Brian Lohr, director of MBA admissions at Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, launched his career in university enrollment and admissions at a Benedictine monastery in Southern Indiana called St. Meinrad School of Theology—as a recruiter for the priesthood.
"You want a tough job," he says, "try that one."
Selling people on the Notre Dame MBA, he says, is a lot easier. Mass layoffs in the wake of the economic crisis and a popular new curriculum has meant record application volume for the relatively small MBA program this year. Today, Lohr says his biggest challenge is choosing between all the qualified candidates.
Of course, increased volume means increased selectivity as well. That's good news for admissions directors, not so good for MBA hopefuls. Stellar grades and test scores will only get you so far. In a conversation with BusinessWeek.com reporter Anne VanderMey, Lohr talks about how applicants can stand out in one of the most competitive admissions cycles ever. An edited portion of their conversation follows.
Were there any major changes to the application this year?There aren't many major changes this year. Last year we increased the number of essays, or I should say increased the number of essay options for our students. We actually give them a chance to pick from a number of essays. We've got some that are required and then we've got some that are optional. That was kind of the last major change that we had.
What were the changes?We say they have to answer essay one, which is "What are your career plans immediately after graduation? Explain how your past experiences prepare you for your desired position. What are your long-term career aspirations?" So kind of, what are your goals? Why do you want to get an MBA and what are your goals after you obtain that MBA? And then they can pick two of any of the five following essay questions. No. 1 is "Each MBA student at Notre Dame is given the opportunity to contribute to the MBA community. What will you bring to Notre Dame and the MBA family?"
No. 2 is "What inspires you outside of your work environment?" No. 3 is "How do you define leadership?" and we ask for an example of someone they feel is a great leader.
No. 4 is "Of which accomplishments are you most proud and why?"
And then No. 5 is "Describe a failure or disappointing experience in your life. How did you react and what did you learn?"
So that's kind of the biggest change. We went with some options there.
Which one would you say students have the most trouble answering?I think I would say No. 5, that disappointing experience. You're airing a little bit of dirty laundry, right? I don't think we're so much concerned about how big a failure it was, but more importantly how they reacted to that. What did they learn from that experience? Because that's life, right? When things don't go your way, how do you move forward from that and learn from it and become a better person?
Have you seen any really interesting essays?I remember one candidate who's now working for Boeing (BA). We've made an effort to go after the military folks over the last few years, and there was a candidate who came through who ran a battery of four 155mm cannons during the Gulf War. He was leading his troops into Baghdad and he had stopped his vehicle and his 200-guy unit when an Iraqi soldier shot a rocket-propelled grenade into his Humvee and he lost his arm. I said, "What did you do next?" and he told me that he took the radio cord and made a tourniquet out of it and then got his men out of there. You know, I cut myself shaving in the morning and I'm doing the Red Cross routine—apply direct pressure, you know? This guy loses his arm and he's worried about his men. It was like, holy smokes. You hear stories like that and you go, "Wow. What tremendous poise under life-threatening pressure." That type of leadership really sticks out.
Has the program become more selective over the past couple years?Yes. I mean, if you look at the raw numbers, we were in the mid-40% range for selectivity a couple years ago. We were 34% last year and I think this year we're going to end up in the high 20s for selectivity, which is great. We're working very hard to bring in the best and the brightest candidates, so that's a good sign. I think that's a healthy sign for our program. Our undergrad program is similar in that respect.
Do you recall a time when it has been this competitive before?There was a time back in 2002 that I recall as being very, very competitive. I think we had the most apps that we've ever had in the history of the program at that time. We're going to approach that pretty closely this year I think.
That was my next question. How has the application volume changed this year and do you think that's related to the financial crisis?Oh, I chalk it up to Brian Lohr. No, really I think that there are a couple things that are happening there. Obviously there's the economy. So candidates that were middle managers who were let go from their jobs are now looking to increase their education so that that doesn't happen again. I think we're seeing a pretty significant spike because of that.
I was in Manhattan three weeks ago and my interview schedule, which we had posted on the Web—didn't direct anybody there, just kind of put it up—my schedule was filled within 72 hours. Then we had such an overload that we had to get an alumnus to come in and help me out for a day and a half.
I think the other part of it is our movement as a program in general. We had a curriculum change in '05 and that has offered our students some flexibility in their coursework. One of those points would be our interterm intensives, which is an opportunity for students to work on live problems, or live cases, that companies come in to present. Our students work up solutions and then report those back to company executives all within a week's time frame. In many respects they get a chance to exercise the skills that they've learned during the module and put them to practical use during that interterm intensive. They sign a nondisclosure agreement at the very beginning of the exercise and then they get to work. The companies love it because they get X number of hours of free consulting and our students love it because they get a chance to present to company executives and get immediate feedback on their skills and thought processes. So it's a win-win for both parties. That, and our movement in the rankings, those types of things have really created a perfect storm of good things to happen.
Do you view applicants who were laid off the same way you view applicants who left their jobs voluntarily?I think you have to look at each person individually. There are going to be some folks who were laid off that probably should have been laid off. You have to look at each person individually and that's what we stand for at Notre Dame. That's what we pride ourselves on, looking at the whole applicant—from GMAT, to GPA, to work experience and really getting to know them. When we bring somebody into the program, it's not "Come to the program for two years," it's "Join the Notre Dame family."
What is the biggest challenge facing the admissions department right now?Volume is one. I say that tongue in cheek, but over the last three years I would say that on average we've had about a 22% increase in applications every year. The last two classes that have arrived at Notre Dame have been the best in the history of the school, and that's great. The challenge is in bringing in the next best class—finding very good candidates that match the ethos of our university. You can find good students all day long, but those that fit our culture and the ethos of our school is the challenge.
With a full-time two-year MBA class of just 134 students, plus 54 in the one-year program, Mendoza doesn't have too many MBAs. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the program's smallness?I think that one of the big advantages is in the sense of community. Overall we're a little over 300 students, and that allows you to develop a very strong sense of community. You get to know the students well, and you get to know your professors and they get to know you. It's not uncommon for my wife and I to have MBAs over to the house for dinners or cookouts. … Students are paying a lot of money, and if they don't understand a particular concept, it's easy to walk literally up one flight of steps to their professors' offices and sit down and talk with them.
I would say the downside of that is the recruitment aspect. Companies that are used to recruiting from very large classes might shy away from a class of 200. They can get in front of more folks with larger classes, but that really hasn't hampered us much because the brand and the name of Notre Dame is very strong and our alumni network is second to none, so even if a company does not have it in their budget to come to South Bend, we typically have an alum there that can make inroads for us.
Do MBA students still have guaranteed access to football games?They do. There's a charge, but they are each guaranteed a seat at every home game. And if they hurry up and get married before the start of school, they can guarantee a seat for their spouse, too. Which is a motivation, you'd be surprised. No, but they're spouses get tickets, too.
For students who don't have a working knowledge of football, do they need to learn it when they come to Notre Dame?Oh, yeah. We have a class for them. It's put on by my associate Andrew Sama and he does just a tremendous job with it. It's primarily for those who may not have an understanding of football in general or might be international and not know the sport.
During orientation we have Football 101 and we teach them and let them know the traditions of the greatest football program—college football program—in the country, and it's great. They love it. We've had coaches over. We've had players over. But yes, we conduct a class. Everybody's got to be on the same page.
What kind of person is a good fit at Mendoza?I'm just one person on the admissions committee, but I look at five key components, five key areas. The top two would be a commitment to academic excellence and a commitment to ethical behavior. Those two have been at Notre Dame long before I got here; they're going to be here long after I'm gone. No. 3 on the list would be the candidate's character, that they are goal-oriented people, that they want to move to the next level, and they realize that the MBA is a key component in that progression.
No. 4 on the list would be a community-service component. Nearly every single one of my MBAs is involved in some form of community service while they're at Notre Dame, so they give back. That's part of the fabric of this place. Part of the ethos of Notre Dame is giving back to those less fortunate than we are, and I love the fact that I can have MBAs who feel that that's important. Oftentimes the MBAs get a bad rap for chasing the dollar signs or not being concerned with being responsible in their decision-making, and I think we recruit some good people.
Then, No. 5 on the list would be a wellness component, you could argue physical wellness. I want to see that [these candidates have] balance in their life, that they can study hard but they also play hard. It doesn't mean that they run marathons, though many of them do, or are ironmen, even though many of them do ironman competitions. But that they do have that balance in their life. They're not so myopic that they just focus on their job. I think that promotes a healthy individual.
Have you had any students coming in this year who don't fit the mold of what you might think of as a typical MBA student?I've admitted some folks in the past couple years who some would argue are unconventional. For example, a few high school teachers, and they've performed very, very well. I have a number of different military folks in the program, so I have a commander off the USS Maryland and a boomer out of Kings Bay, Ga. I have a 101st Airborne ranger. I have a guy who played for the Cincinnati Bengals, I have several people who were involved in the Peace Corps before coming. So again, it's unity not uniformity. Father Jenkins said, "Build a class that's representative of society," and that's what we're doing.
How is religion incorporated into the program?We're never going to shy away from the fact that we are the preeminent Catholic school in the country. That's who we are. We're a Roman Catholic school. I find it—and this is me speaking—I find it difficult to separate ethical behavior from the religious environment, and the nice part about being at Notre Dame is we can talk about those things. We can talk about really challenging, difficult, nasty problems and how you go about solving those. I like the fact that we're probably the only business school in the country that has a chapel within about 200 feet of the classrooms. I encourage our students to not only work on the academic side of their lives, but also work on the spiritual side of their lives. So it can be incorporated as much as the student wants.
We don't capture on the application whether a candidate is Catholic or what his or her religious affiliation is. I have people who are Jewish in the program. I have a large contingency of Latter-day Saints, Protestants as well as Catholics and Muslims. You know, the term "Catholic" means universal church, and I think it's a good idea to bring in candidates from all different backgrounds.
Over the last few years the average work experience of incoming classes has been 4.7 years. Is that about the ideal amount, and how do you regard students who have more or less?It depends on the leadership experience. So there's not a magic number, but if a candidate has four to five years of strong work experience, they're going to be more marketable on the way out. There are some candidates we bring in who have only a couple years of work experience, but it's very strong, very good work experience.
I know there's no official cut-off for a candidate's GPA or GMAT scores, but is there kind of an unspoken minimum?Not really. One of our management professors, early in his PhD, wrote an article about GPA and its ability to predict adult success and I'm happy to report that it doesn't predict adult success. We know that oftentimes students are challenged during their undergraduate days and sometimes that's reflected in their GPAs. I feel very strongly that the graduate business experience is an opportunity for many to prove themselves, that they can compete at the highest level.
Sometimes I'll take a chance on candidates who have lower-than-average GPAs because they come in with a fire. They come in and they say, "I'm going to light this up. I'm going to do really well." I would say often they do. They do very, very well.
What are the most common mistakes in the application as a whole?You know, I see a lot of mistakes in the interviewing process. The application is pretty straightforward and they do that without many problems. I would say the biggest mistakes are not doing the spell-check or doing a find-and-replace on your essays—"Find USC, replace with Notre Dame." That just sticks out, golly. You can just tell really easily.
In the interview process, it's not being prepared. By that I mean not researching the school. It's absolutely a breath of fresh air when candidates say, "Brian, I have a list of questions that I would like to ask you about the program." It shows that they've researched and that they've done their due diligence analyzing our school. I think that's very important.
I had a guy one time, I thanked him for taking time out of his day to come interview with me, and his response was, "No problem, I just called in sick today." Come on. You know, just use common sense. You don't want to say that, my goodness, particularly to the No. 1 school in business ethics. Wow. That's a tough one to get around.
Are there any questions in the interview process that tend to trip up students more than others?I could tell you, but then I'd have to shoot you. We do have some questions that trip students up, and not intentionally. If you're a school that's known for ethics, you would think that there's going to be a question about ethics, right? That sometimes trips up students when we dig into that and talk about ethics. We oftentimes talk about teamwork and those types of things, and those get handled pretty well, but some of the basic ones trip students up: Why the MBA? What are you going to do with it? Why Notre Dame? You'd be surprised.
Can you give students any hints about what to study for the surprise questions?It's mostly behavioral. We want to hear their stories, so, "Tell us about a time when you've been faced with X, Y and Z." It's a behavioral-type interview. One of the things that we've seen with some of our questions is that they're starting to be posted out there on the World Wide Web, so we've got some new ones in our back pocket.