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A Talk with McDonough's Admissions Director

Our guest on Feb. 20, 2002, was F. Robert Wheeler III, assistant dean and director of MBA admissions at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University (No. 26 on BW's 2000 Top B-Schools ranking). Prior to graduating from the McDonough School's MBA program in 1999, Bob, as he prefers to be called, was a corporate and securities attorney, most recently at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. He became acting director of admissions in May, 1999, and in August was named the permanent director. He was interviewed by BusinessWeek Online reporter Mica Schneider. Here's an edited version of their conversation:

Q: The McDonough school accepted 21% of its applicants in 2001. What made them more attractive than the rest?

A: We look for people who enjoy sharing knowledge, who are team oriented, and are looking to learn from others as well as from our professors. We also look for diversity in citizenship, ethnicity, educational background, and work experience. We bring in people from the Peace Corps. We enroll journalists, consultants, and financial analysts.

Q: How have you changed the admissions process at Georgetown since you last visited with BusinessWeek Online in 2000?

A: Now, we really emphasize interviews. We have more alumni involved, and have second year students plus our staff interviewing.

Q: Yet only 50% of your applicants, and 60% of your admitted students, completed an interview in 2001.

A: That was last year. We'll come close to two-thirds this year, and that's beginning to stretch our resources. Most interviews are done on campus, but we do telephone interviews as well.

Q: How does Georgetown value and evaluate an interview in the application process?

A: Our interviews are straightforward. We don't have a [predetermined] question [that we ask everyone]. Interviews are an opportunity for applicants to address issues they didn't cover in their essays.... Sometimes we get a better sense of their goals from the interview.

Q: What is it that those people who don't interview but who are nonetheless admitted show on paper that makes you accept them anyway?

A: They'll have shown a strong interest in Georgetown in their essays. They'll have more than a generic interest in the MBA program. Generic essays are a turnoff.

Q: What do you mean by generic essay?

A: One that could apply to any number of schools -- that doesn't show a particular interest in our programs. A strong essay might say, for instance, "Georgetown is an international program, and having to travel internationally as a requirement of the program interests me."

Q: What else does an applicant need to show you on paper to catch your interest?

A: Recommendations from people who know their work. Recommendations from friends or academic professors aren't helpful.

Q: Does that mean that Georgetown applicant should coach their references on qualities to highlight?

A: That would be legitimate -- to make sure the person understands what we're looking for.

Q: Is it fair to say that a longer recommendation letter shows that the person takes a little more interest in the applicant?

A: I think that's true. This year, we received two recommendation letters that were each three pages long for one applicant. The letters really explained the strengths of this person. I don't remember if the applicant was going to be denied or wait-listed, but we said: "We need to call this applicant." We subsequently decided to admit the candidate.

Q: How do an applicant's GMAT scores and GPA get factored into the equation?

A: The GMAT and GPA are important, but we never look solely at them. We don't have cutoffs. We do look at the quant score, to make sure a person can do the work.

Q: Georgetown's average GMAT score in 2001 was 662. What's the breakdown between the quantitative and verbal sections of the exam?

A: We want a quant score between 60% and 70%. Occasionally we drop down to 50%, but not much below that. We also look at work experience. So if you don't have a strong quant score but do all kinds of financial analysis, or if we see strong quantitative courses in your [undergraduate] transcript, that can make up for a low GMAT quant score.

The verbal score would be used more for international students [whose primary language isn't English]. We have a minimum requirement for a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score of 600 on the paper-based exam, and 250 on the computer-based exam. If an international applicant scores near those numbers, we look at their GMAT verbal scores. We don't have a minimum [score] requirement for the verbal GMAT.

Everybody with an Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) score below a certain threshold -- not yet determined for this year -- is required to take a writing test. Based on the results of those tests, students may be required to enroll in a (pre-term) communications course to help them improve their writing skills.

Q: When you review an undergraduate record, what are you trying to learn from an applicant's GPA?

A: For international applicants, we do an in-depth transcript examination. We have manuals to help identify the differences between the standard U.S. 4.0 scale and the scale used by the applicant's school. You can't do a direct translation to a 4.0 GPA scale, so we don't try to. For U.S. applicants, we look at their major -- and to see if they've done some quant work.

Q: What courses do you want to see on an undergraduate transcript?

A: Calculus, accounting, and/or economics. They aren't required. But we would want an indication that you will be able to do the work when you get here.

Q: What majors are considered difficult?

A: Engineering stands out. And we know that anybody coming from a military school is going to have a lower GPA.

Q: You mentioned international students. What areas of world you are trying to recruit students from?

A: We've been looking at Latin America, because we aren't getting as many applicants from there as in the past. Europe is another area where we would love to get more students. We do very well in Asia.

Q: When we last spoke, you highlighted your school's strengths in finance, marketing, and strategy. Would you change that answer in 2002?

A: I wouldn't. Those are the big three. We also have more interest in media and in health care, and we seem to be satisfying that in terms of both courses and new student clubs.

Q: What's the one thing Georgetown can't offer an MBA that another B-school could?

A: We are a general management school. We aren't a super quant school. We don't have an engineering school. If you're interested in managing, that's what we're strong in.

Q: About 30 people were accepted to the school from your 200-person wait list last year. How did you choose them?

A: They kept in touch, in an appropriate way. They sent e-mails letting us know they were still interested. They asked us for feedback, which we gave via e-mail.

Q: Does someone placed on the wait list in an earlier admissions round have a better chance to get into the MBA program?

A: The answer is probably yes. We look at those applicants as we are reviewing our second round [of applications]. They'll also be looked at with third round candidates.

Q: Is it worth it for someone to apply in the third round, which has an Apr. 16 deadline?

A: By Apr. 16, we'll have filled probably two-thirds of the class, maybe a bit more. We'll have one-third of the applications still to review, and will fill out the class from that group, then admit applicants from the wait list as necessary.

Q: If you had all the people who were either wait-listed or denied in one room, what suggestions for improvement would you make?

A: One letter that I wish we were sending -- and we are actually working on -- says: "You're great. How about working for another year or two?" If you only have one or two years of work experience, you may need another one or two to be the perfect candidate.

Another group of applicants would hear, "You need to work on your essays, and have a better sense of what your career goals are." To simply say that you're interested in international business is too broad. One of the things we try to judge is whether we will be able to help you get where you want to go. It doesn't make any sense for you to come to Georgetown, work hard for two years, then hear that your specialty is an area we aren't going to be able to help you with.

Q: How can you tell that an applicant's goals don't fit with Georgetown?

A: Most students are self-selecting when choosing programs to apply to, so we don't get a lot of people who don't belong here. If the goals don't appear to be a fit with our program, we will ask the candidate to clarify their goals in an interview. For instance, it was not clear to us why one person who applied jointly to the MBA program and the Law School wanted to go law school, so we're following up [with an interview].

Q: If admitted applicants don't choose to attend Georgetown's MBA program, where do they go instead?

A: We've lost people to New York University, the University of North Carolina, and Columbia University in the past. We also fight back and forth with Yale [for students].

Q: Georgetown is a Jesuit institution. Does that influence the MBA curriculum?

A: I don't know that it influences the curriculum, except in this sense: One precept of the Jesuits is the teaching of the whole person. Plus, the Jesuits put equal weight on research and teaching. The professors here like to teach, and it shows. They are tops in their field. They write for the top journals. They write textbooks. Nowhere in the university do teaching assistants teach students. Classes are taught by professors.

Q: Any final advice?

A: Applying earlier is better. Remember that we are general management program with a strong international focus -- 35% to 40% of our students are international. Also, we love to have applicants visit campus, because we want them to talk with students and see professors in action.

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