A Talk with Kelley's Admissions Director

Jim Holmen of Indiana University's B-school discusses the application process and what he looks for in applicants to this top-20 school

As the business school application cycle draws to a close, admissions officers are beginning to make final decisions on their incoming classes, and a whole new crop of MBA wannabes are gearing up for next year. Jim Holmen, longtime admissions director at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business (No. 20 in BusinessWeek's last MBA rankings) recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online Management Education Reporter Brian Hindo about how his class is shaping up and about Kelley's application process. Here's an edited version of their conversation:

Q: The final application deadline was Apr. 15. When do you expect the incoming class take final shape?


August. Typically, as we get further into May, we've been able to get a better sense of how we're doing in terms of meeting our enrollment targets. Responses from those who have been offered admissions from the early rounds will have come in.

Then we'll take a look at the wait list and, hopefully, work over the summer to make sure those that we've offered admission and those who have accepted the offer show up in the fall.

Q: How do you manage the wait list?


We place people on the wait list through all the rounds. But we will take periodic looks to see how those on the wait list look in comparison to new applications that are arriving before the later deadlines. And we will, at times, make some offers of admission along the way.

We don't rank our wait list, but every time we do take a look at the wait list or make decisions, we essentially take a fresh look at the candidate's file. Candidates who stay in touch with us, provide us with updated information, or continue to show interest -- that can make a difference at the end.

Q: You'll admit people off the wait list until August?


We try to clear our wait list, usually in the early part of July, out of fairness to the candidates, to give them time to make decisions. Being in Bloomington, Ind., we don't always have the luxury of having waitlisted candidates in our back yard who can change plans at a moment's notice. So we try, as best we can, to give them time.

Q: What happens when a completed application comes into the office?


We make sure that all the various pieces and parts are collected and assembled. Then the application is reviewed by members of our admissions committee. Our committee includes professional MBA admissions staff plus a team of six second-year MBA students who applied to be admission counselors during the spring of their first year. So there is an element of peer review in our process. Files are read independently by one or two members of the committee, who then make an admissions recommendation.

I end up reading and reviewing all the applications at the end to make the final decision. I ask committee members -- as they're making their recommendations -- not to worry about the big picture, not to worry about how we're doing in terms of meeting our enrollment target or anything like that, but to evaluate each applicant on his or her own merits.

Q: When you say big picture, do you mean ensuring a class that's diverse?


Well, certainly, that's a piece of it. But also, they don't need to worry about whether or not we've admitted too many people yet or anything like that. I can worry about that.

We don't use any formulas. There are no particular weightings to the criteria. We don't consider any particular criteria any more or less important than any other. We look at how everything comes together. We take a holistic look. If there are deficiencies, we'll certainly look to see if there's enough strength in other areas of an application to balance out the deficiencies.

Q: You've read applications for a number of years. Is there one part of the application that applicants tend to neglect?


It seems like some applicants try too hard to write what they think a B-school admissions committee would want to hear. As I read some of those essays, I just don't get much of a feel for the person.

Related to essays, one of my pet peeves is people who write essays but never answer the question. The very first essay, which is a common one for most B-schools, is an essay to outline their reasons for pursuing an MBA, why they're interested in the Kelley School, and what their short- and long-term goals are. I'm always surprised at the number of candidates who will write an essay and never once address their short- and long-term goals.

Q: What if somebody isn't quite sure what he or she wants to do eventually?


We know that that's the case for many. As many as half our students, I would guess, are making career transitions or changing industries or functions.

Even if they don't know exactly what they want to do when they get out, we want to make sure that they have given some thought to this whole process. That's very different from someone who can't demonstrate that they understand what an MBA is and how it might help them reach their goals later.

Q: The Kelley School requires the applicant to answer two of three additional essay questions. The second asks, "What is the most significant change or improvement you have made to an organization with which you have recently been affiliated? Describe the process you went through to identify the need for change and manage the process of implementing change. What were the results?" What sort of answer are you looking for?


We're just trying to get a sense of how they go about problem-solving, about processes. Sometimes it's not even about the specific response, but their written communication style.

Q: The next option asks applicants to choose three people for a cross-country road trip and to discuss what they would learn on the road. What are some of the most interesting responses you've had to this question?


We've had everything from deceased relatives to best friends to business leaders to historical and political figures. Every year there's at least a handful of people who say that they want to ride with me -- given all the people that they have to choose from, I don't know why they would choose me.

Q: Did those people who chose you get admitted?


I think the only person that really did a good job with that took a little bit of risk. He wrote an essay saying that he would choose me and two other members of the admissions committee. My first reaction is usually, "Yeah, great." But then said that he recognizes that it's risky to travel with three people he doesn't know, but odds would have it that at least one of the three would be interesting. It just hit me the right way.

Q: The third optional question asks, "Describe what is there about your background and your experiences that will contribute to the diversity of the entering class and enhance the educational experience of other students." What does it mean to you to have a diverse class?


Diversity as we consider it, as we're pulling together a class, has a very broad definition. People approach that question in a lot of different ways. There are obvious aspects of diversity: people from different countries, people from different parts of the country, people of different ethnicities.... But we also have people who have had very diverse experiences: people who have traveled extensively, people who have had some different kinds of experiences, Peace Corps volunteers.

In trying to pull together a class, we're trying to get a sense of what every person brings to the table. Because -- as is the case, I'm sure, with most MBA programs -- our students learn a tremendous amount from their classmates and teammates. When we put together teams, we want to make sure that every team has a collection of individuals who have had different kinds of academic and work experiences so that they can all learn from each other.

Q: Are admissions interviews by invitation only or do applicants set those up?


Applicants set them up. We will interview anyone who requests an interview, although, at present, we only have staff interviews. So we interview [only] when we're on the road on admissions trips or when people come to visit campus. Right now, we have some proposals to try to build our interview program and expand the number of candidates that we interview. We hope to get that in place in the next year or two.

Q: Do you do phone interviews, too?


We don't do phone interviews.

Q: About a third of the admitted students have been interviewed?


Roughly. If you take that apart, last year 70% of our domestic candidates that were offered admission were interviewed. Unfortunately, only about 21% of our international applicants were interviewed.

Q: Is a plus to interview?


In most cases, yes. It gives us a chance to get to know the candidates. I think it's personally helpful for the candidate, as well, because in a sense, they're interviewing us too.

Q: What types of questions could an applicant expect to get on the interview?


The interviews, for the most part, are fairly standard. We're trying to get a sense of the candidate's experience and contributions, and an understanding of why they're interested in an MBA at this point in their life and career. And why they're interested in the Kelley School in particular.

We also ask questions to get a better sense of their experience working in teams, their opportunities for problem-solving or decision-making. We don't have a set list of questions that every candidate is asked.

Q: How important is the Graduate Management Admissions Test? Particularly, how important is the quantitative section of the GMAT?


The GMAT is important. And we consider both the verbal and the quantitative section important. In a perfect world, there will be a balance between the verbal and the quantitative scores.

Looking at the student's academic record, together with the GMAT, helps us get a sense of the potential to handle the academic rigors of the program. If a person's GMAT isn't as strong, we'll look to see if there's enough strength in the academic record, and vice versa. But, again, the GMAT is one factor among many.

Q: What was the lowest GMAT score that you admitted in last year's class?


Last year I believe it was 500.

Q: Without divulging personal information about the candidate, can you tell me some of the things that stood out about the person that compensated for the below-average score?


In the case of the person that I'm thinking of, they interviewed, they stayed in close contact with us, they really demonstrated their interest, and were able to demonstrate a lot of success in their employment. They had some great work experience. There was enough good out there that we didn't consider the GMAT to be a great concern in terms of their ability to be successful here.

Q: Have you noticed anything different in the applicant pool of the last year or two vs. the types of applications you saw three or four years ago?


For the class that entered in the fall of 2002, we had a record number of applications. We saw a lot of applications from candidates who had been laid off some time after September 11. I believe the economy has had an impact on who's applying and the numbers. Even this year we're seeing the impact of the economy, in different ways. We're seeing now the impact of politics and the world economy in terms of international applications.

Q: How has that affected international applications?


Our international applications, although still very strong, have declined this year after a continuous upward trend for the last three or four years. I suspect that many international students are recognizing that it is more difficult today to find employment in the U.S. after school. It's not impossible, but not as easy as it was for the class of 2000. They're questioning making the investment right now.

Q: Do you get any sense that applicants are thinking any differently about the degree than they did three or four years ago?


Candidates today have a more realistic perception of what kind of opportunities will exist afterwards, at least in the short run, until the economy recovers. They're thinking even more carefully about the trade-offs between current employment and future benefits with the MBA. I think it's a more somber time for MBA students.

Q: Where do most Kelley students come from, geographically?


We have a pretty good mix. Of our current first-year students, with international students thrown into the mix, about a third of our students are from the Midwest, about 12% from the East, 19% from the West, 7% from the South, and then 30% international.

Q: What is the international breakout?


Probably 70% of our applicants come from Asia, including India. Maybe 20% from Latin America and 10% from Europe, roughly.

We'd love to have more Europeans, but it has proven over the years to be a tough group to recruit. There are so many fine MBA programs available in Europe. Many of them are one year, and many of them don't require work experience. So to convince some of the Europeans to spend two years with us, after working three or four years, can be a little bit more difficult.

Q: Where else do Kelley applicants apply?


A lot of our applicants also apply to Michigan. When we hear where people are deciding, we hear a lot about North Carolina, Emory, Vanderbilt, Washington University in St. Louis, Texas -- and every once in a while, Purdue, our neighbors to the north.

Q: What else should applicants should know about Kelley?


We have some special focus academies that allow people to get networking opportunities and academic support in different industries or functional areas. A couple of examples: We have a sports and entertainment academy for people interested in working in either of those industries, an investment-banking academy, and a health-care academy.

But the real distinguishing feature for our program is the culture and the community. At a school like Indiana University in a college town like Bloomington, there are certainly trade-offs.

One of the real positive things is the relationship that our students can develop with faculty. The reality of living in a college town is that 98% of our faculty, staff, and students live within a three- or four-mile radius of campus. So we're not the kind of place where faculty members are commuting to teach a class and then disappearing again until the next week. They're still well connected with business and industry -- they serve on boards of directors, they consult, they do executive education, they have their research connections. But during the academic year, their lives are very much in Bloomington and here at the Kelley School. So our students benefit from that.