Admissions Q&A: McGill

In July you may have heard that the recession was over. If so, you were probably in Canada.

The northern neighbor of the U.S. has weathered the economic crisis remarkably well, so much so that its central bank declared an end to the recession as the rest of the world was still reeling. And while American B-schools scramble to find jobs for would-be investment bankers, some Canadian schools have survived that storm just fine, too. At the McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management (Desautels Full-Time MBA Profile), hiring for the class of 2009 was the best it's ever been. Don Melville, who holds an MBA from the school, came to the program as director of MBA and masters programs last year. He recently spoke with BusinessWeek's Anne VanderMey about why now is a good time to be Canadian—or at least study in Canada—and offers some tips on how to become one of the roughly 60 students admitted per year. An edited portion of their conversation follows.

Have there been any significant changes to the application over the last few years? A couple years ago, before I started, we added interviews to the process. It was a great addition, and we'll continue it in the future. We interview people who meet our minimum requirements, so anyone who we accept into the program has been interviewed. As far as what's required to apply, we're similar to a lot of schools. You're required to take the GMAT exam, have an undergraduate degree, and complete the TOEFL if necessary. We [require] a minimum of two years of full-time work experience after completion of the [undergraduate] degree, and you need two letters of reference as well as three essays. Once that's all pulled together, we interview our candidates.

It's interesting that you didn't have an interview before. Do you have any idea what compelled the program to add one? How has it been going? I think it adds a lot of value in terms of getting an additional perspective on our students. I think it also allows our prospective students to learn more about us and to make sure it's the right fit for them. It goes both ways. It's been very successful, and one of the ways we know is our yield, or the percentage of students that say yes to our offers. We had our highest yield two years ago, and this year is our highest yield ever as well. So for two years running we've had our highest ever yield. And part of it is due to those interviews, because they allow students to get a good feel of what the program is. They get to interview with someone from here, a staff member or an alum, and I also interview a significant number as well. It's a good opportunity for us to get to know our students and also for them to get to know what our program has to offer.

Pretty impressive. What was the yield this year? Our yield this past year was over 60%.

What had it been in previous years? In the low 50s. It had been 54% the year before.

What would you say besides the new interview process is contributing to that? We changed our curriculum last year—totally redesigned it. So that was an important part of it. We've invested significantly in terms of number of professors; we have 30 new professors that were added in 2005. And we have brand new facilities here as well. So a lot of work has been done over the past few years that makes what's always been a great program even better. The curriculum is truly innovative. There's nothing like it in Canada, or pretty much anywhere around the world. We're excited about it, and feedback's been fantastic.

Can you describe some of the changes? What are the new classes looking like? It's a two-year program and it's structured so that the first semester is taught as an integrated core, and the courses are truly integrated. Instead of an intro to marketing or an intro to finance course, we have courses that go across disciplines. For example, we have a course called Managing Resources,which combines finance, organizational behavior, and information technology. And these courses are co-taught, so we'll have a finance professor teaching at the same time as an organizational behavior professor. This is something that you don't see anywhere else, especially in these combinations. Also, students start with a course called Global Leadership. That's a seminar that gets students to think not only about what type of career they're looking for, but what type of leader they want to be. It combines the skills and tools that they learn in the program and really helps ensure that they'll be responsible leaders as well. With what has been going on in the business world over the past couple years, it was very timely. The feedback's been great so far. Following that first semester, students can go straight into electives. That way they can do a concentration in one of four areas: finance, marketing, or one of two cross-functional areas—one is called Global Strategy & Leadership, the other Technology & Innovation Management. Also, there's an experiential component. Students either do an internship or a practicum, which is a detailed study, or they go on exchange. Those are four credits. We try to insure that not only is there strong classroom learning, but that it's also integrated into the real world.

Given all the changes in the curriculum, do you plan to make any changes in the admissions process or are you holding steady? Well, we've always had a rigorous admissions process. There might be changes moving forward, but we don't anticipate any for this year. Our goal, and this has always been the case, is to look for star candidates. Half of our class is international. On average students speak three languages and come from over 30 countries from around the world. We're a small group; our incoming full-time class size is about 65. We know pretty much every student on a first-name basis and that's one of the great parts about this program. There's a collegial atmosphere, not only among the students themselves, but between the faculty and the students, and the administration and the students, too.

Has the program been becoming more selective? Well, this past year was our most selective year ever. We accepted just over one in four applications. As I said earlier, we look for excellent candidates, but excellence can be defined in many different ways. There isn't one typical quality that we look at, we have people from multiple backgrounds. It makes for an interesting, diverse class.

That's quite a bit more selective. Much more so than 2008, when it was just one in three. Do you hope to hold it at that level? Our applications were up significantly last year compared to prior years, but we wanted to keep our class size fixed. We expect our application numbers to continue to increase. The demand looks very strong, which is great, and a testament to all the hard work that's been done.

When students come in what aspects of the program are they most excited about? Well, people come in for a few reasons. One is the new curriculum. Also, I think that McGill's reputation around the world is extremely strong and people come here expecting, and receiving, an excellent education. But there are so many things that students can do outside the classroom as well, whether it be participating in clubs, working in nonprofits, or playing for sports teams. And another draw is the international nature of the program. One of the comments we hear a lot is "I knew that I'd be going to school with really great students, but I didn't realize how great they would be as people, too." That's a nice thing to hear because what we look for, as I said earlier, are responsible leaders. And the city itself, Montreal, is unique. It's strong in business, it's got an unbelievable amount of things to do, and it's just a beautiful, beautiful city. So it's a combination of the class, the curriculum, the opportunities afterward, and the experience that they have while here in Montreal.

What's it like being in Montreal? It's a vibrant city, there's always something going on. Especially in festival season, which is almost the entire year. There's a huge jazz festival, a comedy festival, a lot of other ones. But it's the nature of the city as well, it's a walking city, it's a safe city. It's a multicultural, multilingual city. It's got a new and an old side. It's a place where you've got a bit of everything from all around the world.

How's the weather? I've heard the winters can be pretty tough. The winters are cold, definitely. But we have a lot of students from everywhere, and for some it's the first time they've seen snow, or gone ice skating, or been to a hockey game, and that's all part of the experience, too. We have a fair amount of students that come from much warmer climates and the first time it snows it's always a big event. It's a lot of fun.

You mentioned there was a strong international component to the program. I was wondering if being a Canadian school you've escaped any of the challenges that American schools are facing in attracting international students this year. Actually our international applications were up significantly compared to last year. I think that has to do with a few different factors. One is the opportunity for students coming from abroad to work here after graduation. In Canada, its' a very easy process. So not only are you coming here for an education, but also you can work here for a few years after—there's a very smooth process for doing that. So we've seen an increase, and I think we'll continue to see an increase in applications. Traditionally we've always had a very strong international group, as I said about 50% of our class, and we don't see that changing in the future.

Has it always been about half or has that fluctuated? It ranges between 45% and 60%.

So when you say international, is that people from outside North America or from outside Canada? Outside Canada. And it includes people from pretty much every continent. There are 30 countries that are represented in our group right now. We have people from Africa, Japan, a lot of different countries in Europe, from the U.S., from South America, from India, China, everywhere. And because of our small class size, you get a chance to work with and meet and really get to know people from all around the world. To give a personal example, I graduated 10 years ago, and when I took on this position I sent an e-mail out to my class letting them know. I received e-mails back from Mexico, from Hong Kong, France, South Africa, India, the U.S., and from all across Canada. It becomes truly an international network that you've created, but it's more than a network because you've worked so closely with everybody. It's life-long friendships.

In the wake of the financial crisis, how has hiring held up? Has it been hard to place any of these international students? Actually, we're just collecting the stats right now, and our hiring was excellent this past year. I think there are a few reasons for that. First, McGill's investment in the career services department has been significant and has paid off. We have a great group working with our students. Secondly, I think that the fact that we have a smaller class size has helped. It means that we know our students and we can help them during their search. Thirdly, I think that Canada has fortunately weathered this crisis better than other countries. It's a combination of multiple factors, but I think that by having a more personalized approach we're able to leverage our networks and our alumni networks to place students in non-traditional career paths, too. That's extremely important, because not everybody is looking for the same thing. We want to work to ensure that we can place people in the jobs that they want to be in.

What was the placement rate this year? It was over 90%. We're still finalizing the data, but definitely over 90% placement for those that reported.

That's within three months of graduation? Yes.

That's quite a bit up from 80% in 2008. Yes. I think it was slightly higher than that, 82% maybe, or 83%.

I saw that McGill graduates' starting salaries were pretty high, but lower than some other top schools'. Would you say non-traditional career paths have played a hand in that at all? I think there are a few factors at work. One, it depends on the year, but I would say we do have a percentage of students who are looking for non-traditional career paths where the salaries might be lower. So that's one group. The second component is the nature of Canada or Quebec, where salaries might be lower than in some other cities or other areas. The third might be exchange rates. The way in which the exchange rate is calculated could affect salary measurements.

What I would say is that because of the size of our class it really does vary from year to year. Some years there are more students in investment banking and consulting. Some years, more go on to non-traditional careers. Since we cater to so many different types of people, there's a broad range.

As you're looking at candidates, what makes somebody stand out? Could you describe for me what the ideal candidate would look like? I don't know if we have an ideal candidate. What I could say is we look for people who have done well in their careers. On average we have between four and five years of work experience, but there's a broad range around that. We look at why they want to do an MBA and why McGill. That's an important component for us, so that we can ensure that we can deliver on what their expectations are. We also look at academics, their undergraduate GPAs, and their GMAT scores. Our average GMAT score is the highest of any two-year program in Canada, so we always recommend people to work on, and do well on, their GMAT. And we're looking for people who will be leaders, and responsible leaders as well—people who will be making a difference.

What was the average GMAT? Our average GMAT was 670.

Have you seen any applications that kind of stand out for one reason or another? There's one, a former teacher who came in, and after doing his MBA went into finance and got placed in one of the best finance positions. We also had a performing pianist who became the president of a company that manufactures musical instruments. And then of course we have the traditional backgrounds, people who come in with a bachelor of commerce or engineering who go on and continue in their field and do quite well. We've got people who did a lot of research in things like nano-technology. One student worked with some of the leading researchers in that field.

Excellence can mean a lot of different things. We have lawyers who are interested in not-for-profit businesses, and one of our students just went to NASA for his internship. It was a great experience for him, and he's going to be a superstar. All these people that I'm mentioning are going to be superstars. And they're great people, too, which makes it fun. They're not only high-performing people, but they're great people too, and that's an important part of our program.

What can a candidate usually expect in the interview? What kind of questions do you throw at them and what do they find to be the most challenging part? I think the most important question that we want to know is why they want to do an MBA and why McGill is extremely important. We don't expect every student to know exactly what they want to do after [graduation], because that might change. But we want people to be thinking through why they want to do an MBA. We ask questions around their work experience. So, "Give us an example of a time where you failed, and what you learned from it." Or, "Give us an example of a time where you've had to work with colleagues that were at the same level as you, and you needed to convince them that your point of view was the right one." They're similar questions to what people would be asked in an interview for a job.

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing the admissions department right now? I think what we want to make sure that we've got the right candidates, and we want to do that in a very timely manner. So ensuring that our decisions are done very quickly while at the same time making the right decisions. Traditionally, it takes between four and six weeks for us to give an answer to our applicants; that's what it's been in the past. But moving forward, we would want to see that more in the two- to-four-week range. I think the delay is a function of the interview process, but the more streamlined that gets, the quicker the decisions will be without taking away from all the strengths that are part of our admissions process.

Where do you see the program going and what does the future hold? Well I really think that the changes that we've put in place have made a great program even greater, but it's really just beginning. I think that the new curriculum last year has gone extremely well. We've continued to refine it this past year, and we will continue to do so. We'll have even more links with alumni and business leaders as we go forward, even more integration between the courses, and even more job opportunities and career opportunities for our students. We're all very excited about where we are and where things are going. Our goal is to be one of the top schools in the world and right now, we're definitely right there.

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