Rotman Teaches MBAs to Think and Decide

Toronto's Rotman School aims to graduate "people who can go beyond just opening a tool kit and using a business model to solve problems"

Cheryl Millington is director of MBA recruiting and admissions at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, a position she has held since 2000. Millington has spent her entire career with the University of Toronto. As an undergraduate she worked in the university's information office, and after graduating in 1985 with degrees in sociology and criminology, she began her career in higher education there. Prior to joining the MBA program, Millington worked in recruitment and admissions for the professional international programs.

As part of the integrated-thinking approach at Rotman (No. 3 in BusinessWeek's most recent ranking of full-time non-U.S. MBA programs), Millington says the faculty teaches students how business leaders think and make decisions, which is a much more powerful lesson than simply reviewing business models and what business leaders do. Millington recently spoke with BusinessWeek reporter Kelly Bronk about what else makes Rotman unique—and the importance of applying early if you want a spot in next year's class. Read on for an edited transcript of their conversation.

How did your application process go this year?

For us, this is the first year that the class has been full so early. Our published application deadline is at the end of April, but the class was full, on paper, by early April. We had enough people who paid their deposits to fill the class, and from early April on, we were just working on the last few admits. Right now (June 2008), we're just waiting to hear if someone has to withdraw for one reason or another and then we'll be able to put in one or two more people. It's been a phenomenal year for us, but not for a lot of folks that applied later in the application cycle, of course.

What is your target class size?

It's 265 for the full-time MBA.

It sounds as if there's a definite advantage if students apply earlier. What's your advice to potential applicants?

This is one of those years that I wanted to send an e-mail that said: "We told you so and we told you so several times." There really is an advantage to applying early, and it's twofold. If your application is not as competitive as you think it should be, you have an even better opportunity if you apply early because, as you can well appreciate, there are files that I see now where I say: "Darn, why didn't you apply in October, November, December, because you would have gotten a spot for sure." So there truly is an advantage to applying early, especially if your application is not that great. And No. 2, if your application is fantastic, there are lots of scholarship opportunities. That's the flip slide: When you enroll in admissions, you also enroll in scholarships. Once again, when we enter the cycle for 2009, we can remind people that we're not just saying this; there really is an advantage to applying early.

You mentioned scholarship opportunities. What kinds of scholarships are available for admitted students?

For us, it's all merit-based and we look at everything that we use to make an admissions decision. We look at your grades, your GMAT scores, your work experiences, your reference letters, etc. All of the things that go into making an admissions decision will go into making a scholarship decision.

In terms of the application itself, could you tell me a little bit about the essays—are there any that applicants seem to have a difficult time with?

One of the essays we have says: "Imagine that ten years from now a colleague is describing you to a new employee. What will he or she say about you that you are not known for now, and how will you achieve these new skills?" I think that is the trickiest one for them. For some people it's easy to do because they are much more creative or imaginative, or they've done a lot of self-reflection and they know exactly where they want to be in ten years and could plot the moves they need to make, almost like a chess game. But for others it's more difficult, and therefore their essay sounds much more generic, like a laundry list of qualities that would be nice to have.

How would you advise students to answer a question like that one?

It really goes back to self-reflection and why you want to do an MBA. So they have the answer, and obviously it varies from person to person, but they have the answer. The answer is embedded in why you need an MBA or why you feel you need one—because you want to get from where you are today to somewhere else. An MBA is part of that equation, but obviously an MBA is not going to answer all of your questions. There are things that you need to further develop or enhance, in addition to getting an MBA, that would be unique to you.

You also talked about grades as part of the admissions decision. When you look at an applicant's undergraduate transcript, are there certain courses that you want to see?

No. We're looking for people with diversity. If you are coming in with a degree in engineering as opposed to a degree in philosophy as opposed to a degree in business, it's very difficult to say that you should have one particular type of course over another. The one thing that I would say, though, is that—for people that don't have strong quantitative skills or score in the low quantitative percentile—we look for some ability to do quantitative thinking, perhaps in courses done as part of their undergraduate degree.

Speaking of quantitative percentiles, how important is the GMAT in your admissions decisions?

It's one of the things that we look at, but it's not the most important thing. We look at students' success, not just in the classroom, but also career-wise. The GMAT is not necessarily the best predictor of both things. There are people with just an average GMAT score who do phenomenally well in the classroom, as well as in their careers. GMAT will argue that's not what the test is supposed to predict, that it's supposed to predict how well they do in the first year of an MBA program. I would say sometimes it does, but more often than not, your GPA and your GMAT combined are a much stronger indication of how well you perform academically.

In terms of work experience, what are you looking for when you evaluate candidates?

Again, it's not so much the amount for us, but the quality. There are people who had the minimum, which is two years, and in some cases they've had a tremendous impact on the organization. I can think of people that have been identified as top-tier employees, who won lots of awards and received great kudos, and I can also think of people who have been with the same employer for 10 years and really haven't done much, but they've chugged along nicely and been average. It's quality, much more than quantity, that is important to us.

Look at another part of the application package—letters of recommendation. What are you hoping to gain from reviewing the letters that a student submits?

We ask for two professional references, rather than academic ones, and we really want to get a sense of what that person is like in the workplace because that gives us a sense of what their potential is for a future employer. We feel that your direct supervisor or manager is probably a much better person to talk about a whole host of things that we are not able to observe in a short interview, or if we asked the applicants themselves—of course they'll say all sorts of wonderful things.

You mentioned a short interview. What's the interview process like at Rotman?

We keep the interviews fairly casual and informal. One of the things I've found over the years I've been doing this is that people are very nervous and worried. It is a big deal, for sure, because this interview can truly affect the rest of your life. But I found that when people are nervous, you get less from the interview than you would normally, so we do try to keep it informal. For us, it's really about trying to get to know them in a short period of time and understanding a little bit more than what came across in the paper application.

What kinds of questions can an applicant expect to discuss during an interview?

Essentially, we really want to get them to articulate why they want to get an MBA. In some cases they've spent a lot of time working on these essays with a lot of help, so we want to get their take on why they want to get an MBA and why they want to do it here with us. We're also assessing their communications skills, their interpersonal skills, and some of the softer things that are hard to observe when you're reading their application.

You've described what kinds of things you're looking for in the individual parts of the application, but overall, what kind of applicant is a good fit for Rotman?

We are looking for people who are ambitious, who have a lot of potential, and who have a record of success now, and likely will be a successful business leader later. As you may know, we're looking to produce integrated thinkers, people who can go beyond just opening a tool kit and using a business model to solve problems. So we look for people who could perhaps already demonstrate that they have those skills, or perhaps are open to gaining those skills. We're also looking for the kind of person who would come here and be really excited about our curriculum because it is different from a lot of other schools, and be excited about some of the initiatives we have, like the design initiative. So we're trying to find people who can jump into that kind of environment and be excited about it, not necessarily people looking for a traditional business school with a traditional curriculum.

Can you think of any examples of students that you've recently admitted and who don't fit the typical Rotman profile?

This has been an interesting year, actually, being an Olympic year. This is the first year I've seen Olympic-quality or elite-quality athletes. We've had a few people who are going to the Olympics in August, or they just didn't make the Olympic team after spending the last four years of their lives preparing for it, so they're reevaluating things. That's kind of exciting for us. In a lot of ways, they truly don't fit the profile for us when you think of their job for the past four years, training 12 hours a day for their particular sport. It will probably take us another four years to get people like that again.

In terms of the student body, what kinds of things do you do to gain a diverse group of students?

For us, it's diversity on all levels. It's not just trying to build a mosaic when doing admissions, but also looking at your academic background and your professional background. We're fortunate in that we have choices, and I would imagine that next year, we'll probably have even more choices, once students realize that the class was filled so early this year. It's kind of nice that you can really sit back and manage numbers so well. Like everywhere else, we'll always get the typical MBA applicants, but it's nice when you see someone that is different or has done something different, and who can bring that to the classroom.

What percentage of your class is international, and what percentage is from Canada?

Right now it's about 55% from Canada and 45% international.

What kinds of things do you do to market the school to students from the U.S., as well as throughout the rest of the world?

We've been very fortunate in that our curriculum in integrated thinking and our dean, Roger Martin, have been out there, not just in Canada, but internationally as well. We also participate in MBA fairs and we do workshops and seminars internationally. It's been great, and probably it's the curriculum with the focus on integrated thinking as well as design that has been drawing a lot of students from the U.S. Internationally, I would say that the Canadian brand—as a country to live in and study in—has a very strong reputation.

You've mentioned integrated thinking several times. How would you describe the concept to someone who doesn't know much about it?

Our dean has written an entire book about it, but the 30-second explanation is that basically, what you learn when you go to other business schools is what successful business leaders do. What we're hoping to teach you here is how they think, because if you learn how successful business leaders think—and therefore, how they make decisions—that's a much more powerful takeaway than simply learning about business models and what successful business leaders do. Also, part of it is teaching that you will be faced with difficult decisions when you leave the school; more often you are faced with a decision of doing "either or." What we're saying to you is that sometimes it's better to do "and." If you learn how to integrate what can be seen as two opposing views, more often than not you will have a more powerful solution to the problem that you are trying to solve.

Besides integrated thinking, how do you differentiate yourself from other Canadian business schools, as well as business schools in the U.S.?

I would say that is definitely one of the things we do. The other is location. There are other business schools in the area, but we're right in downtown Toronto, so that's huge. Our career center has a very good reputation as well, and they do a phenomenal job. When you look at our career stats, they're as good as or even better than the top U.S. and European schools, so that's brought us tremendous value.

To talk a little more about student life at Rotman, how do MBA students interact with other grad students at the University of Toronto?

They're part of the University of Toronto and they can certainly participate in everything the university has to offer. As one of Canada's largest universities, we have everything here. It truly is a city within a city. We have sporting facilities and teams and all of those things. The reality is that very few of the students take advantage of them because of a lack of time, but all of the resources are available to them.

We've talked a lot about what the school and the MBA program are like, but are there any stereotypes about Rotman that you would like to disprove?

One that we hear a lot about is that we're just a finance school. We certainly have a strong reputation in finance, and according to the Financial Times, we're rated as the sixth-best school in the world for finance. If you're not thinking of finance, you may think that you should go somewhere else. But I would say that when you look at our strengths in strategy, for example, we're definitely one of the best, and we have very strong faculty in marketing as well. While I certainly appreciate our strength in finance, I think that it sometimes overshadows some of the other strengths we have.

And lastly, although we've talked about this in a number of different ways, out of all the business schools, what is it that makes Rotman unique?

Again, quite frankly, it would be integrated thinking. A lot of schools use different versions of integrated curriculum or integrated core, but the curriculum that we offer is unique. And also, the design initiative: Several years ago our dean made a comment that business leaders should think more like designers, so that's one of the things that's unique about our school as well. As we say, it really gives students a new way to think.