George Washington: Admissions Q&A

The MBA program at the George Washington University School of Business (George Washington Full-Time MBA Profile) has almost doubled in size over the last five years. Rather than settle for its already remarkable gains, though, the relatively small school has plans to further rev up outreach and enrollment.

Leading the charge is Judith Stockmon, executive director of MBA and graduate admissions. Stockmon, who started at GW in early June, got her undergraduate degree from Brown and earned an MBA from Wharton (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile). For her, a background in marketing and consulting lends itself well to her current task of turning new applicants on to the advantages of the GW MBA.

Among those advantages is a solid placement rate, innovative curriculum (degrees are available in nonprofit and sports management as well as health care), and proximity to the Capitol. Just five blocks away from the White House, the business school sends roughly 10% of its MBA students on to government work, which may account for why its recent grads were paid less on average than any other school in BusinessWeek's 2008 ranking. But that shouldn't deter the talented applicant looking to make a difference, Stockmon says, and it school alumni still earn their share of six-figure salaries.

Here, Stockmon talks with BusinessWeek's Anne VanderMey about the value of the GW degree and the diverse career paths of its students, and offers some tips on perfecting the application. An edited portion of their conversation follows.

So, six weeks in, how do you like the job?

I like the job a lot. It's really a unique position because you're meeting all these different people who are interested in the school and you get to talk to them a little bit about who they are and what's important to them. I personally find that aspect of the job—that sense of discovery that comes with every applicant—the most rewarding.

Even though they're all applying to the same program and they all have to do the same application, there's something unique about every person, and it's part of my job to find that out. If I'm doing my job well, I'm finding out what's special about them, and if they're doing their job well, they're telling me what's special about them. And if there's a connection, that's all the better for our school. I still find I like the discovery process of finding the right fit for our program, and really being an ambassador for GW Business School.

Would you say that the program has become more selective within the last couple years?

I would definitely say that, yes.

How much has application volume increased?

Our applications grew at least 20% in 2009, and we're very excited about that. We have had all kinds of indications, in addition to the number of students who are actually applying to our program, that there is still a great deal of interest in pursuing a business degree, and pursuing one with the GW School of Business.

We definitely benefit from being literally two blocks away from the World Bank and the IMF and a few blocks away from the White House at a time where there's so much change going on within our country and around the world. There is an even greater interest now, I think, in being in an environment that takes so much from the political and business leadership. Being part of Washington, D.C., is definitely part of our learning environment at the GW School of Business.

I saw that 1 in 10 students go on to careers in government—which is unusually high. Can you tell me a little bit more about GW's ties to the capital?

I think because of our location, we certainly attract students who are interested in government-related fields. I don't know the exact percentage, but that has been a population that has been drawn to us historically and it continues to be so. Being in Washington, D.C., we are particularly rich in terms of government internships and government placements.

It's not uncommon for political leaders to speak on campus or to speak in a classroom, and those types of relationships can certainly generate more opportunities in the government arena. That's one of the payoffs of being a school in Washington, D.C. Those types of connections are forged pretty regularly.

GW students' starting pay is lower than other similarly ranked schools'. It seems to me that's probably because a lot people go to nonprofit or government-related jobs where the salaries aren't as high as they are in investment banking.

That may be part of it. Traditionally, GW business students work with the career center in a way that may be a little different than at some of the other business schools. They help students develop a customized, lifelong approach to career management. The career center is very accessible and available. And it's good about reaching out to the student body and really finding out not just what type of job they want to get once this business program is over, but asking, "What type of career do you want to lead?" and "What types of tools can we as a business school arm you with to find you the job you want today as well as in the future?"

That type of approach creates an environment where students may be very selective about the type of programs or the type of corporations and jobs they want to seek after they leave the business program. It may be the case that some of those positions may not be as high-paying as some other positions, but I think in terms of their general career satisfaction, our alumni and our students rate our career services extremely highly.

Money isn't everything, after all.

It's necessary, by all means, but there are other paths to success. Ideally, like everyone, we'd certainly like to have a little bit of both, but we do feel strongly that it is as important to be on the right path as it is to have a certain paycheck.

Speaking of that, it looks like about 90% of students last year reported having a job offer within three months of graduation. I was wondering if you have any idea how that's expected to hold up this year.

In general the job market for the business school graduate is tough. Companies are still recruiting, but there are fewer spots so it is more competitive. That dynamic is certainly true for GW as well as for other schools. I don't know if those exact same numbers will hold up, but we are pretty confident that most of our students will leave the business school with job opportunities.

What sorts of things on an application communicate to you that a student is a good fit for GW?

Their work experience, the types of jobs they've had, and their recommendations are all key in terms of looking at the full individual. We also look at how they've contributed to a team, how they problem-solve, and how they deal with conflict. We care about the kind of role they take within a team—leadership role, following when necessary—and how comfortable are they in those two spaces. Their personal statements are huge in terms of what they communicate about themselves to the admission team, and what factors they choose to dwell on in helping us identify who they are, as well as what they've done.

And finally, there's the interview. That's where we really get to dig a little deeper. We know everyone on paper by the time they're sitting in front of us, but the interview is really the key time where we get to assess who they are. I like to ask people to tell me a story, which usually stymies people at first. I'll ask them to just tell me a story about themselves, and whatever they think is most appropriate, and you see the inner struggle a little bit as they try to find the right context. You don't want it to be too bizarre, but you want it to be interesting. I find those types of questions in general really give me an indication as to who they are and where they want to go—what routes they want to take in their life.

Can you recall any stories that were particularly effective?

Actually, I can. We were interviewing twin brothers, and the gentlemen were both from Mali I believe, though they were born in Paris. They had gone to GW's undergrad program, and one of them told me a story of how he and his brother went to visit Paris during a vacation. They had limited funds, so they took a flight from Washington Dulles to Iceland to Paris, because that was the cheapest way. I said, "You're making this up." He said that, no, it was the cheapest flight they could find.

So they went from D.C. to Iceland to Paris. And of course it was fraught with all kinds of issues—they got stuck in Iceland, they were there for a few days and couldn't get to Paris, and eventually, after several days, they got there and were just mentally and physically exhausted. So I asked what he learned from that, and he said he learned that there's not always a quick fix. Sometimes the cheapest way is not the best way. He cleaned up [the story] a little better than that, but I saw that it was a huge learning experience for him, and it was a great story. It told me a lot about him, and both his sense of humor as well as his thought processes. Plus, it added at minimum some levity to the interview, which is a good way to bring out more substantive conversation.

So you don't always want to hear stories about how prospective students excelled in the workplace.

Not necessarily. I intentionally make it vague and let them choose which part of themselves they want to show me. I'm really looking for something that's not on the page in terms of their business accomplishments and that adds a twist to the application, but I don't direct them that way. I let them decide, because I think what they decide to share tells a lot about who they are.

Do you have any other advice for applicants hoping to stand out?

I tell applicants to relax and be authentic. When you aren't, it's abundantly clear. I think that it's more and more important, particularly with the competitive business programs, to demonstrate who you are as well as what you've done. And particularly when the school is being flooded with lots of applications it's even more important for you to do your homework and to realize that you are a brand.

I feel sometimes that message is lost, that you are a brand and you have to manage your brand. You have to let the school know what is unique about you, what constitutes your particular brand, and how that will fit into the learning environment. Doing a fair amount of self discovery to achieve that, I think, yields the best results.

Over the last five years, the full-time MBA program has gone from having about 150 first- and second-year students to having more than 200. Are there any further plans for expansion?

We are intending for it to grow. Our current class that's coming in the fall of 2009 will probably be about 130 students. We wouldn't mind getting to a point where we have 150 students per class. So, 300 total. We like the size of our program and that it creates a community of learners that is fairly intimate, but there is definitely opportunity and interest in growing our enrollment.

Can you recall any applications that really stood out?

I can, actually. It was the end part of a process that brought one of the Lost Boys of Sudan to our program. [The Lost Boys, about 27,000 in all, were refugees of the Second Sudanese Civil War. About 3,800 arrived in the U.S. in 2001.] He had been interviewed prior to my coming, so I wasn't part of the first round of his review. But I did play a role in GW trying to shore up some funds to make sure that he could actually be a part of our program.

It was definitely one of the highlights since I've been here. His file was thick with all these letters from all over the D.C. area, and some from different parts of the world, from people who spoke about him literally having walked hundreds of miles, him being in the refugee camp, how important it was for him to be a part of this program, how he taught himself English, and how he wanted to be a part of the GW Business School—how it was such a important element for his development. He wanted to go back to Sudan and he wanted to do some building there, to build the infrastructure.

I had the opportunity to meet him and to be the one to tell him, along with a colleague of mine that he had not only been admitted, but, because he had no funds, that we were able to find some money for him. And he was so incredibly grateful, it's an over-share here, but it just made me cry almost. I've read a lot about that region and that population, but when I met him he was just right out of TV. He was incredibly tall, very thin, and he said, "I am filled with elation."

We were very proud that we were able to do that for him, and we were very proud that he chose our program. He really epitomizes what we strive to achieve here, both in terms of globalization and in terms of community and intimacy and welcoming. His application, and his being a student in the fall, I think really crystallizes what the GW Business School is about.

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