Georgetown's McDonough School of Business sits in the heart of Washington, D.C. In an era when the relationship between business and politics has seemingly never been more important, the school's assistant dean and director of MBA admissions, Kelly Wilson, says the location is ideal for students who want access to the nation's political center, which is fast becoming a business mecca to boot. Wilson says Georgetown's reputation alone draws influential speakers and guests who are eager to speak with the future leaders that McDonough aims to mold.
Wilson spoke to BusinessWeek's Brian Burnsed about what McDonough looks for in an applicant and what potential students should expect during the application process. An edited version of the conversation follows:
In the wake of the economic meltdown, are you seeing as many applications as you did in the past?
What we're seeing this year is an increase in domestic applications and a decrease in international applications. That seems to be the general trend among our peer schools. It makes sense to me because it is a global economic crisis.
What's the most unusual or difficult essay question on your application, and what's your advice to students on how to tackle it?
I believe it's a question concerning leadership. It's difficult because it's necessary for the candidate to first define what leadership means to them, but then to reflect on how they've been able to demonstrate leadership skills. It's important for someone to be able to look inside themselves to determine what it is that they provide as they're leading a group or organization. What are those skills? It's not always as obvious as one might think.
What do students tell you is the hardest part of the admissions process at McDonough, and how do you advise they deal with it?
The most difficult hurdle for many applicants is the GMAT test, and I think that it's one of those parts of the applications that looms over the whole process. I'd advise everyone to prepare as much as they can for the GMAT. There are many ways to prepare, whether it's self-study or taking a prep course. The candidate should familiarize him or herself with the GMAT, and through MBA.com they have the ability to do so. Preparation is the key.
You mentioned that the GMAT is one of the hardest parts of the application for students. Given that, how much do you weigh the quantitative GMAT score? How important is it in the context of the entire application?
We take a very holistic approach to the application process. While [the GMAT] often is a hurdle for candidates, it really is one of many pieces that we consider for the application. By no stretch of the imagination is it the only thing we look at. We will look at every component of the application. We're looking not only at somebody who can be successful here academically, but who will also be a successful part of the community by contributing in and out of the classroom.
What do you look for in the application essays that tells you how a student might perform at your school?
The easiest thing for a candidate to do, and this sounds so simple, is actually answer the question that is posed. And I say that because students are applying to many programs and there is a school of thought that they can create an essay that they can "plug and play" across many applications. It really is necessary for an applicant to take their time and make sure they're answering the question that is being posed.
What are good reasons for wanting to get an MBA at McDonough?
It's a personal reason. Each person has a particular set of wants and needs from an MBA program, and I think that what we offer candidates is a community of achievement. We have a terrific university that has trained many of our top leaders. We have a global mindset. Not only does the curriculum prepare them to lead in a global marketplace, but it enables them to get hands-on experience doing just that. Through our global residency program they are able to work on a consulting project outside the U.S. for a company and they will provide them with a solution to the problem that the company is facing.
Another reason they may want to come here is our focus on leadership. We're one of the only schools, if not the only school, to have leadership as a required element in our curriculum. We have a distinguished leaders program where we have distinguished speakers coming to campus, not only in the classroom, but our students have a chance to sit down with leaders at breakfast, 25 students per guest, and have an intimate conversation about that person's experience in a leadership role.
And Washington D.C., there's so much happening here in terms of world politics and business. It's an exciting place to be.
What's the typical amount of work experience you're looking for in an applicant? How do you regard applicants with less experience than that?
If you look at our stats, the average work experience is about five years. But, it's not just the number of years that we're looking at; it's really the quality of the work experience. For someone who has a little less work experience, we want it to be relevant. We want that candidate to look at their skills and their experience and really be able to connect the dots with respect to the goals that they have for themselves, and really understand what the MBA program brings to them as they move towards those goals.
What are some of the positives that you look for in recommendation letters? What things stand out to you?
We look for information from the recommender about the candidate specifically. Less helpful is a recommendation from someone with a nice-sounding title that can't really give any specifics about the candidate. So, the candidate's direct supervisor is a preferred recommendation because they are able to provide insight into that candidate in the workplace. We're looking for substance within the recommendation and would obviously love to see not only the strengths of the candidates, but what are the areas that the candidate can improve upon. There are times when a recommender may not feel that that information is important, but it definitely is, as it gives us a fuller picture of the candidate.
We also want to see that the recommender really understands what the candidate is trying to accomplish by going to the MBA program. So my advice to the candidates is to sit down with the recommender and have a conversation so that as they write the recommendation, they are able to be specific in that area as well.
What sort of mistakes do people tend to make in interviews that might harm their chances?
The mistake that we see the most is a lack of preparedness. The candidate should look at an MBA interview just like they would look at a job interview. We expect that they'll have done research on the schools. We expect them to have a dialog with the interviewer and share information about themselves that they want to make sure the admissions committee has the benefit of knowing. We look at the interview as another channel for collecting information about the applicant. It's a great opportunity for them to showcase and highlight their strengths while acknowledging areas that they may need to improve upon.
What financial aid opportunities are available to students?
We offer merit-based scholarships and they are available to domestic and international students alike. We go through an automatic process that doesn't require the candidate to complete any additional paperwork to be considered for the merit-based scholarship. We will advise the candidate at the same time they are admitted whether they have received a scholarship offer for their studies here at Georgetown. The amount varies and it can vary from a partial- to a full-tuition scholarship.
What do you do to attract women and underrepresented minorities?
We have partnerships existing with a couple of organizations that help us reach those targeted groups. Each fall, we also host an event for women and an event for the underrepresented population. We've had great success with the satisfaction of the people that attend those events because we're able to pool them into the community. Our current students love to participate in them because they're able to show prospective students what their experience is like at Georgetown.
What kind of person would be a good fit at your school?
We're looking for a diverse candidate. Diversity really includes diversity of background, geographic location. We're looking for women, minorities. Just as important as diversity is we're looking for people who are motivated and who are future business leaders. Candidates who have a record of achievement. Those are the people that come and are successful in our program. A successful student at Georgetown is going to be someone who works well in team settings. The approach that we take is competitive yet collaborative, so teamwork is an integral part of what the experience is here.
Given that the school is in Washington, what opportunities are there that make Georgetown unique?
Aside from the fact that they are joining a world-class university, the D.C. community is an amazing one. Outside of the actual academic work that they'll do here, they have the opportunity to get involved in the community through a volunteer program that we have here. There are many opportunities for the students and the student organizations to link up with area businesses and business leaders. Also, if you think about the caliber of the people that come to D.C. in terms of politics and business, Georgetown is a place where those people want to stop in and participate in some way, and we're very lucky in that we're able to draw on that reputation to attract those people.
What can students do in applications to make themselves stand out to you and the admissions committee?
The one thing that a candidate can do to really make themselves stand out, or to make the admissions committee really notice them, is to put together the complete professional application package. When we see someone that has presented a very professional, very complete package, conveying their commitment to taking the next step in their life, it really stands out.
What are some common mistakes that candidates make in their applications?
An application that gets the attention for the wrong reasons is someone who doesn't follow directions or provides incomplete information. If an applicant leaves the admissions committee guessing about some part of the application, that's likely going to work against them. We always tell people to make sure that you're providing the complete picture.
Can you take me through the life cycle of an application at your school?
Once the application is submitted there's some processing that is done by our operations team. The applications are then distributed to our admissions committee members. Each of the applications are read and then the admissions committee gets together. As a group we discuss the applications, and there is a committee of five people and we will discuss all the applicants that the initial reader is suggesting a possible admission for. The application is discussed, then a decision is made. For the applications that are read by the initial reader and they are identified as either a potential wait list or potential deny, there is a subset of the admissions committee that will read that application to see if they are in agreement with that first reader's decision. If there is, then the decision stands. If there isn't, then we discuss it with the larger committee. Decisions are released on the same day.