Admissions Tips from UC Irvine

Mary Clark has been working in business school education for the past 15 years. Originally from Orange County, California, Clark returned to California to work at the University of California at Irvine's Merage School of Business (UC Irvine Full-Time MBA Profile) as director of recruitment and admissions for the full-time MBA program. Prior to working at Merage, Clark served as director of corporate outreach for executive programs at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, where she received her EMBA (Olin Executive MBA Profile).

Clark recently spoke with BusinessWeek's Lauren Brittany Glover about what Merage is looking for in applicants, and what it has to offer. An edited transcript follows.

Could you tell me about Irvine's full-time MBA program? We offer a two-year MBA program that focuses on the core courses during the first year, and during the second year it's possible to customize the curriculum based on the student's area of interest in a number of different areas. We are a relatively small program with about 100 students coming in each fall, which allows for a very personalized experience, allowing our students to build relationships with fellow students, faculty, and staff and allows them opportunity in a number of areas.

Tell me about the structure of your curriculum. Before students even set foot on campus, they start with career-visioning exercises. We really put a lot of emphasis on professional development and helping individuals find their career focus. Students are required to do a number of different exercises in order for them to discover their career interest, as well as strengths and weaknesses. During the two-week orientation, our career service professionals come together to put our students through a career-visioning process, which is a step-by-step process to help students find their career vision. In addition to that activity, during orientation we have a number of team building activities and a four-credit MBA core course that kicks off the program. In the first year of the program, students focus on the core courses of the MBA. They take courses like statistics, accounting, finance, marketing, information systems, microeconomics, organizational analysis, operations, business strategy, etc., and a couple of electives. Throughout the first year, students work closely with the career center in order to find an internship that is aligned with their future career aspirations. They spend the summer between the first and second year doing a summer internship, and in their second year they take mostly electives. Students are able to customize the rest of the curriculum based on their interests. We also have an MBA field project that many of our students like to take advantage of. We have agreements with a number of companies who have chosen the Merage School to work on a number of strategic projects.

Can you tell me about MBA field project? This is the opportunity for students to apply what they've learned during the first year and internships on the job. It's a 10-week corporate project with a Southern California company. They work with a dedicated faculty member, helping them with a certain problem they might have. Some of the companies we've worked with in the past few years are Mazda (MZDAF), the Gallup Organization, Toyota (TM), Watson Pharmaceuticals (WPI), and Wet Seal (WTSLA) to name just a few. It's a lot of different industries that are able to attract students from lots of different areas of interests. A lot of our students have said this has been one of the cornerstones to their whole MBA experience because it's great learning. Students contribute to the bottom line of organizations and it's good networking for future career opportunities.

Could you tell me about the internship experience required for all full-time students? It takes place between the first and second year of the program. The core courses that students have completed will prepare them to add value to the organizations they intern with. A lot of effort is made so that the students are really working hard to get the internship that's really going to help build their résumés to get the post-MBA job. Students work very hard researching companies and opportunities and doing self-reflection to see what they want to get into. They're doing all of those efforts and interviewing with companies to get the dream internship that could possibly turn into the dream job.

Can you describe the culture and atmosphere at the Merage School of Business? The Orange County community is a booming economy with a wide variety of industries. We're at what we call the heart of the Tech Coast. In general, that environment is attractive to a lot of people around the country and across the world. They come to Irvine for a number of reasons, but the atmosphere we have is collaborative, diverse, and open. So people from all different walks of life feel very welcome and feel that they can make a contribution, as well as gain a lot from the backgrounds and experiences of their peers. We have a student ambassadors program, a group of about 10 current MBA students, who talk to prospective MBA students about the Merage program. Our applicants say they've never seen such a friendly and open communication with the students as the one we have.

What is one thing that makes the Merage School of Business stand out from other programs? We are a relatively young business school, but we're part of a greater University of California system. Four years ago, our benefactor gave a large gift which allowed us to name the school after him. I think that has given the business school and all of its programs the opportunity to go to new heights.

How would you describe your faculty and professors at Merage School of Business? We are able to attract world-class faculty dedicated to research and teaching. Many faculty members consult with many companies so they're very high quality and a diverse group as well. What we've heard from students time and time again is that since we're such a small program, they are able to have direct access to faculty members. They're able to get the help they need, so it's a lot of personalized attention.

You have a very diverse group of students in your MBA program. How have you managed to gather such a diverse group of students? We recruit on four continents. We travel there and meet with prospective students. We also travel around the U.S. and that has enabled us to attract such a diverse crowd. The fact that Orange County and the greater Los Angeles community is so diverse also makes it an attractive destination.

Describe the typical Merage MBA student. We're a very diverse group, so it's hard to say. What all students have in common is that they're all very bright and have proved themselves by doing well at universities and scoring good GMAT scores. The other thing that they share in common is that they're driven and focused, a quality I think is really important in an MBA setting. Many students who have chosen the Merage School were looking for a collaborative environment, in which they can thrive. We put a lot of emphasis on teamwork because we know that's what it takes to survive in the business world. They're team oriented and they know that in order to be successful, they must be able to work as a team member and team leader. The vast majority of students are active in some of the extracurricular activities and student clubs we have. We have a good turnout at the events and conferences that are organized by our student clubs.

What type of experience do you most value on a candidate's application? We really are looking for a diverse group of students so if you looked at the breakdown of what our students were studying before entering the MBA program, you'd see everything from engineering to business, computer science and even the humanities. We attract a really big group. In terms of what we most value, I'd say having shown a career progression. We want to see that they've grown in their careers—no matter what level—and they've made significant contributions in their organizations. It's that demonstrated leadership.

What resources and opportunities are available to MBA students? Some of the really unique ones are The Polaris Investment Competition which is an opportunity for students to use investments totaling up to $1.5 million by a big collaborator with our university. They make these investments and if they do well and profit, students are actually able to make money to offset tuition up to $12,000. That's a great way to help them pay tuition and experience the stock market first hand. The business plan competition allows people with ideas for a business to come together to work with students from other areas of the university. They're able to come together with a lot of coaching to make a pitch and gain potential financing for their ideas. Those are some of the most popular opportunities, but there are many clubs for different areas of interest.

Merage is on rolling admissions with four target deadlines. Is there an advantage to applying earlier? We're on rolling admissions, and we have four target deadlines: Nov. 1, Dec. 15, Feb. 1, and Apr. 15. People can apply at any time, and they're processed in the order they are received. We tell people that the sooner the better—don't wait for the next deadline.

How much work experience do you look for in a typical MBA applicant? We don't have a minimum. The majority of our students have significant work experience. On average, it's about 4.5 years. We believe students will have a better learning experience with at least two years of work experience before embarking on the program. We want to see that no matter how long someone has worked, they have seen some career progression or made contributions to their organizations.

How do you work with students who may not have as much work experience? We have a 3/2 Program. It is for UC Irvine undergrads who do three years in the undergraduate program and then join the MBA for two years. It's very competitive. Most of the applicants are not admitted, but this year we've been fortunate enough to have two students in that program. They have done everything they needed to do to make themselves a competitive applicant. They've had some really interesting internships with companies that we know have given them meaningful and quality experiences. We're able to give them the training they need to get an MBA-level job. Typically those are the only cases where our students don't have post grad experience.

What is the most unusual or difficult essay question on your application? I don't think we have any questions that aren't pretty straightforward. The only thing I would say that is most difficult is we're asking students to tell us what their short- and long-term goals are. We want to know how what they've done in the past relates to their future goals. It's interesting to see how much effort students put into self-reflection, telling us how it's going to benefit their careers and their lives.

Are all accepted students required to interview with admissions? How does the interview process work? All students are required. When we receive a complete application, the application is reviewed by two people. At that point, we determine if that person is invited to interview. We prefer in-person [interviews], but do accept some over the phone.

Have there been any curriculum changes to your full-time MBA program? Not in the last few years. We're constantly adding new electives to our offerings, but there hasn't been a radical change in curriculum.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the admissions department right now? It's interesting because year after year our mission is the same, which is to recruit and enroll the very best students we can. So it continues to be raising the bar higher to accept high-caliber students every year. It'll be interesting to see what happens this year with the economy to see what kind of decisions people are making because in some ways we haven't been able to tell if everyone who applied for business school is able to attend. Some people may get cold feet and are afraid to leave the work force where they have stable jobs. I think that will be the challenge in the next year. We're optimistic and believe that students are still taking a calculated risk and investing in themselves.

How has the economic crisis affected your number of applicants? We have seen a significant increase in applications, over 30% both domestic and internationally. I don't think it's 100% due to the economy. I think that a big [reason] is the growing reputation of our program here at Irvine.

How is the economic crisis affecting job placement of Merage grads? It has definitely had an effect. But I'm pleased to report that the percentage of people who have jobs this year is approximately the same as the number of people who had jobs last year. Overall, the statistics are looking O.K.

How is your alumni base, and how do they help students? Every student has access to our alumni database. We have a number of events we organize so students can actively engage with our alumni group, and we have several alumni who are very involved with the business school, serving as mentors. Our alumni are constantly offered continuing education opportunities and asked to speak at different events.

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