A Chat with Kenan-Flagler's Admissions Director

Director of MBA Admissions Sherrylyn Wallace with tips on what they're looking for from applicants at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Our guest on Jan. 28, 2001, was Sherrylyn Wallace, director of MBA admissions at Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, No. 15 on BusinessWeek's Top 30 list. Ms. Wallace started in the job in late 1998. Her professional background includes stints as an account exec for Kraft General Foods, a product manager for Bubble Yum, and a marketing director in Skybox International's basketball product area. She was interviewed by BusinessWeek Online reporter Mica Schneider. Here's an edited transcript of their discussion:

Q: Kenan-Flagler has changed its application process in the past two years. Would you bring us up to date?


Obviously, our aim is to get better, more efficient, and more productive. We've seen greater applicant interest in the electronic application, and now get very few paper applications. Last year was the first year we had a Kenan-Flagler online application that didn't require using a commercial supplier, such as Embark. We also didn't do printed applications this year.

We've also changed our interview policy. In the past, we've had an "if you're interested, come on in to interview" policy. We didn't pre-screen applicants. But with the applicant pool growing over the past three seasons, we realized that we were spending too much time interviewing candidates who probably weren't going to make it. This year, we instituted a hedging process. We let people interview without screening from early August to Nov. 30. After that, we do interviews at our discretion. That has cut the number of people who get in front of our team.

There have been a lot of faculty additions over the last couple of years that applicants would want to know about. We've hired two faculty members from Stanford in the operations department, marketing staff from London Business School, we beefed up accounting with a new faculty member from Chicago, and hired someone in finance from Wharton. We're always bringing in the best faculty we can.

Q: How do the applicants get themselves in running for an interview after Nov. 30?


We have a two-part application. The first part includes a resume, application fee, and data sheet. The second part is where you submit your essays, letters of recommendation, transcripts, etc. It's not required that an applicant send Part One of the application in earlier than Part Two, but it tells us that you're out there, we can review your background, [and decide whether or not to do an interview]. If we see someone who hasn't finished school yet, we don't move forward. If we see that the work experience isn't what it should be, we can catch that. The best thing people can do is to send Part One of their application in advance -- the earlier the better.

We aren't going to admit anyone we haven't had a conversation with. Sometimes, we see someone who wasn't invited or able to interview in the pre-screening season, but we read their application and see that it's someone who's a star. It's never too late for an interview until you get a decision letter -- you could be asked to interview the week decisions are mailed. Also, anyone who is waitlisted is automatically invited to interview.

Q: How is application volume at Kenan-Flagler this year?


As of Oct. 26, our first deadline, we were up about 15%. At the second deadline on Nov. 30, we were up about 4% vs. 2000. After the Jan. 18 deadline -- we extended the deadline from Jan. 11 after the online application server crashed -- we think we're slightly down compared with last year. The decrease seems to be isolated to Asian applicants. After September 11, we weren't able to travel to Asia to recruit students.

I've made about half the offers we expect to make this year, and we've seen an incredibly strong applicant pool. I expect to enroll a class that's stronger than last year's.

Q: When is the best time to apply?


I don't encourage people to apply at the first deadline unless their application is finished. It needs to be as good as it's going to get, both of the recommendations should be ready, and the applicant should be satisfied with his or her test score. It never will hurt to apply early, but we don't reward people for applying early, since we know we're going to see a lot more applications later on. On the other hand, you don't want to wait until the last deadline, because in years past we've been close to oversubscription before the fourth deadline ends.

Q: Less than half of Kenan-Flagler's admitted applicants decided to enroll in the program in 2001. Where are the admits going instead?


They're going to programs such as Wharton. Many of the people, we lost to fellowships at other programs. That has been an issue for us only in the past two years, when our yield dropped below 50%.

We struggle with the question, "Do we admit people we know will come, or do we go after people that everybody else is competing for, knowing that we're not going to get the majority of them?" The schools we're in contention with are schools that have the luxury of being a lot more selective. It would be easy to play where you're familiar, and deal with the people who only want to go here, but we want a more diverse class from all over the world. Therefore, we take our chances and offer admission to people who may not be the easiest yield.

Q: What's your sales pitch to applicants on the fence?


Our environment and our program. There's a special feeling when you come here: this community reaches out and really cares. The faculty are sensible, the administration is devoted, and the community values the individual. If you want all of the perks of being an MBA, and you want to matter individually, then Kenan-Flagler may be right for you.

Q: Indeed, in recent years, Kenan-Flagler's reputation for graduating socially-responsible managers has grown substantially.


There are wonderful candidates who see our world leadership in that area, and that's one of the reasons they study here. Similarly, people come to us because of our leadership in real estate, or our leadership in marketing.

Some people think that socially-minded applicants aren't the most competitive MBAs, because they don't have the profile that's usually associated with an MBA and aren't measuring everything by profits and losses. But if you look at their stats, such as their grade point average and GMAT scores, these people are stronger than some typical candidates. The only area they weren't higher in than their classmates were pre-MBA salaries.

Q: What sets the 24% of applications that Kenan-Flagler accepts apart from the others?


They're people who are more focused, and have explained to the admissions committee why they want an MBA, why they want one from Kenan-Flagler, and how that experience will take them to their ultimate goal. That's one of the biggest differentiators among people who are equally appealing on paper. We can't help them get where they want to go if they don't know where they're trying to go.

Second, ours is still a relatively small program, so there's much more of a social quality to it. You will interact all of the time with other students, professors, and with members of our advisory boards. It's just not a program for people who are individually oriented. We look for signs that these are social animals and get their energy from interaction with others. Red flags are people who don't seem to be team players.

We also look for a higher level of communication. Our core curriculum, in the first year, focuses a lot on leadership and communication.

Q: How should an applicant approach the school's three required essay questions?


Our questions aren't easy to complete by dusting off essays from another school, and submitting those to us. The first essay shares Kenan-Flagler's core values -- excellence, integrity, leadership, teamwork, and community -- and asks applicants to pick one that is important to them. More people choose excellence than any other.

The second essay question asks what quality the person would add to our community. The final question tries to address how they approach problem solving. This year's question puts them in a case scenario: They're chief marketing officer at Levi Strauss, and they're approached by Nike to do a joint venture to introduce a co-branded line of clothing in Europe. We ask them how they'd structure this opportunity, what resources they'd need, and some other things. One of first times you know someone's not going to cut it is when they ask you 100 times, "What are you looking for?" Others just dive right in. Anyone who thinks that coming to B-school is always clear path, that someone will tell you what classes to pick and how much time to spend on projects, probably hasn't done their homework.

Q: How does the school view optional essays, and when is it a good time to write one for Kenan-Flagler?


Step away from the application before you start filling it out, and ask yourself what is it you're trying to do? You're creating a proposal for a group of people as to why they should choose you. Don't ever get so bogged down that you forget the case you're trying to make. Take a personal inventory, and decide what your package is, and what the product is you're selling. What are the highlights of the product, and what are the Achilles' heels of the product? When you're making a sale, give them the reasons to overlook deficits in your application. Don't leave it for us to figure out.

Q: If you had your druthers, applicants would never do what on their essays?


I'm sick of seeing candidates who write what they think are business-like essays. I want first-person essays. I don't like essays that begin with, "One should consider carefully their career options...." We also get a lot of quotes from books. Your essays are, in addition to your interview, places where you have control and can make your case. Here's where you get to tell me what it is you would bring to my program, and why this is a fit for you. I want to see some passion in those essays.

Q: What can an applicant expect from his or her Kenan-Flagler interview?


We spend between 30 and 45 minutes with a candidate either on campus or with alumni interviewers in some parts of the world. We each have a different style. We have certain attributes we ask interviewers to weigh in on, and they can use whatever style they want to get that information. We look for communication skills, a sense of their presence -- are they poised and comfortable to be around? -- their sense of teamwork, maturation, and evidence of drive or initiative. We also want to talk about their work experience to date.

It's also very important that we enroll students who have a global IQ. That doesn't mean they have studied abroad five times or work in a multinational company that sends them around the world. We're looking for people who understand that the world is beyond the boundaries of their home country and who are really thirsty for broadening themselves in a program with an international student body, with a global curriculum and opportunities.

Q: When does a GMAT score raise a red flag for the admissions committee?


We have to assess academic risk. The last thing I want is for someone to not complete the program. Our program is extremely difficult in the first year for people who don't have prior preparation in quantitative areas. They aren't ready to move fast with the material, as other people can. So, if the GMAT suggests that your quantitative skills aren't at a level where you can keep pace with the others, it's a red flag. Your transcript should give us something to negate the GMAT, or to balance it. Some things that could balance a low GMAT score would be earning an A or B in college-level courses that have quantitative material. There are certain courses that make us feel more comfortable, such as calculus, microeconomics, statistics, and financial accounting. Those aren't requirements, but it is an expectation that when you enroll you've had some foundation in each of those areas.

For the most part, we don't need much to knock an applicant out. If there are too many reasons to hesitate, we pick up the next application. Applicants want the admissions committee to feel that they're going to miss something good if they're passed over. Those are the people we fight for in a committee meeting, or in our ratings.

Q: What should an applicant's two letters of recommendation say?


The letters should say what you need them to say. What's the case you're trying to make? If you look at yourself and see that you're strong in areas A, B, and C, but suspect in areas D and E, then you should have [your references] address those weaknesses. Sometimes you get a sense on recommendations that the applicant hasn't briefed the writer on their career to date. A recommender can help you a lot more if they know what areas they should emphasize. It doesn't mean that you're telling them what to say, but you tell them things you want them to confirm.

Q: Is it O.K. if you read a recommendation that was sent to other schools, too?


Sure. As long as the letter addresses the questions we ask.

Q: What does the admissions committee want to learn from someone's work experience?


There's a minimum number of years you need to establish yourself as having done something. We see that being around the two-year mark. It would be almost impossible for anyone who has worked less than two years to make us believe that they've done something substantial. I see candidates with 10 years of experience who aren't compelling, and ones with three years of experience who are awesome.

I tell people not to get bogged down in years, though. Think of it this way: When you're in a small group, are your classmates going to feel as if you've got something to add? You've got to have something that you're an expert in. You've got to have a track record in an area, a competence.

Q: How does the school value joint-degree candidates?


We love them if they have some experience to share. I have people who are crushed because they are doing well in law school, but they came straight through from undergrad, and they can't understand why they can't get into business school. But business school isn't just about being smart. It's about shared experiences, taking things further. And these applicants haven't [always] worked, or been responsible for anything aside from studying and getting good grades.

Q: Do reapplicants have an edge in admissions? In 2001, 6% of the school's applicants were reapplying from prior years. Of those, Kenan-Flagler admitted about one-third.


We don't see it negatively. A lot of times, the reapplicant just wasn't ready the year before. We spend a substantial amount of time giving feedback to people who weren't successful from June through August, mostly by e-mail, discussing areas where they were less competitive. But they could do better than they did the first time they apply and still not be good enough, because the applicant pool changes so much from year to year.

Q: Explain Kenan-Flagler's wait list.


If you're on the wait list, it means that while the committee thinks a lot of you, they aren't convinced that you're stronger than someone else. If you haven't interviewed, then, duh, this is the time to do it. If your GMAT isn't putting you over the edge, or if there are opportunities to improve your application, continue to work on it.

Our wait list is different from some schools. We review you every round you're on the wait list. You could be waitlisted again, admitted, or denied in the next round. We don't hold people on the wait list until June or July. If we have to, we deny them early so that they can move on with their life. We give people the option of staying on the wait list every decision round, but most applicants are grateful to have us be decisive.

Q: You don't handle admissions for Kenan-Flagler's executive MBA program. Where can executive MBA hopefuls find more information on the school's EMBA programs?


Penny Oslund is the director of executive MBA admissions. We now have three tracks for the executive MBA -- people who study on the weekend, others who study in the evening, and the OneMBA, which we run with four other B-schools. To reach that admissions office, call 800-453-9515. The EMBA email is emba@unc.edu, or OneMBA@unc.edu.

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