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Dispelling Georgia Tech's Engineer Myth

Paula Wilson, Georgia Tech's admissions director, talks about why the school isn't just for engineers and other reasons to consider the school

The Georgia Tech College of Management may be a techie's paradise, with around 55% of students coming from an engineering background. But while the school could fill its entire 74-person first-year class with engineers, it simply chooses not to, according to Director of MBA Admissions Paula Wilson.

That doesn't mean the school, which climbed into the top 30 in BusinessWeek's 2008 rankings of full-time MBA programs, doesn't place a premium on quantitative ability, says Wilson. "We try to teach students how to think like engineers, teaching them how to pay attention to detail and how to be problem solvers," she says.

Wilson recently spoke with BusinessWeek's Alysa Teichman about the school's attitudes and shared a few points of wisdom to prospective students. Edited excerpts of the discussion follow.

Are you seeing more applications than in the recent past?

It's really a little too early for us to tell. Our first application deadline is not until Jan. 15. We're pretty flat over where we were at this time last year. That deadline is our biggest deadline because it's for international applications, too. Usually 50% to 60% of applications to the full-time program come in at that Jan. 15 deadline.

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 most unusual one that people really like is, "If you could invite any four people living or dead to a dinner party, who would you invite, and what would you discuss?" Of course we get answers like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Dell, and Steve Jobs, but I've had some really interesting essays from people who have invited themselves at different points in life. I've also had people invite engineering failures, like the guys who designed the Tacoma, Wash., bridge. This essay gives applicants an opportunity to be creative in the admissions process, and of course makes the application a little more fun for us to read.

I don't know that we help them deal with it. Usually the other thing is if someone is asking me for my advice, I always like to stress that there's no right or wrong answer, and it's a time when they can be creative. As with any of the essays, they shouldn't say what they think we want them to say, but give us a true picture of themselves.

What do students tell you is the hardest part of the admissions process at your school, and how do you advise they deal with it?

I'm not sure if it's the hardest, but it's the part they're most impressed with. Interviews are by invitation only; students can't be admitted without interviews. They [also] interview with Jim Kranzusch, the director of career services. I think it's sometimes a little bit of a surprise that they're going to be meeting with both of us; then I think once they get here, they enjoy the opportunity.

Are there any benefits to being in an earlier round?

We actually admit on a rolling basis, and so even though we have three deadlines, we will go ahead and review an application as soon as it's complete. So we'll probably admit a few people, not many, before the holidays. We don't get many applications before, but the committee tends to be fairly conservative before Christmas; we're not sure what's going to be coming before that January deadline. We're not going to be making many offers for admissions or funding this early in the game. Our applications are not really in rounds because we will review them as they're completed, but we're not waiting until all those applications come in to make the decisions about a round. If last year is any indication, I think certainly it is going to be to an applicant's advantage to apply in earlier rounds and certainly not to wait until that last May 1 deadline.

What do you look for in the application essays?

You know, I think that we're looking for essays that are well written, but obviously not too well written or we get a little suspicious. I think we're looking for the same things that all MBA admissions offices are looking for. We want applicants to be themselves, to write a true representation of themselves, and to answer the question. I know that students are applying to a lot of schools, and it's very tempting to make one essay fit into every school's essay. So we're looking for essays that are compelling, that give us a true sense of who the student is.

How important is the applicant's quantitative GMAT score?

It is actually pretty important for us. Our program does tend to be a little more quantitative than many MBA programs, and we hear this from our students. We've done validity studies through GMAC, and the quantitative part of the GMAT is the best indicator of academic success in the MBA core. That is a pretty important factor for us. If a student doesn't have a good score or a score that concerns us, we're going to go to that transcript and make sure it shows us they can handle the academics here.

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

I think the one thing we really look for is people who know why they want to get an MBA and how it's going to help them in their careers. For us, 75% come from nonbusiness undergraduate degrees. Probably 15% come from an engineering or computer science background. What I hear so much from applicants is, "I want to be at a level in a company where I can see the company as a whole and make strategic business decisions."

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 dual degree program with any other graduate program at Tech. Typically, these students will have gone from undergraduate directly to it, so typically they will have strong internship or co-op experience but not that traditional two to five years of work experience.

There are some who are very mature and have excellent experience and excel, but in class discussion and with corporate recruiters, we're really seeing that two to five years of work experience really helps. These last couple of years, we've really seen that it's not to the students' benefit, to our benefit in career services, or to the benefit of other students for someone to come in without work experience. You get more out of the program and contribute more to the program if you have work experience.

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

We want professional and academic references and no personal references at all, but someone who knows you well. We always say you don't want to get the president of your company if that was someone you met at a company picnic and they really don't know you. You also want to stay away from personal references who tell us what a nice family you have and what a nice boy you are.

What sort of mistakes do people tend to make in interviews?

The key mistake that we see is people who really don't take it as seriously as they should. I think that I would say the vast majority of people do treat it like a job interview, and they come dressed appropriately with a résumé and questions prepared, but I think the people with the worst interviews regardless of the strength of their applications are the ones who really don't take it seriously. People who come in with a sense of entitlement, expecting they will be admitted and that this is a formality, are the ones who many times can't be saved by a strong GMAT score.

What financial aid opportunities are available to students?

Graduate assistantships are the primary form, which a third of students get. They're fully merit-based. Having high test scores and high grades are important but not everything. We do look at work experience and interviews, so the application is considered as a whole when we're making those funding decisions. These do come with a full-tuition waiver, so that comes to about $600 a semester. These students work for a professor and earn a stipend for their work, so that's about $3,000. In addition, there are also fellowships available.

What do you do to attract women and underrepresented minorities?

Of course that's always a challenge, and being at a school that has an engineering background, I think attracting women is one of the most difficult things. To be honest, I don't think we've done anything specifically targeted to women. Once we have women who are interested, we try to put them in touch with other women in the program. We do participate in the Forté Foundation; we're not a member school, but we are involved.

In terms of minorities, we have an interesting program called Focus. It takes place over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, and we invite top students from underrepresented minority groups who are juniors and seniors in college. It started out in the College of Engineering to attract minorities to engineering, and expanded to us 10 years ago.

Do you have any special initiatives or procedures for international applicants?

About 19% of the incoming class is international. International students must apply to the Jan. 15 deadline because it takes longer to process their applications. They are given the same consideration for financial aid as U.S. students. Nothing else is different in terms of the application process. The things we're looking for with internationals are really just magnified. We're just looking for a good career fit, and people we can help achieve career goals. The H-1B visa issue has really become a big problem for students over the last several years. We really are very selective when it comes to international students because we want to help them achieve their goals once they are here.

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

It's pretty easy to self-manage the application since it's all online. So when applicants hit the submit button, the recommenders are e-mailed a form to fill out. The only thing students physically turn in is GMAT scores. I do a preliminary review, and we may even go ahead and start scheduling some interviews based on that. Once the interviews are completed and we have transcripts in, then we meet as an admissions committee and make the decision.

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

I think again, while I wouldn't say this is common, I do see it occasionally. With the essays, applicants sometimes try to fit one essay into multiple schools' essay questions. Another big one is not answering the question or not doing spell-check. I don't think it's a big issue, but there are times when they say, "I'm looking forward to the Emory MBA program," and I say, "Well I hope you get into the Emory MBA program." Sometimes we also get weak choices in recommendations.

What kind of person would be a good fit at Georgia Tech?

I would say that Georgia Tech students, whether they are undergrads or MBAs, have the reputation of being very hardworking problem solvers. They typically don't have that stereotypical MBA attitude, and they're willing to get in and get their hands dirty even if they're not engineers. We try to teach students how to think like engineers, teaching them how to pay attention to detail and how to be problem solvers. The type of person we're looking for is willing to come here and do the work and get involved and to be in that MBA career development office on a regular basis.

What percentage of the student body comes from an engineering background?

Fifty-five percent come from an engineering or computer science background, 30% are liberal arts students, and the rest come from undergraduate business degrees. I think engineers are very attracted to Georgia Tech. Our niche areas are operations management, information technology, management, entrepreneurship in technology commercialization, and computer science.

Can you describe someone you admitted recently who is a surprising fit, someone who didn't fit the "profile?"

We had a young lady, she was a public school teacher who was teaching middle school math. One reason she chose Georgia Tech is because she wanted to shore up those quantitative skills and have that credential to be technical and quantitative in nature, and she was really interested in organizational behavior and marketing.

During her first semester, she went to a networking event, went up to a gentleman with a Chick-fil-A tie, and he gave her a coupon that said "Have a free Chick-fil-A sandwich on Bob." It didn't have his contact information or title, but she held on to it and contacted him later. It turns out he was the chief operating officer, and he got her an internship with them. She graduated to get a job there. She's someone who kind of came in with a little bit of a different background and was very successful at Georgia Tech.

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

A lot of people get the impression that you have to be an engineer to be part of the program. We could enroll a whole class of engineers, but they wouldn't learn anything from each other. In our second-year class, we had three people with fine arts degrees. People are intimidated by the strong quantitative skill and math they'll have to do when they get here. The program is small, and one word that really describes our MBA program is the students are very collaborative; they really enjoy working together. I know of students who will take hours out of their schooling to help a student struggling in a class or with an intern. The myth that we want to dispel is that we're just for engineers, and that's just not true.

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