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A Chat with Stanford's Associate Dean

Sharon Hoffman has read more than 10,000 MBA applications since 1991 at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. Stanford recently appointed her associate dean and director of the MBA program, directly overseeing the admissions office, where a new director of admissions -- Stanford alum Derrick Bolton -- will begin this fall. Hoffman also oversees financial aid, the registrar's office, and student life.

Hoffman's comments came during a live BusinessWeek Online chat on July 26. She was responding to questions from the audience and BW Online's Jack Dierdorff and Mica Schneider

. Following is an edited transcript of their discussion:

Q: Sharon, you've seen plenty of applications in your day. Was there a general difference among this year's applicants compared to years past?

A: Somewhat, but not as much as we expected. More folks from high-tech and startups, somewhat fewer [applicants] from consulting and banking.

Q: Word on the street is that schools had a difficult time attracting as many women and minority students as they wanted this fall. What's the case at Stanford?

A: We haven't seen a difference vs. last year, both in the applicant pool and our new students. Both the quantity and quality [of applicants] has been high.

Q: Do you expect the demographics of this year's pool of applicants to differ from the previous years -- lots of people from dot-coms gone bust, for instance? If so, will it change Stanford's target demographics of admitted applicants, and how?

A: I would expect that we will see people from companies and industries that might have been underrepresented in the past three to four years during the dot-com boom. I can't foresee an impact on the target demographics, because we'll admit the top folks in the pool regardless of industry.

Q: This fall, a new director of admissions will begin at Stanford. Will anything change in the way of admissions criteria?

A: Marie Mookini headed up admissions here for 10 years, and she did a great job. The criteria that she used will remain in place -- no big changes planned. Our new director is Derrick Bolton, one of our MBA alums, who comes to us from Goldman, Sachs & Co. He's going to be terrific, and he will be out on the road this fall, and I hope you have a chance to meet him.

Q: Is there any way that re-applicants can get some general feedback about their unsuccessful applications?

A: That's an interesting question. We did have a feedback policy for several years. We wanted applicants -- especially those considering a re-application -- to understand what happened the first time. But we discovered that for the vast majority of applicants who were not admitted, the reason was, simply, space. They were not the one in 12 or the one in 15 we were able to admit.

There was nothing we could point to or highlight in their application that would be "fixable." And consequently, there wasn't much value being added [to them]. My advice for a re-applicant is twofold. First, if you easily see an area of less strength in your application [low grades, thin work experience, etc.], address it directly. And second, please apply to a number of schools, because Stanford simply doesn't have the space to admit everyone we would like to take.

Q: How many people have been offered admission from the wait list so far this year? And how large was the original wait list?

A: So far, I think, eight to 10. We may take a few more but it's hard to predict because currently the class is fully subscribed. We will admit off the wait list if the class shrinks at all because of people dropping at the last minute, which happens in a very few cases each year. About 200 [applicants] were placed on the waiting list this year. But of course not all of them accept their place on the waiting list, so that number does slide downward over the course of the summer.

Q: Now a question regarding things in an application that really catch your attention -- positively. Please provide some some examples of what makes an application say "wow!" to the admissions committee. Are professional accomplishments too boring, should we show more extracurricular "wow"?

A: As a general rule of thumb, all kinds of "wow" are good. There's academic "wow," professional "wow," extracurricular "wow," essay "wow," etc. Professional accomplishments are certainly never boring -- they're integral to the application, and we want to know what they are so that we can understand and assess the impact you've had at work.

But you asked for examples. Academic "wow" might be graduating from college in three years while also financing all of it yourself. Professional "wow" might be being given responsibilities clearly designed for someone with years more experience, because of your abilities and reputation within your company. Extracurricular "wow" might be creating an organization or an event on a significant scale to accomplish something that's a passion of yours. And essay "wow" is writing about yourself, your experiences, and your goals in a thoughtful, engaging, and personable way.

Q: On the flip side, what are the biggest mistakes that applicants make on their application?

A: Great question. There are big mistakes and small mistakes. Probably the biggest mistake is not spending enough time on the application -- writing a shoddy essay and not choosing the right recommenders.

Q: How does a high pre-MBA salary affect admission chances?

A: For Stanford, it's really neither here nor there. We're looking for the impact an applicant sees an MBA having for their career, and that's not only measured in financial terms.

Q: What is Stanford's approach toward minority applicants?

A: We are passionate about creating access for minority applicants. And we do that in a number of ways. One of our assistant directors focuses primarily on minority recruitment and retention. We work in partnership with our current students of color -- both on current recruiting and pipeline work. And we actively seek to increase the numbers in our applicant pool. And we've been very fortunate -- our numbers are strong. We're not satisfied, we're not complacent, but we're happy to see where things stand right now.

Q: A discussion on BusinessWeek's B-schools Forum talks about common perceptions about Stanford MBAs -- including the great and the not-so-great. How do you react to the perception that Stanford MBAs display an elitist attitude?

A: That's a problem. That perception does occasionally surface, and we need to work to dispel it. It has come up in conjunction with the unprecedented economy the last few years. Students felt they had unbridled choices and opportunities, which occasionally led to a perception of entitlement. It's too bad, because 99% of the students here, whom I know very well in my role heading up the MBA program, aren't like that at all. And the 1% who did behave ungraciously? I think the current economy will fix that.

Q: Would Stanford's Graduate School of Business consider increasing its MBA class size to accommodate otherwise qualified applicants? [Editor's note: Stanford's B-school admits about 360 MBAs annually into its two-year program.]

A: No, not significantly. We believe that our small size is a real strength. And while it does, absolutely, prevent us from admitting as many qualified applicants as we would like, it creates an unparalleled learning environment, we believe -- a transformational learning environment for people who are here. I predict we will stay approximately the same size for the foreseeable future.

Q: Does Stanford prefer that applicants visit Stanford's campus or is attending an information session in a local city O.K.? And when is the best time to visit Stanford's campus? Is an appointment necessary?

A: Both are good. Do whichever you can. Neither is required.

From an admissions perspective, we have no preference. We certainly do not require people to visit the campus, because that wouldn't be reasonable or feasible for everyone. However, we encourage it because it provides you with more information about the program and life here, which helps you decide if this might be the right place for you. The good part of visiting campus is that you can sit in on classes and thereby get a sense of the academic atmosphere here. You can meet some current students, too.

The good thing about our recruiting sessions in various cities is that, in addition to the admission presentation, [prospective students] hear from recent alums about their experiences.

The best time to visit campus is while classes are in session, which is roughly October through May, with certain blackout periods for exams, etc. You don't need an appointment, but if you wish to take an official tour, attend an information session, or visit an MBA class, you should sign up in advance, which you can do via our Web site.

Q: Are admissions officers a little more flexible with the GMAT scores of applicants for whom English isn't their native language?

A: Yes and no. We recognize that the verbal part of the GMAT is certainly more challenging for people for whom English is a second language. However, we use the GMAT as a gauge for whether a student will be able to survive the academic workload of the MBA program. And consequently, we need to feel comfortable that he/she will be able to thrive in an environment with rapidly spoken, idiomatic English and immense class participation.

Q: Is there anything specific that the school looks for when reviewing letters of reference? Which would Stanford prefer, a letter from a vice-president who knows the applicant pretty well or a letter from a manager who has known the applicant for years?

A: That's not even a close call. Someone who has worked with you or evaluated you in a professional context is the best choice. At least at Stanford, we don't care about title. We don't want to hear from the CEO unless he or she has been your direct boss. When we read the letter, we look for thoughtful, detailed, and passionate prose on your behalf. Pick someone who really cares about your candidacy and who's going to spend the time necessary to [write] a great letter. Pick your direct-level boss.

Q: Since we don't all have 4.0 undergraduate GPAs, what's the most effective way to address a low GPA?

A: When we see a low GPA, we will look at the GMAT to corroborate or refute it. If the GMAT is very low as well, that's going to be a tough hurdle to overcome. As much as we like to take risks on people, we don't want to admit anyone who won't survive the academics here, and for that reason we look at previous academic work [GPA and GMAT] as an indicator.

Now, if the GPA is low and the GMAT is high, you need to explain to us what happened in college. And some explanations allay the committee's concerns, and, quite frankly, some don't. So explain what happened, be honest, and help us to understand why this won't be a problem in the MBA program.

Q: A question of goals: Is GSB looking for individuals who have a very clear idea of what they want to do after business school or are they open to individuals who may want to use the time in B-school to figure out their options?

A: We want to understand from your essays, generally, where you see your career heading. We don't expect you to have figured everything out already. However, this is a huge decision in terms of time, money, and effort, and we do expect you to have a good idea of where you see yourself heading.

Q: In the past, Stanford has gotten strong criticism for its lack of responsiveness to the students' needs. What is done today to address this issue?

A: A couple of years ago, students told us that they would like clearer communication with the administration and better staffing to serve student needs. Part of my job has been to work on both, and we've done a lot. We have many, many different avenues of communication these days -- formal, informal, planned, spontaneous, big group, small group. You name it, we do it. And we have increased our student-services team to be better able to design and implement student programs. These days, students tell me they feel really good on both fronts.

Q: What differentiates Stanford from all of the other top MBA programs?

A: I'm asked that question a lot, and I don't think it's one single ingredient. For me, it's the intersection of four factors. First, our small size, which creates a really intimate learning environment and a tight alumni community. Second, our location in Silicon Valley, the heart and often birthplace of technology. Third, our approach to academics, which focuses on foundations and fundamentals more than best current practice. And finally, our students, whom we admit from the most diverse set of backgrounds imaginable. In addition to the classes, you come to an MBA program for the people, and I'm constantly amazed at the group of people who arrive every September.

Q: How do you view students who have held a high number of jobs at different companies in a short period of time (i.e., job-hoppers)?

A: If it truly is a lot of jobs in a short time, that's not going to help you. An obvious question would center on your commitment and follow-through, and another concern is whether you've built a reputation and established credibility or a track record anywhere. Job-hoppers usually have thinner, less compelling references, and that hurts too. Now, everything is in context, but six jobs in two years is going to be a real red flag.

Q: On that note, let's move on to career services. How aggressively does Stanford seek to bring in recruiters from companies other than the "usual suspects" such as Bain, Cisco, and others?

A: Very aggressively. Our Career Management Center works hard to establish long-term relationships with companies in a wide spectrum of industries to reflect and encourage the varying interests of our students. Really, everyone from traditional consulting firms to, I believe, the U.S. Postal Service recruits at the business school.

Q: What is the school telling its first- and second-year MBAs to expect when it comes to finding an internship or full-time job this year?

A: The year upcoming is going to be challenging for all job-seekers, given the economy. Students need to think really hard about what they want to do. We have resources to help students find the jobs they want, but I think at least for now, the days of multiple opportunities falling into our laps are probably over. Now, that being said, 99% of our first-year students got internships [in 2001], and about 90% of our second-years have already committed to full-time jobs.

Q: And are students from outside of the U.S. at a disadvantage compared to their U.S. classmates when it comes to finding a job?

A: Non-U.S. students sometimes feel at a disadvantage, because U.S. companies can decide whether or not to hire international (non-permanent-resident) students, and some of (the companies) don't want to. Our Career Management Center works hard to educate the companies about visa issues and encourages recruiters to interview all interested students.

Q: Would you top this discussion off with a quick list of suggestions for applicants this fall?

A: I'd be happy to. My top three suggestions: No. 1: Do your homework, which means check out written information, talk with alumni, talk with students, attend local events. Differentiate among the many programs to find the ones that really appeal to you.

No. 2: Apply early. The best gift you can give yourself is to apply in the first or even second application round.

No. 3: Really focus on the essays. They are your opportunity to exert some control over the application process. And they help the admissions committee to understand why you would be a great admit. [Essays] often make the difference, and all the time you spend on them is worth it.

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