A Chat with Columbia's Admissions Director

A talk with Linda Meehan, assistant dean and executive director for admissions and financial aid at Columbia Business School

Our guest on Dec. 13, 2001, was Linda Meehan, the assistant dean and executive director for admissions and financial aid at Columbia Business School, No. 7 on BW's 2000 Top 30 list. Ms. Meehan began working for Columbia University in 1989 and assumed her current role in 1994. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh, where she majored in biology, education, and fine arts. Ms. Meehan was interviewed by BusinessWeek Online reporter Mica Schneider. Here's an edited transcript of their discussion:

Q: Columbia's applications increased 72% during its early decision period, which lasted from Aug. 15 to Oct. 15. Columbia offers rolling admissions, so the numbers are constantly changing. What's your increase in admissions at this point?


We're still way up over 50%.

Q: How will that affect Columbia's selectivity this year?


It depends. The next deadline is in January, which is also our deadline for being considered for a Columbia fellowship. We'll have a better idea of the pool by Mar. 1, which is our international deadline. Then we have our final deadline on Apr. 20. If we end up 50% ahead of last year, obviously that's going to affect our selectivity.

Q: Columbia's MBA application numbers dipped from 6,200 in 2000 to 5,200 in 2001. What happened?


Most of my peer institutions experienced dipping or flattening. The strong economy had a great deal to do with it.

Q: How does Columbia view applicants who have left failed companies?


They're viewed according to their experience. Young people looking to take risks are the type of people who often end up being successful. They aren't viewed as though they made a bad decision. They're judged based on their experience, their skills, what they learned -- and how that will fit with where they're headed now.

Q: When does Columbia accept the majority of its MBAs?


I don't do this percent now and that percent later. With rolling admissions, you want to admit throughout the entire period, as we've always done. I don't see that changing.

Q: Other admissions directors have said that they plan to accept more international students in their early rounds in order to help them secure visas in a year when it may be difficult for foreign nationals to get into the U.S. Will Columbia do the same?


The international pool is sophisticated vs. what it was 10 years ago. The applicants are aware that it's best to apply early. I haven't run numbers to compare this year to last, but my feeling is that more applications from abroad are coming earlier than before.

In rolling admissions, we have always been aware that you want to admit international students earlier because of the visa situation. But that's no different than it has been in the past.

Q: Columbia's current first-year MBA class is 26% international, a dip from past years.


That's just how it worked out. We are looking for heterogeneity in our student body. But we aren't willing to do different things for an international pool than we do for a domestic pool.

Q: Columbia has a stronger-than-average female enrollment of 36%. Underrepresented minorities comprise another 10% of the class. What's Columbia's recruiting strategy for such students?


People are attracted to places where there are strong communities. That's what we have. The leaders at our school often are women, and often underrepresented minorities. We reflect this incredible city [New York] that we're in. People are attracted to Columbia because of that.

Q: Columbia enrolls about 195 full-time students in its accelerated MBA program every January, and another 485 students in September. The school admitted 13% of about 5,200 applicants last fall. What made that 13% special?


We're looking for people from a wide variety of backgrounds. We're looking for strong leaders, for people who want to be involved. They've had a passion for something, whether they're ballet dancers or marathon runners or have created a charity they strongly support. These are people who take full advantage of what we offer.

Q: Where does Columbia look to find evidence of those traits in applications?


Applicants have the opportunity to distinguish themselves in their essays. That's why it's so important that they answer our essay questions, as opposed to using a generic essay and trying to make it fit.

A recommendation is the other way we find out about someone's personal characteristics and potential. It's so important for applicants to choose recommenders who know them well and have worked with them, not someone they think is going to impress us. We want to know what kind of person this is, how motivated, what's their leadership potential?

Q: Students often apply to a handful of B-schools. Are you concerned when you see a recommendation that was probably sent to six different schools?


Not at all. If the generic recommendation includes the information we're looking for, that's fine.

Q: Does it help if the person who writes the recommendation is an alumnus?


The first requirement for a recommender is to know the candidate well. If they're also an alumnus of the school, that's great. They have more insight into what the school's about, how well this person would assimilate into this population and contribute to it. But if they don't know the person well in the work environment, the recommendation won't help a lot.

Q: Not everyone applies to B-school with above-average GMAT scores. How does Columbia rely on the GMAT?


Because our 80% GMAT spread [the range within which the middle 80% of admitted students score] is as strong as it is -- 660 to 750 -- a lot of applicants think that if they have a mediocre GMAT they shouldn't bother applying. What they need to know about Columbia is that we look at the whole picture. We have taken students who scored in the low 500s. And obviously, we have taken them as high as 800.

Q: How else will you evaluate a candidate's quantitative skills?


Their undergraduate performance, their undergraduate program, and their school are all taken into consideration.

At certain schools, there are majors that are much more difficult, time consuming, and hard to do well in. I would certainly weight an electrical engineer, for instance, with a 3.2 [grade point] average equal to or stronger than a liberal arts student with a 3.4 average. That's simply because of the degree of difficulty, the rigor, and the competitiveness in those programs.

Q: What can liberal arts students do to prove that they can handle the work?


What's important is that the person has gone through whatever program, at whatever school, and tried to take full advantage of where they were and what they were taking. And we hope they've done really well. If they haven't, we're going to consider when this happened and whether they had other obligations, such as helping to support their family. They may have been working full-time to go to school.

We're also going to look at the GMAT score a little more closely. I would expect that GMAT score to be a little bit stronger to help compensate and to persuade the committee that this person is going to excel.

Q: Can strong grades in post-graduate quantitative courses help an applicant?


Oftentimes, students think that if they take a statistics or an accounting course it will help their application if they didn't do particularly well in their undergraduate work. What I always say is, if you want to take a stats course or an accounting course, do it because you want to and because it's going to make you feel more comfortable in the competitive quantitative environment. We're going to generally use your undergraduate performance and your GMAT score. If you are borderline with both of those, having taken a statistics course and doing really well will make people pay attention. But attacking one course in a continuing education class or at a community college is different than carrying a full load of coursework.

Q: Interviews are by invitation only at Columbia. Some 86% of the people who are eventually admitted interview. What does the admissions team want to learn from an interview?


The interview can serve a lot of different functions. The basic one is to answer questions people haven't elaborated enough on in their application.

Interviewers will also be looking at how interviewees present themselves. Are they professional in their demeanor? Are they articulate? If English is a second language, how well do they speak it? We'll also be assessing an applicant's goals. Sometimes in an interview it becomes much clearer where the person is headed, and that's very helpful to the committee.

Applicants are being assessed as if they were in a professional interview. Is this somebody you would like to hire? Is this someone you would like to go to school with and have a member of your cluster or your class? Almost all of our interviews are done either by alumni or our Hermes students, who are selected students trained by the admissions office.

Q: Another place to learn more about applicants is in their essays. Columbia B-school has five required essays. Among the more interesting questions is one that asks applicants to describe a time when they were disappointed with themselves. What's a good way to field that question?


We're not looking for a right answer. Part of the assessment is what people choose. That tells a great deal about the candidates. If the only thing they can come up is that they weren't elected captain of the high school football team, this indicates a maturity issue. Most of us, by the time we reach the point where we're applying to business school, have had some setbacks other than that.

Q: The longest essay asks applicants about their short- and long-term career goals, and how Columbia will help them achieve those goals. How do you know when an applicant's goals won't fit with Columbia?


First question is, does the applicant have focus -- some idea of what business school is about and what they want to do with it? What skills and goals does the applicant bring to the table, and how might those fit with what they want to do? We're looking for an applicant's thought process.

Q: What's an applicant's best strategy when placed on Columbia's wait list?


Being placed on the wait list is actually an advantage. We want to give them a chance to talk to us. It lets the committee find out things about the candidate that we may not have been able to ascertain in the application and/or interview.

First, contact the wait-list manager, not me or the dean. Stay in touch, but don't pester them to death. Recognize that this person is doing more than just managing a wait list, and that you aren't the only person on the list. Behave appropriately: Getting angry and arrogant won't help.

Q: How about stopping by the office to plead your case?


Setting up an appointment is a better thing to do. You may be lucky and get to see someone by popping in, but on the other hand you may waste your time.

Q: How does the school view reapplicants?


A reapplicant is viewed very positively, as someone who is obviously interested in our school. We know that they're probably interested in a couple of other schools as well, but they are interested enough that they would like to try to be here. The advice I give reapplicants is do your homework. If you were on the wait list, we may have made recommendations for how you can improve. If so, try and follow them. If you weren't able to get feedback, look at the profile of the entering class. What does your application look like in comparison? Are things missing from your application that you see in the profile?

Q: How do the students admitted in Columbia's January program, which it has had for 27 years, differ from those who enter in September?


The January class isn't for career changers. It's designed for people who are returning to the same company and/or industry. It's for entrepreneurs -- people who plan to start their own businesses or continue with their own businesses and therefore don't need or want an internship. They tend to have a little more work experience than the September class. The programs are identical -- four full semesters. It's just that the internship isn't there.

Q: What will students experience at Columbia that they won't get elsewhere?


New York -- and one of the most prestigious schools in the world, with a renowned research faculty. You have the benefit of all of the experts who live and work in the city, who associate themselves with a premier institution. Those are the people who are going to teach you. In this weak market, where recruiting is off everywhere, our students have an advantage: With $1.50 and 20 minutes, they can be downtown networking with our alumni or others. They don't have to miss class. They don't have to travel, or wait for somebody to come to campus.

Q: What can current applicants expect two years from now in the job market?


We're encouraging them to talk to our students to see what they're experiencing and how they feel about the support and location this institution provides them. We're not telling them we have the answer, because we don't. We don't know what's going to happen. But we do know that by being here they have the opportunity to keep on top of the market.

Q: What complaints do Columbia students have?


The deli -- not the food, but the space. This is New York City, so space is at a premium. But the upgrade of Uris Hall and the new building we share with the law school has eased the griping about the space. The tradeoff for space is opportunity. You may not have 150 acres, but you have access to everything in the heart of the business world.

Housing is another concern. Students who get school housing are delighted, and those who don't pound the pavement until they find a place. Some think they can't afford it, but there is affordable housing. Finding it may be daunting, but I don't have any homeless students.

Q: How is Columbia notifying applicants of its decisions?


All decisions are posted online. The only people notified by mail as well are admitted students. Those denied or waitlisted will only be notified online.

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