Finding a 'Fit' at Chicago

Chicago admissions director Rose Martinelli recently discussed what makes a "best-fit" business school. Here's a transcript

BusinessWeek recently hosted its third online MBA Expo, an information-gathering session for potential business school applicants. Business Schools Editor Phil Mintz explored the Expo's theme of finding a "best-fit" business school with several admissions directors from top business schools and a private admissions consultant. Here's an edited transcript of BusinessWeek's discussion with Rose Martinelli, the associate Dean for student recruitment and admissions at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business.

When a student applies to the University of Chicago, how do you go about determining whether the student is a good fit for the school and vice versa?Well, let's start out from the student perspective. I think when you're looking at trying to develop fit and match, you need to understand yourself first. You need to step back and do a self-assessment, and I think always stepping back and looking at the timeline between your undergraduate years and your current experience now, and going back and looking at the highlights and lowlights and understanding who you are, what your value systems are, what your goals are. Once you've done that and kind of figured out who you are and what you're looking for, [the goal] is to create a set of institutions based on a variety of characteristics that seem to match your needs, whether it be a large school or a small school, one in the city or not in the city, a core curriculum that's rigid or one that's more flexible, concentrations or general management, size of school or resources.

There are so many different metrics, and no one school has all the answers for one individual person. So knowing what your needs are at the onset helps you to select the right set of schools to apply to. Hence when we're reading your application, we're much more likely to understand that you've gone through the process of narrowing down a set of schools that make sense for you.

So I think that fit and match element has become incredibly important in the evaluation process, and for me when I read an application, it's very clear when a) a student has skipped over the time of self-assessment or self-reflection and b) when they really haven't looked at the right institutions or selected a narrow group of institutions that they know fit their needs and make sense for them.

You list a number of characteristics of a school. Are there three or four really top characteristics that a person should look at when first determining the fit for a school?I think there are a couple of things that are really important. While we all say we are MBA programs, the way we deliver the content and the actual content may be quite different program to program. You have one-year programs or accelerated programs, you have the full two-year experience with the internship.

The first thing you need to understand is what type of program [you] need. If you're a career changer, perhaps a two-year program makes better sense than trying to do an accelerated program. Second, if you are a person with a lot of experience already, [you need to know] how flexible is the core curriculum in terms of providing you opportunities to either waive or take courses at different levels within that core curriculum? So that's also tremendously important.

You have to think about the teaching as well. Some schools focus on teaching, other schools not so much on teaching. Some folks deal with very rigid styles of approach. Other schools are very flexible. So, do you want to craft your own plan or do you want to apply to a program where you actually follow the plan? That's a pretty important juxtaposition that one needs to look at fairly early in the selection points for schools.

Are there some things that applicants tend to focus on, thinking that they're really important for finding the best fit, but that aren't as important as the students think they are?Well, I think a couple of things. I think sometimes when students get so narrowly tailored to just looking at schools within the top ranking, they begin to try to craft an application that's a little bit general and miss the mark.

I think one of the most important things that students need to recognize is that within the top-tier schools, they're all terrific programs. There's really no better program or best program for all students. It really does boil down to what individually suits one. So if you look at top-tier programs, you do have , Wharton, and Chicago, and you have Tuck, Stanford, Kellogg, and Columbia, and each of those programs are quite different. And sometimes, it's very difficult when I look at applicants who apply to a very flexible program like Chicago, also apply to a program that's not flexible, perhaps such as Harvard. It looks a little odd. I get it because of the rankings, but in terms of the content and the delivery, it looks a little odd to those people on the evaluation side.

So I think once you get past the initial ranking thing, then you really need to choose on fit and think in the set of schools that you're considering, what are your top schools, what are your middle schools, and what are your safety schools, and try to create a set of schools that you know you can get into and would be wonderful places for you to enroll.

You spent 15 years as an opera singer before finding a niche in college admissions, so I'm assuming you're quite understanding of career switchers? What are some of the concerns that someone with an unconventional background might have in determining which business school is the best fit?A lot of times nontraditional applicants, liberal arts applicants, have a real fear around how quantitative a program might be and are there other people like [them] in those schools. I know at Chicago, people think of us as the economic finance powerhouse. Those are true statements. But we are really much more of an analytically focused school in learning how to be a critical thinker, and most liberal arts students are effective critical thinkers. And we want to help them build those skills, understanding the financial analytical tools as well as just the critical thinking tools.

So a lot of folks get very nervous when they hear of an institution that is known for X thinking that there are no people like myself and there would be no opportunity for me to recruit in other opportunities beyond the traditional finance and consulting.

And I would say to nontraditional students, we love you! I have a very fond place in my heart for liberal arts students, people who come out of government, nonprofit, Peace Corps opportunities, and also folks who are trying to explore more of the entrepreneurial things, and they're kind of walking to the beat of their own drum. Those people are very attractive because they have an internal drive and aspiration to make their mark, and what they need are some critical thinking skills in order to ensure their success long-term, and a place like the GSB and other programs that have more of an analytical approach would be terrific programs to shore up their competencies and also to give them the confidence within the marketplace that they have those skills and are able to do that. And they will not be alone at Chicago.

Chicago is consistently rated as one of the top business schools in the world. Should a potential applicant opt for a reach school where he or she might be one of the lesser students in a stellar class or go for a less selective school where the student has a better chance of being in the top of the class?Well, there are a couple of things in that question. First of all, my bottom line is dream big and go for the most difficult school that you can because it will draw out of you more than you think is possible at the time of your enrollment or at the time of your application.

Going with a school that's overly comfortable will probably do just that, will make you overly comfortable and perhaps not draw you through experiences that will be tough and that will cause you to grow and expand, and also discover new things about yourself or new industries that might be useful.

So that's one side. I really do believe that one should stretch oneself through the MBA and not necessarily go for a comfort school.

On the other side is the whole atmosphere of the recruiting process, and I think you need to be aware that when you're coming into a top-tier school, the recruiting process will be very competitive, but you'll also have access to a broader set of industries than perhaps you would have at a school that's perhaps a little bit lower, a little bit more of a safety school, but the breadth and reach of a top-tier program will probably give you access to people that you wouldn't have otherwise.

But bottom line, fit and match is much more important than anything else. If you're thinking about business school, being comfortable and yet in an atmosphere where you can be stretched and take some risks is important. Ultimately it's two years and a lifetime experience and you want to make sure that you're having a good time and also thriving in an atmosphere where you can contribute as well as learn.

In your years in admissions, have you see any major changes in what students are looking for in terms of the right fit for them in a business school program? What are some of the top concerns of applicants nowadays?There are a few things that come to mind. One of the first things is concerns of money, concerns about, "I want to do good while doing well, is that possible? Can I really impact society as well as have access to wonderful careers in the future?" I think those are kind of the first things that I've been seeing out of this younger generation is quality of life, quality of experience, and a desire to have impact at broader levels than just business.

I think most schools have tried to address this through the marketing programs and through our discussion forums and webinars and online chats, to help people understand that business school is not just about an academic education to prepare you to be an industry leader or an industry manager, but really is a life-skill set to prepare you for a lifelong career in a meaningful way, and that can be in government, it can be in nonprofit, but that a B-school education truly is a broad-based education for any type of pursuit where you want to be a leader and you want to have an impact.

As it pertains to younger students, we're seeing a real desire for millennial students to kind of know what their path and plan is going look like in the next 5 to 10 years. "So I graduate from college. I work for two years. I go to school for two years. And I start my family at six and seven years out of undergrad." They want to map things out, and I think most top-tier MBA programs and Chicago GSB in particular, likes to see students who want to map things out, and we're very interested in taking students earlier in their career when the cost of doing an MBA is perhaps a little less onerous.

At Chicago, is there such a thing as a typical applicant? Is there a profile that you look at and say this applicant is right for us? What's the right time to apply?I think at Chicago there isn't [a typical applicant], and that's the most wonderful part of my job. A couple of characteristics come to mind, right off the bat, because of our flexibility and our academic history at the University of Chicago. First, intellectual curiosity: somebody who has interest in the world beyond them and loves to be challenged and to challenge themselves. Second, I think is a self-awareness and an engagement in the process. Because of that flexibility, you're going to want to be able to take control of your career and of your education and to be in the driver's seat, and so we want to see that type of engagement and that kind of drive. I think third for me would be a real commitment to the world around them and the community.

So leadership development that is just beyond individual promotion, thinking about their community around them, and their engagement with their classmates and colleagues. Those are really three principal areas that I think are very important in the types of candidates that we select at Chicago GSB, and when it comes to industry function, citizenship, gender—all of those things are so important in terms of crafting a class—we really want the most diverse people enrolled in the class who have those similar attributes so that we have an energized, academically interesting, and highly accomplished student body as part of the class of Chicago GSB.

In terms of timing for applications, you can apply when you're ready at the time or the round that is suitable for you. I think folks should focus on putting together the best application and worry about timing as a second condition.

At Chicago, we have openings in Round Three. Other schools don't, but we do. And we welcome applicants when they're ready. A terrific applicant will be admitted either in Round One or Round Three. I think there are considerations for applying earlier as we have more scholarship dollars available on a merit basis earlier in the rounds rather than later.

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