A Chat with Olin's Admissions Director

Washington University B-school's Brad Pearson shares some insights about preparing your application and what it takes to make the cut

Our guest on Feb. 15, 2002, was Brad Pearson, director of admissions and financial aid at Washington University's Olin School of Business (No. 23 on BusinessWeek's Top 30 list). Prior to joining the Olin School in October, 2000, Pearson was associate director of admissions at the University of Chicago. He earned his MBA from Governor's State University in University Park, Ill., in 1993. Pearson was interviewed by BusinessWeek Online reporter Mica Schneider. Following are edited excerpts from their discussion:

Q: What has changed in admissions at Olin since we last spoke?


We went through a revision of the application process when I arrived in October, 2000. Some students founded the Arch of Olin, a student-run organization whose members read applications, interview candidates, and travel with us to just about every domestic reception promoting the school. In fact, the two creative essay questions (on the application) were chosen by the students. They'll choose the next two for next year's application, too.

Q: Brad, how would you sum up this year's application season, so far?


Some schools are up 75% to 100% in applications. We haven't seen that big an increase, but we're doing well. Benchmarked to last year, the quality of the applicant pool is phenomenal. Applicants have good work experience, they've done community service, and their academics and GMAT scores have improved. It's too early to tell if we'll have a huge increase in applications (by the last deadline of Apr. 29), since we just sent decisions out for our first deadline on Jan. 14, and we're making second-round decisions this week. We have four deadlines this year, instead of five. In the first round, we accepted 120 people out of around 300.

Q: More than 1,300 people applied to your full-time MBA program in 2001. The school accepted 32% of those. What separates your admitted applicants from those who are dinged?


Quite a few things. Stuart Greenbaum, our dean, said during our November review weekend that we aren't looking for the perfect 800 (GMAT score), or for a perfect 4.0 grade point average (GPA). What we're looking for isn't on paper.

When I'm interviewing someone, I'm looking at what's in front of me. Are recruiters going to want the person, does he or she have people skills? What's the quality of the person's professional experience? I often ask in an interview what they do for fun. If they say that they like to sit and surf the Web, I wonder how involved they'd be at Olin, and how involved they'd remain as alumni of Washington University.

Q: Just 34% of Olin's admitted applicants enrolled at Olin last year. Where did they go, or what did they do instead?


We send a survey to those who decide not to come to Olin. Those who respond say they've been accepted at Kellogg, Wharton, Chicago, Cornell, Michigan, and a couple of people are going to Stanford.

Q: What's your sales pitch for people who are debating between Olin and another school?


When students begin orientation in August, I ask how many attended preview weekend, and the vast majority raise their hands. Getting them to campus, having them meet the students, faculty, and staff, produces a phenomenal response. We have two preview weekends, in November and February.

My sales pitch is the sense of community. We're the smallest of the top schools, with 150 to 160 students enrolling every year. Not only do first-years interact with second-years, but, unlike at larger schools, where you have an Asian faction or South American faction, there's interaction across (cultural and national) borders here. (When they come to campus), applicants see that community, and the interaction between students and professors. The professors will go to a reception, then to the bar afterward with the students. At a reception in New York City, a second-year MBA made this point: "This is a place you can have an immediate impact." That student is going to work on Wall Street next year.

We also have a faculty-run Center for Experiential Learning (http://www.olin.wustl.edu/cel/). In 2000-2001, about 75% of students participated in some activity at the Center. You can develop a business plan for a company in The Hatchery (http://www.olin.wustl.edu/cel/hatchery/). We have about 40 students in a group called Global Management Studies (http://www.olin.wustl.edu/cel/gms/), which provides an opportunity to travel abroad to see how business operates there.

They might do a marketing project for a company, for instance. One of this year's two groups is going to Cuba in March, to study agriculture. The Center also has the Investment Praxis, (http://www.olin.wustl.edu/cel/praxis/), where students manage a mutual fund, and show a profit or a loss at the end of the year. It's hands-on experience. There's also the Taylor Community Consulting Project (http://www.olin.wustl.edu/cel/tccp/), where students do pro-bono work in the community -- for instance, creating a database for a nonprofit.

Q: What GMAT score raises red flags for your staff, and what can an applicant do to offset a low score?


I know that some schools look at GMAT scores and GPAs, and if those aren't within a range, boom! That's the end of the road. Olin isn't like that. If an application is complete, we'll read it all the way through. We know how much time goes into an application. We had someone last year who had a 320 on the GMAT, but we read the application. Granted, with a score like that, they'll have to walk on water. But I hate talking about averages, because prospective students may see those and, if they aren't at the average, decide not to apply. Our entering class's GMAT range last year was 590 to 710 for the middle 80% of the group.

If someone has a 550, we'll zero in on what they did in their undergraduate work, what they majored in, and what school they went to. The bottom line is that you don't want to set someone up for failure, you want to make sure they can handle the academic challenges here. If the application is really strong and the GMAT is the only hurdle, we'll say to the applicant we'd like to have you, but have you thought of practicing and taking the GMAT again? We'll do that especially if they've only taken it once.

Q: Why make someone go through the process of taking the GMAT again, when GMAT scores rarely fluctuate?


If you don't think score is indicative of what you can do, retake it. I've seen applications where someone got a 590, then took it again and got a 680. So it can happen.

Q: What's considered a rigorous academic background?


We'll see if they took finance, statistics, or calculus courses, and zero in on those. We'll look at their major. Economics, finance, and engineering, to name a few, are considered rigorous. I interviewed someone recently who majored in microbiology, which is considered rather difficult. Such students aren't weighted differently, but we take their majors into consideration. For instance, the undergraduate accounting program at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champlain is considered rigorous.

Q: What's your advice to applicants when selecting their two required references?


The best reference comes from a direct manager or supervisor. I clarify that, and add that we do realize that sometimes you can't tell your direct manager because you could jeopardize your bonus, etc. I've had candidates who asked their manager, and were let go, or were taken off of a project because of that. So I'll tell applicants to go to a previous manager, or a client -- someone who can speak on their behalf.

Were I an applicant, I'd guide my references with regard to what the school's looking for. For someone to just fill out the form, and check off the boxes, doesn't give us much to go on. Give us concrete, specific examples in an attached letter, telling us why this person is rated high in creativity, and why they possess leadership skills. That's a strong recommendation.

Q: Your application asks prospective MBAs to list any relatives who are Washington University alumni. Why?


It's more for internal tracking. If this candidate is applying, and their mother or father went to the medical school, we like to keep track. It isn't that it will improve their chances of admission, since clearly, if someone put a poor application together they wouldn't be admitted. And in case there is someone who is a major partner (an individual donor, or through a partner corporation) of the university, Stuart Greenbaum, the dean, may want to follow up with the partner to tell them, out of courtesy, what the status is of the relative's application.

Q: What don't you want to learn about someone in their three required essays?


You sometimes get essays that go off on a tangent. Someone will take the "Why do you want to go to Olin, and what do you hope to experience?" essay, and go on about something very personal, such as a health problem. We think, "Why did they put this in here?"

We advise them to be themselves: Don't try to be someone you're not. We have all been reading application essays for many years, and can sense when someone doesn't have a passion for the program. Do your homework. Don't spew back marketing materials to us. We wrote them! Express your passion about why you want to go to this school.

Q: How can you tell that someone's career objectives don't fit with Olin's strengths?


If they're way off in left field, you can get that from the essay. For instance, someone applying who wants to focus on information technology. We're not an MIT. This isn't the program for them.

[Editor's note: Olin's has three required essays, and also allows applicants to submit optional essays. The required topics are:

• Why are you seeking an MBA from the John M. Olin School of Business? What do you hope to experience and contribute? Explain how the Olin School of Business will help you meet your objectives.

• Describe a situation in which you had a leadership role, resolved a conflict, and initiated change.

• If you were a character in a book, who would you be and why? What do you admire most about the character, and how does it relate to you personally and/or professionally?

Q: It doesn't seem that Olin puts as much emphasis on interviewing as other schools do. In 2001, your office interviewed 51% of Olin's admitted applicants.


We're having a dialogue with the dean, who is meeting with various student organizations. We would like to interview everyone, because on paper you can get an impression of how someone did academically, but it's important to get a person in front of you, so you can get the entire picture. I'd like that the interview be mandatory next year, by phone, on campus, or with an alumnus.

Q: What makes for a good interview at Olin?


Someone who does their homework. Walking in the door, they know the school, and they aren't just talking from our marketing materials. They should approach our interview as they would a professional business interview, including how they dress. And the interview is ongoing. The candidate is always being assessed -- when they meet or go to class with a student, for instance. I suggest that candidates visit campus the day before the interview, and get a feel for the place. See where the students hang out.

Q: Do students have an advantage if they come to campus?


Absolutely. They'll spend a half-hour with second-year student for an interview, then come to me or another colleague for another interview. Then the applicant goes to class with another student, then off to lunch with four students. If Stuart Greenbaum is here, he spends five to 10 minutes with every candidate. People leave here feeling that we went the extra mile.

And if strong candidates come to campus, we'll put them up for free in one of the 66 rooms in the new Knight center -- on our tab.

Q: Brad, most applicants to Olin are from other countries -- 62% of the applicant pool last year. How did you whittle that group down to the 38% who enrolled in the incoming class in 2001?


The 38% is pretty large when you compare it to other schools. We don't have quotas, or a feeling that we need so many from here or there. When we're reviewing an application, it's who's in front of us, is this person a fit for the program?

We pay close attention to their English. That's why we do a lot of phone interviews with international applicants. We want to make sure that the students can effectively communicate when they get here. Our Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score minimum is 250 on the computer-adapted exam, with scores of 22 in each subsection. If the applicant is below that, we may do a phone interview to assess their English skill level, and their passion for the program. If someone is a dynamite candidate, we may offer a conditional admit, and suggest an English as a second language course before they enroll.

Q: Which countries dominate the international applicant pool?


In 2001, the majority of applications came from China and India. For our first deadline, we doubled the number of applications, vs. last year, from Japan. We have 10 alumni who are recruiting students there.

Q: Which regions of the world would you like to recruit more MBAs from?


Western Europe and Moscow. We've been going on the World MBA tour, so we've targeted Western Europe, Asia, South America, and other places.

Q: Nineteen people were offered admission from Olin's 122-person wait list in 2001. How did they persuade you to accept them?


We divide wait-listed candidates into piles, one of which is those who have responded to our letter and submitted additional information, and those who call the office and want feedback on their status. Those are the ones we review first. These people obviously have a passion for Wash U.

Q: How will Olin use the wait list this year?


This year, so far, has been extremely competitive. But every year, we accept people from the wait list. The latest they could hear from us is in June.

Q: What final advice do you have for Olin hopefuls?


Be yourself. Select your recommenders carefully. Don't leave any areas on your application blank, because, if you do, we can only assume. For instance, community service. Some cultures don't do community service, so explain it. If you've had a bad year in your undergraduate record, explain it in the optional essay. If you went from one school to another, it's typically not that important to explain. But if you've been to four or five schools, you should explain. If you are put on wait list, get in touch with the school. And definitely visit the campus. That's so important. You wouldn't buy a house without checking it out. You wouldn't buy a car without driving it. Why wouldn't you visit the school you're applying to?

Q: You've mentioned community service a few times now. What is Olin hoping to learn from someone's community-service record?


Whether it's tutoring kids, or being a big brother or big sister, we're looking for involvement in a professional organization or community service. I interviewed a candidate this morning, and I told him that this isn't a program where you can hide. You're going to be visible, you're going to know your first-year class. You'll know everybody. So I try to get an idea of what someone does for fun, and if they have been involved. Because typically, they'll carry that over into the MBA program, and into the future, and remain involved in the program as alumni.

Q: Brad, you also handle financial aid. How do most MBAs finance their education? When and how should MBA hopefuls begin planning for the big investment?


Between 98% and 99% of all students coming into the program get some type of financial aid, whether it's government help through Federal loans, or other loans. We're also moving to offer international students loans without a U.S. cosigner. That's going to be a major help to many students, who may not know a person in the U.S. who'll cosign on a loan.

I would begin the financial aid process as you start to apply to schools. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, early -- it it will be used by any to any school that accepts you. I usually tell candidates to worry first about getting into the program of their choice, and then work with the financial aid office.

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