Inside Thunderbird Admissions

Judy Johnson, Thunderbird's admissions director, recently answered questions online about what the school is looking for. Here's a transcript

The Thunderbird School of Global Management is trying to shake things up. Earlier in 2007 the school changed its name for the fifth time (BusinessWeek, 2/22/07) since opening in 1946 and announced that it is on a mission to improve its brand recognition by 2010. Smaller and younger than other top B-schools, and located in Glendale, Ariz., Thunderbird has created a niche all its own by requiring students to learn a second language and focusing on global issues.

In 2006 the school admitted 77% of the 704 people who applied. Although the school caters to a select group of students, its yield was 60% last year. Recently, Judy Johnson (JudyThunderbird), director of admissions, fielded questions from an audience of prospective students and BusinessWeek reporter Francesca Di Meglio (FrancescaBW) in a live chat event. Here is the edited transcript:

lwfmaia: What are considered the biggest strengths and weaknesses of the Thunderbird program?

JudyThunderbird: Thunderbird's biggest overall strength is the institution's expertise in global management and business. This is the greatest part of Thunderbird's DNA. Our curriculum incorporates the global dimension in every required and elective course, which are taught by faculty who have worked, taught, and consulted in all the regions of the world that they reference. Another strength is our emphasis on how to build and manage in different cultural settings, all the while paying attention to sustainability.

I admit to a bias in favor of Thunderbird, but I do not think we have weaknesses. Of course, being the specialized school that we are, our whole organization works very hard to see that the experience of our students is top-notch. A big emphasis is placed on recruiting students from many parts of the world so that their various cultural and management experiences become part of the education.

FrancescaBW: What can our guests do to write successful essays? Can you offer some tips?

JudyThunderbird: Applicants should do their best in the essays. It is one of the primary ways that we get to know you. Because the Thunderbird program is focused and built around the knowledge and skills needed for successful global management, we spend a lot of time reviewing the essays. First—answer the question that is asked. Second—clearly define your career goals, how you determined this career path, and why Thunderbird will be the best program for you to pursue goals.

FrancescaBW: Do you weigh certain parts of the application more than others? Why or why not?

JudyThunderbird: The GMAT is very important. Performance on that test accurately predicts an applicant's chance of success within the academic structure of the program. If the GMAT is not within our validated range, the application will not go to review.

The essays are important. We look at different areas—writing skills, ability to concisely build communication, the passion that an applicant has for the school. There is a distinct qualitative feeling we want to get from reading the essays.

Work experience—the experience must show that the applicant has been in situations where ownership of the task has been assumed and that the task has been completed successfully. We like validation of professional experience from the recommenders. I would say these are the top three areas.

FrancescaBW: Tell us about the international appeal of Thunderbird. What makes this school unique?

JudyThunderbird: The school is unique in every way, but the students provide the excitement and the passion. Collectively they are adventuresome people who have had living experience in many different cultures and who already know that cultural and regional differences translate into a whole different way of addressing management challenges.

They are eager to learn from one another, as well as from the faculty. They collaborate with one another, with alumni, and with faculty. They set the tone and are a vivid illustration of the global mindset that people who work at Thunderbird have embraced.

lwfmaia: What are the challenges facing Thunderbird, and what changes can students expect?

Thunderbird is a small institution within the higher education community. We are also young when compared to our MBA program colleagues. Therefore, we are in the constant process of building our endowment. In fact, we are at the beginning of the project. That will provide greater financial security as the endowment builds.

Because of our smaller size and focused approach to education, we must look at new and different ways to present our education and, in doing that, there are bound to be changes in our business processes.

FrancescaBW: What kind of work experience should aspiring Thunderbird MBAs be seeking to enhance their case for admission?

JudyThunderbird: We look for experience that [shows applicants have] had a fair amount of responsibility assigned to them and have faced some management aspects—project, people, etc. The work experience does not necessarily have to be international. However we do expect all our applicants to have had international/global exposure in some way. We look at a wide array of experience and respect virtually all experience environments.

FrancescaBW: How would you describe the first-year workload to aspiring students?

JudyThunderbird: I'm known for telling it like it is, so here it comes. The workload is intense, but it is not unreasonable for graduate level expectations. People do just fine once they get their time management skills perfected.

FrancescaBW: What kinds of extracurricular activities are available to students?

JudyThunderbird: Everything. We have a very active student government that sponsors a huge club initiative. Clubs are in various categories—professional focus, cultural focus, sports, social, entertainment. The total would be close to 100. Also, we are in a wonderful climate, and students make use of this in arranging hiking, skiing, camping sessions. Participating in everything available becomes a lesson in the time management process.

FrancescaBW: Do applicants have to get interviewed? If so, what's the interview like?

JudyThunderbird: We are working toward requiring the interview as part of the application process. It is being phased in because we have to make arrangements for people from all over the world. It will be a requirement by fall, 2009.

The interview is like a "getting to know you" session, and that's what we want it to be. We want to give our applicants every opportunity to know everything there is to know about Thunderbird. We consider admissions to be an inclusive, rather than an exclusive process.

FrancescaBW: What can applicants do to stand out?

JudyThunderbird: First, answer all the questions on the application. If we didn't need the answers, we wouldn't ask the question. Next and more important, we want to see evidence that they have already embraced the fact that a global mindset is essential for success in managing in a global marketplace. They must show evidence of experiences they've had that will illustrate this.

FrancescaBW: How does Thunderbird position its students for the global economy?

JudyThunderbird: That is part and parcel of our curriculum with courses such as Global Political Economy, Regional Business Environments, and Strategies of Global Development. As I mentioned above, every class is woven around the global dimensions of the topic being covered. Graduation requirements include the ability to speak a second language, primarily for the exercise of learning about the culture of that language from an insider's view, and the Thunderbird Global Experience, in which all students must participate in a course and/or term outside the U.S. or their home country.

FrancescaBW: Do you have any parting advice for our guests who are planning to apply?

JudyThunderbird: Just follow all the advice I've given in this chat. Contact the admissions office if you have questions about anything Thunderbird. We are here to help you. Be sure you feel that Thunderbird will be the very best school for you. Come visit us. We have Hospitality Weekends and Friday Campus Tour Sessions, both conducted and hosted by our students. We can put you in contact with alumni in your region. Talking with alumni is always a good thing to do.

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