A Talk with Darden's Admissions Director

Dawna Clarke, admissions director at the University of Virginia's B-school, with advice on what their team looks for in applications

Our guest on Jan. 29, 2002, was Dawna Clarke, admissions director at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, No. 12 in BusinessWeek's latest B-school rankings. Before arriving at Darden as associate director of admissions in 1990, Clarke worked in theadmissions office at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Clarke, who has been chief gatekeeper at Darden since 2000, has a Master's in higher education from UNC. Following is an edited version of Clarke'sconversation with BusinessWeek Online management education reporter Brian Hindo:

Q: You're just gearing up for the fourth and fifth application deadlines at Darden -- Feb. 10 and Mar. 11, respectively. There's a prevailing opinionthat later-round applications have to cross a higher bar than earlier round applications. Is that true?


Generally, I advise applicants to apply earlier because I think it's easier to stand out earlier in the process. However, we reserve spaces forapplicants who apply during each of the deadlines.

Q: Is this the right time to get an MBA?


It's a great time to get an MBA, because a lot of people are predicting that the economy is going to get stronger. It's not as strong now as we hopeit will be, and I think by the time our students graduate the outlook will be much brighter.

Q: How has application volume been this year?


We're down right now by about 4% vs. last year at this time, but that's after two years of 10% growth. We're up in terms of the number of offerswe've extended because the quality of the applicant pool is higher than last year.

Q: In what ways has quality gone up?


The most objective way to assess that is average Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) scores and grade point averages (GPAs). For the lastfour years, we've seen an increase in the quality of the applicant pool in terms of the average GPA and GMAT. The sense of the admissions committee is thatthe quality of applicants' work experience has gotten better as well.

Q: What can you tell me about the students you've admitted so far? Is there any difference from past years' classes?


I'm not seeing a significant difference in the type of student. I think because Darden is such a strong general management program there has been atendency over the years to draw a diverse student body. We're not seeing a significant shift from one industry to another or from one region to another.

If I were to mention one thing that has changed slowly, it would be an increase in ourinternational student applicant pool. About 47% of our applications are from international students right now.

Q: How does that compare with last year?


It was 44% last year.

Q: What parts of the country do most Darden students come from?


Last year, 27% came from outside the U.S. The biggest percentage within the U.S. is from the Northeast -- about a quarter of the student body. And19% are from Virginia -- although that's a misleading statistic, because a lot of people have established Virginia residency but aren't true Virginians. Ifyou're from Boston and got a job on Capitol Hill, you can establish your residency in Virginia. About 6% are from the Mid-Atlantic, 5% from the Midwest, 7%from the South, 9% from the West coast.

Q: What are the top two or three industries that feed applicants into your pool?


We've been seeing a lot of consulting applicants. But that isn't new, we've been seeing that for several years. Consulting and financial servicesare the two industries most represented in the applicant pool.

Q: Does that relfect all the layoffs in those industries?


I think so. Starting last year, we saw a bit of an increase from consulting -- and from Arthur Andersen in particular. [Editor's Note: ArthurAndersen, the former auditor of Enron, disintegrated in the wake of the Enron scandal.]

Q: What other schools do Darden applicants most commonly apply to?


We cross applicants with Tuck, Kellogg, Stanford, and Harvard the most.

Q: Since Darden is a case-study school, do you evaluate applications any differently than other business schools who use a more traditional lectureformat?


We highly value an interview, I think to a much greater extent than most of our peerinstitutions. About 99% of the students at Darden have had an interview, either with an admissions counselor or a second-year student or an alumniinterviewer.

We put such high value on the interview because we're a case-method school. There's a lot ofemphasis on class participation, and therefore communication skills are key to us. We feelinterpersonal skills are essential for managers, and it's hard to evaluate those without having a personal interview.

Q: Are interviews by invitation only?


No. From August until Mar. 1, people can interview on a first come, first served basis. It's open to anybody, regardless of whether you haveapplied. It's just on a space-available basis. After Mar. 1, because of the volume of work, we start to do interviews on an invitation basis only.

Q: Is it possible for a student to get admitted without having been interviewed?


It's not possible. If an applicant looks strong and hasn't interviewed, we will either set up an alumni interview or invite them here for aninterview.

We also have an innovative program that started this year called Winter Break Visits. We asked students to go to their home countries -- 13 differentlocations in Asia, Latin America, and Europe -- and meet with 265 prospective students. It was a huge help to us in admissions.

Q: What about phone interviews?


We shy away from phone interviews unless the applicant is from a country where we don't have an alumni representative. We may do, at most, 10 phoneinterviews a year. We really encourage people to come to Darden -- not only for our benefit. [The MBA degree] is such a huge investment that you shouldcheck out the school.

Q: Do you give any preference to Virginia residents?


We're a state institution, so that's taken into consideration in the admissions process, although it isn't a big factor. It has a minor influence.

Q: Can you tell me about your essay questions?


The first essay question asks about why applicants want an MBA and how specifically Darden will help them achieve their short- and long-term goals.The second one is: "The Darden School seeks a diverse and unique entering class of future leaders. How will your distinctiveness enrich our learningenvironment and enhance your prospects for success as a leader?"

The third one is: "Describe a significant leadership experience, decision-making challenge, or accomplishment. How did this experience affect yourprofessional and personal development?" The fourth one is: "Pose and address your own essay question." That's my favorite. [Darden also includes a fifth,optional essay, for any additional information the applicant would like to provide].

Q: For question No. 4, does anything stand out as compelling?


I love this essay because you rarely see the same answer twice. Some people take an essay question from another school and plug it in. We know, oncewe've seen 50 applicants use the same question, that it's one another school is asking.

Yet, I think it's wonderful for students who take it seriously and use it as an opportunity to show us something that they haven't been able to in the restof the application process. Last year, several people wrote about how September 11 changed their lives. Some people use it as an opportunity to tell howtheir families have nurtured and instilled values in them that will be important to them as a manager. It's wonderful to see the creativity that someapplicants display in answering that question.

Q: So it sounds like the key is to be original and to let your personality shine through?


Not necessarily original, but sincere. A lot of the best ones have the general theme of "here is a pivotal life experience, and I want you to knowabout it."

Q: The second and third questions seem to emphasize leadership. Is that something you're looking for?


It is. Leadership experience and potential is important to us. I think some applicants are intimidated if they haven't had leadership experience,but we're also looking at potential. A lot of applicants are only 26 years old, and may have to describe experiences they've had on a smaller scale thatreveals their potential to be a strong leader. We can get a sense of that from their recommendations as well.

Q: As a case-study school, where do you stand on the debate over whether to admit youngerstudents?


Because we are a case-method school, I think it's valuable to have a couple of years of experience under one's belt so that you have someexperiences to share in the classroom. We've had students as young as 24 and as old as their early 40s. So you can have a younger applicant who can standout, but generally we like to see at least two years of work experience.

Q: What's the best way for applicants to demonstrate that they're a good match for Darden?


The best way is to come for an interview, where you have one-on-one opportunity withsomebody for 45 minutes to talk not only about your background, but to show what kind of research you've done on business schools.

The more clearly applicants can articulate why they're interested in Darden, the more convinced we'll be. The essays are one opportunity to do that, but aninterview is also an excellent opportunity.

Q: How important is the GMAT score?


Because the quality of the applicant pool is rising, it's becoming a little bit moreimportant. We look at a number of factors. The GMAT is only one. We look at the undergraduate GPA, at letters of recommendation, at the essays, and theinterview and work experience. The average GMAT at Darden right now is a 683. We have 5% of the student body under 600, all the way up to students who havea 780, so there is a wide, wide range, which should tell applicants that you can make up for a lower than average GMAT with strengths in other areas.

Q: What other factors helped the 5% with a sub-600 GMAT score?


All of them had attributes outside of the GMAT that were outstanding. Whether it was an undergraduate GPA that stood out, or work experience coupledwith recommendations, there was something that made us look at the totality of what they had to offer and not just their GMAT score.

Q: How are applications evaluated once they come in?


An application gets a first read and a second read before it goes for a final decision.

Q: Who does the first reads? Students or staff?


No students are involved in reading. We take it really seriously, and we don't feel that it's appropriate to have students whose priority should bestudying involved in readingapplications. We do have second-year [student] interviewers, but only members of the admissions committee do the reading.

Q: So it gets a first read, and then I assume the reader will put notes in for the second reader to consider?


Right, and the notes are just to give people some reassurance that the process is holistic. There's a two-page sheet where people can write notesabout academic credentials, work experience, recommendations, essays, extra-curricular experiences, post-baccalaureate activities outside of work, theinterview.

Q: After the second reader goes through it, how is a decision made?


By me or a senior member of the admissions committee.

Q: Darden has a reputation for being an academically intense program. Do you think that'swarranted?


It's a challenging program, but it's purposeful and faculty members care so much about how well students are doing. There is a mentality here thatstudents are giving up a lot to invest in themselves, and we want them to get the most out of the experience. We want them to be challenged, but there's agreat effort by the administration to make sure it's a balanced experience for them -- that they have time not only for academics, but also for clubs andactivities, the distinguished speaker series, their job search -- which is an important part of the reason they are here.

Q: What type of applicant is a wrong fit for Darden?


Sometimes we see applicants who are very, very bright and will be successful in theircareers, but maybe not necessarily in management. We like to see evidence that people have been able to work well within teams. We can get objectiveinformation about that from recommendations. Somebody who hasn't had a lot of team experience or somebody who prefers not to work in teams wouldn't be agood fit for Darden.

A lot of people come in with a fear of public speaking, and that's normal. I think the program is wonderful in terms of helping people hone theircommunications skills and their ability to speak in public and to make succinct arguments. But if somebody is really, really shy or introverted, Darden maynot be the best program for them.