A Chat with UChicago's Admissions and Financial Aid Director

Don Martin and second-year student Scott Anderson discuss what makes the school special -- and what makes applicants stand out

Don Martin has served as director of admissions and financial aid for the MBA program at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business (GSB) since 1993. On Dec. 19, he was the guest of BusinessWeek Online for a live chat on both topics, along with Scott Anderson, a second-year student at Chicago and one of BW Online's MBA Journal writers.

Martin and Anderson took questions from the audience and from chat moderator Brian Hindo, BusinessWeek Online's management-education reporter. An edited transcript of the chat follows:

Q: Scott, where do most GSB students live? What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in Hyde Park (next to the campus), vs. Lincoln Park (on Chicago's North Side)?


It depends on whether you want to explore other parts of the city. I lived in Hyde Park first year and now I live in Lincoln Park.

Even if you plan on having a fun night life, living in Hyde Park the first year can be fun because that's where most of your classmates are, and there are always people to carpool up to the north side with. I feel a bit more removed this year, so I miss Hyde Park more than I thought I would. Most first-years live in Hyde Park, and I would guess it's about 50/50 for second-year students.

Q: How big was this year's Round One application pool, vs. last year?


It was slightly smaller this year than last.

Q: Discuss, if you would, how Chicago views applicants with non-traditional backgrounds, like the performing arts or entrepreneurship.


We welcome diversity of all types in our student body. We've had students from just about every type of background.

Q: Scott, what major are you pursuing? Does it directly relate to your current job search?


I'm pursuing the analytic-finance concentration, and this is related to my search for a fixed-income research position with either a buy- or sell-side investment firm.

Q: Scott, how did you use your running in your application to show a good fit with Chicago? [Anderson ran cross-country at Princeton, which he discusses in his first MBA Journal entry.]


Very good question. I asked my interviewer to go to the nearby track with me, but he declined, saying that the paper stats were good enough. Seriously, I think I tried to use my experience to demonstrate commitment to excellence and persevering to reach a goal and making sacrifices, in spite of MANY setbacks along the way.

Q: How is the school reacting to the comments made by Eliot Spitzer, who alleged that the free-market philosophies made famous by Chicago professors encourage corporate malfeasance?


First, I don't believe these comments had any impact on our admissions process or how we evaluate applicants or will continue to evaluate them. Secondly, Mr. Spitzer is certainly entitled to his comments. But seeing as it's my understanding that he hasn't visited our campus in the recent past, I would strongly encourage him to do so so that he could understand better what we do stress in our program, including the highest ethical practices.

Q: Will Round One's admitted and wait-listed applicants be notified prior to the stated Jan. 15 deadline?


We will most likely notify round-one applicants of a decision between Jan. 6 and our posted deadline of Jan. 15.

Q: Will they be notified by e-mail, phone, or snail mail?


They will be notified a couple of ways: First, we do have an online status check, which allows an applicant to log on and check the status of their application at any time. Second, applicants who are admitted will receive an admission letter in the mail, which typically goes out about 48 hours after the decision is posted online. Finally, as I think has become fairly well known, I personally contact all of our admitted applicants to offer congratulations and convey our sincere hopes that they will decide to join us. As you might expect, this is the best part of my job!

Q: Scott, what has stood out the most for you about the Chicago program that you didn't expect coming in?


Definitely the spirit of community, and I found this on a variety of levels. First, but in no particular order, in social aspects -- it's almost hard to go out alone in the city, as there will be a group of 10 GSB people who want to go out. Second, in classes, I found that the groups were not as competitive as I expected -- it seems like most people enjoy sharing new ways to solve problems.

Finally, with the job search, especially for me, with a non-business background, I found classmates very helpful in sharing their contacts with me as well as offering candid advice on how I could better "market" myself.

Q: With more companies reluctant to issue visas to international students, will the percentage of international students drop? How will the GSB attract a diverse group of students with a global perspective?


I'm now in my 10th year at the GSB, and during that time have seen various fluctuations in the recruiting process. [For example,] some companies do not recruit in a given year or others visit fewer schools in a given year.

But one thing has remained constant: We do place our graduates in very high percentages every year, and those percentages include both U.S. citizens and international students. We have not seen any change in this statistic in the past two years, and I don't anticipate major changes in the years ahead. In other words, I don't anticipate a percentage drop in our international-student enrollment.

Q: Chicago's application essays are markedly different from other schools'. What qualities are you trying to identify based on these essays?


Good question! We require three essays of each applicant. The first of these questions is the same every year and is similar to a question all business schools ask. It has to do with [the applicant's] motivation for getting an MBA, what he or she expects to contribute to and gain from the MBA experience, and why they are interested in the GSB.

The other two questions change every year. Our reason for this is that we want to read new and fresh answers every year, due to the large volume of applications we receive. As for the type of questions asked in these other two essays, we are hoping to allow applicants a little more creativity, which should let us get to know them a little bit better.

Q: Scott, what are your plans after you're done with the MBA, and how would you say they have changed since before B-school?


Though I don't have an offer yet for post-MBA times, I think I will probably pursue a fixed-income position next year because it combines my interests in economics and quantitative analysis. This isn't much different than what I initially planned, but I think the GSB classes and students have given me confidence about my potential to really develop an idea into my own business. Maybe this idea would be from the fixed-income world, maybe something a friend or classmate mentions to me. I guess I'm more aware of possibilities and opportunities than I was before.

Q: How do you see the reapplicant pool? Are reapplicants at any disadvantage compared to first time applicants?


I'm very glad you asked this question. We welcome and look very favorably on reapplicants. The reason is that, due to our competitive applicant pool and the number of applications every year, we unfortunately have to say no to many fine individuals. In a majority of cases, these applicants were placed on the waiting list and subsequently told no. We appreciate that they want to give us a second try and go through the process all over again. Many reapplicants are admitted.

Q: How much work experience does your average applicant have by the time they enroll? How important is this?


The average number of years work experience for our first-year students has been about 4.5 years. However, the admissions committee's focus isn't so much on the number of years of experience as it is on the qualitative aspect of one's professional development. What one applicant may bring to the table after two or three years of work experience could be similar to what someone else would be bringing after five or six. When we evaluate the area of professional development, we're basically asking four questions:

1. What have you done professionally?

2. What prompted your movement in this direction?

3. What do you believe you've learned, and how have you developed as a result of your professional experience?

4. How do you believe your professional experience will help you contribute as a student in our program?

Q: Scott -- in the classroom, how do older students react to younger students with less work experience?


I have never noticed any [difference in the] interaction. This may in part be due to the fact that I'm taking mainly finance-related classes, and there are fewer references to past experiences.

Q: Don, since all applicants are interviewed, how important is the opinion of the interviewer among the other items of the application process?


Good question. We interview applicants so we can get to know them in a way that would be more difficult if we only read their application. Part of our evaluation process involves trying to determine a fit between the applicant we are evaluating and our GSB community. I have found that interviews are extremely helpful in this part of the evaluation process.

Q: Can I overcome a low undergraduate grade point average (GPA) with a high Master's program GPA? Or will the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) be the deciding factor?


Very good question. When evaluating an applicant's academic credentials, we take into consideration courses taken in both undergrad and graduate programs, and the GMAT, in a fairly equal manner. Having said that, if we have a recent Master's GPA that is higher than an undergraduate one, that is certainly a positive.

As for the GMAT, I would say that it rarely is a deciding factor. Rather, it's part of the overall evaluation of each applicant.

Q: Are assistantships available to MBA students? What criteria are used in awarding financial aid?


I'm happy to say that the GSB offers very generous scholarships to our students. Let me first distinguish between a scholarship and an assistantship. A scholarship is awarded based on merit, whereas an assistantship is awarded, usually, based on merit but also on the completion of some work assignment by the student.

What we offer to approximately 30% of our incoming class every year are scholarships. These are available to both U.S. citizens and international students, and, if admitted, you will automatically be considered for a scholarship.

Q: What about financial aid for international students, specifically?


As I just mentioned, we do offer scholarships to both international students and U.S. citizens. In addition, we do have two loan programs specifically designed for international students. The first, which requires a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, permits the international student to borrow up to the entire cost of the program.

The second loan option for international students, which does not require a co-signer, permits the international student to borrow up to the cost of tuition. In some instances, our international students have been able to pay for the program using a combination of all three of these aid opportunities.

Q: Scott, how receptive are the professors to the practical experiences from older students?


I remember in a marketing class and financial statements analysis class, the professors encouraged students to include their own experiences, and on a couple of occasions, some students with more experience (I believe they were probably in their 30s) were able to add some value that the professors couldn't. And the professors were certainly appreciative -- they clearly were willing to share the stage. So I think the professors respect that, but they also respect students who are just being introduced to the material and have no background.

Q: Chicago moved from No. 10 to No. 2 in BusinessWeek's 2002 Rankings. What's the most dramatic improvement in Chicago's full-time MBA in the past two years?


As I mentioned earlier, I've been at the GSB for 10 years now, and I have to honestly say that I believe that there have been some really neat improvements in the school over that time, that have perhaps culminated in some of the recent rankings that we've received. I want to mention two of these.

The first, Scott alluded to earlier -- the tremendous sense of community and fabulous school experience here. The GSB, especially in recent years, is a very inclusive and special place, and a very fun place to be. I believe a large reason for the balanced focus on academics, career development, and relationship-building is due to a terrific group of students who have become partners with us in creating a fantastic educational experience.

A second area is related to our alumni network. Just nine years ago, the GSB had fewer than 20 alumni clubs worldwide. Today, that number is about 70. The relationships begun during the two-year MBA program here have only continued to grow in the years after graduation, resulting in an incredibly close, loyal, and active alumni group worldwide. We're very proud of them.

Q: Chicago is perceived to be a highly academic school given the number of Nobel Laureates on the faculty. Is the school trying to change or reinforce this image, and how?


Very good question. First, I would say that we're not seeking to change our image in any major way. We are both humbled and proud to be part of an institution that highly values the search for truth and the constant debating of issues. Furthermore, we believe our program helps students learn not only the "what" of business practice, but, perhaps more important, the "why."

Our admissions recruiting messages incorporate this information, which we believe sets the GSB in a very unique and special place with respect to graduate business education. So we just want to reinforce what is already true about our school.

Q: Scott, is there anything you haven't liked so far in B-school? Any changes you would like to see?


Sometimes, I think there could be more interaction with the students from the other graduate programs at Chicago, but I can also look at this as a sign of how good the community within the GSB is -- that I don't need to look outside. Overall, though, I think balance is better, so more interaction with the rest of the school would be nice. Also, a few classes could add in real-world examples, instead of just being theory. But again, that's personal preference -- I'm an example kind of guy.

Overall, I've loved the experience, and when I've had a complaint, I've known that with a little initiative, I could take some steps to solve the problem.

For more admissions info, articles, Q&As, and much more about management education -- check http://www.businessweek.com/bschools

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.