business

Making It into Maryland

Sabrina White of the university's Smith School of Business with application advice and tips on navigating the quirky questions

With the last two application rounds right around the corner at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business (No. 25 in BusinessWeek's latest B-school rankings), admissions director Sabrina White took a break from her busy schedule to talk shop with BusinessWeek Online's Brian Hindo. An edited version of their conversation follows:

Q: When are the last application deadlines for the full-time program?

A:

We have a Feb. 15 deadline for international students. We then have Mar. 15 and May 1 deadlines for domestic applicants.

Q: How big will the incoming class be in the fall?

A:

We generally target 200 students. Sometimes we go above that, and sometimes we fall below. I think last year we were 198, but the year before that we were 222.

Q: How quickly does a class fill up?

A:

I won't say that we've never admitted students from the last deadline. In the past we have, and we've also pulled students from our wait list during the summer. But I would say that 85% to 90% of the students are selected by May 15.

Q: Is the volume of applications this year up or down compared with last year?

A:

We're pretty much on par with where we were this time last year. Last year we experienced a slight increase in full-time applications: 50% in the domestic pool and a slight decrease in the international pool.

Q: What about quality?

A:

Thus far, I've been very pleased with what I've read. I'm the first read on all applications. I think that, from round one, the quality of the application -- as identified by grade point average (GPA), Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) scores, and especially work experience -- is impressive.

One of the things we've noticed is that there's probably a greater percentage of students who are currently unemployed applying to the MBA program. But we've been pretty pleased with what we've seen thus far.

Q: The average work experience of your students is about five years. A lot of admissions folks are telling me that they're starting to ratchet that number down to three or four. Where does the Smith School stand on that issue?

A:

We're still looking at right around five years. Having said that, however, the work experience in our class ranges from 1 to 22 years.

Q: At the higher end of that range, why wouldn't an Executive MBA be more suitable? If somebody is, say, in his or her mid-30s, or has upwards of 10 years of work experience, why would they consider a full-time program rather than an executive program?

A:

One thing we ask students is why they're pursuing the MBA. We often encourage students who are choosing to transfer into another industry or another line of work to look at the full-time MBA program to benefit from the experiences of their colleagues and because of the internship between their first andsecond years. Students in an exec program usually are company-sponsored with the thought that this person is going to be promoted in that company.

Q: One thing that stands out about Maryland's MBA program is the quantitative focus. Can you tell me a little bit about why that is?

A:

Our core curriculum is pretty quant-intensive. However, second-year students have the flexibility to take electives in a number of areas. With regard to the rigor of the quant, we attempt to prepare students to lead global businesses. And so the student must have a solid grasp of statistics, accounting, and finance, because business is about money.

Q: If that's so, should students who don't score well on the quantitative section of the GMAT think about retaking the test?

A:

We don't necessarily encourage a student to retake the test. One of the prerequisites of the Maryland MBA program is that a student must have successfully completed a calculus course within the past five years. If a student's quantitative performance on the GMAT is under 75%, we often encouragethe student to go back and take a calculus class, a statistics class, and, if they have time, an accounting class.

Q: If a person hasn't taken very many quantitative classes such as calculus or statistics -- say they were a liberal arts major in undergrad -- what steps can they take if they're interested in Maryland?

A:

Usually, when we interview them, we'll talk to them about their quantitative experience. And we'll look for the calculus requirement. If they've not fulfilled that requirement, they must do so.

In addition to that, we encourage them to take statistics and accounting. Last year, Maryland began offering a quant camp. Students who are interested in participating in the quant preparation are invited to start the program early by attending a pre-orientation workshop.

Q: During the boom years, Maryland was out front with offerings in e-business. Even as other schools have pared back those offerings, Maryland continues to promote them. Why?

A:

Maryland recognizes that it's a network economy, and it's going to be a network economy. Our emphasis is to prepare students to lead, to manage, to harness resources in a network economy -- regardless of the area of discipline, whether it's finance, marketing, systems, supply-chain management, orentrepreneurship. The dynamics of the economy are digital, and thus you must excel in a digital economy. And that's why we've continued our focus in technology.

Q: Apart from e-commerce and information systems, what are some other strong areas at Maryland?

A:

We're known for technology and information systems. But one-third of our students still study finance, 25% study management organization, and 15% study marketing. So traditional business fundamentals are still the most popular areas of study.

Q: Where do most of the students come from, geographically?

A:

Within the U.S., 43% are from the Mid-Atlantic -- that's Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, D.C., and Delaware. The next largest group, around 10%, are from the Northeast. Six percent are from West Coast, and about 5% are from the South.

Q: Last year, 33% of your students were international. What countries are most represented?

A:

China, India, Taiwan, Peru, and Argentina.

Q: What are the most common backgrounds of Smith MBAs?

A:

We see a large percentage of students with engineering degrees. We also see a number of students from traditional management and business disciplines.

The most popular industries students come from are consulting, financial services, government or not-for-profit, military, and manufacturing.

Q: The first required essay asks applicants to discuss their goals and how they fit with the Smith MBA. What are the keys to success on that essay?

A:

To be able to articulate your focus, your career path to date, how that career has prepared you for an MBA, and how it will assist you in reaching your post-MBA goals. Many students see the MBA as the end-all/be-all. We want to make sure that they've looked at their history -- their educational history, their career history to date -- and have positioned themselves to reach their post-MBA goals.

Q: Do you feel that people underestimate the need to think about their post-MBA career goals?

A:

Yes. That's why we worded the question the way it is. We want students to be their own career counselors before they get to the program. [We want applicants to] make the connection or create the bridge: Here is where I am, this is how the MBA is going to assist me, and this is where I would like to be.

Q: You offer three more creative questions, of which applicants must complete two. The first one says, "What, if you could turn back time, what would be the one thing in your life that you would do over and why?" I would imagine you get a lot of interesting responses to this one.

A:

Yes. Our objective in asking that question was to assess the growth a student might have experienced from, let's say, their high-school days, undergraduate days, their time in the workplace. [We're assessing a person's] level of maturity.

Q: Would it be better for students to choose something from their professional lives rather than their academic lives?

A:

Not necessarily. We're just interested in getting to know the student better. So something from high school or from undergrad might give us greater insight into the student.

Q: The next one asks: "What's the most valuable lesson you've learned, and who's responsible for teaching it?" What are you trying to get at with that question?

A:

Maryland's program is very team-oriented. I would say 60% of the work here will involve some level of teamwork. We're trying to assess the writer's ability to appreciate the contribution of others.

Q: The third one is a pretty unique question: "Imagine you'll be taking a 72-hour car ride with two other individuals. If you could choose your travel companions for this journey, who would you choose and why?" What's the best answer you've heard to this question this year?

A:

I don't know if there's a best answer. We've gotten some interesting answers. The fun associated with that question is the imagery that one can conjure up. For example, Jesus Christ and George Carlin or Albert Einstein and Oprah Winfrey. The admissions committee will often attempt to get in the car as well. Just imagine the dialogue that takes place.

Q: Obviously, you can have some fun with the people you choose -- but, really, what are the serious things you're concluding about a candidate from this question?

A:

We're looking for what attributes they look for in teammates. That allows us to gain insight into how a person might choose a member of the team. Do they choose people who think exactly like them? Or do they choose people who think opposite? Do they recognize their own strengths and choose people who complement their weaknesses?

Q: Who's the most common individual you get for that question?

A:

Albert Einstein.

Q: How do interviews factor into the process?

A:

Interviews are very important. At Maryland, interviews are by invitation only. But once the invitation has been extended, the interview becomes a required part of the application.

Q: How do you decide to whom to extend an invitation?

A:

Candidates who present themselves well in their application. Candidates who spark the interest of the admissions committee. The interview is a very good thing at the Smith School because it basically says you've piqued our interest, now continue the sale.

Q: What percent of applicants can expect an interview request?

A:

Last year, around 40% to 50% of the applicant pool received an invitation to interview.

Q: And of those, how many people got into the school eventually?

A:

Sixty percent.

Q: What types of questions can a person expect on the interview?

A:

Why are you interested in the MBA? Why are you interested in the MBA at this point in time in your professional experience? What do you do for fun? Think back on your last performance-review evaluation with your employer. What were the things that your employer said were your strengths? What were the areas that need to be developed? What steps have you taken to develop those areas?

Q: Who does the interviews?

A:

There are four professional staff members who interview, and there are 10 [student] admissions ambassadors that facilitate interviews, as well.

Q: You're the first reader on all applications. What's the first thing you look at in an application, and then how do you evaluate it and pass it on to the committee?

A:

Usually I flip to the resume to look at the quality of work experience as well as the progression of work experience. I then look at the GMAT score, paying close attention to the quantitative performance and to the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) score. If the candidate is international, I look at the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score. Then I review the undergraduate transcripts or the undergraduate evaluation that's produced by our International Programs Office.

I will then flip to essay No. 1. And if everything seems to be in order, I pass the application on, so that the applicant can be scheduled for an interview. After the interview, there's an evaluation from the interviewer or from another member of the admissions committee. Then the application comes back to me. If we've all agreed on the decision, then the decision is released. If discussion is necessary, we meet as a committee to make a decision.

Q: The committee comprises both students and staff members?

A:

That's correct.

Q: What other schools do Smith applicants apply to?

A:

We see a number of cross applicants with Georgetown, the University of North Carolina, Darden, University of Texas at Austin, and Vanderbilt.

Q: Are there any common pitfalls that will get applicants rejected time and again?

A:

It's necessary that an applicant do research on the schools they're interested in. Something that will not go in the applicant's favor is during the interview, if you're asked if you have any questions, or what attracts you to the Smith School, the only thing that you can talk about is its proximity to D.C. That's not an advantage for the applicant.

Also, making simple mistakes in the essays can hurt an applicant. For example, writing: "I'm very interested in the Kenan Flagler School at the University of Maryland" might be a problem.

Q: How do you look at employer recommendations?

A:

The Smith School prefers recommendations from employers over recommendations from academicians because we feel the employer has a better perspective of who you are now, vs. who you were three to five years ago. [We also prefer] people who have supervised you, vs. people who've worked directly with you.

Q: I would imagine that recommendations are overwhelmingly positive. How do you get real insights into applicants?

A:

Sometimes it's what the recommender doesn't say that raises the red flag. We've also changed our recommendation letter to ask more pointed questions. For example: "What value has this applicant added to your organization?" And so it causes the person providing the reference to be a bit more specific instead of producing a generic comment.

Q: When you say that oftentimes what a recommender doesn't say is damaging, do you mean by that if a recommender simply turns in a very generic recommendation, it will be less helpful than a recommender who speaks very specifically about certain things that this applicant did?

A:

Yes. For example, if we ask someone to respond specifically about teamwork and the response is about this person's ability to excel in isolation, that's a red flag.

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