Meet Chicago's Admissions Director

A conversation with Don Martin, director of MBA Admissions at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business

BusinessWeek Online's guest on Nov. 8 was Don Martin, director of MBA admissions at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, which was No. 10 on BusinessWeek magazine's top-30 list in 2000. Martin joined the GSB eight years ago after heading admissions at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. BusinessWeek Online reporter Mica Schneider interviewed Martin as he prepared for an 11-city trip through Asia and South America to promote his school. Here's an edited transcript of that discussion:

Q: Chicago has already hosted 77 MBA recruiting events this fall. How competitive will the admissions process be at Chicago this year?


It's a little early to tell. Our first deadline is Nov. 30. But requests for applications and interviews, and attendance at our events, has been up by 15% to 20% vs. last year. We hold a campus program every October for prospective MBAs, called Fall Preview. Traditionally, we've hosted 200 to 250 people. This year we had about 425.

Q: Is Chicago encouraging people to submit applications by the first deadline?


We're encouraging prospective students to submit when they have the best application ready. If we're your top choice, my advice is: don't sacrifice the quality of your application for speed in submitting it.

Q: How many students do you usually take in that first round?


We probably take about a third -- 33% to 40%. It's not a huge share. In the past, we filled up [the class] as we went along, then lost out on some great applications toward the end. [Now] we try to leave some room for those who apply late. We encourage those who want to be considered for scholarships to apply early, however. Consideration for scholarships will be given to those admitted from the first two deadlines (Nov. 30, Jan. 18).

We're encouraging international students to apply by Jan. 18, because we think the [student] visa process is going to be more encumbered than in the past.

Q: Since September 11, admissions directors have worried that the government won't grant admitted MBAs their student visas in time for classes in 2002.


The Immigration and Naturalization Service is under pressure to ensure that folks coming to U.S. universities are in fact the ones that applied. They're taking a process that's already long and making it longer.

Q: What advice can you offer Chicago's international applicants as they seek student visas at U.S. consulates?


We had a test last year, when the incident arose between China and the U.S. after a U.S. plane crash-landed there. We admitted several Chinese students, and I started getting messages from some that they were having difficulty with U.S. immigration officials -- especially in Beijing and Shanghai. We wrote letters on behalf of many of these students, and all but one made it [to campus] this year. We deferred that individual until 2002.

What international students can do is get the right documentation once they're admitted; we'll work with them on this. If they don't get approved on the first visit [to a U.S. consulate], each subsequent visit takes more time, energy, and help. That's when they may need an attorney. It does become pricey.

Q: You don't make final admissions decisions for Chicago's International MBA program, but your office does process the applications for the IMBA director. Is one program easier to get into than the other?


No. When the IMBA program started, people were leery of applying (to a new program), so we tended to admit larger percentages of applicants to it. We're now in our seventh year of that program, so the competition to get into either program is about the same.

Q: Chicago GSB's new Dean, Edward Snyder, hopes to attract more women to MBA classrooms. Chicago's current first-year MBA class is just 22% female, the second lowest percentage among BusinessWeek's top-30 U.S. schools...


...There has been a perception in the marketplace about what the GSB offers educationally, and what we don't -- that it's a quant jock school. That may not be as favorable for some women who are thinking about a B-school.

Q: What's the right GSB message?


We're not a quant jock school. We have 13 concentrations, and have men and women pursuing all of them. They still pursue finance, of course, but there are majors such as international business, entrepreneurship, marketing, general management, and strategy that are equally viable. We're as quantitative as someone wants to be, though quantitative work is a requirement for every student. There's quite a diversity of industry backgrounds, too -- students have had experience in law, medicine, education, government, not-for-profits, and the military. Most students still come from banking and consulting.

We're also trying to help women who are prospective students connect with our current female students and graduates. They can describe what it's like here -- that this is a great place, whether you're male or female. This fall, for the first time, we've held seven admission receptions for women in the U.S. We've had good turnouts and a lot of alumni support. Our Chicago Women in Business Club, a student group, helped promote the events to our students, who also attended.

Q: What percentage of MBA enrollment will be female before you're satisfied?


I haven't thought about a percentage. My goal is to get the word out what the GSB of 2002 is about, not what we were about 20 or 30 years ago. If we do that, [prospective] students will put us on their radar screen. That's what I want to happen with women. Some women [now] write us off before we get a chance.

Q: How has the GSB changed since Dean Snyder's arrival?


Dean Snyder is continuing to develop our alumni program, and to globalize the MBA program. We have a capital campaign, and are constructing a new building. I don't sense any major changes in the academic program.

Ted is interested in marketing the school, too. He has said that he feels the GSB promoted itself in the past by saying, 'we'll let our quality speak for itself. We don't need to promote ourselves.' His point is that while that's all well and good, we have something to tell people -- alumni, students, donors, and corporate recruiters.

Q: Which piece of the GSB application carries the most weight? The GMAT scores, an applicant's personal essay, recommendations, or something else?


I'm in a good position to answer this, since I make the final decision on admissions. We don't use a rank order in our application process. We have eight criteria on which we evaluate a candidate, and I'm not at liberty to disclose what they are. Every single complete application is read in its entirety. There are no quotas. There are no cutoffs -- you don't have to have a certain GMAT score. Having said that, I will tell you this: Of the eight criteria, the first thing I look at is the interview report. We spend a lot of time doing our best to interview everyone who requests an interview, which is quite a few people. For the class that entered in the fall of 2001, we received 4,173 interview requests.

Q: Which interviews -- on-campus, alumni, or phone -- carry the most weight? What can an applicant expect to be asked?


There is no different weighting, regardless of which way it's done, or who conducts it.

Applicants are going to be asked a couple of things. We'll ask for a resume, which we'll review with them. We ask a couple of questions on their undergraduate preparation, their choice of career path, what led them to make some of the decisions regarding their career path, and what they've learned from their professional experience. Then we'll ask a few personal questions. We try to leave 10 or 15 minutes out of the 45-minute interview for them to ask us questions. This is a two-way evaluation process, as far as we're concerned.

Q: Many applicants ask their mentors to write [generic] recommendations. Is it kosher for references to write one letter for all schools?


I don't mind getting a letter of reference that has been used for another school. But we definitely want them to fill out the recommendation form that we provide. We would not expect a recommender to write seven completely different letters.

The best people to write letters are the people who know you the best professionally. Some applicants fall into the trap of thinking that someone in higher management at a company [would write a more persuasive] letter. But we're looking to get a sense of what this [applicant] is about.

Q: Are GSB graduates particularly good people to ask to write a reference note?


Where that's most helpful is if the alumnus is working with the applicant as a professional colleague. If that isn't the case, we're willing to take a third recommendation. That's when an alumni recommendation can be very nice. The alum may not work with the applicant, but has some association, and feels that the applicant would be a great fit for us. We'll read that letter.

Q: What work experience can help an applicant stand out in the nearly 3,000 applications (not everyone who interviews ultimately applies) the admissions office receives?

A: There are four questions I ask when I look at a resume, and there's no right or wrong answer (1) What have you done? (2) Why did you choose the path you did? If in the past four years, you've made two or three job changes, why did you do that? What have you learned? (3) How do you feel you've grown as a professional? (4) Perhaps most important, how will that experience enable you to be a contributor t the GSB? What will you bring to the table as a student and classmate?

There are three ways that we get at those answers. First is the essay, which (should) talk about why the applicant has chosen the GSB, and what he or she can contribute. The second would be letters of recommendation. Finally there's the employment history that we ask applicants to submit.

Q: What are essay dos and don'ts?


Follow the directions in terms of the word limit. Make sure that you're sending the right essays to the right schools. [Using the wrong school name or address] is an error that doesn't go over well. Finally, please just answer the questions that we ask, as you see fit to answer them. Oftentimes, applicants think that we have some answer we're looking for, and at Chicago this isn't the case. Our two other essays beside the main one -- why do you want the MBA? -- are designed just to help us get to know people better. So be creative, have a good time with the questions, and answer honestly.

[Editor's note Chicago's GSB essay questions are:

a. Why are you seeking an M.B.A. or I.M.B.A. from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business? What do you hope to experience and contribute? What are your plans and goals after you receive your degree? (750 words maximum)

b. What are two attributes of your character that make you unique? How do you expect these attributes to make an impact on the GSB and your classmates? (300 words maximum)

c. If you could pick three guests for a formal dinner, who would they be and why would you choose them? (300 words maximum)

d. For I.M.B.A. applicants only: Describe a recent international issue or event that has negatively affected the business or economic climate of a particular region of the world. How would you address this issue? What are the implications of your approach? (750 words maximum)

e. If there is further information that you believe would be helpful to the admissions committee, please feel free to provide it. (All applicants)]

Q: The GMAT. Are you concerned with applicants who have taken the GMAT numerous times?


No. It simply shows me that some people have various progressions in the way they take a standardized test. We'll take the highest score.

Q: What does a low quantitative score on the GMAT say to Chicago's admissions committee?


If the quant score is a bit low, we would want to take a look at what type of quant courses the person completed as an undergraduate. We may want to see if they've made any effort to take a refresher course in accounting, statistics, or finance -- something that lets us know that they're aware of that (weakness), and are trying to augment their score.

Q: If you're in a dead heat deciding between two applicants, what's going to break the tie?


It would probably end up being personal qualities, or my view of the individual as a member of our community. Do they have a life? Will they have a life outside the classroom? Do they want to be part of our community, not just working, but playing, socializing, and having a good time?

Q: How many people did Chicago place on its wait list last year? How many people ultimately enrolled in the GSB?


We wait-listed about 500 folks last year, and probably admitted a third to half of them. Applicants are put on our waiting list because we really would like to admit them if we can, but we think we need a little more information. We have a waiting list for that very purpose. It's like, we want to admit you, but we need more information.

Q: What's a quick to-do list for waitlisted applicants?


First, read the additional information sheet that we supply with the letter. Second, call us and let us provide you with wait-list feedback. If you make the request, we'll try to get back to you within five working days. Finally, please respond to that feedback. If we're asking for an additional letter of recommendation, or we need some explanation about something in your undergraduate record, please follow through, because there's a very strong chance that if you do you will be admitted.

Q: Parting words of advice, Don?


Have a good time with this process. Keep your eye on the goal of getting an MBA and furthering your education. [Also remember that] in the end, it isn't all going to be about where you went to school. It's about who you are, and what you bring to the table. Let the process unfold. Follow directions, do your homework, and in the end, things will work out, if you persist.

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