Scott Carson is the director of Queen's MBA and a professor of strategy at the Queen's School of Business at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. (No. 1 in BusinessWeek's most recent ranking of full-time non-U.S. MBA programs). Prior to overseeing all aspects of the full-time, on-campus MBA program at Queen's, including the admissions process, Carson served as dean of the School of Business & Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University and as dean of the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary's University. He is also a past chair of the Canadian Federation of Business School Deans.
Teamwork is the centerpiece of the Queen's curriculum, and Carson says that while some other programs promise to turn students into CEOs, Queen's actually teaches students how to leverage their personal strengths as they work together in teams, an ability that helps grads accelerate their careers. Carson recently spoke with BusinessWeek reporter Kelly Bronk about the team-based program and how students can land a spot in the class. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
How do application numbers look this year?
Our program is a 12-month, highly compressed, integrated program which starts in May and goes until the end of the next April, so our new class is about three to four weeks into the program. In terms of expressions of interest in the program this past year, we were up staggeringly: 50%. The program is small, and only has 75 students in it, but on the expressions-of-interest side we had about 3,000 [students]. However, the number of completed applications is a much smaller number. The program is very selective and there's a lot of self-selecting out of students who just think that they're not going to make it. We're also one of the most expensive Canadian programs—there are about three of us at $60,000—so a number of people, once they get a fix on the price point, will self-select out as well. In terms of completed applications, we're probably on par with the year before.
Could you tell me a little bit about the application process? Has anything changed significantly in recent years?
No, we use an application system called Embark for the actual application completion, and that's an online application process. In terms of student recruitment, the recruitment process starts pretty much about now [late May]. We're planning the information sessions that we're going to do across Canada and the MBA fairs that we're going to enter virtually around the world. We've made our decisions on international travel and we're now booking flights and registering for both of the two fair companies we're going to attend. We'll be going to India in September and throughout the autumn we'll be going to China, certain locations in Europe, and South America. After the new year, in January and February, we start the whole program of independent open houses that we'll do across Canada.
The application deadlines are Nov. 15 for international students, Feb. 1 is the final deadline for international students and the first deadline for domestic students, and then Mar. 15 is the absolute deadline.
Are admissions decisions rolling? Are there advantages to applying earlier in the process?
Yes, admissions are rolling, and there are absolutely advantages to applying earlier. When we're full, we're full. Also, the decisions around scholarships get made at the admissions point. So the advantage for students has a lot to do with (a) getting into the program and (b) getting scholarship money, because once we've finished our scholarship pool, we have nothing left. So early is much, much better than later.
Speaking of scholarships, what kinds of financial aid opportunities do you have available for admitted students?
We have some endowed scholarships. We also have two scholarships which pertain to the Forte Foundation, which is located in New York, and we're the only Canadian school that does that. That's a scholarship and mentoring program for women students. And we also have an allocated budget of scholarship money.
Going back to the application itself, could you tell me a little bit about the essays?
We're an unusual program, and so the essays relate to that. What's unusual is that we are a team-based program, and students are put into teams when they arrive. They don't choose the teams, we do, and students remain in those teams for the first eight of the 12 months in the program. We teach team-building in the orientation and we have professional team facilitators that work with the teams throughout the year. Each team has its own team room with work stations for each of the team members, and half of all the grades in the first eight months of the program are team grades. We believe that if you look at successful people in any sector, the ones that are most likely to do well are the ones who are able to leverage their own personal strengths, which we focus on, and work in teams. So what we really need are students coming into the program who want the team experience, and that's not for everybody. If you want to have an anonymous MBA experience, you could sit in the back of the classroom and take notes, but you can't do it here.
So in the three essays we focus on applicants' experiences with teams and why they feel that a team-based program would be right for them. The consequences of us selecting students who really aren't right for the program are high because they weigh their team down. The essay is an attempt to help us determine the suitability of the student. In terms of advice for students, if the essay looks like it's the same essay that has been written for another program, we tend to downplay its significance. What we're trying to learn in the essays is something about the person that we couldn't tell from the résumé or the application itself. What is it about you as a person that you would like us to know in our decision about admission?
Are there certain key qualities that you are looking for students to demonstrate in the essays?
Yes, for sure. If you look at a personality who is very dominating, that would be an inappropriate character trait for a team-based program. From the essays and the interviews we do, we're trying to find the willingness to work with other people, to understand the concept of leadership in the context of teamwork, to be a facilitating kind of personality, and to be able to integrate and work well with others in close quarters. Because the program is a very condensed program, the teams are together a lot. They are virtually living together.
How do interviews work at the Queen's School of Business?
Students are required to interview. So what we do with international students, who comprise about half of our class, is that unless they can come and interview in person, we typically do those by telephone. That's almost always done by the associate director or myself or by one of the other MBA team members. We do about 200 interviews a year.
In certain cases for very high-profile [Canadian and U.S.] students, we will do what we call a "red carpet interview." We pay for students to come to campus, we put them up in a high-quality bed and breakfast in Kingston, we have them come to the campus the next day, we sit them in a class, we arrange for the student to have lunch with some other students in the program, and we tour the person around. As part of that process, we do about an hour-long interview in person.
For students who are not invited on the red carpet, we have an MBA for a Day experience where we'll try to accommodate any student wishing to apply or who has completed an application, letting them sit in on a class. At times we'll even arrange lunches for them, so it's somewhat similar. We don't do a rehearsed or staged presentation for the students. We want them to have as authentic an experience of what a day at Queen's would be like.
How do you determine which students to bring in for the red carpet interviews?
We typically look at the academic information, which would be GMATs and grades, quality of the program, and the level of work experience. For international students, it's a little more difficult to assess their academic experience, so we put a little heavier weight on the GMAT, but essentially it's the same basis on which we make our decision—the academic profile of the student, the suitability for the program, and the likelihood that the student will make a good contribution to his or her fellow students. In a way, our decisions about invitations on the red carpet are similar to the decisions about our admissions.
You mentioned work experience as one of the things that you take into consideration. What kind of work experience do you look for in an applicant?
Our minimum work experience is two years. We're flexible on the kind of experience they have, but what we're attempting to achieve is a very diverse kind of student group, a wide range of different experiences. However, the more managerial experience, generally speaking, the better. The current MBA program replaces our previous full-time program, which was science and technology, so in the earlier program, you had to be an engineer or science graduate, and we still have a high number of engineers and science grads in the program.
What we're attempting to do now is to diversify the backgrounds of the students coming in, and the kind of work experience they've had is a part of that. Generally speaking, we like to have work experience in the five- to seven-year range, although we're seeing more applicants a bit more junior these days. We have no particular preference for industry, and we're also quite happy to take work experience in the not-for-profit and government sectors.
In terms of letters of recommendation, are there certain people that you like to read letters from?
My general advice is to get letters of recommendation from people who know you well, but not your mother. There is a mistake that applicants sometimes make and that's thinking the level of seniority of the person who they're asking to be their reference is crucially important, when it's not. To find the CEO of the company, who doesn't know you, and ask for a letter produces something generic. A reference that simply restates what is available on the CV or the application form really isn't helpful because it doesn't tell us anything that we don't already know. We don't place higher weight on alums in giving references. We want someone with a level of seniority, at least at a supervisory level or above, but it doesn't need to be the top person.
What kinds of things is Queen's doing to continue to diversify the student body, not only in terms of major and work experience, but also in terms of minority and international students?
Well, certainly diversity in terms of more women in the program [is an area of focus]. We have a number of programs we do across Canada to promote the MBA experience for women. We have a Women in Leadership program where we invite high-profile women speakers to campus, we have open invitations to women interested in any MBA programs to come, and we have an MBA for a Day program for women. We have, as I mentioned, the Forte Fellowship, which is attractive because it is not only money, but it's also events, meetings, and other kinds of supportive things for women, especially throughout the U.S.
In terms of international diversity, our business school is an extremely internationally focused school. For example, in the undergraduate program, 70% of all students go on international exchanges, and so the MBA program, following suit, has a vigorous international exchange component to it, which about a third of the class takes. Our recruiting is highly international, so I think we've got about 50% international students, and that does not include exchange students who are coming into the program in the last four months. In Canada, you are not allowed to target certain ethnic groups, but we make every attempt in our recruiting process to say how welcoming we are to a very diverse student body, and I think we're quite a ways along on those fronts.
You mentioned that one-third of the students do exchange programs. How do they fit overseas study into an already condensed 12-month program?
The program has been running for two years, and the first year there was very little take-up, and then this past year somewhere between a half and a third of the students wanted to go on exchanges. The incoming exchange students almost always come for the January-to-April full period or something approximating that time period. For outgoing students, there is really quite an array of exchange opportunities. There are some exchange partners that will take students from mid-January until April, and there are some that will take students for two or four weeks during the last four months. We also have a group of students that actually finish the program and then go on an exchange program. It's a challenge to manage, but it's very attractive to students.
We've already touched on this a bit, but how do you market the school to students from the U.S. and around the world?
We have the direct marketing approach of the MBA fairs, and we go to Chicago, Boston, New York, and Washington as our main targets in the U.S. BusinessWeek's rankings have been very effective for us, especially with international students, since we're the highest-ranked non-U.S. school, and an awful lot of traffic is driven to our Web site just by virtue of the BusinessWeek rankings. We're much less concerned with the other ones, but BusinessWeek measures the kinds of things that we think are important measures, like alumni and recruiter satisfaction. Also, the MBA prospective applicant these days is much more sophisticated, and they are so Web savvy that they simply track us down. Canada is generally seen as a good destination for students from India and other countries, and the school has a great deal of prestige in Canada.
How do you differentiate yourself from other programs in Canada and in the U.S.?
One of the big differentiators is that we're a 12-month program. There are probably five in Canada, and it's a common model in Europe, but it's infrequent in the U.S. The 12-month program is attractive because of the opportunity cost: You don't have to give up a salary for two years. Probably 90% of the students who come here identify that as a very attractive feature. The other differentiator is our team orientation. It has, in a sense, two components. We have an arrangement with Gallup, which in addition to the polls has a large executive mentoring practice, where we arrange for each student to have his or her own mentor.
They write a standardized test, they have it evaluated, and then they do seven telephone calls throughout the program to work on individual strengths. That's part one: It's understanding your own strengths and how to leverage them. The second part is the team. If you take that leveraging of strengths and bring that into the team context, then all of the work we do around teaching teams and helping facilitate issues—I don't know of any school that does that. So that's a clear differentiator between us and virtually every other MBA program.
We've talked a lot about team orientation, but how would you describe the individual applicant who is a really good fit for your program?
We're looking for people who aspire to leadership positions. They may be in technical positions when they come as students, but our objective is to help them develop leadership skills. The program itself is modularized around themes, and it's highly integrated. We start with leadership and team training and we begin the program with the perspective of a manager, and all of the modules develop around the concept of the manager and management. What is it that a manager has to know, what kinds of perspectives, what sorts of abilities? We try to develop the program so it enhances all of those qualities and characteristics of the individual.
Therefore, the kind of person who really wouldn't be suitable for us is someone who simply wants to hone technical abilities—for example, somebody who has come from the finance industry and just wants to do more finance. Our program is around breadth of perspective, not high degrees of specialization, so we're looking for people in the program who see their careers as developing around managing people and around leading organizations. Unlike some programs that essentially say, "Come to us and be the CEO," what we say is "Come to us and we'll work on developing your strengths and your ability to work with others," and those are the qualities that lead people to move up in organizations. We're looking for people who have that kind of perspective, not a narrow focus or someone who's looking for a narrow specialization.
Could you give an example of a student you've admitted recently who doesn't fit the standard profile?
Our admissions process requires two years of work experience, but last year we did an experiment and admitted five students directly out of Queen's University's engineering program. One of the students did not have formal work experience, but she had led the development of the Tea Room on campus, which is a completely natural restaurant with coffee and sandwiches. It was green and unique on the campus. She was the one who conceived it, organized it, built it, and made it into a very successful little operation. So we brought her into the program, and she is extremely entrepreneurial, as you would expect.
She put together a team that entered business-plan competitions and newventure creation competitions, and she won about five of them and earned about $75,000 in prize money. She also has an innovative idea for a new business in an unusual marketplace and is in the process of raising money to start that business with her partners. She would be an example of a nontraditional student, one that didn't meet all of the admission criteria, but who we believed, from her personality and past experiences, would be successful in the program. As you can see, she's been staggeringly successful.
We've talked a lot about the different opportunities available and the experiences students have, but out of all of the business schools, what is it that really makes Queen's Business School unique?
It's the uniqueness of the experience. Unlike a large program that has hundreds and hundreds of students, we have 75, and those 75 virtually live together for at least eight months, if not 12 months of a year. They are physically in close proximity, they do everything together. The whole point of the program is to learn how to do things with people in close proximity over long periods of time where you don't necessarily love them. This leads to a unique kind of experience, and when you talk to alums about the program, they just refer to it as the "Queen's experience."
What we have to offer that virtually nobody that I know of has to offer is that close, personal experience. The MBA office staff is very attentive to the students, and we have many components of the program, including work-life balance and fitness coaches, and a career center. There's a significant number of, in a sense, service providers to the MBA students. That kind of servicing and friendliness and personal touch really make the experience unique, and that's what we sell. When we bring students to the campus, whether it's on the red carpet or they come just as the MBA for a Day experience, in our entrance surveys, the vast number of people cite the visit as the defining feature in their choice. Because the student caliber is so high, virtually all of these students have lots of other opportunities, but what they see in that friendliness and level of attention is what attracts them here.
Is there anything else that potential applicants should know about Queen's?
The other advantage of the school that we didn't discuss is our location. Kingston is a small historic city located right at the point where Lake Ontario empties into the St. Lawrence River, and it's physically a beautiful place with lots of pubs and restaurants. Someone who wants the urban experience, who just can't be happy outside of New York or Chicago or Toronto or Montreal, is not going to want to be here. But for those who would like to take a year in a place where you're not bombarded with what the big city has to offer, but rather just have an experience that allows you to focus on the MBA, this is the perfect place. Queen's is one of Canada's highest-quality universities, so I think that it's a very attractive way to spend a year.