UBC Sauder Admissions Q&A

The admissions head at University of British Columbia's business school discusses MBA admissions and a new pre-experience master's program

Arthur Redillas has been the associate director of admissions and recruitment at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business for the past two years. He studied education at the University of Alberta and earned a law degree at the University of British Columbia. Before working at Sauder, he spent 12 years as the academic director of western Canada for Kaplan.

Sauder's 15-month MBA program starts every year in August. For fall 2008 admissions, Sauder received 372 applications, and 119 were ultimately enrolled into the program. Of these, about two-thirds are international students.

Along with the traditional MBA program, Sauder this year will begin offering the Early Career Master's program, a master's of management degree to give students without a business background a foothold into the corporate world.

Redillas spoke with BusinessWeek's Andrea Castillo about Sauder's MBA admissions and what the school look for in an applicant. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Have there been any major changes to the application process this year?

No, there haven't been any major changes. We are looking at some minor changes for next year, but things seem to have gone very well.

Have you seen any more applications now than in the recent past?

We have. We have seen an upswing in the last couple of years. What I've been told by my predecessor is that whatever trends we see at American schools, we tend to trail about a year behind, so we have seen an upswing within the past two years. But before that, applications had come down, I think, for a period of four years.

What is the most unusual or difficult essay question on your application? What is your advice to students on how to answer it?

We always have one question meant to test people's creativity and their ability to think outside the box. The current question asks them to think of an issue that's very important to them and think of a way they would publicize it—whether through a Web site, magazine, TV show, or radio program—and then justify why they would choose that particular medium. We get some really great responses to that, but because we want to shake things up, we change the question every year. My advice for people answering that kind of a question is not to worry too much about what we might want to see. The reality is we want to see a lot of different ideas. We really are looking at what drives people, what people are passionate about in that particular question. We're looking for their ability to communicate and also their ability to justify their decisions in terms of marketing.

What do students tell you is the hardest part of the admissions process at your school? How do you help students deal with that?

What makes our program unique is that 60% to 65% of students are international, so perhaps the most difficult part for a number of our applicants is getting their documents in to us, their transcripts, their degree certificates, and letters of recommendation from overseas. The difficulty is it takes a lot of time to gather all that material. Obviously, our advice is to start as early as possible. We do use a rolling admissions process with an early deadline for international applicants, which is Feb. 28 every year.

Are there any advantages to applying earlier—say, for North American students?

Definitely. The main advantages to applying early are, first of all, you'll know what your plans are. You can prepare in advance for any move you have to make. But also, more scholarships are available for people who apply early. Again, we use the rolling admissions process, and that goes for scholarships, as well. We make scholarship decisions at the same time we admit people into the program, so it is definitely in the person's best interest to apply early.

Do you have any other financial aid in place for students who might be applying?

Not within the school. I think it's something we've seen at the Canadian schools—they don't have the ability to offer their own financial aid programs. However, we do partner with several banks and institutions, and we're always in discussions with more banks to offer loan programs to our students for the duration of the program. Right now, HSBC and Bank of Montreal are two main partners.

How important is the applicant's quantitative GMAT score?

For us, it's very important, because there are a lot of quantitative courses in our program. Finance is a particular strength. Everybody has to take some finance, especially in our integrated core. We also know from past experience that when people have difficulty with classes, they tend to be in the quantitative classes, so it's not unheard of for us to ask someone to rewrite their GMAT even though they've surpassed their average. The reason we would do so is wither they haven't done a lot of quantitative work in their undergrad, or they've struggled with a score below the 50th percentile in the quantitative section. In some cases, we will ask them to rewrite the exam.

Something that caught my attention was the Early Career Masters program for students who don't have a background in business. Could you tell us a little more about that?

That's a new program that we're launching this year. It's a master of management program, not an MBA program, and there are a couple of reasons it came together. One of our associate deans made it his project. He has a lot of experience working for European schools: He used to work for INSEAD and actually worked for Thunderbird, as well, and we're seeing a lot of these pre-experience master's degrees in Europe.

I know that some U.S. schools have shifted toward accepting younger people or less experienced people into an MBA program, whereas in Europe, there's a very clear distinction between pre-experience and post-experience. We felt that was an important distinction, so we've come up with this new program. It is pre-experience, designed for people with nonbusiness backgrounds, and we are targeting people with anything other than a commerce background.

Another reason we launched the program is we found that a lot of recruiters were saying they liked the skills or the knowledge that students brought, but they found that the students didn't have a lot of practical skills. We got some really good support from employers were excited about this program, because it focuses on lots of aspects of business. It's meant to be a general foundation in business, and it is meant for people who are just starting their careers. Even though this is a new program, four or five years down the line, some people may choose to come back to get their MBAs after they've gotten some experience.

So the way you see this project going, or the way it works in Europe, is people use it as a way to start out in the business world, and then they'll go and work and then come back and get their MBA?

Yes. But the program is not meant to shift you into a totally different direction. Our message is that your undergraduate degree has a lot of value, and employers tell us that. This is just an opportunity for you to pair the degree you have with a business degree so you can accelerate into a junior management position much more quickly. That's the philosophy behind the program.

One of the other things we were excited about shows the support for this: The provincial government of British Columbia committed to offering $10,000 grants to all science and technology graduates going into this program. The program is about to launch, and it's split almost 50-50 between arts and science, which is exactly the mix we wanted.

How much work experience do you look for in a typical MBA applicant, and how do you look at applicants who may not have as much work experience?

It's pretty standard, and I'm sure you've heard this a lot: Most schools look for a minimum of two years' full-time work experience. But our typical class seems to be more experienced than those in other programs. Right now, about five and a half to six years is the average experience of our incoming students. That has actually come down from where it was a couple of years ago. I am seeing a trend toward younger or less experienced students. But I think for a lot of other programs, it might be around the four-year mark.

I always advise people who come in with two or three years' work experience not to worry that we're favoring those with more experience. For those with two or three years' experience, we may be looking for a faster career progression within a shorter period—maybe some team leader roles, junior management positions. We do encourage students with less than the average work experience to highlight some of their other activities. If they've been involved with the community or have volunteer experience, that kind of thing really stands out. Those are all factors we look at, since we use a broad-based admissions process that looks at not only work experience, but obviously GMAT score, GPA, letters of recommendation, and other aspects as well.

What are some good reasons for wanting to get an MBA at Sauder?

One of the main distinguishing factors about our program is that it is 60% to 65% international. We have representation from 25 to 30 different countries. One of the advantages of attending Sauder is the opportunity to learn from classmates who have experience in many different industries and many different markets. That's one of the things that we emphasize in our messages to prospective applicants, and it is certainly one of the things that attracts people to the program.

Another thing we can't dispute is that a lot of people who come to our program are attracted by the location. Vancouver tops a lot of rankings as one of the most livable cities in the world, and that certainly attracts people. People also come here who want a change in their lifestyle. Although people are serious about work here, there's a much more laid-back attitude. Aside from that, diversity, as I said, would be a main distinguishing factor, and our program 15 months, shorter than a traditional program. So one of the things prospective applicants say they like about our program is the opportunity to get back into the workforce more quickly.

How does the interview process work? What are some of the key mistakes applicants make in their interviews?

When I came in, one of my mandates was to increase the number of interviews we do, because I think it's important for us to get as much information as we can about our applicants. Interviews are the last stage of the admissions process and are by invitation only, so they're really for people we're considering for admission. We do some interviews in person, but at this point, we are also doing a lot of interviews by phone.

As for mistakes some people make, especially in phone interviews, what I've found sometimes is that people appear too rehearsed—to the point that it's pretty clear they're reading some of their answers. My advice would be, we want to know that you are prepared, that you have clear goals in mind, that you know what you want, but we can also tell when an answer is not natural, when it's being read.

Aside from that, when we're doing interviews, we are looking for a good fit with the culture of our school. We really are looking for people who have worked with diverse groups, and we have a number of questions on dealing with difficulties, of working with people of different cultures or different industries. That's one of the things we definitely highlight in the interview.

What's the life cycle of the application to Sauder?

Our application for the full-time program opens every Sept. 15 and runs until April 30 for the North American applicants. We are on a rolling basis, so students are encouraged to complete their applications as quickly as possible. But they can do it in different orders: They don't have to submit their GMAT scores first or their transcripts first. Obviously, they can do their online application at any point. They have one month of access for their online application. Then they've got to get all of their documents and transcripts, letters of recommendation—that kind of thing.

Once we have everything in place, we tell applicants they will receive a decision from us within four weeks. But we push to make decisions even more quickly than that. Once an application is complete, it is reviewed by our admissions committee, which will make the decision. In many of those cases, the decision is to send the applicant for an interview, which would be the final step of the process. Once the interview is done, the committee reconvenes and makes a final decision.

Are there any stereotypes about Sauder you'd like to disprove?

Not that I can think of, to be honest. I think what people have said about us, what our students say, is pretty accurate. A major distinguishing factor is our program's integrated core, a three-month course that runs from the end of August to the beginning of December. In many MBA programs, the core classes take the first eight months. With us, it's actually three months and the equivalent of 12 classes.

A lot of people will say our integrated core is one of the most challenging courses they've ever taken, in terms of the time commitment and the volume of the material. That I can't dispel. That certainly is what our students tell us, but they also tell us they find it very rewarding. Cases are presented to students, and they have to look at them from a lot of different angles. We emphasize the integration among different areas of business, because you can't separate accounting from marketing from HR. They're all really intertwined. It really is an accomplishment to get through that program.

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