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SMU Cox: Admissions Q&A

Admissions director Patti Cudney talks about what it takes to get into the small, but highly ranked MBA program

The Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University moved into BusinessWeek's Top 30 B-schools this year. Director of Admissions Patti Cudney says some of the program's distinguishing factors are its small, intimate environment (there are 90 students in the entering class) and connection to the business community in Dallas.

And speaking of Dallas, Cudney has much to say when it comes to the stereotype that SMU's students are all from Dallas and plan to stay there after graduation. "I see so many people of different backgrounds and with different goals, engaging with each other and making this a dynamic program," said Cudney, who has been the Director of Admissions at Cox since February 2006.

Cudney recently spoke with BusinessWeek's Alysa Teichman about the admissions process and gave her suggestions for candidates to the program. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation:

Are there any major changes to the application process this year?

No, you know, we took a look at the application and really felt the questions we were asking and information we were requesting was giving us what we needed to know, so the application is very similar to what it was last year.

Do students apply in rounds? Are there benefits to being in an earlier round?

We do offer multiple deadlines, but we review on a rolling basis throughout. So if a student misses a deadline by a day or two, it doesn't matter. There are two benefits to applying earlier. We haven't given away as many seats in the class, so the chances are higher of being offered admission. The second is that we do have scholarship opportunities, but they are not unlimited. Students who apply early with strong profiles put themselves in a better position for these opportunities.

Are you seeing more applications now than in the recent past?

So far, yes. We've had our first round deadline on Nov. 15, which historically was our smallest, but we did see an increase for that first round. At this point we're assuming that we'll hope to see that continue on through the admissions process.

What's the most unusual or difficult essay question on your application, and what's your advice to students on how to answer it?

I think our questions are pretty straightforward, but one option is to give an example of failure. Some people get caught up in telling the story of what happened and don't spend enough time telling us how they've learned from the experience. If they choose that option, they'll want to make sure they devote space not just to telling the story but giving us some insight on what they learned and how they grew.

What do you look for in applicants' essays?

Honestly, we want them to be themselves. Lots of people try to second-guess what we're asking and think there's special meaning in the questions. There's no perfect candidate; we want to bring in people with lots of different backgrounds with lots of different goals. We want people to be honest about who they are and why they want in an MBA program. If you want to be a consultant, fine, but don't tell us that if you don't want to.

What do candidates tell you is the hardest part of the admissions process at your school, and how do you help them deal with it?

What I hear most in terms of the hardest is going through the recommendation process because that's the step that students have very little control over. I always tell people that they need to put a lot of due diligence into the process of determining who is going to write recommendations, giving enough time for them to complete the process in a timely manner, and also being thankful to these folks, letting them know you appreciate them. Also, after the fact, it's important to send them a thank you.

How important is an applicant's quantitative GMAT score?

I would say in general, it's important to us, but it's not the only thing. We'll look through someone's transcript to see what classes they've taken and how they've done. And we look at work experience and see if they have had the opportunity to be quantitative. We want to see quantitative ability throughout the application; we want to see you can be successful through what you've accomplished, including the GMAT score.

What are good reasons for wanting to get an MBA at SMU?

I would say wanting the opportunity to learn in one of the strongest business communities in the U.S. Dallas is still feeling pretty good when it comes to the economy. We have a diverse mix of types and sizes of companies and try in a variety of ways in the program to engage students in the business community. It's not just theory; you're getting the chance to work on projects through companies. I think Dallas is a very different type of community . People overlook Dallas as being one of the top business communities in the U.S. and the world. They'd be surprised if they looked at what's offered and saw how we as a program engage students with the business community as much as we can.

Another reason is that we're one of few programs that requires students to have an international experience and pays for it. We have a special program called the American Airlines Global Leadership Program where we send all students overseas at the end of their first year for two weeks for a business trip. They come back with a perspective on the global business environment.

The last thing is that we are a smaller-sized program, so it allows students to develop deep relations with each other and with faculty, staff, alumni, and the local business community. Students get to know each other very well and see friendships and relationships turn into professional relationships as well.

What's the typical amount of work experience you're looking for in an applicant? How do you regard applicants with less business experience than that?

Last year's entering class had an average of four-and-a-third years work experience. We like to see people with work experience because it helps them shape their future goals and gives them more to draw from. When it comes to younger candidates, we have something called the Cox MBA Direct, which allows a small number of candidates to come in without work experience. These are typically people with lots of internships. In general, there is a tie between work experience and having an understanding of what an MBA is about. Younger candidates don't understand that tie as much and don't express it to us as well in their application.

What do you want to see in applicants' recommendation letters?

We want it to be more than a list of adjectives. We're hoping students will take the time to sit with their recommenders and refresh them so when they are filling out the form they can give us good detail and insights. Really thinking who your recommender should be and taking the time to work with them gives them more time to write a better letter.

How do interviews work, and what are some of the key mistakes that applicants to SMU tend to make?

We do our interviews by invitation. Once the application has been submitted, we will invite a candidate to interview. An interview does not mean an invitation for admission, but it's an indicator you're being considered. There are people who get nervous. One thing to keep in mind is that we're on their side. We're not looking for them to fail, so I hope people come in relaxed and are really here to talk with us and show us who they are. One mistake that I see that is very correctable is not having a clear understanding of why they're interested in our program. We would hope people would be able to pick out special programs or specific faculty they have heard about or courses that we offer to show that they have really done their homework. It's a two-way street. We are there to answer their questions, but we hope they come in with a foundation as to why they're here and interested enough.

What financial-aid opportunities are available to students?

Half of students receive scholarships. The average award is half of tuition and fees. Our philosophy is to help as many as we can with as much as we can. They are merit-based, so we're looking for top people in those areas as we're making those awards. Outside of scholarships, we have a great financial aid adviser who helps students with loans. I always encourage people to look into their credit history. Our financial aid adviser works with students and helps them through the process as well.

How do you attract women and underrepresented minorities, and do you have any special programs to attract these students?

We're actually a new member of the Forte Foundation, so we're very excited to be working with them to reach out to women and encourage them to take a look at our program. Being smaller with an intimate community is a benefit and something a lot of women are looking for. Also, we do have a great Native American initiative. The admissions process is really one-on-one, though. You contact us, you're going to get a lot of information. That helps us reach out to students of lots of different backgrounds and encourage them to learn more about our program.

What percentage of the student body is international, and do you have any special initiatives or procedures for international applicants?

The last couple years, our international has been under 20%. But it has been as high as 37% in recent years. We're definitely admitting strong international students. I just got back from a two-week trip to Asia. We travel around the world and meet with students. The application process is the same, except for the requirement of the TOEFL. If an interview is required, we offer the opportunity to do a phone interview. I am going to India in January and suspect I will be interviewing like crazy.

Can you take me through the life cycle of an application at SMU?

Once a student submits their online application, which is what we advise, we match all the supporting documents: scores, transcripts, and letters of recommendation. Once we have everything we need, we go through the admissions process. A decision is made on an interview to learn more about them, at which point we extend an invitation to interview. The goal is to get candidates to come to campus, and also to get them to learn more about us. If they're not able to come to campus, we can conduct a phone interview. I was an MBA applicant a few years ago and know how frustrating it is to sit and wait. We try to get the process moving but also make sure every application gets the attention it deserves.

What are some common mistakes that candidates make in their applications?

I think not answering the questions in the essays. One of the ones we see a lot is the question about short-term goals, meaning what you plan to do after you get your MBA. The variety of answers we receive about short-term goals is all over the place. Also, sometimes we see candidates that have used an essay for another school and given it to us as well and might have forgotten to change the name. It's attention to detail.

Just make sure you're answering the question and directing the materials to the school you're applying to. Make sure you know the school and why it'd be a good fit for you—taking the time to show you've learned about the program is important. We encourage questions; sometimes the conception is that you can't ask a question. I'd rather have someone ask me a question and be a successful applicant than not ask a question and have that be the only reason an application isn't successful. We're on e-mail, instant messenger, and online chats and encourage people to reach out to us.

In a nutshell, what kind of person would be a good fit at SMU?

We're definitely looking for people with good team spirit. This is a small program where students have lots of interaction with their peers. We want people who are excited about that opportunity. Also, we look for candidates with a clear focus of what they want to do in the future. They should know that an MBA is a learning experience, but also know it's a fast two years. Coming in with thoughts on what you want to do gives us strong insight that you have thought about this seriously. We like people that are not just here to learn, but to grow personally. I love going to graduation and seeing my students more confident than when they started the program.

Can you describe someone you admitted recently who is a surprising fit? Someone who doesn't fit the profile?

There's not one specific person, but it always surprises me when someone without a track record of taking on leadership dives in and takes on a club, runs for office, or organizes activities. That to me is a pleasant surprise when a student gets here and sees everything in the MBA program is going to be a great benefit. It's fun to get a message about who the student leaders are and say, "Wow, I was not expecting to see that person's name on the list." It's always one of those things that makes me smile.

Are there any stereotypes about SMU that you'd like to disprove?

I think that there is an expectation that SMU is all about people that are Dallas natives, connected to one and other. Some people think we're not interested in bringing in people from different backgrounds. I love going around the country and world and talking to students that have no ties to Dallas and talking to them about the benefits about this community and program. I don't think there is an SMU type. There might be an expectation of that, but there really isn't. When I look at the class picture of first-year students, I see so many people of different backgrounds and with different goals, engaging with each other and making this a dynamic program. There's not a type here; we're looking for lots of different folks. If we're offering something that sounds interesting and you're intrigued, don't feel like there's a reason not to apply. We want people to come from lots of different backgrounds.

Knowing SMU draws many people from Dallas who wish to stay in Dallas, what's the situation for people who want to leave for jobs elsewhere?

Lots of people come to SMU because they want to stay in Dallas. Many were already here or have done research here. Lots of folks do stay, but this is a very portable degree. Students have the opportunity through national career fairs and networking to get in front of great companies and get some amazing jobs. Procter & Gamble (PG), Nestlé (NESR), and on Wall Street (even though not that exciting these days) are some examples. I think that yes, you're giving yourself the opportunity for a minimum of two years to be part of a great business community. That's going to give you opportunities a little easier, but you're not stuck here in Dallas by any means.

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