Michigan State University: Admissions Q&A

After Jeff McNish, director of admissions for the full-time MBA program at Michigan State University, received his MBA from Michigan State's Eli Broad Graduate School of Management, he got a job in the automotive industry.

That was common when he was a student. This year, he'd be an anomaly.

It's been a while since MBA graduates from the Broad School—located near Detroit, the nation's struggling automotive capitol—flocked to executive positions with the Big Three automakers. In recent years they've broadened their horizons and found places at a wide array of companies, McNish says, aided by a strong knowledge base in supply chain management.

In a conversation with BusinessWeek's Anne VanderMey, McNish talks about why a degree from the school that pioneered supply chain management is widely applicable, what Detroit's uncertain future means for students, and why the word "Broad" isn't pronounced the way you probably expect. An edited portion of the conversation follows.

Have there been any big changes to the application process in the last couple of years?

There have—two, in fact. The first is related to an essay question that really focuses on a candidate's life experiences and how those life experiences have shaped the candidate as an individual and shaped his or her leadership abilities. The second change to our application process is the addition of a new member to the admissions committee. That's our new director of MBA career services. His name is Joe Garcia and he's new to the business school and new to our admissions committee. His voice on the committee is really helpful, given his management and leadership experience as well as his background in sales and marketing. His role really helps us focus on what I consider to be the employability of an applicant—how successful this candidate will be in the post-MBA career search.

On that subject, do you have any sense of how Broad graduates are doing in terms of career placement right now?

We just came back from spring break, our students just returned on Monday, and I know our career services team is working really hard to sort of make an assessment of where our students are right now. Before spring break, we were a little bit behind where we were this time last year in terms of our internships and job offers. I would argue that this might be still the case. We have a little process here, though. Whenever an applicant receives a job offer, whether it's for an internship or full-time work, the student comes up and we have sort of a recognition ceremony. We have a set of glass vases and a student with an offer drops a ping-pong ball in—a green one or a white one—and we've been dropping a lot of ping pong balls in the last couple of weeks. I'm hopeful that once we get through this assessment after spring break that we'll be on par with where we were last year. I think everybody's saying it's a pretty tough market and people are having to work very hard to find jobs.

There's actually a big glass vase in your office filled with green and white ping pong balls?

There are two gigantic glass vases that we have, and one is for internships and one is for full time offers. Whenever a student secures an offer with a company, they come up and all of us in the office gather round. They talk about their offer and they ceremonially drop the ball into the vase and we cheer them on, I guess. It's fun because it helps us collect data, but at the same time the intangible benefit is that corporate recruiters see it and perspective students see it. It gives them something real to look at: Recruiters see how many balls are in the vases and perspective students will see the accomplishments of our current students. So it's kind of a fun thing we do around here and it's especially fun in these trying times.

Would you say the vases are reasonably full right now?

They are. They are reasonably full so that's another exciting part of it, too.

How has the collapse of the auto industry affected students' career trajectories?

When I was a student here back in 1999, a lot of people took jobs in the automotive industry. I even took a job in the automotive industry; I worked for Delphi. So my perception as a student was that lots of Broad MBAs end up in the auto industry. To my surprise, when I came to the admissions department four years ago, that had completely changed. For at least the last four years, the automotive industry hasn't taken as many Broad MBAs. They are taking MBAs, and we do have interns who are going to the car companies, but I think the real change in the automotive industry hires happened well before the recent economic situation. I'm delighted to know that we have a set of students—more than two I think—who are going to one of the car companies this summer because they recognize us for our talent. So it is concerning but at the same time, it's also hopeful.

Last year's class had an admit rate of about 1 in 3. Is that likely to change this year?

No. Our selectivity has pretty much stayed constant. I think it fluctuates between 25% and 30% of our application volume. We're pretty proud of that selectivity. It shows that we have great candidates and our admissions process works to select those great candidates.

How has the application volume changed within the last couple years?

Our application volume is up 30% from when I joined the Broad MBA program back in the 2005-2006 period. Applications are stronger this year than they have been in the past so that number could change when we close the books on 2009.

When is the best time to apply to the program?

Honestly, a person who puts together a competitive application really could be successful in any of our application rounds. We have four rounds. I define a competitive application as a strong GMAT score, clear goals, work experience that contains career progression, a great undergraduate experience, and really a true fit with the Broad School. So our application volume is such that a great candidate may see results at any point in time through the cycle.

But there's a small asterisk that goes along with this. There are more seats and more scholarship dollars available in early rounds. So I encourage applicants to apply as early as they can if they have a competitive application.

And there's another reason to apply early. Applying in a third or fourth round, which is sort of now or through the mid-to-late spring, doesn't give you that much time to prepare. Really, candidates should apply in the early rounds so that they have the most time to be mentally, physically, financially, and personally prepared to do a graduate management education. To me that's why a candidate should apply as early as possible, so they're ready to take on the MBA challenge.

The one thing that I'll note is that a fair number of applicants submit an application that's missing one item or more, and really the advice I would give an applicant is you should submit your application when you can submit it as a complete package. We make that recommendation and it helps with our process so that we can quickly and efficiently assess a candidate's ability.

As a former Broad MBA, what kind of person do you think is a good fit for the program?

That's a great question and I've got a pretty simple answer, but I hope it says a lot. I think a candidate who has a strong work ethic, a candidate who has solid leadership skills, a candidate who has a passion for learning, and finally, a candidate who has a global business perspective is a great fit for the Broad MBA.

With annual in-state tuition at about $20,000 for MBAs, Michigan State is literally half the price of some private schools. Is that becoming more important to students and is it helping the school stay competitive?

I think the students who are attracted to and succeed at Broad have a real sense of value. I've heard many times that students are surprised at where our tuition falls, and generally we explain to them that our tuition structure is part of our land-grant heritage. There are really two types of students: There's the type who actively pursues the value, and who expects a high return on investment and a short payback time, and then there are students who are just looking for a quality program and they're pleasantly surprised when they find us.

Just 22% of students in the last incoming class were women. Are you doing anything to get those numbers up?

We offer a weekend in the fall to attract diverse candidates. I'm going to define diverse candidates as people with all different skills, backgrounds, gender, and ethnicity. Our student organizations—our multi-cultural business students association and our women's MBA student association—invest a lot of time and talent with us in that event so that we can attract diverse candidates. We had a great event last fall and we're planning a similar event this coming fall. I'm going to attribute the success of that event to the time and talent of our two student organizations that really helped us—our women's organization and our multicultural business association.

Michigan State is a highly ranked program, but it fell out of the top 30 in BusinessWeek's last ranking. Can you tell me what might give it an edge over the more highly ranked schools?

The one thing that comes to mind is the value—the return on investment and the payback time—but we've talked about that. I think there are two other things that are sort of equal in importance. The first is our program size. We're small enough that our students can develop relationships with one another and really learn from each other. They can take leadership opportunities and try new things. Also, our program sits inside a very large, top-100 research-based institution, so there are opportunities for our students to be a part of a very large organization.

We also have a very strong family program: We call it Spartan Spouses and Significant Others, or S3. It's a very family-focused student organization and it has grown stronger in recent years. We know that our prospective students really value that organization and the services and the opportunities that it creates.

Last but not least, I truly think that our history in supply chain management, our reputation in supply chain management, really serves students in all disciplines very well. I think there are philosophies and approaches that students learn in supply chain management that can be used in all other business disciplines. Then there's supply chain management and its connection to sustainability—they fit very nicely together. I think any student who's interested in or who has a passion for the concept of sustainability and the triple bottom line will find value and benefit from studying here at Broad.

What are you doing this year to keep yield rates high?

We're watching that very carefully. We're planning a great admitted-students program, so that our admitted students will really come to the Broad School, come to campus, come to Michigan State University, and understand who we are, what we stand for, and what the results of that decision would be. We're planning a great weekend for admitted students toward the end of April.

We're also launching all-new marketing and recruiting material for the fall of 2010. Some of that material may start to work its way into our Web site and our existing strategies and tactics in late spring. And (I know other schools have done this, too) we're going to give our students who aren't close to us the opportunity to sort of see us through video. We're producing those right now.

Then—last but not least—we have a strong group of current students and alums who are willing to work with us to help admitted students make the decision about where they'd like to go this fall.

Last year the yield rate was 59%. Are you expecting that to go up this year?

I'm expecting it to hold steady. If it went any higher it would be great, but at the same time it might complicate our managing expectations. I think a yield of between 50% and 60% is pretty respectable—but sure, I'd like to see it go higher. We'll see.

Are there any misconceptions about Broad that you'd like to dispel?

We're more than just supply chain management here at the Broad School. I truly believe that our students excel in all areas of business—finance, marketing, human resources, management consulting, and the rest. We also have an opportunity in the realm of sustainability that I think is very important. If a student is looking for an MBA in the great state of Michigan, where we have four beautiful seasons, if they're looking for an MBA that's smaller and more intimate, that allows them to be themselves and to try their hands at different experiences, and are looking for an MBA that offers a respectable value, I think that we're a great choice. We're a great choice for anyone looking for an MBA.

How many candidates pronounce Broad (which sounds like "load") "broad"?

It's Broad. We hear "broad." We've tried all kinds of things to fix that, "Broad [the school name] rhymes with road," playing on the whole automotive industry. But the thing I'll tell you is that more than using any of those examples, people get it when we talk about Eli Broad. When we remind them that he is the Broad in the Kaufman and Broad Building Company—KB Home today—people get it very quickly.

It's interesting because if people understand sort of the business history behind Eli Broad, they make a connection with the name, but if they don't have the connection with it, then we have some work to do in helping them out. It is tricky, I do admit that.

So do candidates get bonus points if they pronounce it right during the interview, or do they usually have it down by then?

Not everybody has it down, and sometimes it takes a little while to get it. But certainly by the time candidates join us, they've got it right.

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