. They have done their research and they know Duke is the best school – for them. There is no advantage to applying in this round, other than the fact that if the applicant is admitted they are done with the MBA application process! They can now focus on preparation. If an applicant is admitted in Early Action they are required to withdraw their applications from other schools and submit their deposit. This round is a smaller round. We get the bulk of our applications in Rounds 1 and 2, split rather evenly. I strongly advise all candidates to not wait until the Round 3, another smaller round, because by that point the bulk of the class has been filled and there are only a few seats left in the class making that round extremely competitive. Also, all applicants are automatically considered for merit-based scholarship and by the third round we may not have much scholarship money left. For international applicants, they can also run into visa issues if they apply in Round 3 for by the time they receive their decision it does not leave them much time to get their visa, so we really like to see them apply no later than Round 2.

How important is the campus visit in the admissions process?

As I mentioned earlier, after doing their preliminary research a candidate usually has a short list of schools they want to focus on that can help them achieve their goals and provide them with the most fulfilling two-year experience. My advice to MBA applicants is to visit the schools on that short list. That is the best way to see which school is the best fit for them culturally. It also gives them a chance to see first-hand where the school is, and get a sense of the quality of life. In addition, it can really help an applicant put together a stronger application because they learn so much and get tremendous insight on their visit. For example, applicants hear and read about ‘Team Fuqua’, but it is so much easier to understand what it really means by experiencing it. At Duke we have amazing students who are passionate about helping and sharing their insights with prospective applicants. When a Japanese candidate comes to visit Duke they have an amazing experience as our Japanese students take great pride in hosting them and ensuring all of their questions are answered. Another advantage to visiting Duke is if the candidate comes during our open interview period – which lasts about 5 weeks from early September to mid-October – they can choose to have an interview during their visit and then have the interview attached to their application no matter what round they submit it in that year. If they are not able to come to campus during that time then the candidate must be invited to interview upon review of their application. If they are invited to interview, they can come to Durham for their interview where they will be interviewed by a second year student as well as take part in a number of other activities designed to give them a great Duke experience. Or they can be interviewed in Tokyo by an alumnus. In both cases, we have specific dates for the interviews. I travel to Tokyo for our Round 1 and 2 interviews to meet the candidates being interviewed.
However, we understand that visiting Duke from Japan is not always feasible, and we certainly don’t hold it against an applicant if they can’t visit. It just means the applicant will have to do their research and connect with our students and community virtually. Fortunately, as I just mentioned, our students are so helpful, they spend many hours on Skype calls with potential applicants as well answering emails with terrific insight. And our alumni in Japan are also great about sharing their experiences. So applicants can still get great insight into the Duke MBA without visiting.

Do you have any closing comments?

First, I want to thank you for the opportunity to share my insights, John! I often have candidates come up to me and start a sentence by saying, ‘I heard at Duke…..’ and then they tell me something that is news to me, a rumor or simply misinformation. I clear up whatever they heard, and then tell them the best place for them to get their answers is straight from us! So I appreciate this chance to provide what I hope is some useful information to future applicants.

What our office is most proud of is our commitment to getting to know our applicants. In two recent surveys of incoming MBA students last year Duke was ranked #1 and #2 respectively on the question ‘How well did the business school get to know you in the application process?’ I believe this is a reflection of our special culture and community, as well as our commitment to meeting our applicants on the recruiting trail. It may also have something to do with one of our essay questions – Tell us 25 Random Things about Your Self? But that’s a topic for another time! And on that note, I encourage candidates to come join me at my Information Sessions in Tokyo this year, where they can count on my providing more insight into what we are looking for in candidates and their application. Thanks again, John!

Thank you Russell for your time!

John Couke

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

MBA Application Strategy: Adding 1-2 Schools is Easier than Ever

I have never endorsed the concept of applying to more programs than you might normally do so just for the sake of maximising your overall chances. Applying to 10 programs instead of 7, or to 5 programs instead of 3 has often meant, to me at least, greater risk of shoddy and underdeveloped work as a result of not spending enough time on each application. Rushing to complete a lot of work in a short amount of time never really works out for anyone.

However, today MBA applications are easier to complete than ever as recommendation letter prompts and essay topics are becoming more and more generic. 

Essays - 

More and more top MBA programs have been cutting their number of required essays (Wharton, Michigan, Stanford, Tuck) or eliminating mandatory essays entirely and leaving only one optional essay (Harvard). I don't agree with this trend, as I feel schools should be investing more time into choosing the right candidates for their program rather than cutting application requirements. However, the amount of time spent drafting and completing essays is going to be a bit less now that schools have less essays. What will stay the same though for most is the amount of time spent brainstorming contents. This, brainstorming and deciding essays approaches and strategies, is and will always remain a vital component of the process.

Recommendation letters - 

Recently several top MBA programs announced they’re requiring recommenders to respond to a standardised set of questions. Columbia, Yale, Wharton, Chicago, Virginia, and Kellogg are expected to participate. A Poets&Quants article on the topic can be read here. Stanford even made their famous peer recommender an optional part of this year's application - more on that here.

Overall, I feel the change is again a negative one in that schools are becoming more and more alike and less differentiated at the application level. But there’s no doubt that if you aim for 1-2 extra schools amongst those in this list, your recommenders won’t be greatly affected. 

So, if you have finished one application that is strong, and completed to your liking, and it cannot be improved anymore..  then adding an extra school or two might certainly be within reach. I don’t mean that you SHOULD apply to more programs, just that the OPPORTUNITY COST is lower than ever. 

Remember: application quality is most important, and should never be sacrificed. Don’t cut and paste blindly between applications. Research programs and be ready to show how you feel fit with a given program when asked to do so. These are important things to consider for every school to which you apply. But, at the same time, know that the days of saying “I don’t think I have the time to submit an HBS or Wharton app in R2” are likely gone for those who are well-prepared and keeping to a schedule.

John Couke

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Interview with 1st Year Student in the NYU Stern MBA Program

I am pleased to offer the following interview with a current 1st year student in NYU Stern's MBA Program.

1. Looking back on the way you prepared for the MBA, is there anything you would change? Anything you would have done more of or less of?

After spending a year at NYU Stern, I’ve realized that it’s really hard to join a new society at the beginning, that is, to take leadership as a student in a foreign country.

Communication is different from just speaking in English and there is not only a hardship in language but also differences in culture and mindset. For the first few months you will spend quite an intensive time mingling and studying. Here (in the US) students keep almost no distance with each other. From the perspective of Japanese culture (I’m from Japan) I found it a bit close and felt an adjustment was required. I have learned, both from applicants who visit our campus and my own experience, that Japanese applicants focus their research more on the classes and less on the environment. That could be a big deal. You should know what’s really going on during your MBA to be assured you can feel fit with your school. It is possible that you are not outgoing enough, and so you may be confused when it comes to your school life. In order to avoid that, you should know what opportunities are being set up for you. The Japan Trek (sometimes called the Japan Trip) is a good example. You have absolute advantage in everything and there are lots of potential friends who are interested in your home country. You will be exposed to a lot of students and they will know who you are. They will realize you are polite/kind/sincere etc. and you will be able to get a strong bond with them, as you contribute to the student body in your school. This is the first step for you to make a difference in your life as a student. Thus, you should imagine such specific steps beforehand and leverage fully the opportunities you can encounter.

In addition, if I were an MBA applicant this year, I would spend more time choosing schools, specifically getting to know the environment around each one.

You will spend a lot of time outside the school, so it’s important to know the environment. Many Japanese applicants tend to focus only on school programs when they investigate business schools. This is important, but seeing other opportunities is of great importance as well. Fortunately, I live in the center of NYC, which means it enables me to network with various smart people from Japan as well as other countries. That’s one of the New York advantages. Also, the great access to other cities and countries helps me get involved in events/opportunities I cannot enjoy/experience in Japan and that makes a difference.

I know that whatever your target score is, it is hard to beat the GMAT and TOEFL. But you are not going to do them again once you enroll in your dream school, so I recommend you think of your school choice over and over while you are an applicant.

2. Can you write a bit about a course that you have really enjoyed or benefitted from?

NYU Stern is known for Finance but I think it is also good in Data Science. Since I majored in statistics and math, it allows me to know how my academic knowledge applies to real business problems/situations. Lectures here use a hands-on style and professors let us form a study group so I can learn concreted knowledge and experiences from not only the professors but my group members.

3. Have you had the time to get involved in any extra-curricular activities? If so, what ones and what are you doing in them?

I was a Japan Trek leader. There were over 170 applications to join the trip and 100 MBA students went to Japan with only three Japanese students. Half the participants wanted to go sightseeing in the daytime while others wanted to go to nightclubs every night. To satisfy both, trek leaders got up at 7am and went to bed at 5am every day. We were really exhausted but really got to know each other well. And the remarkable point is that the participants gave us a big gift as a token of their gratitude. Currently we feel much closer with each other and it motivates us to contribute to the school even more.

4. What have your experiences been like in learning/project teams? 

NYU Stern has various dual degree courses. One memorable experience was when I worked with dual degree students from the film school. It was for a data mining class and we had to create a data-mining project and complete it by ourselves. We did a project of projecting box office sales for movies. Film school students are professional in qualitative analysis of what will affect the sales of movies and I’m good at math and programming. We could realize synergies with each other. Also, if I work in Japan I wouldn’t normally have a chance to work with people from the film industry.

5. Can you share your plans for the summer?

Since I’m a company sponsored student I can’t do a summer internship. Instead, I will study Spanish and Chinese. Also, I will study programming.

6. Can you offer any words of advice for those applying to the MBA program you are enrolled in?

NYU Stern is at the center of the world and offers you a lot of opportunities that can make your life better. Please feel free to contact us from our website. Hope to see you soon. Good luck!

Thank you for your time!

John Couke

Monday, June 2, 2014

2014 AIGAC Survey Results Posted

As a member of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, I recently asked my clients and blog readers to participate in an admissions-related poll. The results of that poll have now been released, and I'd like to thank this opportunity to thank my readers who participated.

The announcement of the survey results can be found here, and the full survey is available here. I strongly recommend those aiming to apply later this year to review the survey, as it includes interesting and relevant information on the admissions process and how other applicants view it.

Thanks once again to those who participated!

John Couke