Meet MIT's Admissions Director

A conversation with Rod Garcia, director of masters' admissions at MIT's Sloan School of Management

Our guest on December 10, 2001, was Rod Garcia, director of masters' admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management [No. 4 on BW's 2000 Top 30 list]. Mr. Garcia joined the Sloan School more than a decade ago, after leading admissions at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. He was interviewed by Business Week Online reporter Mica Schneider. Here's an edited transcript of their discussion:

Q: How have Sloan admissions changed since we last spoke, exactly two years ago to the day?


A lot has changed. This year we're using a new online application vendor. And interviews have become a larger component of the admissions process.

Q: Indeed, every person who is now admitted to the Sloan School has interviewed.


Exactly. This is the third year that we're interviewing all admitted candidates.

Q: The Sloan essay questions changed recently, too.


We've used the same essay questions for years, and we thought of changing the topics, and asking applicants to choose two out of four questions, rather than two out of three as in the past. We don't know what the results are going to be, because I haven't started reading applications.

The old questions, I think, put people who had less experience at a disadvantage, because we asked them to talk about their professional accomplishments. We added a question that draws on their personal experiences.

Q: Does that mean that Sloan is seeking younger MBA hopefuls with less work experience?


It isn't a strategic move to recruit younger people. We always welcome their applications. But some younger people are discouraged by (our students') average age and GMAT averages. The age range is 22 to 40-something. Our hope is that by changing the essay questions, we may encourage more people to apply.

Q: MIT has a reputation as a school for the technically-inclined, so it's easy for MBA aspirants to make assume that Sloan MBAs have a serious grounding in technology. What's an accurate image of your MBAs?


Our students are smart, friendly, hard working, creative, and innovative. They're also caring people, and that's what a lot of outsiders don't know about us. When they come to campus, their image of Sloan will change. That's why we always encourage people to visit. You can't learn all about Sloan by reading brochures.

Our students come from consulting, investment banking, and management. I don't think they're any different from the applicants at other schools.

Q: Is the school aiming to recruit students from different backgrounds?


We're always looking for diversity, but you always work with what you have in your application pool. Ideally, you want students who can do the academics, who will thrive here, will enjoy being here for two years, and will be successful when they leave. That's what we want.

Q: Sloan accepted 18% of its 3,000 applicants in 2001. Of those, 70% enrolled in the program. Where do the 30% go who don't enroll in the Sloan School?


The usual suspects: Harvard, Stanford, and to some extent, Wharton. Those are where we lose most of the people who don't come here.

Q: That reminds me of something you said two years ago, when you mentioned that Sloan prefers applicants from Ivy League schools.


Ooh, did I say that?

Q: I asked if you did, and you said "Yes, but there are un-Ivy League schools that have a reputation for being tough on grades..." What attributes do those tougher schools have that make their graduates more compelling?


I certainly didn't want to give the idea that we only savor people from the Ivy Leagues. We're looking for students who can do the job here, students with the potential, the intellectual and academic preparation. We'd like to have students who have good backgrounds, good training, from good schools. But also people who come from tough schools, and people with tough majors. Those are the good indicators of how they will perform here.

Q: Can you give me an idea of some tough schools and tough majors?


I would prefer not to, but I'd be happy to take those questions from prospective applicants individually, who ask about their undergraduate institution. We can entertain those questions by e-mail or phone.

Q: Does MIT know which schools are considered "tough" graders abroad, too?


We do. Fortunately for us, we get the top students from a lot of the schools abroad.

Q: Try this example: A student applies who comes from a decent school, with a strong GPA, but they're pretty sure that when you look at the school you'll say, 'University of XYZ?' What can they do to make their academic background, more compelling, and look more rigorous?


First, we look at grades. You need to see how they perform in school, and if they went to a school that was never heard of, naturally, you would expect that person to be the top student, or one of the top students. Then you want a confirmation of that, so you look at the GMAT score to see if the grades are valid. When you have those two things, you'll interview them, and see if they turn out to be what you think they are.

Q: Who are the applicants that jump off the page?


You really have to distinguish yourself from the others. Last year, I came across a person who was a medical doctor, and the thing that impressed me about him was that on the side he was also a writer. He has published novels, bestsellers in his country. This applicant really jumped out. You knew that you were dealing with a winner. I was excited to meet him for the interview, but unfortunately I wasn't as impressed: He was quiet. One other person wrote in his essays that he has seen all of Tom Cruise's movies, but during the interview someone asked him to name two or three movies. He couldn't even name two. Then on the other hand, you'll meet people who aren't strong on paper, but are impressive in person.

Q: In past interviews with BusinessWeek Online, you've also mentioned that your office immediately identifies the bottom 20% of the application pool, sets it aside, and then concentrates on reviewing the top candidates. How do you identify the bottom 20%?


We're not doing that anymore. This year, we've adopted a competency model. Essentially, we've identified 11 competencies that we want in our students. These were defined as a result of interviewing successful alumni of the Sloan School. So for the first time, when we read an application, we specifically look for those competencies. Some we can evaluate in the application, some we'll watch for during the interview. We'll refine these, and next year we might develop more competencies, or we could subtract.

So it's not just grades, GMAT scores, and work success, but other things that we look for. And no one will be eliminated outright based on their GMAT (score), GPA, or work experience.

We were already doing some of these things before, but now we're not identifying and eliminating the bottom percentage of the applicant pool. We're using these competencies to find people who may not even meet the thresholds we used to use. If they are good applicants, then we might advocate for them, assuming that they have things to offer other than their grades.

Q: What are the 11 attributes?


We're just starting this review process, and it's still a learning process for us. Perhaps next year we will be more comfortable talking about it.

Q: Why did the school decide to make the change to a competency model?


Because we wanted a better student body. I think we've done a good job. We just want to do a better job.

Q: Of course, some of the traditional indicators still count, the GMAT, for instance. What GMAT score should applicants aim to meet before applying? The mid-80% range of scores, which excludes outlier scores, at Sloan is 670-720.


The full range is 590-800 this year. It's a very wide range. The median clusters in the 710 range.

Q: When will a GMAT score raise the red flag?


That's hard to say. Someone could have a 590 GMAT, but may have a 3.9 or 4.0 GPA from a good school, and that's clearly a case where you shouldn't eliminate the person. If there is a consistency, if the GMAT score is low, the GPA is low, and if this person's experience is mediocre, not outstanding, then everything that you see doesn't work in that person's favor. So, it's hard to say what is a good GMAT score, because you can't admit someone with a 740 GMAT, but a miserable GPA, who hasn't done anything professionally.

Q: That's said, there are more components to the GMAT than the overall score. An applicant could have an outstanding quantitative score, and low verbal score. How does Sloan evaluate that balance?


It depends on where the applicant is from. If you're dealing with a U.S. applicant with a low verbal score, and a high quant score, you could disregard the verbal score, since you know it isn't an accurate indicator of the person's ability to speak English. If you're dealing with an international student, that's a different story.

Q: Sloan doesn't require applicants from abroad to complete the Test if English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), so how can you gauge one's English?


This is where interviews come in.

Q: Applicants must have two people, preferably professional or academic colleagues, complete recommendation letters for them. What's a great recommendation, and which ones raise red flags?


Good recommendations are the ones that praise the applicant, and where the recommender knows the recommendee very well. What recommendations raise red flags? Short recommendations, and recommendations that don't give us a lot of insight into the candidate. You can tell whether a writer is enthusiastic about a candidate or not. It's not unusual for us to see recommendations from people who don't even know the recommendee.

Q: Sloan also asks the references for their phone numbers. Do you ever call them?


Yes, we do, for clarification. There are times, for example, when a recommender would say something, and we don't know what it means, and we would call.

Q: So, have you caught people, when you place a call, who never wrote the recommendation?


Yeah, we have.

Q: That's an automatic trip to the ding pile?


Exactly. I confronted an applicant in one case. This applicant came back to me a few weeks later, while I was traveling, saying that he had 'another recommendation, and can I consider him.' Of course not!

Q: Can it help an applicant if their recommender is an alumnus of the Sloan school?


I think it's helpful. I don't know if it will clinch the decision. We hope that the recommenders know what the recommendees will go through when they're here.

Q: What makes a good interview at Sloan? Are you looking for certain characteristics this year that may be different from last year?


Really good interaction between the interviewer and the applicant. It's not just exchange of pleasantries, but good exchange of info on both sides. The best ones are spontaneous interviews. Sometimes, people are overly prepared, and you really didn't get to know the person: Every statement was rehearsed. The best interview is when then person is prepared, but spontaneous and open. Those are the ones I remember the most.

Q: The essays carry certain weight at Sloan, and you mentioned before that applicants now choose two of four questions to answer. What are some essay dos and don'ts?


Applicants shouldn't really count the number of words, as long as they don't exceed (the stated limit) too much, you know, by 30 words. By the way, that's not the case for the resume, which is one page -- you have to stick to the one-page resume.

Back to essays -- it's very important to proof your work. Make sure that the essays are passionate, that they convey ideas passionately, and are not just generic. Don't just answer the questions, but convey an important message, and convince us that Sloan is the right place for you and where you want to be.

Q: Of course, Sloan is very international, and one of your questions gets to that point. It says, 'There are 60 countries represented in the program. What can you add to the class?' It would seem to me that it would be important for applicants to note if they have international experience.


People can answer that in a way that they're comfortable. We won't necessarily reward a person for time abroad. And we won't punish people who don't have it. But if they've had experience abroad -- let's say an American applicant worked overseas -- I'm sure the essays will sound different, because they would have learned something from having been overseas, and they will incorporate these things in their applications.

Q: Does Sloan suggest that applicants write balanced essays, mentioning their personal values and experiences, and their professional ones?


There should be a balance. Sometimes people concentrate so much on the professional stuff that they fail to talk about personal stuff, and usually the personal stuff is what may make a difference in the decision.

Q: About 35% of the Sloan class is from abroad, are you hoping to recruit more MBAs from different countries this year? Are there regions you're focusing on?


There are always regions where we would like to have more representation: Central and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Africa, and the Middle East are areas where we'd like to get more students.

Q: Sloan offers MBAs two application deadlines, one in mid-November, and another in mid-February. When is the best time to submit an application?


We always recommend early, the first deadline. When we're just starting to read applications, we tend to be aggressive. We don't know what the class looks like yet. So in the first round, we're filling the class. The reason it gets competitive in the second round is because we know what the applicant pool looks like, and how the class is starting to take shape. You're just looking to round out the class in this round.

On the other hand, the second round might work to the advantage of other people, because once you fill the class with a core, then you can be very aggressive, and take the outliers, the nontraditional applicants. The bottom line is that if you're a good candidate, you'll be admitted no matter the round. If you're a weak candidate, it doesn't matter what round you apply.

Q: Sloan's Web site notes that in the interest of efficiency and confidentiality, the school won't deliver decisions by a phone or fax. How do you deliver an application decision?


By first class mail.

Q: It seems that re-applicants at Sloan fare well: 5% of last year's applicants reapplied, and of those nearly 50% were accepted. Does Sloan encourage people who were denied, or wait-listed, to reapply?


I think we do, but also that number needs to be explained. Keep in mind that a majority of the re-applicants were people who were wait-listed. It happens in every school. It doesn't mean that the school is re-applicant friendly.

Q: What do those people do to bolster their application the next year?


We don't give suggestions, but I think the applicants get wiser, after submitting eight or 10 applications the previous year.

Q: What's the best advice for someone placed on Sloan's wait list?


Timing is everything. They can call today, and if we don't need someone, we won't open up the wait-list. But there are times when if they call, we need people. Timing is really everything.

The right strategy is to not panic. Don't pick up the phone and call (the admissions office) immediately. You should wait. Write a letter, and reiterate that you're interested in the school, and why you should be admitted to the program. I wouldn't be aggressive early, probably later in the summer, in June or July.

You've got to remind us that you're still interested, because when we need people, the names that come up are the ones who sent us an e-mail, and called us.

Q: Rod, you also handle admissions for the Leaders for Manufacturing Program. Can you explain the difference between someone who is perfect for the Leaders for Manufacturing Program, and someone who is better suited for an MBA?


The obvious difference between the LMP and MBAs is that the majority of LMPs come from a manufacturing background, and they want to go back to manufacturing when they leave Sloan.

There are two hurdles for LMP applicants. First, they have to go through the Sloan admissions process. Then they go through the LMP Committee. That's a different committee comprised of people from engineering. For the LMP applicants, we'll look at grades, test scores, and experience. The engineering side of MIT puts a high value on academics.

Q: The last time we spoke, you had some advice for readers: "Always check the date of the [interview] transcripts or books where I'm quoted. Some things I'm saying now may no longer be relevant in a year, or maybe even in six months!" Any other words of wisdom?


That advice remains the same.

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