Illinois: Admissions Q&A

MBA Admissions Director Jackie Wilson describes the ideal Illinois applicant and the school's advantages, including a new high-tech building

It's green, pristine, and an MBA-making machine. The $60 million Business Instructional Facility at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an earth-friendly building designed by Illinois graduate Cesar Pelli, is the new home to graduate business students—and to Jackie Wilson, director of admissions at the College of Business.

With full-time MBA enrollment of less than 200 for the two-year program, Illinois is one of the smaller programs around, giving it an intimate feel, and with total tuition costs of about $60,000 it's also one of least expensive programs in the BusinessWeek rankings. Graduates earn about $90,000 a year, putting the program on par with several top-tier schools.

Wilson, in an interview with BusinessWeek's Mandy Oaklander, elaborates on the process of finding future MBA leaders with skill sets that match those of the College of Business. An edited excerpt of the conversation follows.

Illinois' graduating class size of 100 students is relatively small compared with other business schools. What do you get out of a small class size that you don't get at other top schools?

What we can give to our students with a small class size is a personal touch. They get to know their professors, and their professors get to know them very well. If a student is not in class, a professor is certainly going to notice. There's more camaraderie among students. Also, those students who may not be able to take on leadership roles in a large program can in a small program where those opportunities are available to them.

Schools often mention that they are looking for a certain quality of work experience, not necessarily a certain quantity. What about a candidate's work experience will impress an Illinois admissions officer?

What we're going to look at is where they started and where they are now. We look at progression: promotions that they've had and more responsibilities that they've taken on in their years of service. We know that in the very beginning they're at the learning stage, but by the time they have two or three years of experience they should be taking on more responsibility and more leadership. We like to see that reflected in their essays as well as in the letters of recommendation from their supervisors.

Is there a typical GMAT score?

There isn't. When we look at an application we view it holistically. Someone who may have a very high GMAT may not fit what we would like to have in our program. On the other side of the spectrum, someone who may not score well on standardized tests may have terrific work experience, interpersonal skills, and communication. There is something beyond just looking at a score.

How is the application looked at holistically?

First of all, when an application comes in and is complete, it goes through two reads, and those who are strong enough get an interview. The first reader looks at it in terms of the quantitative parts: the GMAT, the TOEFL, and the GPA. But they also have to look at it qualitatively and think about it in these terms: Has this person gone above and beyond? Do they show leadership? Is there something outside of work that they're involved in, like community service? Also, we look for diversity in what they like to do and what they're strong in. We don't want all business students, and we don't want all engineering students. We would like to have a cross-section from all areas, from agriculture to the fine arts to business.

Speaking of diversity, almost half of the class of 2010—45%—is comprised of international students. What strides are you taking to ensure the already high diversity of your class?

I think we maintain diversity through the review process of the applications and in the mandatory interview process. As you can see, our percentage of women is up considerably compared to many of our sister schools.

And when we look at our international population, we're looking at what background they come from, both in their career as well as in their education, and in anything else that they have done. Normally, our international students have a very unique background [compared] to our domestic students, so they can learn from each other.

In these days of economic turmoil, where so much could depend on future MBAs, what is the number-one skill you're looking for in a candidate?

Communication: a candidate who is able to present himself or herself in a professional, mature environment. When they are speaking with us, we look for the eye contact, the firm handshake. The confidence that a person comes in with is something that they can take with them to a recruiter and use to communicate their goals.

When we interviewed an admissions representative from Illinois almost a decade ago, she noted that Illinois was the place for technology. How has the program changed since then?

We still have the technology of course, with the supercomputing and everything here on our huge campus. Our most popular concentration is finance, and that's probably because of our [proximity] to Chicago. Many of our students do want to get into finance and end up going into jobs in Chicago.

Our school is 2½ hours from Chicago; it's an easy bus ride, train ride, or drive, and our students are given the opportunity to interact with alumni at events we hold in Chicago several times throughout their two years of the MBA program.

What role do the alumni play?

They are extremely important to our program. They help us with recruiting—our alumni are put in touch with admitted students to field any questions the students may have about the program. Alumni conduct mock interviews, and they also come and interview students for some of the companies that they are working with. When they are in Chicago, they are open to meeting with our students and attending some of the events that we have in Chicago.

How is the economic crisis affecting job placement of graduates from the College of Business?

I can say the market is very tough—it's very difficult. Our career services team is working with our alums to try to find jobs that are out there. We are getting our students in touch with alums from around the world to try to help them get those jobs, but it isn't easy.

Have there been any major changes at the graduate College of Business over the last few years?

We've just moved into a new building in the fall. We have all been very excited about it and have been anticipating it for the last several years. Our students are now within close proximity and the classrooms are high-tech everything. It's just an absolutely gorgeous place to come for an MBA.

Previously we were in an old building, one of the first buildings on campus. It is still standing, but it needs to be upgraded. The College of Business has for several years been working on trying to get a new building. Everything fell into place and they started the building about three years ago, and our first class just started this past fall.

Illinois has both an undergraduate and graduate business program. What is the relationship with the graduate business school and the rest of the university?

We reach out across the campus for recruiting purposes, to get undergraduates thinking about the future. We do this through conducting information sessions across campus. We do small talks to fraternities and sororities and across different disciplines on campus. We try to get students to realize that there's an MBA here and to look at an MBA two or three years after they have their undergraduate degree.

There's also IBC, Illinois Business Consulting, which works across disciplines here. Many of our MBA students take leadership roles in IBC. It is a student-run, student-led organization, mainly by MBA students. But they also work with students from across the campus who may also be interested in consulting or in finding out more about the consulting area.

As Illinois moves ahead, what is the biggest challenge it faces?

I would say that over the next two years, the job market will be the greatest challenge. From the admissions standpoint it is getting students in who will fit into the jobs that will become available down the road.

Earlier on you emphasized leadership. Who's the perfect fit for the culture of leadership at Illinois?

Someone who is willing to step outside their comfort zone, to take on something new, to get to know others, and to really present themselves in a leadership role. We look for someone who is able to take on more responsibility in addition to their class work and the teamwork and the socializing that goes on: someone who is able to do a little extra. Or in some cases, a lot extra.

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