Ivey's Two-Interview Process

At the University of Western Ontario, prospective students meet with both admissions and the career management team to ensure a good fit

In noting her transition from business school student to teacher to admissions director, Niki Healey admits to her passion for business. As her teaching role ended, the launch of Ivey Business School's 12-month MBA was announced, and Healey made her way into the director role earlier this year.

She recently discussed the school's distinct case-based program and the opportunities it offers candidates willing to think outside the box with BusinessWeek project assistant Daphna Behar. Here's an edited transcript.

How did you end up in the Ivey admissions office? Were you always interested in business?

I'm an Ivey graduate from 2003. I have always been passionate about business. I basically jumped from one side of the classroom to the other—I took on a teaching role. Ivey hires directly out of the program, and it is a unique opportunity to teach students two years behind you and to be on the other side of a case-based learning experience. It was a lot of fun. You are barely older than the kids in the classroom, but it is such a challenging position. Right when that role finished, Ivey was going through a strategy review and was going to announce the launch of the 12-month MBA. They were looking for someone to take on recruiting in the summer of 2005, and I moved into the director role earlier this year.

Have you seen any changes in the most recent application cycle, and if so why do you think that is?

We've had a significant increase in applications, partly because this is no longer a new program, with unanswered questions about what our placement rates will be like and what our MBA experience will be all about. We have graduated three classes, so there is less of that "early adopter" mentality. Soemthing we continue to do, and have always done from an admissions perspective, is to build relationships with the right candidates.

Who would be considered as the "right" candidate?

A big part of it is knowing whether or not case method is something you will excel in, and that you will be challenged by. It is not the right learning style for everybody. So what we try to do with our recruiting activities is to highlight the case experience. We show them the classes, and try to explain and relate the case-based experience. That process allows them to say "this is really for me, it's engaging" or "this isn't really the right learning style for me."

What are some main distinctions between Ivey's case-based program and a more traditional learning environment?

Our case-based program is primarily an experience where faculty act as facilitators instead of lecturers. Our faculty members would say the best teaching experience at Ivey is when they say the least and a discussion happens. They like to compare themselves to conductors of an orchestra. The less they have to step in, the better. Students are really learning by experiencing the class. The focus is highly action-oriented. So it's not just enough to say "here's what I would do," but you are pushed by faculty and by peers to say, "this is how I would do it—here is how I would implement these recommendations."

Team-based learning is another big component. It is not like going to a lecture, a more passive experience where information is being thrown at you. Our students will read a case on their own, prep the case, and then be a part of a larger group discussion. So this is a three-tiered process, which is important in the case-method program.

Have there been any major changes to the application process this year?

One of the things we have recently done is involve the career management center. The center's relationship with the student continues through to graduation. But all students considered for admission are now interviewed by the career management team, in conjunction with admissions. It is a two-interview process, and it happens simultaneously, so there is a lot of up-front screening from the school's perspective in terms of who we are selecting. It's a great opportunity for candidates to see that this is a thorough process. They can also have all of their questions answered, which is an important piece of the interview as well.

Is there ever a candidate who seems to be a good fit for the admissions team and not for the career management team or vice versa? How is that dealt with?

That was a question we had when we began implementing this process. Interestingly, there's a lot of consistency about the type of candidate we are looking for. So it doesn't happen very often. And we do have an up-front clause where we advise candidates that at times there may be a third interview, which is really the exception rather than the rule. Something might arise in one conversation that we would want to spend some more time on. Typically the third interview would be conducted by someone such as the director of career management, myself, an executive director—someone who can look at both groups' feedback objectively and decide to have another conversation and delve a little bit deeper with the candidate.

What are some of key mistakes that applicants make in the actual interview process?

Not preparing enough, not treating it like someone would treat a job interview and doing some research on the school. I think it is also important for a candidate to know not only why they want an MBA, but why they want an Ivey MBA.

The other challenge is communicating your experience in depth, with structured communication. An interesting challenge that candidates face is wanting to tell you everything at once, but we are also only asking specific questions. Sometimes trying to present an agenda can be a challenge.

Can you take me through the life cycle of an application at Ivey?

After the completed application is processed, within a couple of days, assuming this is someone we are interested in, there is a simultaneous request from both admissions and career management to meet with the student. After that, we typically interview on an ongoing basis. Most interviews are completed within three to four weeks.

What do students tell you is the hardest part of the admissions process at your school? How do you help students deal with it?

Waiting to hear back from the school. Apart from that, I would say understanding how the committee makes decisions, thinking about how all the pieces fit together, and thinking about their profile strengths and weaknesses. They don't have access to others applying to the program to know where they stand. It's important to look objectively at what's strong about their applications and what's not, and be able to play up strengths and address weaknesses for the rest of the process—for instance, during interviews.

How many students were accepted and how many students chose to attend this year?

Our yield in terms of offers is actually quite high, relative to benchmarks across admissions, likely because of the selection that comes with saying, "yes I want this program, I am interested in case-based learning, and I want to move to London, Ontario, and really dive into this experience." We see a strong yield—75% to 85%—which is good from our perspective because it means we are giving offers to the right people. We are more concerned, once we find them, are they choosing us? It is relatively easy to encourage anyone to apply, but what we try to do is encourage the right people to apply.

Is there a certain number of rounds for this process? Are there any benefits to being in an earlier round?

We publicize that there are technically five rounds. The rounds are combined into May and September groupings. There is a definite advantage to applying to earlier rounds. Not only because there is more space in the program, but also because of scholarships and admissions awards.

What are some common mistakes candidates make in their applications?

One of the biggest mistakes is not doing enough homework. I have always been amazed at knowing how people make purchase decisions. People spend more time on what vehicle they want to buy, what home they are going to purchase, and don't realize this is one of the biggest investments in a lifetime. So make a point of doing the research, visiting the campus, speaking to students, alums, faculty, and really trying to get a sense of what the culture of the program is, and what being aligned with this particular program would mean for the rest of one's career. People don't always spend enough time thinking it through.

What's the most unusual or difficult essay question on your application? What's your advice to students on how to answer it?

We are in the process of developing new questions for next year. One of the questions people struggle with now concerns a difficult decision they had to make and the process by which they made it. Candidates worry about what the admissions people want to hear, as opposed to maybe discussing a big ethical challenge they had to face. They concern themselves with how that will be perceived and instead fall back on an essay topic such as choosing to pursue an MBA. This isn't always the best expression of the applicant. It is important to take the time to say, "let me tell them about me." It might be harder for a candidate who is used to playing it too safe, or trying to anticipate what they think we want to hear. Nonetheless, it is more important for us to see the individuality in an application.

How important is an applicant's quantitative GMAT score?

For us it falls in line with questions of someone's profile. It is very much an individual answer, depending on what someone's background looks like. Typically in the 600-plus range is where people are successful. But thinking about the GMAT from an admissions perspective, we look to answer the question of, "does a candidate demonstrate they've had academic success and a rigorous program and that they can handle the course portions of our MBA curriculum?" Sometimes the GMAT does that; sometimes an undergrad average can do that. But another piece of the GMAT for us is on the back end, and from a career perspective, in terms of "is this something recruiters will be asking a particular candidate for?" Sometimes it's relevant, for example, in banking and consulting, and other times it is less relevant. So it really does come down to each candidate and what they have demonstrated in where they want to go.

What's the typical amount of work experience you're looking for in an applicant?

The range is two to nine years, and the average is around five. Because it is a case-based program, having things to contribute to class discussion is critical, so the quality of the work experience is important, not just the length. Also, work experience is important for context, in order to apply learning and class discussion to professional background.

What do you want to see in applicants' recommendation letters?

It is important to see consistency with what the applicant has already identified, such as key accomplishments, key highlights, and key strengths—in order to make sure the references know the candidates well, and that the candidates know themselves well. The other piece of a reference that is critical is real depth and a strong relationship with the candidate, as opposed to someone just high up in an organization who doesn't have a lot of direct experience. We do ask specific questions in terms of leadership and team skills.

What financial aid opportunities are available to students?

Opportunities are twofold. One would be from the scholarship and donor award side of the school, where applications are reviewed simultaneously with admissions decisions. Some awards are need-based, others are merit-based, and we are always looking at specific industries or demographics. There are also purely merit-based scholarships that would come through the MBA admissions team.

How do you attract women and underrepresented minorities? Do you have any special programs to attract these students?

We find that half of the students within our program are born outside of Canada. So we recognize the importance of diversity, but it isn't formally tracked in terms of making admissions decisions. With a female dean at the helm of Ivey, the gender mix of a classroom is important to us. We have certainly developed a lot of programs specific to recruiting strong women into Ivey. It is always a challenge to get them into an MBA program, and we have been pleased to see an increase from the 20% range to the 30% range. It is something we continue to focus on, as we would love to see a mix of 50/50 like at the undergrad level, but we are not quite there yet.

Do you have any special initiatives or procedures for international applicants? What percentage of the student body is international?

The process is the same, but the additional requirement for these candidates is the TOEFL exam. What we look for is their English fluency, and we can do this by screening twice in the interview, and looking at things like essay questions and GMAT scores. We know communicating in English will be a critical piece of success for them at Ivey. They will need to stick their hands up, ask questions, and contribute to the discussion. The screening process is the same in terms of rigor.

Can you describe someone you admitted recently who is a surprising fit? Someone who doesn't fit the "profile?"

There are always interesting stories; our most recent one is of a student who had been traveling across the country playing in a rock band. He would use summers and vacations to schedule tours. He is from Canada, but didn't have the traditional business profile or background. However, he ventured into management consulting after the program. There are always unique candidates. We admit medical doctors, chiropractors, nurses—the kinds of folks who are in a learning team, and the rest of the team will say, "wow, it is interesting that we have a neurosurgeon in our program," and the neurosurgeon will say "wow, it is interesting that there is someone from real estate in our program."

Are there any stereotypes about Ivey or University of Western Ontario that you'd like to disprove?

There is always a challenge when it comes to a prestigious MBA program. Our program is sometimes perceived as a cutthroat environment. One of the neatest things for me to see is how supportive the students are of one another. Ivey is a place that is naturally competitive, but isn't cutthroat. They prep cases together; they prep for interviews for the same jobs and help each other out. Because they all moved to London and no one knows anyone in London, there are strong friendships formed before anything else. That is usually the biggest surprise when people come to visit the campus—they see that everyone knows everyone, and there are personal relationships between faculty, staff, and students. There is a supportive culture, and I think that comes as one of the biggest surprises.

Also, one of the things our students tell us that we, as an admissions and a recruiting team, don't always think about, is how important going to a non-commuter-based program has been for their MBA experience. I know that not every program is located in a smaller city like London, but it means everyone in our program, Canadians and international students, make a big commitment to step out of their comfort zone for a year and devote everything to this MBA experience. And at the end of the day, I think people get out of it what they put in.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.