Oxford's Saïd: Admissions Q&A

The University of Oxford is the world's oldest English-speaking university with one of the newest business programs: Saïd Business School (Saïd Full-Time MBA Profile). Established in 1996, the full-time MBA program still ranks among the top 10 international business schools.

Anna Farrús, the MBA admissions manager at Saïd, came from the admissions department at Barcelona's IESE (IESE Full-Time MBA Profile), a program 32 years older than Saïd's. Being able to mold the admissions department and take part in something new is the reason she's been at Saïd for almost three years.

"I like to think of a business school as a startup," Farrús said, noting the school's ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Its students have the same advantage. Graduates from Saïd say the program is great for self-starters, especially for those interested in entrepreneurial ventures. Says one grad responding to a BusinessWeek survey, "The school is very open to new things—I started a $40,000 conference on business and the environment, and the school was most receptive."

In an interview with BusinessWeek's Mandy Oaklander, Farrús explains the value of a one-year program, how the anemic economy is affecting business schools, and how Saïd is fighting back. An edited portion of the conversation follows.How do the application numbers look this year compared with the last few years? What percentage of applicants do you accept?
We've seen an increase in the applications, both this year and last year, so things are looking good. Each year we receive about 1,000 applications. This year so far we have received about 1,000 applications and we still have one stage to go, so we are hoping to get around 1,200 applications. We admit 225 people, which is about 25% of applicants.How has the bad economy affected application numbers?
We've seen a crisis before, in 2001. Normally when there's a crisis, the number of applications goes up. But because we've never seen something this drastic, we really didn't know what to expect. I didn't talk to any director of admissions who could tell me exactly what they were expecting because it's a very unique situation. But we have seen an [expected] increase in the number of applications. Interestingly enough, it's not so much from the finance sector. I was really expecting to see lots of [financial sector employees] that had been laid off. We've seen some of these people, but we've seen more of a general increase, not necessarily only in the finance sector.Is there any new dominating sector?
Because our school is very strong in social entrepreneurship, we receive many applications of candidates from that background: nonprofit, NGOs, etc. But it's been pretty consistent throughout the different sectors.What are some common mistakes made in applications?
Sending the application without all the required documents happens a lot. We have different deadlines for applicants to send their applications, and we have a set of required documents that we need in order to review the application. A high percentage of the candidates don't send their applications complete. Transcripts, TOEFL scores, GMAT scores, recommendation letters: candidates forget everything and anything. It delays everything in the process.Are interviews required? Where are they conducted?
If a candidate has not been invited to interview, it means they have not been successful. We interview everyone who will be offered a place. We have many interviews conducted on campus here in Oxford. Also, if we happen to be traveling, we'll have them anywhere in the world: in the States, Europe, and Asia. If candidates cannot make it in person, we'll conduct phone interviews.Many schools have alumni conduct interviews. Oxford doesn't do that?
No, we mainly use faculty and sector consultants for the interviews (and myself). Sector consultants are a group of people that work with the career services department. These are people who are specialists in a specific industry, such as IT or entrepreneurship or finance. They conduct admissions interviews; they can give us a very good perspective on the quality of the candidate and also on the employability of that candidate after the MBA. They also work with career services to help candidates develop their skills in order to get the kind of job that they want once they finish the program.Where do you find the sector consultants?
The relationships with sector consultants and the career services department have been established for a few years now. These people work on a part-time basis with the business school. [They're] mainly people who have some sort of relationship with Oxford, whether someone in Oxford knows them or for whatever reason. Normally it's people with long experience in their specific sector who can offer some help and different perspectives to our students.What are some of the things you're looking for in the interview that show you someone is a good fit for the Saïd program?
We look for people who have very good communication skills, who can express themselves and show us who they are. We want people who are academically capable who will not have problems with the program. We also want people who can bring something unique to the class that's different. In the end, students are learning not only from the faculty but also from the rest of the students.Have there been any changes to the program recently?
Due to the current market and financial climate, it's important that students learn what's happening and ways to deal with it. I think professors have been trying to implement changes in their courses in order to talk about this situation. Also, we've tried to bring in as many speakers as possible in order to talk about what's happening and possible ways out. There hasn't been a major change in the curriculum, but while the professors are giving their courses, they're also talking about the current climate, what the future is, and how it has to be changed.Saïd is a one-year program. What does Saïd leave out that other two-year programs include?
The one thing is the exchange program. We don't include an exchange program because we don't have the time to fit it into a one-year program. But besides that, we don't leave out many things. It's a very intense program. My experience with two-year programs is that the first year is quite intense, but you're still able to breathe. The second year gets really relaxed. Here, you have one year that's extremely intense. You don't have time for many things, I'm afraid. So I don't think that we leave anything out.

Many people ask me, "What about if I want to change careers? Can I still do an internship?" We still offer the 15-month option, so people who want to do that can extend the program to 15 months and do an internship. Even that, we don't leave it out; we have that option there.What are some unique traditions practiced at Oxford?
Just the fact that the business school belongs to the University of Oxford is quite unique, really. The University of Oxford has almost 900 years of history. We try to implement in the business school Oxford's many traditions and the way the university thinks. We have this knowledge of the university plus the energy and innovation of the business school. I think it's an extremely powerful combination.

We have the college system in Oxford. It's very unique; all the students have to be members of one of the colleges here. While the school will bring you academic life, the colleges will bring you more of a social aspect to Oxford life. This college system is very interesting because you won't only be interacting with MBA students but also with students from the entire university. That opens your networking opportunities a lot. You can be sharing a room with an astrophysicist or a student in music or something that doesn't have anything to do with business. I think that really opens the minds of our students and the way they see things. In the business school everyone is interested in business, which is great. But when you go back to your college, you see that the world is wider. There, students can get ideas to develop their entrepreneurial projects or something else.

This college experience is very unique at Oxford. Not all colleges offer accommodation, and it's not mandatory. Most of the students want to live there, because it's one year of your life and it's a pretty unique experience. They try to take the most out of it.Almost half of all Saïd MBAs took a job in a new country after graduation. How does Oxford prepare students for the challenges of such a move?
Ninety-five percent of our students are international. We don't have such a thing as international business, because everything taught here is international. All the experiences that students bring to the classroom are international. We try to bring people in who are international not only because they were born in a specific country but also because they have had plenty of experience in different countries throughout their professional or personal experience. We don't offer any specific preparation for people who transfer from one country to another, but the entire curriculum is international.Women make up 27% of the Class of 2008. What is Oxford doing to increase that number?
Next year we are going to have a couple of scholarships just for women. We just had this news a couple of weeks ago, so I'm really excited about that. And hopefully we are going to have women-only events with women keynote speakers on campus. If we're traveling, we'll try to find women candidates. We've tried things—and I've had this experience with other business schools—but it's very difficult to attract women to MBA programs. It's the age when lots of women are thinking about having a family, getting married, having kids. We've still tried to attract women, and we want more women. We're very interested in increasing the number of applications. So far, in stage two in our second deadline, about 29% of admitted candidates were women, so that's quite good.Oxford has several student-led initiatives: the Asian interest group recently planned a job-search trip to Dubai, Singapore, and Hong Kong, for example. Is this a result of economic necessity in a depressed job market?
No, this happens every year. It's not a result of the bad financial situation. It's partly funded through the school and partly through companies; it varies. There was also a trek in Africa and part of it was funded by the school. These initiatives are very popular with students.How is job recruiting in this economy?
It's tough. We're facing a completely different market, and it's difficult. Traditional employers are not coming, or if they are coming, they're not employing as many people as they used to. We have to teach more and more skills to students [in order for them] to be able to land their dream job. What we're trying to do at the moment is to keep training our students.

That's why we also have the sector consultants, though it's not the first year we've had them. They can really teach the students about tools they'll need in order to get a good job. Also, we're approaching companies for whom MBAs weren't attainable before. [The companies] were thinking that an MBA wouldn't even consider them, so now we're having companies approaching us and MBAs are considering them.

Companies that used to come before are not coming. The market is changing and it's tougher. But I wouldn't say it's terrible—it takes more effort from the students in order to get a job. And that's where we're trying to help them: to bring them more tools in order to get a job.Are alumni helping out with this?
The alumni are always helping with this. We have just appointed a new director of the alumni department, and she has many ideas on how to improve the alumni relations and the way they help our students. I think networking is such a huge tool for the students that they need to use. It's very important when we have companies coming to visit us. Even if they are not interested in a company that's giving a presentation, it's so important that they attend these presentations. At the end, networking and knowing the HR director of a company is important. Who knows? Maybe this person can lead the student somewhere else. It's the same thing with alumni.Saïd is one of the youngest highly ranked programs. What's the biggest challenge facing such a new program?
The challenge is that we are so young. We have the university behind us, and that's huge and really helpful—they have been doing this for many years—but the business school is a different market. We're still learning certain things and we're still improving. But at the same time, because we're so young, we still have this capacity to learn, improve, and implement changes, which is really great.

Other business schools, because they've been doing this for many years and because they have really established processes, find it more difficult to make changes. But in our case it's quite easy to implement changes and to adapt to new circumstances.

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