Alison Merzel is admissions director of the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University. She joined the admissions team after completing her Master of Labor & Human Resources at Fisher. Prior to that she worked in advertising and media planning. Merzel recently shared some advice for Fisher applicants with BusinessWeek.com reporter Alina Dizik. Here are edited excerpts of the discussion:
Are you seeing more applications now than in the recent past?
We've definitely seen an increase. Last time I checked there was about a 40% increase. At this point it's more international applicants than domestic.
What's the most unusual or difficult essay question on your application?
One of the essays is an opportunity for the applicant to choose two different personal traits that we have identified as being characteristic of a leader, and we ask them to give us some sort of example. They then have the opportunity to write two small essays, or send in two objects and write a brief description of the objects.
What's your advice to students on how to answer it?
Applicants should be themselves and recognize that we are reading a lot of essays. So it helps (if they have a chance) to be creative and send in a photo or some sort of object or anything that helps bring light to why they are a passionate person.
What do students tell you is the hardest part of the admissions process at Ohio State?
I think for a lot of students it's an opportunity for self-reflection. They have to evaluate: Why am I doing this, what are my goals, why did I decide to make this choice. We get so much different feedback about our application process that it's hard to give just one example.
Do students apply in rounds? Are there any benefits to being in an earlier round?
We have university-wide fellowship competition on Nov. 15 for international students who wish to be considered for fellowships. So certainly if our international students are focused on merit-based funding we encourage them to apply early. After that it's rolling admissions with recommended application deadlines of Dec. 31, Mar. 15, and May 30, but we encourage students to apply early.
What do you look for in applicants' essays?
We're looking to see if students can communicate effectively, especially international students. We also want to gather insight on their personal characteristics and achievements and we want applicants to give us an honest portrayal. We want to look at something that's thoughtful and written from the heart.
What kind of mistakes do applicants usually make on their essays?
Mistakes vary from basic grammar to putting the wrong name of a school. Check and double check and have someone read over your essays. It's just helpful to have someone else that has not seen it before to take a look at it, a completely objective unbiased person. You should get to know the school that you're applying to so you can address them properly.
How important is an applicant's quantitative GMAT score vs. the verbal?
It is going to depend on the applicant, but certainly we will look at the quant score. We always look heavily at the writing assessment, especially international students who frequently get help on their essays, so that writing assessment is a snapshot. For individuals with heavy quantitative backgrounds we'll look more at the verbal.
What's the typical amount of work experience you're looking for in an applicant and how do you regard applicants with less business experience than that?
Our average is 4.7 years, but we accept people with a wide range. For individuals coming straight from college we look at their leadership opportunities and club experience. So we will weight their professional maturity and academic level more heavily.
What do you want to see in applicants' recommendation letters?
Our preference is to get a professional over academic reference, such as a supervisor, client, or colleague. We like the letter to be very specific and give specific examples that reflect the rating to be given on the application form.
How do interviews work? What are some of key mistakes that applicants make?
They are invitation only and everyone admitted will have had an interview. We offer phone interviews, and we're trying to implement Webcam interviews.
What financial aid opportunities are available to students?
The majority of our students do receive some sort of merit-based funding, which runs the gamut from merit scholarships to fellowship to graduate and housing assistantships. We do a lot of combining of scholarships.
How do you attract women and underrepresented minorities?
We have two recruiting weekends where we target women and minorities. We also award targeted fellowships for minority students.
Do you have any special initiatives or procedures for international applicants?
We do some recruiting internationally and speak with prospects. We also actively look for various channels on the Web, buying names through the GMAT services and accessing individuals who request information from us. We've done a really good job of working with individuals to be student ambassadors abroad and connecting with potential international students.
Can you take me through the process of how you look at an application?
We work with a centralized graduate admissions office in the university. When all the material arrives it will be sent for review by the admissions committee. Within two weeks applicants will get either a request for an interview, be wait-listed, or denied. We want people that are going to want to be here, so we use our admissions process as an opportunity to really get to know the applicant pool and their goals. We could see a person that looks excellent on paper and who would come here and not be happy because we're not what they're looking for.
What are some common mistakes candidates make in their applications?
Plan ahead and make sure to get your application materials together. Sometimes people think that if they only get the application in that they can still meet that deadline, but it doesn't necessarily mean that their references have turned in their part of the application.
How would you recommend applicants prepare for an interview at OSU?
Hopefully they don't know exactly what is going to be asked of them, but they should know a standard set question that almost everyone asks of the candidates. They should refresh their memory about the school and do some more research, review past accomplishments, and be prepared to talk about them. Applicants should also have some talking points ready without looking too rehearsed.
Are there any stereotypes about Fisher College that you'd like to disprove?
I would say that there is a stereotype that we are a regional school and to some extent that the students who come here want to stay in the Midwest or in the Ohio region. When it comes to Ohio State we have an alumni network of around 62,000. If you're a Buckeye there's somewhere in the world where someone is going to be able reply to you—our network stretches far beyond the state of Ohio.