Admissions Q&A: Minnesota

As a former student of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management (Carlson Full-Time MBA Profile) and its MBA admissions director for the last two years, Jeff Bieganek can describe the perfect MBA student for Carlson better than most. To hear Bieganek tell it, the ideal Carlson applicant is academically prepared, a team player, and a natural-born leader.

Prior to taking over as as admissions director, Bieganek was in charge of admissions for Carlson's part-time MBA (Minnesota Carlson Part-Time MBA Profile) and executive MBA programs (Minnesota Carlson Executive MBA Profile). Before that, he received his undergraduate degree from Carlson (Carlson Undergraduate Business Profile) and received his MBA from New York University's Stern School of Business (NYU Stern Full-Time MBA Profile).

A second-tier program in BusinessWeek's 2008 ranking of the best full-time MBA programs, Carlson is less selective than most other top programs, but average pay for graduates is $90,000, on par with some ranked programs.

Bieganek recently spoke with BusinessWeek's Lauren Glover about Carlson's application process and the new curriculum scheduled to launch in the fall of 2009. An edited transcript follows.

In addition to the two-year full-time program, Carlson also offers part-time, executive, and global MBA programs. Can you explain the differences?

We have three distinct programs, you really don't move between any of them. We have our traditional full-time program. The Carlson School also offers a part-time program where classes are offered on evenings and weekends. And we have a traditional executive MBA program which is an alternate weekend format. We also have three partnerships for our executive MBA programs in China, Austria and Poland. We deliver executive programs there as well.

What are your areas of emphasis in the full-time program?

Our areas of emphasis are finance, marketing, consulting, supply chain, operations, and MIS. We are introducing a new curriculum this fall with two major components. The first is our enterprise programs which are our experiential learning programs, and which are now required. Traditionally, well over 90% of our students did them anyway, but we just wanted to make sure everyone did them. We are also requiring international experience in our full-time program. All students in their second year will study abroad for about a two-week period.

How has the economic crisis affected job placement?

Ninety-one percent of our graduates had job offers within three months of graduation. This year it is quite a bit lower as you would expect, so it's been a challenging year for us. Actually we're still doing very well considering the economy.

What changes have recently been made to the program?

The new curriculum is a big one for us. The faculty spent a considerable amount of time working with the students, administration, alumni, and the business community to make sure we're prepared and preparing our students. We have always had a very international and global focus, so that's a really strong commitment as well as our enterprises, which are one-of-a-kind. No other school offers the depth and rigor around those types of programs. Most people do these types of consulting programs for maybe a semester, and ours is two and a half semesters long. It's very unique to our school, and we're proud of them. We've also developed a structure to build a cohort model so that our program is smaller. Each of our classes is about 100 for a full-time program. We really wanted to build that cohort experience throughout the life of the program so we restructured some of the course delivery throughout the two years so we can strengthen that.

What changes do you foresee in coming years?

I think we have a really incredible commitment from the leadership of the Carlson School to keep our program the best it can be, but also to use [our] great relationship with the local corporate community. We have great partnerships with the companies here and then we really have a continued strengthening of our relationships with our alumni. And I think we will continue our commitment to global experiences.

How competitive will MBA admissions be at Carlson this year?

Our program is extremely competitive and challenging. The quality of the pool is just amazing, kind of mind-boggling. Because we are smaller, there is limited space so there are very tough decisions we have to make.

What makes an applicant a good match for your full-time MBA program?

There are several things; clearly we believe we have a very academically rigorous program. Our core in the first semester is very intense, so we need somebody to prove to us that they can handle that work. So GMAT and GPA are of course very important to us. But we also have the flip side—the enterprise programs and international opportunities. So we need really well-prepared individuals who are self-aware, self-actualized, extremely successful on a team, can communicate, and really want to step up and be a leader. Because the size of our programs, we need students who can jump right in and become leaders. We need that from the first day they get on campus and they need to show us that right away through the application, interviews, essays, and letters of recommendation.

What kind of professional experience makes your applicants stand out?

We like to see a diverse range of experience. As much as we love corporate experience, we love nonprofit backgrounds, we love scientific backgrounds—we have a strong community of engineers and people with that type of background in our program. It's great. It's more qualitative than quantitative. We like to see what you've done, what you've succeeded at, and the challenges you've faced. That's important for us. How can you really provide value to your team and class? We've had people from military backgrounds and the Peace Corps. They take care of themselves; they get things done and are leaders in the classroom. We like to see global experience and global interest, as well, and that just doesn't have to be studying abroad and those types of things.

What can an MBA candidate do to prepare for an interview?

I think the first thing is research: really know the school. Much of our interview is going to be [about] real-life experiences. We're going to ask them to tell us real examples of things they've done. We don't want to know what you think; we want to know what you would do. We're going to ask you how you've been a leader which is really what you will get when you interview for a job. We really want to know what they've done, how they've accomplished things, challenges they've faced, but we want to know how that relates to the MBA and to Carlson. We want to know what value they will provide to classmates and to their program. Interviews can and should be fun. We aren't here to make them nervous or put them on the spot, we want a strong conversation. We like to do them in person, if possible.

What are some common pitfalls that MBA applicants should avoid?

We believe we have a special program, and we want to know why you want to be here. We want to know what makes your interest in our program different than your interest in other programs and why you think you'll fit in. Have you talked to the alums? Have you talked to other people in the corporate community to hear what they have to say about us? Great GMATs don't always mean a great application. Make sure you're strong in all areas. We want someone who is really interested in being here.

Any misconceptions about Minnesota you would like to dispel?

This is one of the greatest communities in the world to live in. We're constantly ranked in those areas. I think very few schools can talk about the connections they have with the corporate community. [People] are shocked at who walks through our doors on a daily basis—the type of corporate leaders who are very important. I think one of the misconceptions is that because we're in Minnesota that we wouldn't have a strong commitment to building a diverse student body. We're very committed in those areas and very active in both local and national organizations to do that. And because of where we're located, it has only strengthened our desire to be a global MBA. We've been noted internationally for the type of international programs we offer.

What percentage of your current class is underrepresented minorities? What share would you like it to be, and how do you plan to get there?

Our incoming class is 19% underrepresented minorities [for 2009-10], the entering class last year was 10% and the graduating class was 8%. As you can see, we've been growing. We want our diversity to continue to grow. For example, the percentage of women in our entering class this year was 40%. Of course, our dream is be 50/50. Certainly, we want to get the diverse candidates well above 20%.

How do you manage Carlson's wait list?

The wait list is a traditional process. Once a person is on the wait list, we send them a notification asking if they would like to stay on the waitlist. If they say they want to stay on the waitlist, we monitor that on a weekly basis and notify people of their status as we make decisions. The one strength of our admissions team is that we're real communicators. We notify people and keep people up to date as much as we can, because there's nothing worse than being on a wait list for months on end. We don't want that either so we're constantly working to stay in touch. This year we went through that process pretty fast.

What schools do you compete with to enroll MBAs?

We compete across the country for our students. Clearly the strong regional schools, everything from Chicago (Chicago Booth Full-Time MBA Profile) to Kellogg (Kellogg Full-Time MBA Profile) to Wisconsin-Madison (Wisconsin Full-Time MBA Profile). Indiana (Indiana Kelley Full-Time MBA Profile) is also a strong competitor, as well as Ohio (Ohio Full-Time MBA Profile). So we are both regionally and nationally competitive. Also, Michigan (Michigan Ross Full-Time MBA Profile) is certainly a school we compete against. We all have our strengths, and we all want students to find a school that's best for them. What's nice is that although the admissions community competes a lot, we also work together.

Is there anything else you care to share about Minnesota?

One message is: Check us out. People are always surprised when they see us and what we offer. There's much more to this school than what may catch the eye. We have a really terrific culture. Talk to our students. Talk to them about our enterprises and you'll realize there's nothing else like it. It's a great learning culture and a great culture to develop yourself. There's a real commitment to service among the students that I'm very impressed with.

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