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MBA Insider: Admissions Q&A

Admissions Q&A: North Carolina

Sherry Wallace has a pretty good idea of what it takes to succeed at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School (Kenan-Flagler Full-Time MBA Profile). That's because Wallace, director of MBA admissions at the school, earned an MBA from Kenan-Flager in 1987. Wallace says she had to "work my tail off" once she entered the rigourous business program.

So what's Wallace looking for in today's Kenan-Flagler applicants? On top of solid academic credentials, the school wants to see that applicants have the "ability to get things done," Wallace told Bloomberg Businessweek's Zachary Tracer during an interview.

For more on how to get into Kenan-Flager, located at UNC's Chapel Hill campus, and what the school has to offer business students, read the edited excerpts of Wallace's conversation with Tracer below.

What makes someone a good fit for Kenan-Flagler?

The first thing that you absolutely have to have is a pretty clear vision of who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are currently, and where you are trying to go. We're looking for people who have a more clarified vision of what they are trying to do with the MBA. The more focused you can be coming in, the better outcomes you are going to have at the end. The MBA is not inexpensive, in both time as well as cost. We owe it to the prospective students to make sure they know what they are signing up for.

What are they signing up for? What makes UNC unique among business schools?

Excellence with a heart. We are very concerned not only with what we do here, but with how we do it. We're not going to make any excuses for a very rigorous curriculum because you've got to be good. We've got to teach the knowledge and the skills that you are expecting to get when you come to an MBA program. But we recognize that simply knowing something and having a strong skill set don't mean you can get anything done. And so there's a lot of attention and emphasis in our program on the ability to make things happen, to get things done.

Can you tell me about any big changes to the application process for the coming year?

We are a member institution of an organization called the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. The consortium has a common application, [but] UNC has not been part of that common application for about 12 years. This year we are rejoining the common application. In the past, [we] have required all students educated in India to provide a test of English proficiency. We are not going to make that a blanket requirement this year. We will request that if we feel it is warranted.

UNC conducts admissions in four rounds. Is there any advantage to applying in an earlier round?

We have the four rounds because we fully intend to invite strong applicants in each of those rounds to join the class. I wouldn't say that there is any favorable treatment of people who apply early. The fourth round, there is always the risk that the yield of candidates admitted earlier is over what we had forecast, so sometimes in the final round, even if [an] application is stellar—and this has happened three or four times in 12 years—we have been oversubscribed before we even have a chance to consider the fourth-round applicants.

Once you have students' applications in hand, how do you evaluate them?

One of the big drivers for us is ability to get things done. So we're looking for people with a record of achievement. We're looking for people who have demonstrated ability to be effective in teams— in leadership roles, but also in collaboration roles. We're looking for people who have vision. We're looking for academic excellence, test scores—all those other things.

Is there a minimum GMAT score you are looking for?

We don't have minimums. We know that test-score averages vary by demographic group. In general, the candidates that are successful tend to score in the high end [of the average range]. But if you don't happen to be in that range, don't immediately count yourself out. There are always going to be outliers in every class. [Editor's Note: The median GMAT score for the MBA Class of 2012 is 700, with a middle 80 percent range of 620 to 750, according to the Kenan-Flagler class profile.]

How about work experience?

We are a program that is expecting an entering student to have at least two years of full-time work experience. If you happen to be a candidate who doesn't have two years of experience, we're going to examine you, but I don't want to be misleading. In the last few years our class size has been about 290 to 295 and in each of those years, we may have had three or four students who entered the program who did not have at least two years of work experience.

UNC requires only two recommendations, so what should students do to make sure that those letters are strong?

We encourage people [to] think long and hard about what the school is looking to get corroboration or input on and ask yourself: "Who are the people in the best position to do that?" What I would do is go a step further—have a conversation with the people [you're] thinking about asking and find out how they experience you in some of these areas. Hopefully they'll give you some honest assessment. If you find that the depth of their support for you is not there, then maybe they're not the right people to pick.

Do you have any other tips on how to put together a compelling application?

If I were an applicant, I would be thinking: "How do I present myself as a credible candidate for this thing that I've pointed out in my essay I want to do?" If you convince us that you can do that and how business school fits within that, then you're probably going to be a lot more impressive to us than just telling us why you should be admitted to business school. Business school is a means to an end, it's not the end.

Can you tell me about efforts that UNC is making to recruit women and minorities into the program?

One of the ways we raise the awareness of our school among underrepresented students of color is being active in the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. We also do an event on campus every year, where we invite some of our highest prospects that are minority students to campus to spend the weekend and see what is it like to be at UNC, in particular as a minority student. We try to give them a sense both of the bigger community and also the community within the community. For women, we have a similar experience. We are members of the Forté Foundation, a multischool partnership that includes corporate representatives as well, which actively promotes women pursuing careers in business.

Are there any changes to the curriculum recently or in the coming year that students should be aware of?

We're adding more curriculum that's designed to bridge the academics and the marketplace. For example, this year we have something called the Finance Development Program. These [sessions] aren't in place of any of the finance courses we're offering, but are something students can do as an overlay. There are 14 sessions. One of the sessions would be a private-equity-interview prep session, or a company-research and stock-pitch session, or industry and country analysis, or restructuring and credit analysis. These are all things that are going to draw from knowledge that [the students] have picked up in their individual courses. The sessions are taught by our faculty, by industry adjunct [professors], or in some cases, by people in the industry.

Just 71 percent of the students in the Class of 2009—obviously a very difficult year—received a job offer within three months of graduation. How are you helping graduates find jobs and how are things looking so far this year?

Already at graduation we were about 10 points ahead of last year. All signs point to '09 being a kind of aberration. I should also add that the stats are published as of 90 days. As we've tracked students beyond that, we know that this number is not still 71 percent. Most of those students went on to find good outcomes. We don't just stop working with them because the 90 days are over. We had an increase in firms coming to campus to recruit 2010 grads, and [for] internship [hiring]. There were 20 new companies who came to campus in [2010].

Have you made any changes in career services. Are you perhaps reaching out to alums more or reaching out to the board of visitors or the board of trustees?

There absolutely have been more alumni active than ever. Within the career management team, we've got more resources applied to helping students who want to work outside the United States and really identifying and building more relationships with people who have jobs outside the U.S. We have tried to bring in more assessment tools for students so they can focus on things they need to improve, so they will compete more strongly for some of these [jobs].

Can you tell me about the advantages and disadvantages of being in the Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill area of North Carolina, also know as the Triangle?

I have been amazed at how many people who grew up in a major city, who thrive in those kinds of areas, who have absolutely loved having the experience here. Most of our students don't intend to stay or work locally. There are certainly advantages of being in the Triangle: It's a great resource for technology—especially entrepreneurial tech and biotech—and to be here around major research institutions adds to the experience of our students. But most people aren't picking [UNC] because it's the location they intend to stay in.

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