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MBA Insider: Admissions Q&A

Washington Olin: Admissions Q&A

Evan Bouffides has been working in admissions for about a dozen years, not counting the two he took off to get his MBA. Since becoming assistant dean and director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Washington University's (Olin Full-Time MBA Profile) three years ago, he has committed himself to streamlining the application process and selling potential students around the world on the perks of living in St. Louis. So far, it seems to be working. Since he arrived, applications to Olin's small, 300-person MBA program have doubled. The caliber of student has risen dramatically. And the program is gaining recognition. Fresh back from a trip to Ghana, where he recruited at the embassy, Bouffides talks to BusinessWeek's Anne VanderMey about what the school is doing to increase international diversity, how students are handling the tough job market, and why St. Louis is a great place to live. Have there been any major changes to the application process in recent years? Over the last few years we've tried to streamline the process as much as we could. I think we have probably done a pretty good job of only asking applicants for critical pieces of information. We're not too extensive in terms of the essays that we ask them to write. There is one big switch. This year rather than requiring actual letters of recommendation, which is what many programs do and what we have always done historically, we switched over to simply asking for two professional references—whom we may or may not contact. So when you think about it from the applicant's perspective, that makes it a lot easier. Number one, because they don't have to sort of wait for recommenders to submit their letters. Oftentimes in the past what we've found was the applicant had done everything he or she needed to do, but they were still waiting for the recommenders to submit letters. That really delayed the process, to their detriment sometimes. We're a pretty selective school—as a percentage we don't admit that many students—so I think there's no need for us to require letters of recommendation for a population that may not get admitted. I think what we found was that it wasn't a really big discriminating factor in allowing us to make the decision. If we have any questions we can always contact the people who would ordinarily write the recommendations and have a brief phone conversation. I think that, sometimes, is equally valuable. There's always this other issue that you never have full control over the application process—it's not always clear who's writing the letters of recommendation, and so the authenticity of some of these documents was something that we had some concerns about. Our overall goal has always been to try to make the process relatively easy for the applicant. Another example might be that if a person submits an application in order for us to render a tentative decision. We can have unofficial copies of transcripts and unofficial copies of test scores and then, ultimately, if they get admitted and decide to join us, then we would require those documents. I think sometimes there's a delay in the process simply because they're trying to get official documents to us. And so you'll continue that policy with letters of recommendation? Yeah, I think so. I think it worked out pretty well this year, and I don't see any reason to change it for next year anyway. How often did you end up reaching out to those references? Only when we had questions. I don't have a percentage for you, but if there's anything that comes up as we try to render a decision that is unclear, then we'll go ahead and contact the person, but I would say it doesn't happen all too often. We tend to address the issue of professional experience and sort of future professional potential through other pieces of data. We do it through the résumés that they submit. And as we analyze their career trajectory to date, I think that we can make a pretty good determination about how they will perform in a professional setting in the future. This is probably kind of a cold way to put it, but letters of recommendation are always quite favorable. This is a pretty business-savvy audience that we're dealing with these days. That's why I say that they provide very little. It's not really a point of discrimination because they all tend to be good recommendations. That all sounds very humane. I think it's a stressful process for the applicant and, to the extent that you can make a reasonable decision for 99% of your applicant pool—without asking for yet another essay, yet another letter, yet another piece of information—then you ought to do that. It benefits us, too. Any good business school wants to get the best applicant pool possible. I can get several hundred more quality applications because I reduce the time it takes to submit an application. Also, it takes less time to reach a decision because there's less information to sift through. That is a benefit both to them and to us. Over the past few years that you've been at Olin, has the program been becoming more selective? There's no doubt that it has been. Selectivity from a standard admissions point of view is a function of two things. One, the size of the applicant pool. And two, the size of our entering class. The size of our entering class hasn't really changed. We've always been a relatively small program amongst the ranked business schools. We've always shot for about 150 students in our entering classes. The other issue is the number of applications, and that's gone up pretty dramatically. In fact we've more than doubled our applicant pool over the last three years. And so by pure mathematics the selectivity has changed pretty dramatically. How has the yield held up? Over the last three years that I've been here, the yield has been quite good. It's been in the mid-40s as a percentile this year, and I expected it to be lower. Still, I think that yield has been more challenging for us than it has in the past. Partly because of the increased applicant pool, we can now select much more competitive candidates. Quite clearly, these candidates have a lot of very good choices, and so yield may go down a bit. But even with that, this will be the most competitive class we've ever had in the history of this school if you look at any standard admissions metric. This will be a really terrific class. It looks as if the average age of Olin's incoming class is 27, which is pretty standard. What is the school's position on admitting younger students or students with less-than-average work experience? I think we're actually one of the schools in the nation that aggressively recruits the younger population. There's no doubt that a fraction of the class, a significant fraction, will be people with limited or even no work experience. Our philosophy has been that as long as we're selecting the right candidates, younger people do just fine in the classroom, and from a social and cultural point of view, and also in the job search. When I say as long as we're taking the right people, I mean beyond just the factors that we would ordinarily look for. We'd also want to make sure that we're particularly sensitive to such issues as maturity, confidence, and ability to go into this sort of environment where they would be relatively young and still be able to actively engage in and outside the classroom. Focus has a lot to do with it as well. So we definitely are very selective when it comes to this, and it's still a small fraction of the class, but it's significant. And by the way, most of these young people come from a couple of different sub-populations. One is a group of 3-2 students. At Wash U. we have 3-2 programs where students who are at the undergraduate level here at Washington University can also apply to get both their undergraduate and MBA in a total of 5 years. Those people typically have no full-time post-collegiate work experience. Then the other population would be a lot of the joint degree students, especially with the law school. They oftentimes apply to the law school straight from college, and while they're doing their law degree they apply to the MBA. So I think most of our young people come from one of those two populations, though we also do have some excellent candidates who come straight from undergraduate institutions after having just completed four years. Is there any worry that increased focus on experience in this risk-averse economic climate might hinder them in the job search? I think employers want kind of the same things that we want. We want smart, motivated passionate people who work hard, who are competent in their particular area of interest, who communicate well, and who have leadership skills. All of those things you can also find in a younger population, though I think it's a little more difficult. They do come in at a slight disadvantage not having had full-time post-collegiate work experience, there's no doubt about that. But again, ultimately we're trying to train people who are going to be leaders 15, 20, 30 years down the road. If I only take the short term perspective, and say, "Well, I can't admit anyone who has no work experience because they might have a tougher time getting that first job out," I'd be excluding a pretty significant portion of a very talented population who will ultimately be the leaders within their organization, and I would never want to do that. Different schools have different philosophical stances on this, but I think we've managed it very well in that we don't overwhelm the class with people with little or no work experience. The average age, as you mentioned, is about 27 years. They're in there, but there aren't that many of them. What are the biggest challenges facing the admissions department right now? It's been a good few years since I've been here, and I think the challenge in the general sense is always to get more applications and better quality applications. But in terms of specific challenges, I think we still struggle with the issue of some forms of diversity. We're really happy that last year we had our historic high in terms of females in the class. We hit a 37% rate of women in the full-time program. That was pretty good for us, but I think we can continue to work on that number and make it even better. I think we are one of the schools that has a terrific program but might not get as much attention because of our geographic location—that has effects internationally and nationally. We're located in the Midwest, we're in a moderately sized city, and it's probably the case that a lot of people in certain parts of the world haven't heard of a lot of the schools in the United States that aren't in the top 10 or that aren't on the East or West Coast. From a diversity perspective, we want to try to reach out and get some people from different parts of the world, and that's tough because there are economic issues involved, too. How much do you spend to travel to different parts of the world, given what is a relatively limited budget these days? These issues are persistent ones, though, and probably any business school would say the same kinds of things. They want a diverse group that continues to be talented and competitive. So, we're all in the same boat. There are a finite number of students and we all compete to get those students. Do you expect about a third of the students in the next incoming class will be international? I think that's probably about right. So it's holding pretty much steady? See, the percentage is fine. We've always hovered around that mark of a third. But in the international population, there are about four or five countries that are very, very well represented. It would be great to diversify in that dimension, but we'll see how it goes. Again, the first issue is always quality, you don't sacrifice that. But if we could diversify—especially in South America, Europe, and in Africa—that would be terrific. Can you tell me a little bit about the pass-fail grading system at Olin? I would call it a modified pass-fail system. What that means is that we don't give out letter grades like B's or B pluses or C's, rather we have four different gradations. One is a high pass, one is a pass, one is a low pass, and one is a no pass. Generally speaking, a great cluster of students will end up getting a P, or a pass. I think this is a very conscious decision that was made by the faculty, and we usually say that there are a couple of advantages. One, I think that it takes away the onus of figuring out what the difference is between an A minus and a B plus and places it on learning. Secondly, it allows a person to go outside their comfort zone. Once you get into the elective courses, you might be inclined to stick with those things that you're comfortable with. If I'm an accountant and I'm great at numbers, well, maybe I won't take that organizational behavior course. Or vice-versa, if I'm a marketing or human resources person, I may be a little bit worried about taking that next finance or accounting class. From a pedagogical perspective, that's exactly what the faculty want students to do, to cover those areas that they are weakest in—to not worry about grades so much as learning. I think it fosters collaboration in some respects too. All good business school are like this, where they have a lot of teamwork and it's a fairly collaborative environment, but I think the grading system in this particular case serves to reinforce that idea that you're there as part of the team. You're not trying to compete for that extra little grade. Rather, you're trying to work through issues, learn from your classmates, and they from you. At the end of the day, a person can still graduate in a certain classification. We have the Beta Gamma Sigma, which goes to certain students based on the percentage of high passes they get. Also, the top 10 scholars are designated. So, you can get sort of the special academic honorary things, but it isn't the sort of a situation where there's a GPA, or there's a class ranking, or anything like that. Our belief is that most employers are not particularly concerned about that sort of thing anyway. How many people typically get a high pass in each class? It varies by instructor and by discipline, but there's a rule that no more than 20% can get a high pass. How do students like living in St. Louis? In a way, that's another challenge. Not a lot of people outside of the country, and maybe even outside of the Midwest, know that much about St. Louis. It's very easy to kind of get a sense of what New York is and what L.A. is and what Chicago is, even if you've never been there, but when you say "St. Louis," I think a lot of people don't know anything about it. I think part of our challenge is making sure that people understand what a great environment it is. I would characterize St. Louis as a city that has pretty much everything that you would want in terms of social life and cultural life, but there aren't a lot of barriers to your life in terms of things like traffic. The cost of living is relatively low. Parking is ample. You know, all of those things, and to an MBA student, actually, that's a big deal. I've heard my associate dean describe it this way: All the other little challenges of life are minimized so that you can get to class easily and visit businesses easily. All you have to worry about is getting to school, focusing on your academics, and focusing on your career. I think within the city, we're located in a terrific area. We're adjacent to Forest Park, which is, I think, the largest urban park in the country. Within that park there's a couple of golf courses, there are a couple of museums, there are restaurants, there's a zoo. There's a lot of outdoorsy things to do to sort of relieve the stress of being an MBA student. And I think there has to be sort of an understanding that you don't have to live and work in the city where you go to school. We send our students to many parts of the country and in fact many parts of the world. They have ample opportunity to take this degree and not necessarily live in St. Louis, or in the Midwest for that matter. Although even in St. Louis there are a number of corporate headquarters and we send a lot of people to other parts of the Midwest like Chicago or the Twin Cities. It looks as though around 65% of people who graduate and work in North America go on to jobs in the Midwest. Do people underestimate the Midwest in terms of the number of corporate headquarters located there and the jobs available? I don't know if it's an underestimation. There is sort of a self-selection process that goes on. I previously worked in Southern California, and there are a lot of Southern Californians who really want to go to school there. They believe they want to live and work there, and they really don't give any consideration to other parts of the country because they really like it, and with good reason. The same self selection process goes on here in the Midwest, too. I think a lot of students who live and operate in the Midwest will apply to the Midwestern schools with the expectation that this may be where they want to stay for at least a certain chunk of their career. I think it's pretty easy to kind of find out where companies are located, and so I don't think it's an underestimation. Also, we do attract quite a few people from the East Coast, and we send a lot of people back to the East Coast, so there are natural and historical channels to and from that part of the country. For companies who do not physically recruit on campus but who have an interest in our students, one of the things our career center does is take students out to road shows. So, for example, they'll go to New York, to Chicago, to Silicon Valley to present our students to employers. There are a lot of different routes through which a person can find employment, but oftentimes the decision about where they want to live is very much for personal reasons, and the Midwest is a nice place. It looks as if maybe 6% of Olin grads go on immediately to the Northeast, so that is quite a few. Yes. As with most business schools, a big percentage of Olin grads went on to financial services jobs in 2008, more than any other type. Do you have any idea which employers filled the gap when some of those jobs were lost to the financial crisis? I think it's still a pretty broad spectrum of employers, but I don't keep track of those specific data. That's more career services. What I have heard—and you've probably heard this many, many times over—is that MBAs graduating into this market probably were a little bit different than their predecessors. Oftentimes people coming in a few years ago had a plan of what they wanted to do and stuck with that plan. If they were good students and they did their career management appropriately, then they essentially got the jobs that they were looking for. Nowadays people maybe have to go to Plan B or Plan C or Plan D. They do have to come up in their minds with alternative areas of employment, but they still find valuable opportunities that are meaningful and that will eventually get them to where they want to go. The stepping stones are a little bit different, or at least the path might be a little bit more circuitous. Can you remember any applications that really stood out? I think the ones that stand out are ones that are sincere, and that give us an impression of the personality of the person and the passion that they're showing for coming to your school. You know, it's hard because we ask for a lot of data, and we just spend a lot of time on the applications. You have to be really persuasive, and I think you have to be a very good writer and a really good communicator. Most people are pretty good at it, but there are not that many people who are excellent at it. The ones that pop out are the ones who on top of having all the other things—good grades and good scores and good experience—really show that they're going to provide that little something extra to the program. Does the business school have a motto? We do have a motto. We got a new director of marketing, and we went through a whole branding exercise a while back, and we do. It's six words and the motto is: "Creating knowledge, inspiring individuals, transforming business." In a sense, it encapsulates who we are, what our philosophy is, how we teach, and what we want for our students. I think those six words tend to be the things that we draw upon to frame the argument for why a person would want to come here. So, "Creating knowledge, inspiring individuals, transforming business."

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