The University of Virginia's Darden School of Business may be tucked away in the quiet hills of Virginia, seemingly a world away from business meccas like New York and London, but its director of admissions, Sara E. Neher, claims that the school's widespread network of successful alumni coupled with an innovative approach in the classroom keep it competitive with top MBA programs.
To a greater extent than many other programs, Darden relies on the case method. Instead of cavernous lecture halls echoing only with the voice of the professor, the sound of students debating and sharing ideas is heard too, as they are required to interact during every class period. Students learn through interaction, not simply lectures. Neher argues that this creates a student-driven community that more efficiently cultivates leadership.
Neher, a UVA grad with an MBA from Emory's Goizueta Business School, spoke to BusinessWeek's Brian Burnsed about what Darden looks for in an applicant and what potential students should expect during the application process. An edited transcript of the conversation follows:
In the wake of the economic meltdown are you seeing as many applications as you did in the past?
We haven't seen much of a change in the total number of applications, but there has been a bit of a change in the makeup of the applications. We're seeing more people from the finance industry and fewer people from other industries.
What's the most unusual or difficult essay question on your application, and what's your advice to students on how to tackle it?
The question, which is very unique to a school like Darden, is how do you fit with the case method? We're 100% case method and focus on a participatory pedagogy in our program. I think it can be challenging for people who have never been in an environment like that and have only had a lecture-based education. We have a video of a class that walks students through how the case method works, why we employ this method, and how they can get the most out of it and contribute to it. I advise people to watch that video if they can't come to a class in person before they write that essay.
What do students tell you is the hardest part of the admissions process at Darden, and how do you advise they deal with it?
I'm not sure that we hear that any particular part is hard, other than that we have a word limit on our essay. If you can't convince us in a few minutes that you understand business or a point you may be making in class then it's going to be difficult to be successful in business or at Darden. Our biggest limit is 500 words, and they go down from there. I think people find that challenging. For instance, I worked at Procter & Gamble for six years, and if I couldn't say what I needed to say in one page then I was not going to get my job done. We're trying to help people show us that.
By contrast, we have a 45-minute interview. So we spend a lot of time getting to know the people we interview on a very personal level. Our interviews are blind, which means that the person interviewing you has not read your application or your rÉsumÉ. It's not a typical interview, where people have certain things they're trying to get from you. We're trying to get to know you and create an unbiased advocate for you in our process.
What do you look for in the application essays?
We're looking for a fit with Darden. And we perceive people to fit if we believe they have leadership potential. We see that either through their experience, what others say about their potential, or what we think about their potential though their activities, essays, and their interview. In the essays in particular, we're also looking for an ability to write well, and an ability to convey your thoughts in English if you're an international student. The way you can describe your work experiences is important. Too often people forget in an essay that they actually need to convey to us something that they have experienced and learned from that work. This is a business school and in the case method we need for you to be able to do that in the classroom so that others can learn from your work experiences. And so a lot of our essays that ask you to describe an experience or an opportunity for innovation really should be about a work experience described to us as you would tell it as a story. A lot of people aren't able to convey that, or are too general and it becomes vague.
How important is the applicant's quantitative GMAT score?
It's important, but for us it's certainly only one element of the process. We don't have a minimum GMAT score. We're looking for you to be able to demonstrate quantitative ability, and you can do that through your GMAT, through your GPA, or through your work experience. There are a lot of ways to show us that. The GMAT is the easiest way and usually the only way that you can control. You can't control your old grades from college and you can't control the work you have to do at your current job very well. It takes on an increased importance because you can change it up to the application deadline.
What are good reasons for wanting to get an MBA at Darden?
It's an investment in yourself. I think in this kind of economy you can see why people need to make an investment in themselves to advance in their career. If you're not interested in the experience of the MBA and the commitment that it takes to participate in the case method, Darden may not be a fit for you. We're looking for people who have an honest interest in developing their own leadership potential, their own quantitative abilities, and their own communication skills. If they want to do that then they'll be successful here.
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?
We have a range of people from zero full-time work experience all the way up to the 10-year range. What I'm looking for is for people to have a position of strength in our classroom. If you have amazing work experience then that can be your position of strength. If you're a younger applicant, the likelihood that you're going to have strong work experience is minimal, so I'm going to have to look at your undergrad experience, your activities, your GPA, and your GMAT. Those take on a greater importance the less work experience you have. But I'm always looking for potential. That's what companies are looking for; that's what the world is looking for. It's not necessarily correlated to what experience you have or what you've been able to accomplish. It's what we think you can do in the future. And certainly if you have a track record of great progression in your work experience, it's easier to identify, but it doesn't mean that we spend less time with your application if you're younger. I think this year we're going to see a lot more people with that two-to-three-year range in their work experience than we have in the past because of the economy.
What are some of the positives that you look for in recommendation letters? What things stand out to you?
Recommenders who truly work with people day to day and know them well really stand out. You cannot impress an admissions officer with a name. We've received recommendation letters from royalty, from Barack Obama, lots of people. You can't impress us with who the letter is coming from. You can only impress us with how well they know you and how well they think you'll do in a business program and in your business future. We really want to see those letters that convey specific examples of where they have seen your leadership potential. We ask recommenders on our form to tell us about a time when people have managed or mentored others. Those are some great examples, especially for a younger applicant with no formal management experience yet. A recommender can tell us about a time when the applicant took on a new hire or a summer intern and mentored them. Things like that may not be able to be called out on a resume, but are things that a recommender can say that speak to the kind of person you are.
What sort of mistakes do people tend to make in interviews that might harm their chances?
Certainly it's not taking advantage of an opportunity to tell us their strengths and their work experience stories, but also a thought out, well-reasoned explanation of why they want to get an MBA. In this kind of economy there are going to be a lot of people looking for a place to hide. We're certainly not a place to hide for two years. We're going to expect you to come to class having read your cases. That's the only way that you're going to get the value of what you're paying for. I think that in the interview people often make the mistake of saying, "I hate my job, and that's why I want to get an MBA." That may be a reason, but it shouldn't be the reason. You need to know how it's going to get you where you want to go, even if that changes once you're in business school. We all expect you to be exposed to new things and change what you're looking at, but you've got to be looking at this very seriously and not just as a place to go because you've lost your job. But another thing about this economy is that there is no shame if you've lost your job. A lot of people have had divisions or even entire companies disappear, so there's no shame in that. Don't hide that in the interview.
What financial aid opportunities are available to students?
We have a very substantial merit scholarship program. We put a lot of emphasis on that. A committee of faculty reviews the applications and selects the people for the merit scholarships. Everyone that is offered admission is considered. Beyond that, we have loan programs and a very helpful financial aid office that people can talk to about those processes.
What do you do to attract women and underrepresented minorities?
We primarily do that through partnerships. We have a very strong partnership with the Forte Foundation. We offer Forte Fellow status to our merit scholars who are women. It's a great program. On the minority side we're a member of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. It gives students a lot of access to companies and there are also fellowships through that process. We've also partnered with Management Leadership for Tomorrow. They're another great organization that students can apply to be part of and again get access to the whole process and support through that program. We're also partnering with some Native American organizations and some Hispanic college fund organizations.
Can you take me through the life cycle of an application at your school?
Once an applicant hits "submit" the application goes to one of our three account managers. They communicate directly with the applicant if anything is missing from the application. They spend a lot of time with applicants. Once the application is complete it goes on to be read by one of our admissions committee members. They make a recommendation and it goes on to be reviewed again by another admissions committee representative. At that point after it has been reviewed twice, it's either moved on for interview or for final decisions. I review all the files to finalize those decisions. At the point that they go on to interview, they either come here to interview, or if they're overseas they interview with one of our alumni. After the interview process, the application is reviewed a third time, and then it comes to me for a final decision. If you've been admitted, you've at least been reviewed by four people. You're going to have a lot of people who have reviewed and who can advocate for you during the process.
What are some common mistakes that candidates make in their applications?
This is going to seem really simple, but there are a surprising number of typos and accidental references to other schools. I know you're applying to other schools, you should be, but it is going to leave the reader with the impression of how important or unimportant we may or may not be to you if you accidentally reference another school in your application.
People should also spend more time on their rÉsumÉs. It may seem like an afterthought, but it should be one page, professionally formatted, and include key work experience. I've seen six- or seven-page rÉsumÉs, and I've seen people who make significant typos on their rÉsumÉs. We will be assessing your ability to get a job and so the rÉsumÉ is important. Make sure you review that rÉsumÉ before you upload it!
What kind of person would be a good fit at your school?
Somebody with leadership ability, intellectual curiosity, and interest in engaging fully in the community. Our co-curricular activities are very important here. We also have one of the oldest honor codes in the U.S. So we're definitely looking for people of integrity and we're expecting a lot out of people's understanding of that honor code. In general we're looking for people who have amazing business leadership potential.
What are some common misnomers you may hear about your school that you'd like to clarify?
There's a lot of conversation about how difficult Darden is. You need to want to experience business school. Because of the expectation of being a student leader in our organizations and the expectation of participating in class every day, and class participation being a hefty percentage of your grade, we do expect a lot of time and commitment from our students. If that's not something for you then you shouldn't come here. I think the myth that is perceived is that Darden is difficult just to be difficult, or that it's busy work, or that it's not something that everybody can do. That's not true.
What sort of things stand out to you in applications? What's the most eye-catching thing someone can do?
A place that people underestimate is that activity space. Because of that expectation of the student-run activities I'm definitely looking for people involved in their communities. I think one of the things that catches my eye negatively is leaving a blank space there. There is a blank space there occasionally and that's just not going to be a fit for Darden.
What can your school offer that other programs can't?
Real world practical experience in the classroom and in projects and research electives with our faculty. Our faculty engages with our students more than I have ever seen, even at the undergraduate level. When students come to interview we offer them lunch with faculty on every interview day. They really are invested in getting great people for their classrooms and for their alumni who are working for great companies around the world and they want to see more Darden students go work for those alumni.
In the second year we have these classes called "live action case classes" where an alum will come back and describe an actual problem they're having in their company right now. And the students get to weigh in on that problem and come up with ideas and they find out later in the quarter what happens. Those are very exciting opportunities. Even though we may be in Charlottesville, those alums that may be working in New York, San Francisco, or London actually come back and teach in the classroom to give that real world practical experience and access to that network.