Admissions Tips from Arizona State

Rudy Pino is a recent admit to Arizona State's Carey School of Business (Carey Full-Time MBA Profile). He'll start his EMBA classes there in the fall of 2010.

So it's particularly believable when Pino, who has been the director of admissions for the school's MBA programs since March, says he believes in the power of the Carey MBA degree. There has never been a better time, he says, to pursue a graduate business education—particularly at ASU, which boasts strong career services and a personalized admissions process.

Here, Pino talks with BusinessWeek's Anne VanderMey about the state of the MBA degree, what it takes to get accepted to Carey, and how he ended up enrolling in his own program. He pulled no strings to gain admission, he says, though he does admit he "talked to people at the top." An edited portion of their conversation follows.

Have you made any big changes to the application process this year? The application process for our full-time MBA program has not changed significantly. However, we've revised and enhanced our interview questions to focus on candidates' emotional intelligence—their leadership skills, interpersonal skills, and their ability to contribute to the classroom discussion.

Our interview process is a full day of activities that includes coming to campus, meeting with a student, sitting in the classroom, going on a campus visit, having lunch with a student, and then finally having an admissions interview with a staff member and a student. We really believe that the interview process is an important component of the application and we invest a lot of resources in it. We feel that that's an opportunity where an applicant can put their best foot forward and demonstrate why they're interested in our program and what they can contribute to the classroom.

Is the full-day interview a requirement? Yes. It is a required component of the application process, for domestic applicants. For international students, if they cannot make it to campus we will ask them to conduct an interview via webcam. Again, it's a similar approach to our in-person interview, and it's a good next-best option for applicants who can't come to campus. The interview is conducted with a staff person and a student via webcam with the prospective student on the other end. It has given us an opportunity to really get to know our international applicants and to give them an opportunity to add more of a personality to their application. This allows them to further differentiate themselves, and show us how they would fit into the classroom and fit into the W.P. Carey MBA culture.

Are candidates evaluated on how they participate in the classroom during the day as well, or is it just the interview that really matters? The interview day is an experience where they have lots of interaction with students because students are really our best voice on what the program is about. What they're living is what candidates can expect, so there's a lot of dialogue exchanged between what we call our "student ambassadors" and the applicants during the interview day. Oftentimes our student ambassadors will provide feedback to the admissions committee on their experiences with the candidate while they're with us during the day. And depending on the faculty member, the applicant may choose to participate in classroom discussion, and so that should be something that they should be willing to do. We welcome their participation, given that the faculty member provides the outlet to do that. But really, more attention is given to the interview. They should focus their preparation on the interview time. The classroom visit is just an opportunity to get to see how the faculty and students interact.

That's an interesting approach. Do you know if ASU was the first to do interviews that way? I actually think we're one of a few that are taking this type of approach. There are more programs that are looking for students to really differentiate themselves. Our program has a very personalized approach, we have 100 students in the class, so it's important that they be able to cooperate and work well with each other. Not only are we asking them to be able to cope with the academic rigor, but we also focus on how well they can work with others, lead teams, sit back when they need to sit back, collaborate, and continue to develop their skills.

This philosophy also translates into the services that are provided in the program through our student services team and our career management team. The career management center really takes a personalized and customized approach to students' career goals while they're in the program.

In the first year they go through Management 594, a course that focuses on résumé writing and interviewing skills. It teaches them how to market themselves in front of employers so they're fully prepared for internship interviews and job interviews at the end of their second year. And this really is done one-on-one with the candidates, not only through the classroom but individually through our career management center. There's also ongoing coaching provided to the students throughout the year and during their internship to help them work on their weaknesses and develop the skills necessary to be successful.

Because every student comes with different goals and work experience, our career management center sits down with them, looks through their résumé, and coaches them on their interview skills via video. They get direct feedback on their performance so that they can improve when they're in front of employers. It really is a personal and customized approach to career management.

How long has the course and the personal coaching system been in place? For the past four to five years.

Do you have any changes planned for the admissions process? This year we will be working with applicants to encourage early applications. We're also implementing a deposit deadline after the notification deadline, to ensure that applicants can plan accordingly, to submit a deposit and hold their seat in the class.

In terms of the admissions process, we are actually going to be doing a number of recruiting trips to do outreach to women and diversity applicants. Specifically, we're attending conferences and recruiting events that focus on those two populations.

A tactic that has worked out well for us was to conduct admissions interviews on-site internationally. The program has done international recruiting in Latin America and has focused its limited resources on doing interviews in Asia, specifically Shanghai, in the early spring. This way we have the opportunity to get to meet with applicants one-on-one to get a better idea of their interpersonal skills and assess their ability to contribute effectively in the classroom.

So what sort of international diversity does this school have? Are most of the international students from a couple of countries or is it more spread out? Our global representation includes India, China, Bulgaria, Canada, Poland, South Korea, and Taiwan.

You mentioned you're recruiting more internationally, in Latin America and elsewhere. How is international enrollment holding up this year? Our international population this fall is about 30% of the class, so it went up a little bit from last year.

That's impressive. This year I know a lot of schools were having trouble attracting international students. We chose to really focus on our international population this year. We were shooting for around 25% to 30% of the class to be from outside the U.S., but we were really looking for students who had not only a strong academic record and background, but also significant work experiences abroad, particularly in the U.S. We looked for students with the ability to really contribute to the classroom discussion and interact with others. We also have significant programming in place for our international students through our ABC program.

The ABC course, the American Business Communications course, provides our international students with an opportunity to work on their accent reduction and understanding of common U.S. business practices. These are weekly sessions that the students can participate in. It provides them with ways to develop their communication etiquette skills and allows them just to better integrate into U.S. business culture. It was launched about five years ago, and it's unique to the W.P. Carey MBA program.

How has it been received? It has been very successful, and the domestic students really benefit as well. In the classes, students take the initiative to provide showcases of their own countries—to demonstrate what the cultural practices are within that country and how business is done there—so they're educating the U.S. students on international business. These have been standing-room-only events.

In addition, we have an international MBA association that hosts a number of programs throughout the year. One of the highlights is an international fashion show and it involves participation from not only the MBA students, but campus organizations outside of the MBA program and allows students to further educate others on their country, its style of dress, and the food. It just kind of brings us together in a nice gathering of international and domestic students.

I saw that you had 40% female enrollment in 2008, which is a dramatic improvement from 2004 when it was just 18%. What has the school been doing to increase female and minority enrollment? I think our faculty have done a great job with this. The representation of female faculty in our MBA program is probably one of the largest among MBA programs. Notably, we have Beth Walker, the State Farm Professor of Marketing and faculty director of the evening MBA program, and Amy Hillman, our new executive dean, also serving as the Management Department chair and the Jerry & Mary Ann Chapman Professor of Management. What has helped us is not only the significant number of female faculty among MBA programs, but also seeing them in leadership positions within the school. Additionally, there's student programming—we have a very active partners club. That organization reaches out early to the students coming into the program—they interact with students as early as orientation, and they're very active in providing support to the spouses and families of our MBA students.

I imagine that some students might be wary about leaving the job market right now. Have more people this year been sending in deposits to reserve a spot and then backing out? I've heard some people say that that kind of "summer melt" might be more prevalent than it has been before. We did anticipate that a number of students would choose to either stay in their jobs and go into an evening program, and we also had students who decided to forgo an MBA program at this point. What we really focused on is letting students know there's no better time than now to pursue an MBA. In these economic times, students really want to be able to differentiate themselves in the job market, and there's no better way to do that than taking the time to develop your skills and work on career management. Two years from now do they want to be two years older, or two years more developed?

With regard to the summer melt, we did experience that, particularly with the effects of the economy and students choosing to stay in their jobs. But I think the students that chose to come into the program are going to have a competitive advantage when they come out because they've had two years of development, whereas someone else may just have had two more years of work experience. The MBA graduate is actually coming into the job market with developed skills.

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing the admissions department this year? Being able to help students understand that there's no better time than now to invest in their educational development and their professional development.

I'm actually taking that to heart. I'm going to be enrolling in an MBA program here in the next year. We're really just working with students to get them to see the long-term effect of investing in an MBA program. I think students will become overwhelmed when they read the headlines and when they understand what is going on within different organizations and within their own organizations—how companies are cutting back. They feel that maybe this is not the right time, when really it is the right time to go back and develop the skills to be better, to be more prepared in the next two years. So, it's coaching students and advising students that—depending on what their career goals are and where they want to be in the next 5 to 10 years—an MBA program is the way to get them there.

I understand that ASU is highly respected in supply management. What are the programs the school most prides itself on? We pride ourselves on not only offering strong academic programs, particularly in supply chain, which we're known for, but in a number of other programs, such as marketing, information management, finance, and real estate. We're very new to that specialization, but we've recently hired a few new faculty to provide insights for students interested in the real estate specialization.

Additionally, I would say we're particularly excited about the opportunity that our students have to interact with a small class and a tight-knit community. Classes are small, that's one of our key differentiators. So you'll never have more than 50 students in one class. The students are supportive of each other, and we encourage student-faculty interaction. Courses in the different specializations will often have fewer than 20 students in them, so it's a nice opportunity for small classrooms. The first year of the program really provides the opportunity for students to lay a strong foundation in finance, management, and marketing, and the next year focuses on developing expertise, picking a specialization.

Students can also take a concurrent degree. These areas include health sector management, information management, accountancy, architecture, and even law. Another component of our program that's popular is our international elective courses. Some of the options include India, China, Southeast Asia, Germany, France, and Spain. India is new this year.

What do these courses involve? They provide and opportunity for students to understand how business is conducted within the context of an international environment, so the courses are offered during the breaks. They'll take a brief course here where they learn about business in that country, and then go abroad and receive instruction from a faculty member within that country. They then come back and do a class report on the business culture and politics of that environment.

I would say another differentiator is that we really focus on career management. We offer students, again, customized individual career advising, a core course in career leadership, emotional intelligence training that focuses particularly on leadership and interpersonal skills, the opportunity to do the mock interview, and then access to internship and full-time employment opportunities.

On that subject, I read that while students really spread out into a variety of different careers, about 10% of grads in 2008 went into manufacturing, and another 10% went into financial services, two industries that were hit pretty hard this year. Do you have any idea how hiring in is holding up for students in those sectors? Our students are faring well in the storm because of the training and the development that they've received from the career management center. They're well positioned and have been successful in securing employment across industries because they were able to better leverage their previous work experience. We've seen our students go to work in companies from across industries. There hasn't distinctly been one or another industry that's really stopped hiring our MBA students, but maybe they really have slowed down in terms of being able to make as many offers, maybe extending fewer offers to better students, and we're seeing our student accept those offers.

So hiring is more or less holding up this year? It had been steady compared with previous years. It's only slowed down [lately]. So we've seen, as with any other program, a slowing down in the number of offers.

So you're expecting that students will get jobs, just a couple months later than they were originally thinking? Correct, and they're really having to leverage their internship experience, work with the career management center, and create a network. A lot of this requires a lot of initiative on the students' part. They should go to the mock interviews and go to company presentations and learn about all the opportunities that are available.

Judging from the BusinessWeek survey, it doesn't look as ifASU graduate's salaries are quite as high as students' at some other similarly ranked schools. Do you have any sense of what might have contributed to that? Being in Arizona, we are fortunate to have an environment where nine months out of the year we have very pleasant weather. So the West and the Southwest, once students get here, tend to be areas of preference where students would like to work. Over 50% of our students do work in the West and Southwest. Our students are choosing the West or Southwest because they're choosing a balance of not only a challenging and rewarding career, but also a pleasant lifestyle.

What is Tempe like as a college town? The city serves a very large campus community; we're one of the largest campuses in the U.S. However, the MBA program has a very close-knit, private-college feel because our students really interact with just the MBA program. They have the support from student services and career management where it's kind of one-stop shopping for our MBA students. So although they're housed within this larger context of the university, they're working within a small group of students who are focused on their MBA education. The added benefit to that is that they have access to a wide variety of resources within other programs and departments.

Tempe as a city is very vibrant, with active nightlife and lots of outdoor activities. And, as I said, 9 out of the 12 months our students can enjoy fantastic weather. There's accessibility to hiking, shopping, dining, and corporate headquarters all within this kind of small, bustling environment.

What do students say is the most difficult part of the application, and how do you advise them to tackle it? The feedback we've heard is that the interview tends to be the most difficult part of the application process. We are one of the few schools that have two-on-one interviews, meaning a staff person and a student are in on the interview, which allows us to have two perspectives. Each interviewer completes an individual assessment and then adds it to the file and the committee will review both perspectives. That way we have the perspective of the student, who can judge how a candidate will contribute to the classroom, and a staff perspective on how successful they think they'll be in the program.

I think that the two-on-one interview tends to be a bit intimidating to applicants. But in terms of ways to be successful at it, just come prepared to the interview, with a good understanding of the program, questions for the interviewer, clearly articulated work experiences, and know why you want to pursue an MBA program.