Foster's Erin Ernst explains why the Seattle-based B-school is looking for applicants with "a history of going above and beyond"
The small program and unique culture at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business (Foster Full-Time MBA Profile) not only reflects the innovative and collaborative business environment of Seattle. It also provides students with opportunities to engage in that environment. As director of admissions, Erin Ernst, puts it: "We have a smaller program, but it makes a really huge impact. We're really sort of the powerhouse MBA in this region." And when applying to that powerhouse, it's necessary to demonstrate that you can handle the academics as well as being involved in the program outside the classroom. In a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek's Sommer Saadi, Ernst discussed how to do that through the application, but she also stressed how important it is to reach out to the school in other ways. Beyond tips on applying to Foster, Ernst gives some in-depth information on the school's project opportunities, mentor program, and career services. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation. Are there any suggestions you have for students when they're trying to distinguish themselves from other applicants? Applications are up, particularly for domestic candidates, and they have been strong applications. So they don't have to know exactly what they want to do following the program or have it mapped out to a "T," but [they do have to show] us that they've put a lot of thought into their career. What really makes someone stand out is telling us about talking to professionals in the fields that are interesting to them, that they've started networking. If you can show you have that ability to reach out and talk to people before you start an MBA, that can really set you apart—and also showing that you understand our program and how it's going to help you succeed. What is usually the number of years of work experience you expect from an applicant and the mean age of your students? Are people usually coming in with a lot of work experience? I urge candidates not to focus too much on the average years of work experience, because we don't have a minimum and we don't have a maximum. There's really a wide range of students who come in. People reach that point at different times. But we tend to have an average age of about 29 in our program, and average work experience of about five years. Does that goes back to the idea that you want to make sure your applicants have a focus and know what they want to get out of the program? I think the decision to stop working and really throw yourself into two pretty intensive years of career development takes a lot of thought, and people reach that decision at very different times in their lives. Some people who come to me think they're too young or too inexperienced, and some people who come to me think they're too far along in their career. But really, those people tend to have similar ideas about wanting to make a career change, or they feel they've come to a dead end in their current company. So there can be a pretty wide range of ages in the program. Are there other major characteristics you look for in an applicant? Are there certain areas of the application process that have heavier weight than others? There's not necessarily one piece that carries more weight than another. Here at Foster, we have a smaller program, so it's really important that every student who comes into this program wants [to] and can make an impact. We look for people who have shown a history of going above and beyond, people who are able to balance many things. Someone might have really great grades and a great academic background but hasn't been involved in other things. We like to see people who can balance activities with school. One of our essays actually addresses a student's plans for involvement in this program, so that does make an impact.
What is your take on the GMAT score? On the school's website, I see that the median is around 690. If a student's score is a lot lower, should he be discouraged? Our average tends to be around 680, actually. What's more important to us is somebody's best score. That's different for everybody. We know the GMAT takes a lot of work and it's just one part of the application. We do encourage people to leave themselves enough time to retake it, if necessary. We have multiple deadlines, and we encourage people to take the time they need to get their application as strong as they can get it. Then there are realities about the GMAT—particularly the quantitative section. We do want to see that candidates have solid math skills. So it's not everything, for sure—someone might have a really high GMAT score but not have the other pieces in place. And someone might have a lower score but have some really excellent work experience. It's a very holistic process. Are there any general tips you like to offer students working on their essays? There's always that question of whether a student should go more creative and anecdotal, or whether it's more about being professional, or do you not like to draw generalizations? One piece of advice is to write your essay specifically for each school, really tailor it. A candidate's first priority should just be thoroughly answering the question. Second would be making it a little bit more interesting, or creative, or attention grabbing. But we really do use those essays to understand why you want to be here. What we're looking for is [something] really direct and honest and in your own voice. If you have a sense of humor, it's O.K. to put a little bit of humor in there. I don't think it should be so serious that you can't put your own voice in there. Would you say the application essay is the part where students might be able to show their character the most? I think that's one part, particularly if you live far away. But I would encourage people, in addition to their essays, to call us, e-mail us, and then we can start getting a better picture of you as a person. We have tons of ways on our website that you can connect with us. So the essay is just one part, but I think people have a tendency to get so wrapped up in the GMAT and other pieces of the application that essays can become an afterthought. And [the essays are] really what give your application a little bit more personality. To address some other parts of the application process—with recommendations, what do you think makes a good reference for a student? Ideally it's a professional recommendation and someone you've worked with who knows you well. Too often candidates look to find someone really high up in their company or an impressive name, and it's not particularly helpful to the admissions committee unless [the person knows] you really well. I definitely recommend sitting down and talking with your recommender and reviewing your accomplishments with them and your reasons for going to school. Are there any common mistakes that you see? One might be rushing to get the application in. I see candidates who apply in our earliest deadlines who just have a lot of typos or sections missing—maybe there's just one take of the GMAT and they weren't particularly happy with their score. And I've said this before, but applying without reaching out to us—waiting until after they've applied to try to come to the campus or visit a class or meet with a student. I don't think people realize how much it can help their applications and their essays to talk with people from the school quite a bit through the application process. Also, an application can sometimes sound very general, [as if] that application could be used for any school.
I wonder if you'd like to dispel any stereotypes about Foster or point out any little known facts you think go unnoticed? Every school has a unique personality. The things people know about Seattle are true of our MBA program as well. People are drawn to this area because it's a beautiful place to live, but also a lot is going on here. There are a lot of really interesting companies—there are very small startups, and there's Microsoft (MSFT), Starbucks (SBUX), and Boeing (BA) as well. I think Seattle gets a reputation for being really laid back, and how that translates in this business community and in our program is [that it attracts] students and professionals who enjoy … I hesitate to say "collaboration," because that word is used quite a bit, but people who think a little bit differently, aren't afraid to try new things, aren't afraid to ask questions, but also who enjoy great work/life balance. When you're known for being collaborative and somewhat laid back, that can translate to being not competitive, and I think our students are collaborative with one another but competitive in the business community. It's a really unique culture out here, it's a unique part of the country. We have a smaller program, but it makes a really huge impact. We're really sort of the powerhouse MBA in this region, and we have a lot of reach in terms of companies and everything that's going on out in the Northwest. Do you notice that a lot of students are able to network with those companies based in Seattle? Would you consider it an advantage that Foster is located where it is? It's absolutely an advantage. I think a great part about the Seattle business community is that it's extremely approachable. We have a really strong mentor program here, and these are top-level business executives from really prominent companies and from small companies. And a lot of alumni are in this region—a lot of people are drawn to this area because they're interested in working in Seattle or in the Northwest, and we have a lot of alumni who are happy to help out. At the same time, because we're a small program, it's pretty easy for us to take groups of students around the country to other locations as well. If students are interested in other regions, we can tailor trips for them out to New York, say, or down to the Bay Area. How often does that happen, that students are able to go on different networking-type trips? Throughout the year we have a number of what we call road shows. Some of them are themed—we've gone down to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley for tech-focused road shows, we have a road show that goes to New York that's investment banking focused, and students who participate in that have to participate in a prep class for it. Some of our students participate in the larger career fairs, and sometimes we will help students—subsidize travel for students—who want to go [somewhere or are] really interested in a particular company that not as many students are interested in. Another big part of our program right now is project opportunities. We have a big focus here on getting students out into the business community doing projects. A lot of those would be in the Seattle area, but those project opportunities allow students face time with companies working on interesting, high-level projects. They also allow them to meet people from companies in the area and put something else on their résumés. I also wanted to touch on recruitment—what you do to ensure that students are able to get jobs upon graduation. The stats from 2009 show that about 55 percent received their first job offer by graduation. But then, three months out, it totals about 80 percent. Are you trying to bring that up? The last couple of years were tough for everyone looking for a job. Here at Foster, we ask students to come in and meet with a career counselor before the program begins. Basically, we work closely with our students. An advantage to being a smaller program is that your classmates know you, your professors know you, your career coaches know you really well. When a position comes up, chances are a classmate will mention it to you or a career coach. On any given day here, there's some sort of opportunity to network or connect with someone in the business community or to improve your résumé or interviewing skills. I think the key is balancing that with the rest of school, so we try to offer resources to help people do that. I mentioned those project opportunities, [and] we've been really successful with [internships]. Everyone who was looking for an internship last year and this past year got one. And we adjust our approach to career services to what's going on in the market. Companies are getting less willing to travel to find prospective employees, so [we] recognize that and [focus on] getting to them instead of expecting them to come to us. Also keep in mind that once you're a Foster MBA, Career Services is there for you until the end of time. If someone doesn't have a job at graduation, he or she continues to work with our career coaches. Years later, if you have a question or need to brush up your résumé, you can always come back and meet with a coach. Your fellow classmates are a huge resource for you, too, so you become part of that community, and that never goes away. The alumni network is extremely engaged. Regarding the smaller program size, how does that translate into faculty-student ratios and class sizes? I think we have on our website that the class size is relatively big. I think the average core class is around 50. So when do students get to interact on a smaller scale? It's all relative. I think our class size has been around 100. It'll probably be closer to 120 in the next couple of years here. The actual core class size is going to be about 60 students or so. And the elective classes are quite a bit smaller. I don't know the faculty-to-student ratio off the top of my head, but the whole approachable culture comes in there as well. A lot of our students reach out to faculty outside class hours. They come to student events fairly often. Our students host faculty dinners where they have a couple of faculty over and maybe eight students. Returning to our discussion of internships. You mentioned that a lot of students come in wanting to build their network and experience. Does that usually happen in between the two years of the program, or were you referring to post-graduation? Internships generally happen in the summer between the first and second year, so MBA hiring companies are generally recruiting for interns in the spring. The hiring process happens a little bit later. The other side of that is project opportunities, which aren't necessarily internships. First-year and second-year students have opportunities to do projects for companies. In the first year it's actually part of the curriculum, so everybody will do a project, and the second year it's up to the student. I also want to talk about the idea of the two-year program. Other MBA schools obviously offer a one-year because it's a pretty expensive investment and students are also foregoing potential income. So what is the advantage of the two-year program at Foster? The two-year model for us is designed so that in the first year, students get a really strong foundation in all the different pieces of business and how they work together. What we call a core in the first year is really what we consider to be essential skills and knowledge that every business manager should have, regardless of the industry or their functionality. The key to the second year is really specializing according to what you're interested in. Our second year is extremely flexible—you can tailor your second year. Our students can take some classes outside the business school that count toward their MBA electives. And that allows people to take courses in environmental management, or the law school, or health administration and specifically target particular areas that are going to help them advance their careers. The opportunity to do a project or an internship is a great way to get a taste of something. Having two years gives you a little bit more time to get more practice, basically, trying new things—especially if you're a career changer. Is there anything else you feel people need to know about Foster? Anything else unique about the program or that you want potential applicants, or people who are admitted, to know? I often hear people say this program is really up-and-coming and doing a lot of exciting things, and I definitely think that is true. I think the business world has been changing a lot. While the downturn in the economy has made things challenging for a lot of people, it's also a time when people step back from their careers and feel inspired to do something new. Being at a place like Foster and in Seattle, that really values innovation and thinking differently and making a difference in the world, is really exciting right now. Also, I've said this a lot, but websites can only say so much, and I think there's a lot of value in that click you feel when you talk to someone from a school or walk on the campus and meet students. Our approach to admissions is never to tell someone that this is the best program for everyone. Our approach is to get to know each candidate and try to help each one figure out if this is the right program for them. And that is why we really want people to meet with us, so we can help them sort that out.