Meet USC's MBA Admissions Directors

Keith Vaughn, director for the full-time program, and Evan Bouffides, who covers part-time enrollment, talk about what they're looking for from applicants

Our guests on March 6, 2002, were Keith Vaughn, director of full-time MBA admissions, and Evan Bouffides, director of admissions for the professionals and managers, and executive MBA programs, at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California (no. 24 on BusinessWeek's 2000 Top B-School ranking).

Vaughn earned his bachelors degree in economics at Amherst College, and an MBA from USC. Before arriving at USC, he worked as a commercial banker for four years in the Bay Area, and later in an entrepreneurial venture (a computer reseller of hardware and software) in Washington D.C. He also worked in the Career Resource Center at Marshall. Bouffides joined Marshall's full-time MBA admissions office in 1997, and was promoted to director of the part-time MBA and Executive MBA in February, 2001. They were interviewed by BusinessWeek Online's Mica Schneider. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q: How has the economy altered application volume to your programs?


We're seeing an increase in the number of applications to the part-time program. People are worried about the economy, but more about their knowledge base as they start to look at more competitive positions. They realize that as a baseline, they need to get an MBA.

Vaughn: We were up 34% in the first round of applications and about 50% in the second round. The quality of the applicants in our first two rounds is similar, if not slightly better, than we've seen in the past. I'd say 20% of the class has been admitted at this point.

Q: What benefits do full-time MBAs get that part-timers and executives miss out on?


First, day students get the all-encompassing experience of being on campus 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also benefit from career-services activities that take place during the day -- company presentations at lunchtime or club activities during the day.

Q: Do part-time and executive MBAs have access to the Career Resource Center?


They have access to the center's full resources. The only difference is the internship search. Most executive MBA and part-time MBA students aren't looking for internships. But in terms of other career management activities -- workshops, seminars, and interviewing for post-MBA employment -- it's identical.

Q: Why don't part-time and executive MBAs need permission to use the career center when many are sponsored by their companies?


The relationship between a company and a student is their own business. In addition, the Career Resource Center offers services for career management that may, in fact, include growth within a student's existing company.

Q: What's the main difference between the admissions process for full-time, part-time, and executive MBAs?


The processes are very similar. The applications will be reviewed on the basis of a person's academic background, as well as their work history. The main differentiating point might be with regard to the focus of a full-time applicant -- why they're coming to business school and what career they're looking for after B-school. Part-time and executive MBA candidates are expected to maintain their current employment.

Q: Keith, what carries the most weight in the full-time MBA application?


When we look at our applicant pool, there are a lot of bright people, based on where they went to school, the courses they took, and how they performed. Once we draw a line in the sand that says, "everyone's bright," what makes the difference is their work history. Were they promoted? Did they show some level of energy and some level of excitement that we can see from either community activities or from their work experience?

I interviewed a candidate who talked to me about what he did once a week in a homeless shelter. He has a sincere level of commitment outside of his job, and it shows that there's more to this person than his MBA aspirations.

Q: Is it considered important to apply early to USC's program?


Applicants should research schools carefully to determine which round they would be the most competitive. It's good for well-prepared candidates to apply early. But students who aren't as competitive as our profile -- the average GMAT score is 670, grade point average is 3.3, and five years of work experience -- are better off applying in a later round.

Q: At USC, 63% of applicants to the part-time program were admitted in 2001, compared to just 29% of the applicants for the full-time program. Why?


The reason is the sheer number of applications received by the two programs. Keith draws from a pool of 2,500 to 3,000 applications a year, where we get 600 applications for the part-time program. The full-time program will always be more selective.

Q: The average GMAT score among full-time MBAs is 670. In the part-time program, the GMAT average is 629. Would you say the caliber of student differs between the full-time and part-time programs?


It all depends on how you define and measure quality. Clearly, the average GMAT score of the full-time MBAs is higher than that of the part-time MBAs. Again, this is primarily a function of the difference in the number of applicants to each program. On the other hand, the part-time MBA students have, on the average, two more years of work experience by the time they apply to the program. By that measure of quality, the part-timers come out ahead. This difference is even more pronounced in the Executive MBA population where the average work experience is about 15 years.

Q: What's the lowest score the business school will accept on the GMAT? How can someone with a low score prove that he or she is worthy of admission?


There's no bottom-line score that we will admit. Last year we took a candidate who had a 550 GMAT. That candidate demonstrated in their college work, and by taking extension classes after college that they could do quantitative work. We're looking for courses that deal with quantitative work, such as statistics, finance, or accounting. Calculus is required at a minimum.

This person's work experience was exceptional, their energy was great, and their interpersonal skills and everything else that we're looking for in the application was presented well. We thought that they would be successful going through our program, and after they graduate.

Bouffides: Our lowest score is probably 20 points lower than the [full-time program], but to some extent you can counterbalance some weaknesses in one area with strengths in another.

Q: In 2001, the full-time program interviewed 42% of its applicants and 85% of the people it admitted. It seems that getting in front of an admissions rep can do an applicant good. What can someone expect from their USC interview?


This year in the first round -- and those are the only [application] decisions we've sent out thus far -- we interviewed 99% of the people that we admitted. In the interview, we're looking for an opportunity for the applicant to demonstrate interpersonal skills and characteristics that our Corporate Advisory Board members say they expect from managers in their own organizations, such as leadership, teamwork, the ability to recognize opportunities, and to quantify risk.

Applicants are always curious about what questions they'll get in an interview, and the questions depend upon the conversation that takes place. We start as simply as: "Tell us about yourself. Give us an example of where you demonstrated leadership within your organization. How do you know you're a good team player? What sort of feedback do you get within the organization that demonstrates to you that people think that you're being a good team player?"

Q: Can you describe someone who didn't fit with the Marshall community?


Someone who comes out of a very disciplined organization, where their role within the organization was pretty much individual, in terms of how they approached their work. After a 20- to 25-minute conversation, I may suggest that this program may not be a good fit for them, because they appear to enjoy working on projects by themselves. From the very beginning of this program, students will work in teams, so it may not be a good environment for that individual.

Q: Is an on-campus interview preferred?


An on-campus interview is always the preference, because it gives applicants an opportunity to look at the environment, to meet with students, and to get a real feel for what the Marshall experience is like. We also interview in locations around the world. In fact, we've been to Asia three times this year to conduct interviews.

Q: What regions are you trying to recruit more students from?


One of the areas that we've received more applicants from this year is India. For the first time, we will explore doing interviews [in India] later this month.

Q: Evan, how does the interview come into play in the part-time and executive MBA admissions process?


In the executive MBA program, our goal is to interview everyone who applies to the program, because it's such a small and select group. We only interview a fraction of the people applying to the part-time MBA program. We can render a decision for the clear admits or clear denies without the interview, but we try to meet with as many of the people who are somewhere in the middle as possible.

Q: How are letters of recommendation factored into part-time and executive MBA admissions?


They're a critical piece. For the people who are sponsored by their companies -- not that that has a bearing on the admissions decision -- you want to hear why that employer [thinks] the MBA is a good degree for this person to get.

Q: Does it help if the person writing the recommendation went to USC?


There is no specific advantage or disadvantage to having a letter written by a USC alum. It all depends on what the recommender has to say. The best person to write a recommendation is a person who knows the applicant in a work context. We're looking to see that they have relevant work experience and for a recommender who can speak in detail about the person's accomplishments. In the case where an applicant has academic weaknesses, an academic reference might be appropriate. But more often than not, the work-related one is the best one.

Q: Keith, do you offer the same advice to full-time MBA applicants?


Applicants can get better with regard to the selection of, and the discussion they have with, their potential recommenders. Many applicants appear to be just handing a form to a recommender and saying, "Please fill this out and send it to the schools that I'm applying to." Rather, they should find out exactly what that recommender may or may not be able to say in their behalf. They need to sit down with their recommender and have a dialogue about why they're applying to business school, what their strengths are, and whether that recommender would concur with them with regard to their strengths.

It's helpful when they use recommenders who either have an MBA or are at a sufficient level within an organization that they understand what that person is really trying to accomplish by getting an MBA.

Q: What are some common mistakes that MBA hopefuls make on their essays?


The most common mistake is that applicants don't always read the [essay] questions. They should make sure that their essay answers the question and also relates the subject matter to the school they're applying to. For example, students will often make the mistake of suggesting that they're interested in a particular concentration area within a school, and the school may not have that concentration. Understand what each school offers and what it doesn't offer. If a student says their career interest is in manufacturing, for instance, there are other schools that probably do that better than we do.

Bouffides: Another mistake: every business school will probably have a question that asks what the applicant's goals are, and why they're pursuing an MBA. If applicants can't fully answer the question, and can't explain how they want their career to evolve after getting the MBA, then it comes off as being a relatively weak answer. They have to give the admissions committee a reasonable idea that they aren't doing it on a whim.

Q: Is there a particular essay that both of you like to read first?


We have one required essay question, and one optional one. The one that asks about goals and why they're getting the MBA is the most important one to me.

Vaughn: I like to read an essay that tells me something about the person. It's really helpful when I feel as if I know something about the individual, and what motivates that individual.

Q: What does the school do for its part-time students and executive students to help them balance work, life, and school?


They have access to the range of activities that occur outside of the normal academic experience -- the same clubs and organizations that the full-time students do. We also host alumni events that are specific to the fully-employed students.

The goal is to be able to cut out all the red tape for the executive MBA students. They basically have to drive to the campus. We take care of their registration, getting their books, and providing their class notes. Everything is prepared, and they're fed. The part-time students probably have an experience similar to that of the full-time students.

Q: Keith, just 43% of the school's admitted full-time applicants enrolled at Marshall. Where do they go instead?


The competition for our students is extremely intense. The top 10 schools in the country tend to attract a lot of students, and the students that we accept are accepted in that top 10 group.

We also lose some of the domestic students -- especially in-state students -- to our university system here in California. The price for going to a state school vs. a private school is a substantial factor.

Q: What convinces people who attend the full-time program to ultimately enroll?


For many students it's the private school experience with a personal touch. They really feel that this environment caters to their needs, and the faculty and the students have a close-knit community. One of the big selling points for USC is its alumni network.

Q: Once students on campus there, what are they going to complain about?


Certainly not about the weather! Because business students think that school is about finance, statistics, and accounting, they sometimes dislike the fact that they'll have to take classes such as business communication. But after students go to work, they realize how important communication skills are.

They'll also complain, possibly, about the workload and the number of projects or homework assignments they have to turn in vis-à-vis what their friends are doing at other programs.

Bouffides: For my population, balancing the work and life issues outside of the academics is difficult, because they're extremely busy.

Frankly, for EMBA programs, there are some programs that require many fewer units in order to graduate. Ours tends to be a slightly heavier workload.

Q: What's the best strategy for applicants hoping to be admitted from USC's wait list?


They need to take another look at their application, and figure out what, if anything, was lacking. Take the initiative to visit the campus, or have another letter of recommendation sent to the program. The wait-list pool gets reviewed in every round. So if a person has been put on the wait list in round one, we're going to look at them in round two.

Q: The B-school awarded 31 full tuition scholarships to full-time MBAs in the last 12 months. How did those MBAs manage to get their scholarships?


Not all of the 31 scholarships that you referred to are full-tuition. We offer full scholarships as well as half scholarships to the top 10% of our applicant pool. That's determined during the regular application cycle. We don't ask for applicants to fill out an additional application to be considered for the scholarships but look at them on the basis of the interview, their essays, work experience, and their leadership abilities.

Bouffides: There are no scholarships or fellowships given to people who are fully employed. The only recourse for part-time and executive MBAs is to take out student loans.

Q: Keith, in 2001 about 73% of your graduates landed jobs in the western part of U.S. What can USC offer its full-time MBAs who want to study in Los Angeles, but return to work in other parts of the world?


The Career Resource Center has off-site information sessions and visiting periods in New York, San Francisco, and other parts of the world. That also gives students an opportunity to meet with companies that are doing business in China, Japan, Chile, Mexico, and other [regions].

Q: Any final words of advice for your applicants?


The main thing we look for in a candidate is a level of interest. A lot of candidates have been surprised over the past couple of years as our applicant pool has gotten to be more competitive that their scores didn't automatically get them accepted into USC. Also, we encourage our international applicants to apply earlier than the final deadline, so that we can get back to them in time for them to process paperwork that's necessary to get a visa.

Bouffides: It's very important that they don't [apply to B-school] in a whimsical way, regardless of whether you can get into a program because of great scores, great academics, great work experience. It's important that they view the education as a step along a path, and if they haven't figured out what their path is, part of their education will go to waste.

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