Jodi Schafer took the reins of the University of Iowa's MBA admissions program in 2008. Since then, the curriculum has been retooled, career services have shifted into overdrive, and even the school's admissions process has undergone a few changes.

This year, Iowa's Tippie College of Business (Tippie Full-Time MBA Profile) is rolling out a set of long-planned new programs, all heavy on experiential learning and employment preparation—perfect training, Schafer says, for the MBA students looking to advance their careers despite the downturn. On the admissions side as well, Schafer is increasingly looking for career-minded students, ready to turn all the prep Tippie offers into a dream job.

Schafer, now Tippie's director of full-time MBA admissions and financial aid, is a six-year veteran of the department, having arrived directly after she finished her own Tippie MBA through the part-time program in 2003. Here, she talks with BusinessWeek's Anne VanderMey about how the program is evolving to meet the changing demands of the marketplace, and how prospective students can convince her they'll be able to keep up. An edited portion of their conversation follows.

Since you became admissions director about a year ago, have you made any significant changes to the application process? The application process has remained pretty much the same, except that we're taking a closer look at our interview techniques. We're revamping some of our interview questions to get at the professionalism, leadership development, and some of the soft skills that we're looking for in candidates. And in addition to that, we also have a team of individuals looking at the responses to those interview questions, rather than just myself. So that would probably be the biggest change, but everything else has remained pretty consistent.

How is the interview process different now? One of the things that we've implemented since I came on is we are conducting Skype interviews with anybody who can't come to campus. Most specifically, that is affecting the international population. So we do require the Skype interview of international applicants.

How long have you been doing Skype interviews? We started it last year.

And the on-campus interviews have been revamped as well? Yes. If they come to campus, we're able to put the candidates in front of many different stakeholders in the program. And we can do this to some extent even if they don't come to campus. Prospective students aren't just talking to the director of admissions through the interview. If they come to campus, it's a very complete campus visit. So they would meet with current students. They'd meet with career services. They'd meet with faculty. And so we get feedback from all of these individuals about the candidate.

Can you describe the ideal Tippie applicant? The ideal applicants would maybe not know exactly what they want to do, but would have an idea of what they want to do, so they can hit the ground running once they get into the program. So on campus, they can start thinking about what it is that they need to do to be successful in searching for a career. We obviously want people with the aptitude to reach the academic requirements for the program, and we are looking for people who present themselves in a professional manner. That's in regard to the leadership qualifications that they bring to the table, and their personal presence and how they present themselves.

So, you're looking for the same sorts of things that employers are looking for. Exactly. We're really trying to mirror our program after what it is that employers are looking for, because ultimately the students ares looking for a better opportunity and something they couldn't gain without the MBA. We're not successful unless we're able to provide that to them.

That seems particularly important as the job market tightens. Right. And I think that you'd see that as you came to take a look at our program as well. You'd see that we're starting to focus more on soft skills and leadership development. We've always focused on that, but we really want to make it the core of what we do, because we've been very successful in our technical training. The enhancements that we're making to the program really center around those things because it's so important in the job market.

I saw that Tippie had a very high placement rate last year. About 98% of students reported getting jobs within three months of graduation. I was wondering if you had any idea how that was holding up in the wake of the financial crisis. I think that from the benchmarking that we've done, our placement statistics appear that they will be in line with what some of the other schools are experiencing. So, certainly the challenges and the economic crisis that's going on are affecting us, but I don't think they're affecting us more than any other program. Our placement statistics have not been finalized yet, so I don't have those to share at this time, but our students are getting offers. There just aren't as many opportunities out there as there once were, so they may not be able to be as selective as they once were.

So when you say "in line with other schools," would you say there is a slowing rate of offers? There is a slowing of offers. Candidates probably can't be as selective, but certainly offers are still coming in. Also, qualified candidates are obviously competing with alumni, and they're competing with other individuals that have MBAs who have been let go from other positions. So it's a little bit more challenging, but at the same time our placement statistics still are holding up and I think are very consistent with what you'll see from other programs.

I've read about Tippie's high-tech Pomerantz Career Center, but I also saw that on the BusinessWeek surveys, a few grads commented that the location continues to be a barrier to job hunting, and that long road trips can be required to go see companies. So I was wondering how the school addresses its being in Iowa, and not in a traditional center of business. We've dedicated a lot of resources to career development and to ensuring that students have a partner in their career search. In addition to our career services team, last year we incorporated what are called Career Academies. Basically, what the Career Academies do is they offer a set of structured curricular and out-of-classroom experiences to help students with career paths. There are academies for marketing, finance, and strategic innovation.

So they work in conjunction with career services to create a professional development plan with each individual student—that's a set of skills and core competencies that students can actually sell to employers. So they have this professional development plan that they can showcase to employers so that if employers aren't able to interview them here on campus, or they don't want to fly someone in for an interview, they can actually look at this professional development planning and see what the individual has done.

We also do video conferencing if the employer can't come on campus. But most important, we take a direct referral approach to placement. So we get to know the student very well, and we get to know the companies well and understand what positions they have available. Then we will send the company a few individuals that really fit the position that they're looking for. This is of interest to employers because they don't have to go through a number of résumés to try to find people themselves, and they're getting individuals that are a good fit for the job. And then they can sort of pre-screen the candidates and decide whether or not they want to fly them in.

I think it works very well as you look at our placement results. Certainly we're challenged because we are geographically not in a major hub of business, but at the same time I think that our students are very happy with the amount of attention they're receiving and the fact that they're getting the types of positions that they want.

Is the professional development plan and the increased focus on career preparedness achieved through one-on-one coaching, or is it though a class? It's both. It's one-on-one coaching through the career services center. Then it's also one-on-one coaching with our Career Academy industry director, and this industry director has many years of experience. We have three Career Academy industry directors, and they all were in senior management-level positions in their respective fields. So they work with that individual to do personal assessments and act as mentors for them. So that, in combination with the mentorship that career services is providing, helps them to develop this plan.

And starting this year, they are required to develop the professional development plan. This is something that's part of what we call our LEAP program: Leadership, Ethics, and Professionalism. The program is over all four semesters and we focus, obviously, on leadership, ethics, and professionalism, but one of the things is career readiness.

And there are also more career and leadership-oriented classes? The program is being enhanced greatly this year. There's the LEAP course, which is more than a course, and also an increased focus on global experiences. Obviously, it's a global marketplace, so we want to ensure that our students are given access to global opportunities, whether that be through student trips or though classroom learning, or hands-on experiences. We've incorporated what's called the Business Solutions Center, which is an opportunity for every student to work on a hands-on project. So they work with companies in consulting opportunities, and that's now a required component of the program. Then, the career academies also provide experiential opportunities.

And all this was just rolled out in 2009? It was. Certainly many of these things existed in the program before, but we have brought more structure to it and more opportunities.

What are the opportunities for experiential learning? It sounds like there's now a lot more emphasis on it. There is. Our program has always had hands-on opportunities that our students participate in, but there wasn't as much structure as we would have liked behind those experiences. They were very valuable, but a lot of the time they were led by faculty members, and they would be kind of one-off situations. Now what happens is this Business Solutions Center brings in clients who need consulting work, and then every student is required to participate in one of these projects. There are also hands-on opportunities relating to the individual's career interest through the Career Academies. In the Marketing Academy obviously there'd be a marketing experiential learning opportunity, in the Finance Academy there'd be finance, and so forth. So at a minimum, every student will be required to do two hands-on consulting projects, and more if they so wish.

That's a lot. It is a lot, and I think that that's something that's a little bit different about our program. And then in addition to that, our students will be going to see corporate speakers who come to campus, and some of that will be required this year. So they're getting a lot of exposure to companies and executives to understand what types of careers exist for them, so that they can better hone in on what it is they want to do.

Iowa grads come into the program making around $40,000 a year, and they leave it making something like $80,000. That's a big improvement, but still not as high as some other top schools. Also, new research on MBA pay has shown that over the course of their lifetime, Iowa grads don't make as much. Could you tell me a little bit about what might be behind that? I think a big part of it is that many of our students choose to work and live in the Midwest. So although we have students who go to the coasts, the majority of our students do not. And obviously the students that do go to the coast tend to make a little bit more money. So I think that's the reason: They're choosing work/life balance. Also, a handful of our students do like to stay in Iowa, and the salaries in Iowa are probably even less than what they would be in some of the major Midwestern cities. So because our program is a little bit smaller, when you have a handful of students who are staying in Iowa, it really does affect your average salary. So that's really where we believe those numbers are coming from. But I think if you dig into the data you'll see that we also have some pretty significant salaries, so if students want to work somewhere other than the Midwest I think we're uniquely equipped to make sure that they're able to do that, because we have many examples of that. But again, the majority do decide to stay in the Midwest.

I saw that Iowa students graduate with less debt than most other MBA students, is that something that has been mattering more to prospective students? We talk about that a lot. Particularly with the economy the way it is right now, students more and more don't want to take on a tremendous debt. So I think we are seeing possibly some increases in applications and quite possibly it's due to that in part.

How many more applications have you been receiving? We're looking at, in the past couple of years, about a 30% increase in applications.

I saw that Tippie had quite a few international students, it's was about 54% in 2005 and 38% last year, which is still slightly higher of most schools' averages of roughly a third. I was wondering if that number went down at all with the 2009 incoming class, considering the considerable challenges international MBAs are facing. It did. Our international percentage is 27% this year. We certainly value our international students who are in the program and feel that they make significant contributions, and we want to continue to have a strong showing of international students. But at the same time, we want to ensure that we can help them to be successful given the challenges that we're seeing in hiring for international students, and the fact that international students need to be company sponsored. This year we decided to keep our international student percentage down slightly. So that's not to say that it won't increase in the coming years, but for now we think that this is an acceptable number of international students for us to really help and be able to give enough attention to so that they're successful.

So in the future would you expect to see that percentage around the 30% mark? Yes, I'd say that is probably where we would want to be.

How has your job changed since you got here, and would you say the economic crisis has had an impact on it? I would say that it's becoming increasingly competitive on the schools' end as well as the applicants'. I think that programs need to have a value proposition, and so that's what we've been really working on. We want to ensure that we're offering our students a strong value, so that they're successful. There's been a change in the international market; we've seen more applicants from India and fewer from Asia. And we really want to increase our female and minority enrollment. So that hasn't necessarily changed, that's always been a challenge, but I would love to see those populations increase in the coming years. As I'm sure many business schools would.

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