The Babson Mindset

The B-school's director of admissions discusses what entrepreneurship really means and what Babson looks for in an applicant

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What's the most common question Babson's Director of Admissions Dennis Nations gets from prospective students? Nine times out of ten, he says, the first question asked is: "How is entrepreneurship going to help me?"

That's a testament to Babson's strength in the area (see, 10/12/06, "Best Schools by Specialty: Entrepreneurship") and brand building. But Nations says it also reflects the fact that a lot of people don't understand that the term "entrepreneur" isn't just applicable to the guy starting up a business in his garage from scratch. At Babson, he says, entrepreneurship isn't just an element of business, "it's a mindset." He spoke with reporter Kerry Miller about the kind of entrepreneurs he's looking for at Babson. An edited portion of their conversation follows.

As a Babson MBA yourself, what kind of person do you think is a good fit for Babson?

I think it's somebody who spends a lot of time—regardless of what their particular job is or particular function—saying I think we can do this better, or I think that has opportunity for improvement. It's probably somebody who, when they watch commercials on TV, they're questioning the rationale behind some of those things. They're saying maybe they didn't quite get it right. Or, they read articles in The Wall Street Journal or BusinessWeek or Newsweek or Time, and they're constantly wondering how something could have been done better or differently to arrive at a different solution.

Babson students have an incredible thirst for understanding the "what if we went down this other path." What if we tried to identify a different way to approach an opportunity, and then not only identify it, but then execute on it. That's where we really try to connect the dots.

It's not enough just to say I have an idea. It's really to then say, well, what do you do with that idea? How do you ensure that that idea isn't going to die because you don't understand how, as a marketing person, the idea is going to impact the finance department? That's where that holistic approach comes in. We want folks who are thinking big picture but also understanding small picture, as they're identifying those opportunities.

Have you made any changes in what you're looking for or how the process works since you took over as director of admissions?

Yes, we're making a lot of changes. What Babson has been trying to do over the last 12 to 18 months is transition from an office where we attend the fairs, we do some marketing, we send out mailings, and we wait for applications to roll in. We're trying to become much more proactive, much more customer-focused.

Traditionally, or at least here at Babson, the way it used to work is if somebody were inquiring about our two-year MBA, there was a likely chance that if they weren't appropriate for the two-year program, that they might slip through the cracks. Whereas now the recruiter who is working with them and who now has responsibility to understand all of our programs can work with that person, and if the two-year program isn't appropriate, that doesn't mean that the conversation is over. We have other options that may be appropriate for them and we can help them understand them.

What is your response to someone who says, "I'm not really interested in entrepreneurship, I don't want to be an entrepreneur. Should I still go to Babson?"

We get that a lot. A lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction or a stereotypical definition of entrepreneurship as somebody who is starting a business in their basement, they're bootstrapping from the word go, and they're really building something from scratch. And while that is one component and one valuable component of entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship is a mindset here and it's in the way that we approach identifying opportunity. It's the way that we approach understanding how to add value in ways that aren't expected, no matter what venture you're involved with. So we really embark upon an educational process.

If we're having a conversation with someone and at the end of that someone is still saying, well, I want to focus on finance or on marketing to the exclusion of other functional areas, then we may say that Babson may not be the right program for you, because there are other schools out there that have strengths specifically in those areas. Where we excel is in getting people to understand how to think holistically about opportunities, both at an industry level or within a functional area in their organization, and then how to implement or execute on those opportunities.

Let's say you have someone who lives in the Boston area and is trying to decide whether they should do the full-time or the part-time program. What would you say are the pros and cons of each?

The highest-level pros and cons are related to whether they personally and professionally can afford to take a year or two years out of the workforce. The benefit of a part-time program is that it allows them to stay current in their professional role, it allows them to implement the learning that they're doing—it's sort of an instant feedback for the education that they're getting.

We know that people lead busy lives, they've got families, sometimes taking the time off and forgoing that salary is not a viable option. Those folks who are looking to make changes from one industry to another or from one functional role to another or sometimes both, perhaps a full-time program makes more sense. It becomes a safer environment to take chances or to learn new things in an area where you may not have expertise.

The two-year program offers—in the summer between the first and second year—the internship opportunity, which is something that a part-time student can't take advantage of. So really it comes down to how the MBA fits into their career. Is it something that you need to help you grow within your current organization, in which case a part-time program may make sense. Or is the MBA something that you need to truly gain a brand-new or completely enhanced skill set for a different industry or function?

It's not to say we don't have career changers in our part-time program. But, really, what the full-time program does is it allows you to immerse yourself in understanding the different elements of business. If you've had an internship in that industry, if you've been able to do projects that relate to that industry, and you've also had to deep-dive into the various areas of business, it's going to make you more marketable on the other end.

You mentioned that the full-time MBA typically attracts a lot of career changers. Are there any common mistakes you see in those applications?

We do get a lot of career changers, and we'd like them to evidence some level of understanding of the change they're about to make and a comprehension of how the MBA is going to allow them to make that jump.

We'd like to see that someone has taken the time before they submit the application to learn as much as they can about the career they think they might be going into. Sometimes we'll see applications where somebody says, "I want to make a switch from technology to consulting or engineering to consulting." And, as we go through trying to better understand them as a candidate, we realize that they don't really have a complete understanding of what making that transition means.

Where we've seen success is with people that have said, "Look, I may not try to hit your Nov. 1 deadline or your January deadline, I may look for your third round. But in between now and then, I'm going to talk with people in the consulting world and maybe shadow somebody in the consulting world and learn as much as I can about this huge change I'm about to make. Then I'm going to ensure that, in my application, I'm speaking to why I think that change is going to be something that I can make with the MBA here at Babson."

Are there other common mistakes you see within the general applicant pool?

There are a few. Not showing evidence of their understanding of what our program is about is one. We get a lot of generic essay answers that talk, at a very high level, about why somebody wants an MBA, but they don't go deep enough to connect that desire to the Babson MBA. One of my biggest pet peeves is somebody who hasn't done the due diligence on Babson, specifically, to allow me to understand why we make sense for them. Because that's really going to go a long way to making my job easier in understanding how they fit with us.

We post on our Web site and we make available through our printed materials average profiles of our classes. And folks sometimes don't take the time to do some self-reflection to understand do they fit within what our profile looks to be. For example, folks who are submitting GMAT scores that are very far below our average range. Or folks who don't have a level of work experience that we're looking for and don't have a correspondingly compelling reason for us to consider an exception in their case.

Proofreading resumes and essays is another big item that you'd think people would be a little bit more cognizant of. We see spelling errors; we see small details that, nevertheless, give us evidence to how that person is going to approach their time here at Babson. All of the bits and pieces of the application have to be a component of their story.

The resume is the biggest piece that allows us to see their professional development. And some folks don't devote as much time to a resume and its presentation as they should.

Can you take me through what happens to an application once it arrives in the admissions office?

Once it gets here, our team won't see it until it's technically complete and we have all of the elements of the application, including transcripts, recommendations, and GMAT scores. At that point, one of the members of my team will give it an initial read to determine whether it's somebody that would be a clear admit or clear deny. Is that person definitely well within the Babson ranges? Do they represent what we're looking for? Do they fall well below our ranges, or have they not done a good job of explaining to us why the MBA makes sense, which are some different reasons that we might choose to deny somebody. Then we also, through that process, generate what we call our "gray area" list.

We bring all of those applications together on a weekly basis and, as a team, we review the clear admits, the clear denies. On the clear admits we invite those folks in for interviews so that we can complete that part of our process. The clear denies we set aside for processing. And then the gray areas, that's where we do our job. That's where we spend time talking about individual cases.

We evaluate. We will go back and forth as team members to really discuss, is this person going to be right fit for Babson? Sometimes it's a lengthy process. We may go back to the candidate to ask for information. We may ask somebody else within the Babson community to become part of the process of reviewing that application.

The first example that comes to mind would be our career office. So we will bring them in to look at somebody who may be a career changer and help us understand if this person is saying the right things, are they asking the right questions, are they positioning themselves correctly so that they understand what it's going to take to make that career change. Other folks that we may bring in for the process could be faculty directors for our different programs, if we're having questions about past academic work, and whether we think that's going to translate into the Babson environment favorably.

Can you tell me about how the financial aid and scholarship process works?

We have a pool of scholarship dollars to award and we award those on the basis of merit. Merit is a slippery term, and everybody asks whenever we're on the road. We base our scholarships on academic potential, evidenced through their undergraduate grades as well as any additional course work they've done since then.

We're looking at professional potential. So what have they been able to do with the years of work experience that they have and how do we think that's going to translate, with our MBA, to the professional arena afterwards. We're looking for leadership potential, which is where things become very subjective. And we're looking to their essays; we're looking to their interviews and interactions with our team.

We make decisions as we're admitting folks about what kind of scholarships we want to offer. That is really the only place where when submitting an application, if it is ready to be submitted, you have a better chance of being awarded dollars, because we have a limited pool. And we start awarding those dollars within the first round of admit decisions. So we will often reach the end of our admission cycle and will have very few, if any, dollars left over.

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