A Chat with Michigan's Admissions Director

Director of MBA Admissions Kristina Nebel and second-year student Christopher Schwalbach with tips on making the cut at the University of Michigan Business School

Kristina Nebel is director of MBA admissions at the University of Michigan Business School (No. 6 on BusinessWeek's 2000 Top 30 B-school list). Nebel has directed admissions at Michigan since January, 1999. She oversees recruiting and admissions for the MBA, Evening MBA, BBA, and Master's of Accounting programs. In addition to her responsibilities in the admissions office, Nebel is a member of the steering committee for the school's Women in Business Initiative, as well as board member of a nonprofit group spearheaded by Michigan to recruit more women to business education (see BW Online, 11/6/01, "A New Push to Pull In Women"). Christopher Schwalbach is a second-year MBA at Michigan Business School, and also helps out in the admissions office.

Nebel and Schwalbach's comments came during a live BusinessWeek Online chat on Jan. 22. They were responding to questions from the audience and from BW Online's Jack Dierdorff and Mica Schneider. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion:

Q: Kris, Michigan has already sent out some admission decisions this year. Can you sum up what you've seen in applications so far this season? What do you expect before Michigan's final deadline this spring?


We did see a record number of applications this year, and we are very pleased with the quality. We have completed applications for the first round. We did see more people in transition, if you will -- more people who had lost their jobs. We're seeing a continued trend of a high number of applications in round two, and we're still looking for the same type of talent. However, it is more competitive this year.

Q: How are second-round applications shaping up?


We don't have an exact count on round two yet, but we are somewhere over 2,100 applications for the round, and that does not include any applications from people applying through the Consortium of Graduate Management Education. We are in the process of preparing the applications, and have started reading. Decisions will be mailed on March 15.

Q: Do you think the slow job market will discourage some applicants for MBA programs -- or the reverse?


It increases the demand for an MBA, as people recognize the need to retool and develop.

Schwalbach: I also think that applicants perceive that the next two years is strategically a smart time to get their MBA, to allow the economy to recover, and to then re-enter the workforce at a very smart time.

Q: Speaking of a slow job market: what's the attitude around the 2002 job hunt on campus?


In the fall, it was rather a nervous time. Now, coming into the New Year there are spots of quite good jobs out there. My friends are getting jobs that they are excited about. There are definitely a number of students that have had to focus more of their job search off campus rather than using on-campus interviews. Thus, heading into February, my perception is that the job outlook has become quite a bit more positive, although still noticeably slower than I would like.

Q: What differentiates Michigan from other top 10 business schools?


Going to any top business school, you're going to get a wonderful education, an amazing alumni network, and in choosing a school, it comes down to the approach or philosophy for leadership development and management education that a school has. At Michigan, in addition to excellence in academics, we have a strong focus on action learning, which allows for in-depth experiences, both in and out of the classroom. Additionally, our focus on diversity is unprecedented -- and by diversity, I mean more than just race and gender. I include the backgrounds our students come to our program with, their interest areas, the breadth and depth of our academic offerings, and the resultant broad portfolio of companies that come to recruit at Michigan. The breadth and deep relationship that we have with companies has allowed our students to rebound from the economic downturn better than most.

Q: Will a relatively low Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) score severely hinder an applicant from being seriously considered for admission into the program. Should it be addressed somewhere in the application, for instance in the optional essays?


We want to ensure that a student can handle the academic rigor of the program, which is where the GMAT and one's undergraduate performance come into play. The GMAT is only one aspect of the application. However, you need to be competitive because two-thirds of our applicants are very capable in handling the rigor, and as part of making selections, you're better served if you're more competitive. That said, the GMAT is not a predictor of future career success, which is why we look so strongly at the other aspects of the application, such as an applicant's track record of success and their full-time work experience. I would address a low GMAT in an optional essay.

Q: How important is the GMAT score? Do Michigan treat an international student's GMAT scores any differently than a domestic applicant's scores?


I'd refer to my previous comments about the GMAT. We evaluate all GMAT scores for all students similarly. For international students, we use the verbal and Analytical Writing Assesment (AWA) scores as part of our evaluation of their language ability.

Q: Is there a significant difference between a 750 and 800 on the GMAT?


Besides 50 points, we're getting into pretty negligible territory, because from a percentile basis that is 99% or 100%.

Q: What should students with less work experience do to make their application better? Are they at any disadvantage compared to other applicants with four to five years of work experience?


Talent comes in a lot of different packages, and we do admit students with less than four years of work experience. However, it's important for those applicants -- and all applicants, for that matter -- to demonstrate how they've made an impact in any of the organizations in which they've been involved.

Schwalbach: When I look at an applicant, I look at what that individual has done with their time at their job. You may have worked three years, but have accomplished the work of a person with four years of professional experience.

Q: Any advice for college seniors applying to Michigan? Or in fact, should a college senior apply at all without work experience?


Work experience is important. For those with little or no experience, we need to be sure that those students can contribute to their classmates and the learning experience. There are some other schools that are starting to advocate to younger applicants, and marketing to that pool. However, we want to be sure that these types of students are prepared for the experience and that also, from a career standpoint, their placement opportunities are not marginalized.

Schwalbach: Work experience really adds to the discussion in the classroom, and on small team projects. I want students who can add to the discussion from their experiences. It makes a huge difference. Finally, I would add that a few of my classmates are doing a joint law degree where they complete two years at Michigan Law School before coming to Michigan, and they have performed strongly at Michigan. Thus, if this is of strong interest, it may be a route for college seniors.

Q: Chris, could you summarize the entrepreneurial atmosphere at Michigan, especially since you've had experience with the Wolverine Venture Fund (WVF)?


The Wolverine Fund is just a small part of the entire Zell Lurie Entrepreneurial Institute (ZLI). ZLI has a lot of parts, including case writing, internships, starting-your-own-business classes, and acquiring-your-own-business classes. I have taken most of these and think that all are immensely valuable. With respect to the WVF, it is a $3 million fund where MBA students look for potential companies to invest in. The group consists of 15 MBAs -- half are second-year MBAs and the other half are first-year MBAs. We have invested about $350,000 since I have been at Michigan. In the coming years, I expect the Entrepreneurial Institute to become a real powerhouse at Michigan in that it will really differentiate the school. There are so many opportunities for real-world experience that will be valuable for students.

Q: Any advice to waitlisted applicants from the first round? At what point is it appropriate for waitlisted applicants to call in the cavalry in advocacy of one's admittance to Michigan?


We definitely want a wait-listed candidate to stay in touch with us and provide updates on career progress, goals, etc. But I also advise waitlisted applicants to reflect upon their application and think about where their application might be weaker and how they might be able to enhance that over the coming months. Any additional letters of recommendation sent in are fine. However, if a waitlisted applicant's goals are vague, for example, an extra recommendation letter likely won't add much. That's why it's important for them to reflect on their overall application. Due to the busyness of the admissions process, we cannot meet with waitlisted students and give direct feedback on their application, and we therefore look for the applicant himself or herself to reflect introspectively. Hang in there. I know it's a tough process!

Q: Will there be more movement in the waitlists this year, given the speculation that applicants are applying to more schools to assure acceptance?


I wish I knew the answer to that. The other factor at play is also the ability for international students to obtain visas, so it's really hard for us to gauge what the movement will be.

Q: How many applicants have you waitlisted from the first round?


Somewhere over a hundred.

Q: How big a factor is the interview in the Michigan application? What if an applicant is unable to schedule an interview by the deadline?


We strongly encourage all applicants to interview. As noted on the BusinessWeek Online profile, 100% of our admits are interviewed, meaning that we talk to everybody before we admit them. So if you are unable to interview, we may reach out to talk with you. But the other outcome could be that you're waitlisted, or if an applicant is not strong enough on other fronts, obviously he or she could be denied. We offer three ways to interview -- in person in Ann Arbor, by phone to us in Ann Arbor, or with an alumni interviewer -- and all are weighted equally.

Q: Can you share an example of a time when you left an interview thinking, "No way is this person coming to Michigan!" Schwalbach: I really dislike when an interview candidate cannot shed any light as to why they're applying to Michigan. There are those that only pull information out of brochures and from the Web, but some do even less research than that. It's really disappointing that they do not understand how important it is for them to understand Michigan and to display their knowledge about our program.

Nebel: Also, if a candidate is not ready to tell their story -- where they've been, their achievements, their reason for wanting an MBA, and so on - it's disappointing, because they should be prepared to articulate it concisely.

Q: Some MBA hopefuls take a calculus course in an effort to satisfy some of the math prerequisites for an MBA. Does Michigan require a specific type of calculus course be taken prior to acceptance?


The calculus class needs to be completed prior to enrollment. It needs to cover integral and differential calculus, which is basically your Calculus I type of course. It can be taken at a university or a community college. It must be for credit, and you have to get a C or better.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes qualified applicants make to hurt their application?


The mistakes are similar to the interview. You need to be able to articulate strong focus, how Michigan fits in to that, and highlight some true achievements. I have a good example of one that always bugs me -- if you're a CPA, there's no need to write your achievement essay on passing the CPA exam. Similarly, don't write an achievement essay on the fact that you were promoted. Instead, talk about the things that you did that resulted in the promotion.

Schwalbach: I would also add passion. Make sure that your application and/or interview shows your passion for business and solving management problems. This can come through on paper very easily, so I would make sure that you have someone read your essays to see if your passion is apparent.

Q: Can a perfect TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] score help an applicant in any way? Or does Michigan ignore scores once they reach Michigan's threshold of 250? [Editor's note: The maximum TOEFL score is 300 points.]


You look for the TOEFL score to be strong. Our minimum requirement for the TOEFL score is 250, but most students we admit score above that. Getting a perfect TOEFL score would clearly demonstrate some strong verbal English ability, but you're correct in thinking that it won't have as much impact as getting an 800 on the GMAT.

Q: Chris, no school is perfect. What common complaints would a Michigan MBA hear among his/her classmates after classes start?


Upon starting classes, I wanted to learn from my classmates about their work experiences, yet [they are] not a group of managers yet. We are all at the same level of learning. I had a misperception that there would be lots of [reflecting on] years of management experience [among my classmates]. With that said, we do work in teams quite a bit, so solving cases, etc., is often more of a struggle because there is not that one person in the group who has already solved the problem in their former work experience. Thus, much of the work has come at quite a cost to my time sleeping!

Q: Kris, what items from a candidate's work experience stand out in his/her application as key differentiators in your mind? How are extracurricular activities weighted?


We look for leadership, both in your professional life and in your outside involvement. Leadership doesn't mean that you have to be wearing the project-manager hat -- you can lead from the side, from below, or from above. So in evaluating someone's work accomplishments, we are looking for the impact that you've made. Many times that happens while working in a team, which we also want to get a sense for. From an extracurricular standpoint, we look for students who recognize that the health of your community is an important aspect of being a strong business leader. We also are just looking for folks who have outside interests, are well-rounded, and will come here to take initiative and to be involved.

Q: Have you seen the same increases in the number of Consortium applications? Approximately how many Consortium applicants will Michigan admit this year?


The total number of admits will depend on the quality of the pool -- as with all applicants -- and the early-decision group for the Consortium. We got about the same amount of applications as last year. Even though overall we saw a large increase in our total application pool, it did not surprise me not to see a large increase of Consortium apps as a vast majority of Consortium applications come in with the Jan. 15 deadline.

Q: Are there certain areas of professional experience that Michigan considers highly desirable?


As I noted earlier, we really do have a wide range of diversity in the program, which ties to past work experience as well as future areas of interest. When we admit candidates, we don't keep a log of how many consultants we've admitted. We're fortunate that we have such a large, diverse pool of applicants that we really just evaluate an application on an app-for-app basis. So a consultant should be doing what everyone else should be doing, which is really trying to highlight what they've achieved, where they want to go with the MBA, and how Michigan ties in to that.

Q: Earlier in the admissions process, applicants are less experienced and less interview-savvy. Is this considered, or are these students at a disadvantage if Michigan Business School is their first or second interview?


If a student is less prepared, then that will potentially impact their performance in an interview. We expect interviewees to take the time to be ready to be interviewed, or they really shouldn't be doing it at that time.

Schwalbach: Practice interviews with any friends or colleagues who have obtained their MBA because they will serve as a huge resource to you. I practiced with a Michigan MBA alumna, and she helped me tremendously in preparing for my interview.

Q: Do you see a shift in career goals going along with the shifts in the economy?


Yes, investment bankers are thinking more corporate finance, and I have seen people with an interest in technology go more toward durables and consumer products. There is a slight shift, but it is not something extraordinary. There are just fewer Wall Street jobs at all the firms, and there are a smaller number of students [who will] leave Ann Arbor for New York City. But the corporate finance jobs are still strong, and many people are finding opportunities that they are very excited about.

Q: Does a student's financial status affect his/her application?


It does not affect an admissions decision.

Q: Financing an MBA will be an issue no matter where you attend B-school. What advice do you have for applicants who are hungry for fellowships, or a bank loan?


We have a range of merit- and need-based scholarships, but we also have an exceptional program through CitiAssist. We are one of only a few schools that have such a program, and essentially, by being admitted, you are able to secure a loan upwards of $40,000 a year without a co-signer or a credit check. This helps students finance their program and is especially attractive to some of our international students. My other advice is really to be saving in the years prior to going to business school, because it will be a financial adjustment.

Copyright 2002 Bloomberg L.P.

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