Vanderbilt Seeks the 'X-Factor'

Owen's admissions director talks about asking the right interview questions and how applicants can boost chances for success

John Roeder has been working in the admissions office at

Vanderbilt's Owen School of Management since 2003, but only recently stepped up to the role of director of admissions. He's taken over the office at a time when MBA applicants are starting to see Nashville as more than "Music City USA," he says.

Applications are up for the fourth year in a row, reaching levels the school hasn't seen since 1999 and 2000. Students are taking notice of the school's strong relationship with companies that have recently grown roots in Nashville and recent hires of prominent business faculty.

In his new role, Roeder plans to continue fine-tuning the initiatives he's spearheaded over the years, from promoting on-line chats for prospective students to recruiting a more diverse student body. He has an insider's view of the application process, having served as associate director of admissions at Owen for three years and, prior to that, as assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Roeder spoke recently to BusinessWeek reporter Alison Damast. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

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

Some of the things I see us approaching a little bit differently over the course of this next year are really some of the changes in the marketplace and who we're dealing with. We are seeing business-savvy applicants who want as much information as they can get about our program and they want it from a number of different sources. I think offering different technologies to allow students to ask questions and to interact with our own community is essential.

We actually have a number of online chats throughout the year that we have instigated and we also have opportunities for students to interact with our current students via the Web and via e-mail. I think it's essential to offer some of those opportunities now especially for international students who perhaps can't visit campus to get a real picture of the culture here. I think that that's an important part in anyone's decision.

Has there been an upswing in the number of applications this year?

We've seen about a 10% increase this year and this is the fourth year in a row that we've seen an increase in applications at Owen. I think in the last three years there's a total of a 30% increase. It's a considerable increase here and I think that there are a number of reasons for it. There's a lot of positive momentum that is going on within the program and revolving around Nashville and middle Tennessee, as well. I think the word is getting out regarding the culture here and some of the differentiating factors here at Owen. These do stand out once the student has a chance to experience the campus visit or start interacting with our alumni and our current students.

Are there any candidates who might be better off applying earlier in the process?

This was an interesting year for us because we were targeting a class of about 190 entering MBAs and we're right now in a position where we have about...

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