McCombs: Improved by Its Students

The director of full-time MBA admissions at the Texas school says the program remains intimate despite the university's size

Christina Mabley is director of full-time MBA admissions at The McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. Christina Mabley became director of admissions for the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business in December, 2004. She previously served as the director of alumni relations for two and a half years. A McCombs alumnus, Mabley also worked for three years in marketing at startup, an online seed and gardening supply company whose operations closed in 2000. Mabley says the best way for applicants to learn about the school before applying is to network with alumni.

McCombs—despite being part of a large university—brags about its intimate classes (only 260 students per class) and intense team-oriented education. It came in at No. 20 in BusinessWeek's most recent ranking, and Mabley said she hopes to strengthen its international reputation by attracting more European students and continuing to reach out to Latin America. She spoke with reporter Derek Thompson about the best time for students to apply to McCombs, recent changes to the application, and how to avoid seeming insincere in your essays. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Does McCombs still use rolling admissions? Should students apply early or at any specific time to avoid the rush of applicants?

We do still use rolling admissions. Just before mid-December is a good time for students to apply if they are looking for a quick turnaround. Our first deadline is Nov. 1, and that's suggested because we're rolling. Our second mark is Jan. 1. So sometime between them, like mid-December, we might have the quickest turnaround.

How many spots open up every year?

We bring in a class of 260. That's a set number.

When is the final application deadline?

Apr. 1. It's usually about a six-week turnaround at that point. There are some variables in terms of how long it can take to set up an interview.

Which applicants do you interview?

We interview 100% of our pool. An interview is required. We have on-campus interviews, which can be with second-year students or admissions staff. We also have off-campus alumni who conduct interviews from time to time. In the very rare occasion that a country is involved where we can't contact an alumnus, we'll do a phone interview with that student.

McCombs has been known for an emphasis on high tech and entrepreneurship. Do you still draw heavy interest from those areas?

Those are actually older areas of focus for us. They have been historically strong, but the majority of our students [now] focus on finance, marketing, and consulting. That's where we really see students heading after school. A lot of our students are interested in the entrepreneurial spirit, and they'll take that forward with them. We do have a strong IT department and operations, but recently it has not been a singular focus of the school.

What's the split between in-state and out-of-state students? And what about international?

In-state is 32% of our school. And out-of-state is 43%. Our international students make up 25%. Among our top international draws, we tend to see Korea, India, China, and Mexico. Europe is an area where we are interested in expanding and have seen some development this year. Latin America has always been strong, and we continue to cultivate that area as well.

Does McCombs have a particularly strong relationship with Latin America?

We have partnerships with some of the top B-schools in Latin America. We do exchange programs with them. We have a spring trip where students can go to Chile and Brazil and visit our partner schools in those areas as well as visit local companies. We also bring in students from those programs to study here.

Once you receive an application, how is it evaluated?

We are unique because we have a central university admissions office. All applications are sent there with verified transcripts. When the application is deemed complete, it is sent to our office. Once it is sent to our office, the application is sent to the admissions committee, who [reads] through them, and a final decision is made by the admissions committee or me.

Does McCombs believe in a team-oriented education?

We absolutely had a team atmosphere at McCombs. We do a lot of different team-oriented things here. We have a leadership development program called the Plus Program, where students have the opportunity to participate with companies on micro-consulting projects. In terms of collaboration, we want to make sure that students understand how to work with teams and commit to the success of their group. That's something we see in our students. They seem to be very strong team players.

Is there a focus on consulting at McCombs?

We have communication coaches on campus. Most students who come into MBA programs need to understand how to present ideas to potential clients. They need credibility in their communication. Obviously, with our world getting smaller, we want students who come in with a variety of perspectives, who understand that businesses have a variety of shareholders. We want students to understand that they need to have a wide range of opinions held to accommodate all shareholders. We want them to have the past experience to bring that into the conversation.

What percentage of McCombs students have work experience?

We used to have a two-year work experience requirement. Now we strongly suggest it, and about 98% of our class has work experience. But we also admit some undergraduate students based on superior academic background and demonstrated leadership. We also look for strong potential success in business, which can be demonstrated in internship experiences for undergraduate students.

What's new for McCombs admissions this year?

We've changed our essay questions this year. We wanted to get a little more information about how students define leadership and we spent some time looking at how we define it. We have a question that asks students to describe an experience that demonstrates your leadership as it relates to one of our four pillars: 1) Responsibility/Integrity; 2) Knowledge/Understanding; 3) Collaboration/Communication; or 4) Worldview of Business and Society.

Could you take me through the essays and explain what you are looking for?

Sure. We have three mandatory essays and one optional essay. The first essay question asks students to define their short- and long-term goals and explain what makes the Texas MBA the perfect fit. For this question, we want their personal plan. They've made a big decision to go to business school, and we want to know how they came to that decision. And there are other pieces to this that we ask for specifically, such as how an MBA fits at this time. We want to know that they've put thought into this and that they've researched the school.

The second essay question is about the four pillars, and we ask them to describe an experience that demonstrates their leadership as it applies to the four pillars.

The third essay asks how students will enrich the McCombs community with their unique personality and approach. One of the unique parts of the culture at McCombs is that our students really leave the place better than they found it. And this is something I've seen as an alum and being back here working for seven years. We see this not only when they're at school but also when they affect organizations. That's a quality we're looking for. How will the program be different for having you in it? Community plays a big role in the MBA experience. We want to know what each of the 260 members of the class will bring.

The optional essay is: "Please provide any additional information to the Admissions Committee that will highlight your unique personality and character and/or address any areas of concern that will ultimately be beneficial to the committee in considering your application." This is really an open-ended question. It's really up to the students to say if there are any holes left unanswered. We've seen explanations of quantitative ability, or classes students are taking to brush up on quantitative skills, or explanations of lower-than-preferred GPA, or extenuating circumstances and experiences that are unique that they think we should be aware of.

Besides the academic bona fides, what do you look for generally in a student?

I would say we want students who are passionate and self-driven. We see that sometimes in their essays, but also in their letters of recommendation.

What are some common application pitfalls?

I think one big mistake students make is to not understand that the application comes to us as a whole. They spend a lot of time on their essays or their recommendations, but they don't think about it from the perspective of the admissions committee. We want a tight application, where everything confirms everything. If somebody makes reference to a not-for-profit project, then it would strengthen the essay if somebody could validate that from a recommendation perspective. They should put together the application and sit with it for a week or so before sending it in.

Do you ever feel like some students are trying too hard to demonstrate something unique?

I think students feel a lot of pressure to have something incredibly unique on their application. And there's a lot of searching to find the right thing, but they need to know that each story comes from them. The truer they are to who they are, the more that comes through in the application. They shouldn't tell us what we want to hear. They need to come across as genuine. Sometimes we'll see essays that quote things off our Web site about why they would be a good fit, and that's not backed up in the kind of person that they are in the interview. And then it's clear they're not being true.

The University of Texas at Austin is a huge university. How do students make use of the resources outside the business school?

It's true, we're an intimate program, but we're also at one of the largest universities in the country. We have a top law school and public policy school. And students can take classes there as well. They can take two classes outside the B-school.

When you're asked to make a quick pitch for the school, what do you say?

Ultimately, and this is having graduated from the program in 1998, what I really enjoy about the students is this making a difference and leaving the place better than we found it. What's nice about McCombs is that we're a very intimate program. So there are only 520 students total, and students get to know each other and feel a part of a strong community.

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