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MBA Insider: Admissions Q&A

Stanford: Admissions Q&A

Derrick Bolton used to stroll the campus of (Stanford MBA Profile) as an MBA student years ago. Now, as director of MBA admissions at his alma mater, the mile-long walk from home to work is still one of the dependable high points of his day. "A lot of times I just stop and go, 'Look at those wildflowers! Look at those palm trees!' It's a spectacularly beautiful place," he says. Bolton came back to Stanford for more than the scenery. He left a job he loved at ( (GS)) to handle Stanford MBA admissions from the other side of the interview table. It's no small feat for an applicant to be invited to the same table. Stanford is ranked sixth in BusinessWeek's listing of top full-time MBA programs, and is far and away the most selective: Just 8% of applicants are accepted. The post-MBA pay of Stanford grads, $125,000, was higher than that of any other U.S. business school in 2008, but Bolton warns against focusing heavily on monetary benefits. He notes that the small number of students who will be accepted into Stanford's Graduate School of Business will be those for whom a six-figure paycheck isn't the reason they attended b-school. In a conversation with BusinessWeek's Mandy Oaklander, Bolton talks about Stanford's new curriculum, future campus, and the need for business schools to do some serious soul-searching. An edited transcript follows. How do the application numbers look from last year to this year?
All the hype about applications being up dramatically has been just that: hype. In reality, I think the numbers are going to be very similar to trends we've seen in the last two years. How much work experience do you look for in a candidate?
Really, there's no set period that we look for in all candidates. We have a great group of students who will join us directly from university and candidates who join us with 20 years of experience or more, and then everything in between. It's a personal decision on when to apply. As a school, we see a lot of people waiting because they think business schools want them to wait. [They] think they won't be competitive until they have four or five years of work experience. And that's not true. We have expended a lot of effort in the last few years trying to dispel that myth. When we look at successful alumni who come back to the school and talk with us about their careers and the impact that this place had on them, you see them all across the spectrum in terms of work experience. Graduates often mention the Stanford culture as a huge draw. Can you explain what type of person makes a good fit?
You really do get a feel for Stanford when you're walking around the campus, but I'm not nearly eloquent enough to put that into words. I think a key factor is that it is an other-oriented community; people really do look out for each other. Students look out for classmates to ensure that classmates are succeeding academically and professionally. Our faculty looks out for each other and for students as well. It's that kind of culture. In a paper application, how do applicants get across that they can contribute to this community feel?
Applicants really don't have to worry about trying to convey fit. There's a huge difference between success as a by-product and success as a goal; when we look for students, we're actively looking for students who have been successful as a by-product of pursuing their passions and interests as opposed to a person who's just pursuing success after success as a goal in itself. The best applications are not those where the applicant is trying to give Stanford what they think we're looking for, but the applications in which the applicant has the self confidence to tell his or her own story in an honest and compelling way. That's ultimately what enables us to see fit within the program. Forty-three percent of the newest entering class is international. What steps does Stanford take to ensure diversity within the class?
The international pool is something we've spent a lot of time thinking about, especially over the last year. With the provisions in the TARP bill [prohibiting banks that receive federal bailout money from hiring foreign workers] and the perception about the difficulty in obtaining student loans, we've been very concerned that international students would interpret that as a big sign from U.S. business schools saying "not welcome." So over the last couple of years, we've done a significant amount of in-person outreach in countries all around the world. But the more important elements relate to what happens when our students are here. When our students and alumni have great experiences and return to their home countries or travel all around the world, they serve as ambassadors for the program. That's critical for us in attracting a diverse talent pool. I think those two things combined make a big difference, but we're always looking at new things we can do. Over this summer and the next academic year, 2009-2010, you'll see us experimenting more with new media to reach international populations. In 2008, 21% of graduating students accepted a job in international locations, and that's up from 14% the year before. Do you think this trend of finding employment outside of America is going to continue to increase?
I was not surprised to see more students pursuing international opportunities last year, and I think as attractive opportunities present themselves in markets outside the States, students will pursue them. The hiring process for MBAs is a market for talent, and they will go to the places where there are the best opportunities. I'm not talking simply about financial returns but also about the best opportunities for professional growth, for career advancement, and for different experiences. Before we introduced our new curriculum, we really ramped up the number of global offerings in the program. Then, in the new curriculum which started in 2007, we almost doubled the number of international offerings. I think that exposure to the broader world—not just reading about a place or reading about doing business in [a place], but actually traveling there and making contacts with influential business leaders in the region—makes it less daunting to pursue that kind of opportunity after school. I can't predict whether that trend will continue, but I certainly hope it will. There's so much need for management talent around the world, and the U.S. doesn't have a monopoly on great opportunities. Can you talk more about Stanford's curriculum and the overhaul it went through in 2007?
It's been among the most exciting developments in management education in probably the last 20 or 30 years. I think the key elements relate to increasing the global nature of the curriculum, dramatically increasing engagement among students and faculty, ramping up the challenge for each student in the program, and enhancing the integrative aspects of management education. Those things are incredibly exciting and make me jealous of the students that are going through [the program] today. On the global side, we have a global experience requirement. Every MBA student at Stanford must put their feet on the ground in a place they've never been before. That could be through a global study trip—two weeks with 20-25 students and a couple of faculty travelling through a country—or a service learning trip, which is a similar number of students working with a nonprofit organization in a specific country. GMIX, the Global Management Immersion Experience, is a four-week nonpaid internship experience that students typically undertake at the conclusion of summer. We also have two short exchange programs: one with the Tsinghua School in Beijing and one with the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. Our students work with about 20 students from Tsinghua or IIM for the entire academic year. They'll spend two discrete time periods together: one where [students from] Stanford will go to Beijing or Bangalore, and one where the students from IIM or Tsinghua will come to Stanford. So one of those four options is required of every student, and we see a lot of students who pursue multiple opportunities while they're here. On the topic of engagement, the one big change was the introduction of a faculty advisor, someone who can serve as a mentor for students. Over the course of a quarter, that faculty member gets to know students very well. One of our really amazing faculty members hosts two seminars at home in his basement. He'll have one group over, and then both groups will have dinner together, and then he'll finish with the second seminar. With that sort of relationship, the faculty can't help but get to know students more holistically, not just as students but more as people. And the students can't help but get to know the faculty. It reduces barriers and aligns everyone a bit more in the community. As far as being more challenging, a big differentiation from the old curriculum is that we have different courses that are tailored to our students' backgrounds and interests. For every single area we offer, we'll have at least three options. The faculty advisor will work with a student to come up with the right choice so that students who come in here with a really strong background in finance aren't bored taking another finance class. We're pushing them so that they're maximizing what they can do after graduation. I think also it is a more integrated experience. We start with big-picture concepts that are broader than any one discipline or function, but that gives students the perspective of a general manager. Our current second-year class is the first class that has gone through the new curriculum. They're finishing it up this year, and right now they're in what we call the synthesis seminar, which is a brand-new course that helps them pull together all the concepts that they've learned and provides an amazing opportunity for reflection before they leave this place to go off into the industry. What is Stanford doing with the recent $105 million gift from ( (NKE)) founder Phil Knight?
It served as a down payment for our new campus, which is well under way and will open in the 2010-2011 school year. The campus will have eight buildings around three quadrangles with much more flexible space. We have multidisciplinary courses that draw on faculty not just from the business school but also from other schools at Stanford. Really, when you think about the way the world works—the way businesses work—MBAs don't just work with other MBAs. They work with a wide range of people, so getting the opportunity as MBA students to work with ridiculously smart students from other parts of the university is a real advantage. In [a course like that], the traditional MBA-style classroom—the U-shaped tiered classroom—isn't what you need. You need flat space with tables where people can spread out and work on prototypes, where they can be really creative and collaborate. The goal of the new campus is to have more spaces like that that will support the types of innovations that we have launched in Stanford and that we envision more of in the future. It's also going to be LEED platinum, so it's really exciting in terms of its commitment to reduced energy use and to sustainability principles. We can't wait to have it open. How is the economic crisis affecting the process of getting jobs?
Broadly, I think students are a bit more stressed out as they go through the process. It often takes longer to find that one opportunity that's the right one. I think a lot of times students have to be more resilient and persistent in pursuing opportunities. That's probably a good thing; it is very consistent with what our career management center advises. Their goal is to build career self reliance, to focus on the skill sets that will help students not just in the first job out of business school but also throughout their careers. In a lot of ways, it's actually been, not a blessing, but it's given the career management center support for the things they've always said. A lot of business schools are having trouble with internship hiring in this economy. Do you have any sense of how it will hold up this year for Stanford?
I've heard nothing different on internships relative to prior years. I think companies tend to pull back on full-time hiring before they pull back on internships, and I think so many of them recognize that an internship is essential to building a long-term talent pool. The students who are looking for internships now won't be looking for full-time jobs until late 2010, so I think the internships have been relatively less affected. As Stanford moves ahead, what is the biggest challenge it faces?
There's a challenge for MBA programs in general, which is ensuring that the pool of candidates is selecting an MBA for the right reasons. I think [we] schools have done ourselves a real disservice on this front. If you look at students who are applying to medical school or law school, they're applying for the education. There's certainly a credential element there, but when you talk to those students and look at the publications from those schools, they're about the education. Business schools have in the last couple of decades gone astray and really put too much emphasis on the post-school benefits and not enough on what transpires while you're there. I think our industry overall has made a really big mistake of overemphasizing those ancillary benefits. Applicants have interpreted that as being the reason you go to school. That's probably the thing I worry about the most at Stanford. How do I make sure that we're picking people who and want to take this [education] and make themselves better people, managers, and leaders, in support of our society? I really think we've got to do some soul searching, as business schools, about the messages we've been sending out. How do you combat the perception of business schools as the means to a high-paying career?
There are a lot of little things we can do. At Stanford, we recognized a while back that there are great people who should be pursuing business school who frankly would have pursued an MBA a generation ago. They're not looking at it now because of the stigma, because of the perception of what an MBA is. We need to do a better job of conveying the real benefits of this education. We can start by talking more to people while they're in college. We've done a lot more outreach on college campuses to influence the students there before they hit major inflection points in their careers when they jump off to law school or policy school instead of looking at business school. We decided to take the GRE [scores, in addition to GMAT scores.] Let's say we're able to encourage students for whom the GMAT might have been a barrier, and who are looking at nonbusiness programs, to consider an MBA. I think that will make a difference. Honestly, I think you'll see a lot of schools coming out of the economic malaise that we're in now by really looking inward and trying to assess whether they've put an emphasis on the broader role that businesses play. I think that's something that Stanford has done for a long time. It will help Stanford when other schools start to realize and convey that businesses are not just economic institutions but also social institutions that have responsibilities that extend beyond the income statement and balance sheet. The kind of scrutiny that organizations are going to put business schools under in the next months and years is going to have a really positive effect.

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