Notre Dame Is "Very, Very Collaborative"

Admissions Director Hayden Estrada on Mendoza's special appeal, its application essays, and the role of interviews

This month marks Hayden Estrada's fourth anniversary as MBA admissions director at Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, which cracked BusinessWeek's Top 30 for the first time in the fall of 2002. BusinessWeek Online reporter Brian Hindo spoke recently with Estrada, who has an MBA from Babson University and previously directed MBA admissions at Vanderbilt and Maryland, about admission trends at Notre Dame. Here's an edited version of their conversation:

Q: You had more than 1,100 applications last year. Do you expect to hit that number this year, too?

A:

Yes, we're ahead of where we were last year -- not by much, but a little. To have a huge increase over last year would be pretty tough because over the past four years, our applications have increased about 165%. And if you look at the first- and second-tier schools for BusinessWeek over thatsame period, it's about 5%.

Q: Last year, 21% of your reapplicants were admitted. That seems a bit higher than normal. Would you say Notre Dame is a "reapplicant friendly" school?

A:

I'll tell you why that happens. As I said, for the past few years we've had significant increases in applications, and the people who are left out are the ones who apply at the end of the cycle. If they had applied earlier, they would have been excellent candidates, but because of the timing they weren't necessarily competitive.

What we've done with people like that is counsel them to consider reapplying the next year. That's one of the reasons why that number is so high, whereas at other schools it may be in the single digits.

Q: It sounds like it's to the applicant's advantage to get his or her application in as early as possible?

A:

What I tell most people, tongue-in-cheek, is that if a school's applications are going up, it's definitely to your advantage to apply early because you have recourse if you get on the waiting list or you don't get in. You can retake the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) or possibly approach an interview differently, or what have you.

But if you're applying at that last deadline, you're at the mercy of the applicant pool at that point. By contrast, if applications are down compared with the previous year, it could be your lucky year.

Q: Even before it was fashionable, Notre Dame stressed ethics as part of the MBA program. Is ethics an important part of vetting applications for you and your team?

A:

Not really. Do we put it in our literature and that kind of thing? Of course we do, because it tells people what this community is about, what the ethos of the school is. Is it a strategy to get more applications? Absolutely not, because it's something that this place has been about for so many years.It's part and parcel of who we are.

People tend to self-select into schools that have elements of a lifestyle that's important to them, and for people who consider ethics important, it's definitely a draw.

Q: Do most of your applicants come from the Midwest?

A:

No. When I first got here, we did have quite a few people from the Midwest -- 40-some percent [in both the two-year and one-year programs]. Right now it's a little less than 30% from the Midwest, and this year our No. 1 state is California -- nearly 20% of our students.

Q: Why the big draw from California?

A:

That's an interesting question. We try to canvas each major city in California. We do that all across the country but make a special effort to go out there. Occasionally we'll tack on Seattle, but usually it's concentrated on California.

There are a lot of Catholics in California, for one thing. They tend to have an affinity for the school. And we really try to leverage that.

Q: Do you track how many of your students are Catholic, and how many aren't?

A:

No, we don't. Not in the admission process. The only way I would know is if someone tells me or shows up for mass.

Q: So that doesn't influence decisions at all?

A:

Absolutely not.

Q: I wonder how international applicants view the school. I would imagine the [attraction of Notre Dame's] mystique [or history and tradition] is a bit diminished for someone who grew up outside the U.S.

A:

It's real interesting. Part of it depends on which country you're from. One of the great things about Notre Dame is that movies have been made about it -- and Hollywood reaches everywhere. So Notre Dame has a very good reputation overseas as well.

We have 240 alumni clubs, and a lot of those are overseas. I did a trip to Latin America, visited six or seven countries, and there were alumni clubs in all but one of them. So they're very active. For instance, there's a Latin American and Caribbean Council of Alumni who want to know that we're recruitingLatin American students and doing things like Latin American studies and just really adding to the richness of the Notre Dame experience.

Q: What schools are your main competitors for applicants?

A

: That has evolved. When I got here, it was mostly the Big 10 schools, and you would expect an Indiana or Purdue to be pretty close competitors. We still cross-apply quite a bit with those schools. I would add probably Michigan State, plus Northwestern and Chicago.

We're definitely competing with a couple of the Eastern-seaboard schools -- like Georgetown, of course, the other big name in Catholic education. We'll get the Whartons and the Stanfords quite a bit, especially with our high-end candidates. People are applying to more schools now than they were 10 years ago.

Q: What do you do to distinguish Notre Dame from its rivals when you're marketing it to candidates?

A:

The experience here is different. When you look at the top business schools, for instance, in BusinessWeek's ranking, there really aren't any bad ones. You can get a great education at most of them. But what sets a school apart is everything that surrounds the education, the type of communityyou're in.

One thing that's very different about our school is that it's very, very collaborative. In fact, I don't think that any of the other schools have their students collaborating in the job search, for instance, as we do here. Students are organizing interest groups based on things like geography andfunctionality, and actually work together on developing leads, and our career development office has created this entire program out of leveraging resources like the alumni better than we have in the past.

Those are some of the things that I don't think you can find at other schools. I've worked at four business schools and have never seen anything like it.

Q: The first essay question on your application asks about an applicant's career path and purpose in wanting the MBA and how it fits with their current goals. What should an applicant do if he or she doesn't know exactly what kind of career they want to choose right off the bat?

A:

They should reconsider whether an MBA is right for them. An MBA is an incredible investment -- in time, money, and resources. And one of the things that's very important to us in the application process is establishing what that person's goal is.

One of the things we want to do as an educational provider is to help students get from point A to point B, and you can't do that unless you know what point B is. So knowing why a person wants an MBA is very important in the admission process, and that's one of the reasons why we have that essay.

We have three essays, and they're not very flashy. I've certainly seen more interesting questions on other applications, but [ours] get at the meat of what we're trying to find out about a person.

Q: The second essay question asks about what the candidate is going to contribute to the community. What are you getting at with this question?

A:

Notre Dame is a community built on service to others -- it's known for that. Nearly 100% of our students will do some type of community service when they're here. We want students to understand that they have to accept the responsibility for being part of a community and making it better because you're a part of it.

Q: The last essay question asks simply: "What do you do for fun?" What kinds of things should not be in the answer to this question?

A:

Nothing illegal, I guess [laughs]. But what we're trying to get at here is, are you a fun person to be around? If I'm stuck in an elevator with you, am I going to be miserable? I want to know if people have things they do that not only enrich their lives but add to the sense of excitement about being ina group with other people.

We get 130 people for the two-year program, and we want them to have fun with each other. So we're trying to get at people's personalities. The application process can be so sterile. Questions like this bring personality and life to it. Between that and the interview, you get a sense of who people are whenthey aren't on the clock.

Q: Any examples stand out from last year or this year that you thought were just knockout or bizarrely interesting?

A:

One thing we have noticed about that question is that the answers are getting better as the years go by. We have applicants who are pilots, who have climbed Mt. Kilamanjaro. I was interviewing a guy the other day [who] started his own track club and ran a 55-mile relay race from Mt. Washington in NewHampshire down to the seashore.

These are things that you think people are crazy for doing, but they show a lot of determination. For instance, that relay race showed the person's ability to mesh into a community that's pretty diverse.

Q: An overwhelming majority of total applicants also were interviewed. Are interviews by invitation only?

A:

No. If someone wants to initiate an interview, we welcome that. It's really a person's opportunity to put their best foot forward. It adds, as I said before, personality and life to an application that looks black-and-white on paper.

You get a lot of information from an application, but you don't get at the essence of a person until you ask the off-the-wall question or talk to them. Our interviews are both behavioral and conversational. We really do try to get at who the person is.

Q: What do you mean when you say "behavioral and conversational"?

A:

We have some behavioral questions to help us walk through experiences that people have had regarding things like teamwork, leadership, and ethics. We may ask someone to give us an example of a time when they were experiencing team conflict, and we want to know how they resolved it and the role they played.

[In the conversational part,] what we're trying to do is just get two people in a room to connect, on a personal level, so that when I'm doing the interview, I can get to know the applicant. Try to envision what their life is like and who they are, what their dreams are. So I can figure out whetherthis meshes with the type of culture we have here.

Q: If it's up to the applicant to initiate the interview, and 100% of admitted applicants got an interview, it seems pretty obvious that candidates better choose to have an interview.

A:

It's not completely up to the applicant. Let's say we're reviewing a file and considering someone for admission, and we want to get more information on this person. The admission committee will request an interview [in that case].

Q: Would it be possible for a person to get in without an interview?

A:

Possible. But that's not the direction we are going. We're trying to get to know the applicants. So we really do try to interview everybody.

Q: Who does the interviews?

A:

I do quite a lot of them. My associate director, Brian Lohr, does a lot. We have a team of seven students that does interviews, plus a network of 340 alumni.

Q: And you do these off-campus as well as on?

A:

Absolutely, yes. We travel around the country to do interviews. If the travel schedule doesn't work out or [the applicant] can't get to campus, [we can do interviews over the phone.]

Q: Who'll look at an application first, and what are the first things that get looked at?

A:

We have a team of people in what we call the War Room that puts the application together. The first time I would see an application is when it's complete, and at that point we'll have a minimum of three administrators read the file.

We may request an interview at that point, but the first read is actually kind of cursory. The second read will happen after the interview, if the interview hasn't taken place already.

And then it'll go to a third person, and if we come to a consensus about this candidate, they'll be admitted. If there isn't a consensus among those first three reads, it'll be read by a couple more people.

Q: What are the first things that you notice on an application?

A:

We'll look at a cover page, which tells us where they're working right now, what type of job they've got. On the next page, we'll look at where they went to school and really try to develop a picture of what point A is. Then we get into the essays and look at where point B is and try to picture in ourminds what process this person is going through. We'll look also at the GMAT scores at that point.

There isn't a hierarchy that we go through, but we try to create the story of who this person is and what they're trying to do with their lives.

Q: What industries are represented in your applicant pool?

A:

That's changing right now. The past couple of years we got a lot of people in e-commerce. Then there were quite a few layoffs, and last year we got quite a few accountants and energy-related people. And this year I'm seeing a lot more finance than I have in the past.

Finance has traditionally been one of the larger industries represented here. But today, it seems that every other applicant I'm looking at comes from that field.

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