A Talk with Rochester's Admissions Director

Pamela Black-Colton of the Simon Graduate School of Business on the application process, life in Rochester, and myths about the school

MBA applicants may find a sympathetic ear in Pamela Black-Colton, the assistant dean of MBA Admissions at the University of Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business (No. 27 in BusinessWeek's 2002 Rankings). After all, she herself was once in their shoes. The Simon MBA grad -- Class of '88 -- was director of research services for investment management firm Manning & Napier Advisors before returning to her alma mater in 1997 to direct admissions.

Black-Colton recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online reporter Brian Hindo about the current admissions environment. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: You took the helm of the admissions office in 1997. What are some of the things that have changed since then?

A:

We've seen an increasingly competitive market. The quality of students and the number of applications are up significantly. We continue to have a wide variety of students from many different countries, and that trend has grown. Some populations -- such as students from China -- have probably doubled or tripled in the time I've been here.

Q: What sorts of changes have you witnessed in the type of person seeking an MBA degree?

A:

Compared with when I was in the program, work experience has become a much more important component. When I was in school, two or three years was about the average. Now the average is much closer to six. The average student age is 29.

A much smaller percentage of students comes directly from undergrad, though that's beginning to change a little. There was a point a couple years ago where basically nobody came directly from undergrad. Now, we're discovering, recruiters see some value in people with MBA training who don't have a huge amountof work experience.

Q: Which recruiters value those types of graduates?

A:

A wide variety. Employers who want MBA skills but don't necessarily need managerial skills at this point are willing to develop people. They want someone who's hungry, who will work a lot of hours, and who they don't have to pay as much as somebody with six years of work experience. [Such recruiters include] investment banks, consulting firms -- though consulting isn't hiring much now -- and even those looking for market-research analysts.

Q: Rochester has always had a sizable population of international students compared to other Top 30 schools. Are you worried at all that job shortages and the political atmosphere will reduce the number of international students you'll be able to admit?

A:

Certainly it's a concern. You look at the ability of international students to get jobs in the U.S. You look at the economic problems in Latin America, from which we traditionally draw a fair number of students, plus the problems students from some countries have getting visas. That does make me concerned about what the international composition of our class will be next year. We feel it's very important to have a diverse student population, drawing on people from many countries, so we're not walking away from that.

Q: What would you say to an international applicant to assuage concerns about coming to the U.S. and taking on a huge debt load with uncertain job prospects?

A:

In every year, including this past year, our international students have gotten jobs. Obviously it has been harder for them lately. In an economic downturn, it's much harder to get an employer to sponsor someone for an H1-B [work] visa. But I also believe that the economic situation won't remain static. You're making an investment that's going to pay off when we move out of this economic downturn. You shouldn't let the current economic situation stop you from making an investment that's for a lifetime.

Q: What's application volume like this year?

A:

We're on target with our domestic-applicant pool, which was up 18% last year. We're finding a decrease in the international pool.

Q: An applicant can download a .pdf version of your application and complete it on paper, or can apply directly online. Once that's done, how is the application evaluated?

A:

The application goes to our admissions committee. We have at least two readers of every application. In broad terms, we ask ourselves two questions: Is this person going to be academically successful in the program, [and] how successful is this person going to be in business? [The first question] youanswer with Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) scores, undergraduate grade point average (GPA), the range of courses you took, how you did in those courses, and so on.

The subquestions [of the second consideration] are: Is what they want to do consistent with what we offer? Are their goals reasonable based on their background and experience? To answer that, we look at their résumé, we look at four essay questions, we look at what recommenders say aboutthe person, and we look at the conversation that we have with the person when we interview them.

Q: The average GMAT score for Rochester students was around 650 last year. If a student has a GMAT score in the low 600s -- say 610 -- would you recommend that they retake the test?

A:

That's a hard question to answer. I think students need to evaluate their own situation. Do they come with something else that shows a strong prediction of academic success? The GMAT is the only piece of information we have that's consistent across every application.

If you came in the door with a strong undergraduate GPA from a strong school with a series of courses that were academically rigorous, and your GMAT was around 610, it may not be worth your while to take it again. If, on the other hand, for whatever reason, your undergraduate record wasn't stellar, you might want to consider retaking the GMAT to show the committee you have what it takes to get through the program academically.

Q: Last year, you interviewed 100% of your admitted students. That's obviously an important part of the application process for Rochester.

A:

We're planning on doing that this year as well. When looking at a viewbook, you get a view of what the school is like, but you only really get to understand it when you go there and visit. That's what the interview does for us -- it helps us understand a student's motivations, interests, goals, andobjectives. It helps us evaluate interpersonal skills. It also lets the student ask questions about the program.

Q: Are interviews by invitation only?

A:

Yes.

Q: So if an applicant gets an interview invitation, that's a pretty good sign.

A:

Yes. The way our process works, the committee reviews all the applications, and then we make decisions about the people we're interested in. At that point, we would schedule an interview. Then the interviewer writes up notes from the interview, and the file is sent to the committee. The interviewer presents that person to the committee.

Q: Who does the interviews?

A:

I do many of the interviews, and I have two associate directors who also do interviews. We have a small number of alumni that we ask to do interviews as well. My staff and I travel all over the world to do interviews.

Q: The interview is a chance for the applicant to ask questions directly of the school. Have you been asked any particularly thought-provoking questions by an interviewee?

A:

The ones that produce the most dialogue are things like: How are you branding yourself? How are you marketing yourself? How do you go about distinguishing your school in a competitive marketplace? That's something we talk about within our staff all the time.

Q: Those are good questions. So how do you stand out in a crowded B-school marketplace?

A:

I think we can continue to use our alumni to tell the story about what a good experience Simon is. Many referrals we get for students are through alumni, who tell the story of our top-ranked faculty, the cross-cultural nature of our programs, the education you get. [Otherwise,] it's really hard todiscern how one school is significantly different from another.

Q: As a city, Rochester, N.Y., may not be on many people's radar screens. What would you say to an applicant who may have some trepidation about moving there?

A:

The first thing is, school becomes a huge part of your life, both academically and socially. You'll be socializing and going to school with a significant population of interesting peers. It's a nice, medium-size city. It's clean, it's safe, it's relatively cheap -- those are all benefits.

The university has a world-class music school, so there are lots of events to go to. We have museums, theater, great restaurants -- all the things students are interested in. The reality is, you're going to spend a lot of time -- especially in the first year -- studying, so where you are may not be so important. Though personally, I find Rochester a very enjoyable city.

Q: It gets pretty cold, no?

A:

It varies. This year, we've already had as much snow as we had the entire winter last year. The campus is designed for a cold climate. There are tunnels to everywhere you need to go, so once you get in from the parking lot you basically don't have to set foot outside. You can get to the gym, to restaurants and dining halls, to the library.

Q: Do many graduates end up staying in the Rochester area?

A:

Not a significant number, no. We don't draw significantly from the area for our full-time program. Most students come for the two years and are looking to move elsewhere, though we always have people who find Rochester a delightful place. We had a woman from Puerto Rico who came to school a couple years ago, and she and her family loved Rochester. She set out to get a job here, and they are now Rochesterians.

Q: How does the school interact with the big corporations in Rochester, such as Bausch & Lomb (BOL ), Kodak (EK ), and Xerox (XRX )?

A:

Many of our part-time students come from those companies. If you take evening classes, you're sharing them with students who may talk about a situation in their company. In good economic times, those companies are all employers of interns as well as sources of permanent placements. The last couple of years, that hasn't been the case so much. All of those companies are actively involved in the school somehow -- perhaps their executives serve on advisory boards or as university trustees, or [the companies] donate money.

Q: Rochester has four application deadlines -- Dec. 15, Feb. 1, Mar. 15, and June 1 -- but you use rolling admissions [in which applications are judged as they are received rather than in formal application rounds]. What role do deadlines play if admissions are rolling?

A:

We commit to looking at all the applications received by a certain date before we look at the rest. The two first deadlines are priorities for financial aid. So if you're interested in being considered for financial aid, it's a good idea to get your application in by the first two deadlines. Thatdoesn't mean we won't consider you for financial aid after that, but at that point [we'll consider you based on whether] there is money left.

Q: A lot of people believe that in a rolling admissions cycle, it's best to get the application in as soon as possible. Does that hold true at Rochester?

A:

If I were applying, I would get my application in by one of the first two deadlines.

Q: How soon did you fill the class last year?

A:

We were pretty much full by Apr. 15. We did still take people who applied by the last deadline, but the majority of the class was filled at that point.

We bring in 180 to 190 people every year for our fall class. We also bring in a January class of 50 or 60 people. The January class allows you to complete the degree in 18 months. It compresses the degree -- you take classes in the winter quarter, the spring, and the summer to complete your first year, andthen you join the second year [schedule] in the fall.

Q: Where else do Rochester applicants apply?

A:

Cornell is right down the street, and we have many cross-applicants. Carnegie Mellon is another school, also NYU. And then Chicago and Wharton, because of our finance strength.

Q: Your application requires candidates to answer four broad essay questions. What should be going through applicants' minds as they begin to answer them?

A:

Being focused and answering the question [are key]. We kept the word count really tight -- 450 words apiece -- because we want people to think in the business mode, which is to get to what you're saying and focus on the answer. We're looking to see that somebody has goals and objectives that fit with what we offer. They really understand why they want an MBA. They can give us some sense of how their background relates to their future objectives once they get an MBA. I suggest you edit your essays carefully and not refer to another school in them.

Q: How often does that really happen?

A:

It's surprising. Every 12 essays or so, you'll see somebody refer to another school. Clearly they're trying to use the same essay for multiple schools and didn't do their editing well.

Q: Admissions officers have been giving increasing attention to candidates' ethics and integrity. Does Simon use background checks or the like to screen applicants?

A:

We do some random checking of references and recommenders. We take random résumés and check companies -- especially names of companieswe haven't heard of. We haven't reached the point of an across-the-board background check. It's something we've been talking about with other business schools.

Q: Are there any misconceptions about Rochester you wish would go away?

A:

One is: "Unless you are a highly quantitative person, you're not going to be successful at Rochester." I think that's a huge misconception. Rochester is a great school for someone who isn't a highly quantitative person. I was a history major in undergraduate school and had basically no math. I went back and did some preparation before I got my MBA, but for me the broad liberal arts background melded wonderfully with the MBA degree. People are scared off by the misconception that we're only a "quant" school.

Another is: "If you don't want to do finance, you shouldn't think about going to Rochester." We have many strong concentrations -- entrepreneurship, brand management, health sciences. There are many reasons to come to Rochester other than [to study] finance.

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