Our guest on February 15, 2001, was Brad D. Pearson, director of MBA admissions and financial aid for the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis (No. 23 on BusinessWeek's 2000 Top 30 B-School list). Prior to joining Olin, Pearson served as associate director of admissions for the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago for three years. He received his MBA from Governors State University in Illinois. Pearson was interviewed by Lucia Quartararo for BusinessWeek Online. Here's an edited transcript of their conversation:
Q: Brad, you came to Olin from the University of Chicago's B-school just this year. What are some of the differences between Olin, a much smaller school, and Chicago?
A:Chicago has an entering [class of] 550 students. If you came in as a candidate at Chicago [and are accepted], I may not see you at all during your two years. It's just the nature of a large program. [The staff here] wears different hats -- they're not just involved with the admissions, but [they] help out in student services and other parts of the university. This is a top school, but yet, when you are looking at an entering class of between 150 to 170, it has really got that close-knit community feel.
Q: Does Olin attract a different type of candidate than the University of Chicago does?
A:I didn't know if [the Olin candidate] would be a totally different candidate. My first charge [as director] was going to New York and interviewing candidates on the road. I was very impressed by the caliber of the students right off the bat. There wasn't a difference as far as the type of student that would be applying, so that was refreshing.
Q: What are some of the things that might draw a student to Olin, and what are some of the program's strengths?
A:The small class size and that sense of community [are Olin's major strengths]. Last year's entering class was high, at 171 students. But typically, the class size has been around 150.
Also, another unique aspect is our mini semesters. Semesters are seven and a half weeks long, and in that first mini semester [students take] their foundation courses. Another hallmark of the school is its flexibility -- students design their own program. [The structure allows,] say, a CPA to skip a fundamental accounting course. [He or she] could meet with a professor, go over background in that area, and take another course instead. At Olin, we're able to give students a foundation and then, after that, they design their program [according to] their interests.
Q: Do you think the slumping economy will have an effect on the number of applications Olin will receive this year?
A:I am cautiously optimistic about how we are going to do this year. You read all these articles about the bottom falling out of the dot-coms and everybody is saying now it is B-to-B and B-to-C: "back-to-banking" and "back-to-consulting." But it is definitely still too early in the cycle to say.
Q: Ideally, a student should be a good match for a school and vice-versa. What type of student does Olin best serve, and who thrives there?
A:At Olin, you will see people with military experience, people who were in education, engineers, bankers. It really is a melting pot. There are a lot of different perspectives coming to the table, which make for a unique environment. The type of student that we serve best does not depend on experience or undergrad major. It [depends on a student's] strategic plan for the MBA.
Q: In order to ensure that Olin continues to have the diverse student body that you describe, what can your school do in terms of recruiting different constituencies?
A:This year, we've partnered with four other schools -- Vanderbilt, Carnegie Mellon, UNC, and USC -- to pool our resources and go on the road together. We've conducted about 12 of these group receptions [in different cities], and the turnout and results were tremendous.
Also, Olin is part of the Consortium of Graduate Study in Management. Candidates can apply to up to six [Consortium] schools with one application. Olin was the [school] that really spearheaded the Consortium. It is fun to be a part of this program that is energetic and [willing to experiment with] different things to help recruit minority and female students.
Q: Olin has five application deadlines, beginning in December and ending at the end of April. When is the ideal time for a prospective student to hand in the application?
A:Truthfully, the earlier the better. I always recommend candidates [apply] by the first deadline. [Candidates] still have a very good chance of getting in [during the first three deadlines.] But when you start looking at the last two, we pretty much know how the class is coming together, and it gets much more competitive at that point.
Q: Is it possible to apply online, and is that process recommended?
A:The way I always put it to candidates is, do whatever it takes to get your application here. I would hate for Olin to go strictly online, because some candidates don't have access to a computer, and [wouldn't be able to apply] online. We recommend whatever is easier for the applicant.
Q: What comprises a complete application?
A:A complete application would be the data forms, the essays, two letters of recommendation, transcripts from all institutions attended, and the official GMAT score. In the case of an international candidate, a TOEFL score [is also required]. And, of course, the application fee.
Q: Once you receive a complete application, when can applicants expect to hear of your decision?
A:The turnaround is usually about eight weeks. It's a very time-consuming and thorough process from our end, and we take it very seriously. So that's why it takes as long as it does.
Q: Do applicants need to hit a certain mark on their GMAT score or have a minimum GPA to be considered for a place at Olin?
A:I hate putting averages out there, because people look at that average GMAT of 660 and decide not to apply [if their score is lower]. We are looking at the entire package, including [scores as well as] work experience. What a candidate brings to the table is the bottom line.
Q: Say, for example, a candidate has tremendous work experience, a good GMAT score, but only an average transcript. Should applicants address apparent weaknesses in their essays?
A:Absolutely. If [a candidate] is looking at his or her application and senses something might raise a red flag, it's better to explain it and move on. Candidates should not make excuses, though. We hear, "I just don't score well on the GMAT" all the time.
Q: An interview can help provide B-schools with a good overall picture of an applicant. Does Olin require one of its MBA hopefuls?
A:It isn't mandatory, but it is highly recommended. We try to put candidates at ease by adapting a conversational style in our interviews. But of course there are the typical questions: Why an MBA, why now, why in particular at Olin, what [does the applicant] plan on doing with a newly-minted MBA?
Q: Do you have any tips on how best to prepare for an MBA interview?
A:[Applicants should] make sure to look at the business-school interview as a job interview. So many candidates that I have interviewed come in casually dressed and unprepared. Admissions people [are looking for] a sincere passion for not only an MBA, but for that particular program. Also, be yourself. Most [interviewers] can see when someone is trying to be someone they are not.
Ask questions. But don't feel compelled to make up a question either. [It doesn't hurt to] say, "I have done a lot of research, I have talked to a lot of alums, students, and faculty members, and I feel I have a good sense of the program." That says a lot more than [asking] filler questions.
Q: What should applicants do who may not be able to get to St. Louis but are still interested in interviewing?
A:We do conduct phone interviews. Especially for international students who may not be able to make it over here. Although [applicants should keep in mind that] they will be connected with the institution for a lifetime. You wouldn't buy a house without going through it, and you wouldn't buy a car without driving it. Why would you invest this much time and money into a program if you wouldn't take the time to visit the school, talk to the students, talk to the faculty, get a feel for the place?
Q: Is there anything that an international applicant should keep in mind when applying to Olin?
A:Truthfully, everyone is on the same playing field. We look at each application on its own merit. What I would recommend to an international [applicant], is to definitely try to have an interview conducted, whether over the phone or in person.
Q: Olin requires two recommendations. Is it important to have someone speak on your behalf from an area outside of the professional realm?
A:As far as recommendations go, it sounds very elementary, but follow the directions in the application. The best recommendation comes from a [current or past] direct manager or supervisor. As far as academic recommendations go, it depends on [how well a professor knew the candidate] and how much interaction there was. [Someone from the] area of community service would be a credible recommendation as well. Maybe [a candidate] has done a lot in Junior Achievements or Big Brothers or Big Sisters, for example.
Q: What are you looking for in an essay? Are there any typical red flags that applicants should definitely avoid?
A:We want to sense that [a candidate has a] sincere passion for an MBA. We don't [want applicants to] spew back our marketing materials. We wrote them; we know them. [Applicants should] just be themselves and give us that true sense of why, at this point in time, the MBA is a logical move. A typical applicant to a top program is going to apply to about five schools. It's crucial not to confuse them.
Q: What are some proactive things a waitlisted candidate can do to better his or her chances of admission?
A:The candidates that are placed on the wait list are very good, solid candidates, and some definitely are selected off of the wait list each year. If you happen to be placed on the wait list, don't just wait. This is your opportunity to contact the school and let them know it is your first choice. This is your chance to supply [the school] with additional information that will help strengthen your case. For example, maybe you were promoted from the time that you applied until the decision. Let the school know that, keep them up-to-date.