Admissions Q&A: MIT

MIT has a reputation as a place for scientists and math geeks. But Rod Garcia says that shouldn't stop anyone looking for a good business education from applying to the Sloan School of Management (Sloan Full-Time MBA Profile) in Cambridge. "I don't think this place is more quantitative than other schools," says Garcia, Sloan's director of MBA admissions.

Applicants had better be prepared, however—about 12 people apply to Sloan for every seat available in the incoming class. Garcia, who has worked in Sloan admissions since 1988, says the school is often forced to turn down good applicants. "Very often someone is not admitted not because they are not qualified, but it's that we just don't have room for qualified candidates," he says.

Garcia recently spoke with Bloomberg Businessweek's Zachary Tracer about how Sloan evaluates candidates and also offered some tips for international applicants. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation.

What makes someone a good fit for Sloan, as opposed to any other MBA program?

I think fit is best felt [rather] than described. At the end of the day I think applicants make a choice which school feels right for [them]. We'd like to think we have room for people who are non-quant, and we do. We do have people who went through our program, and some of them did initially struggle, but they made a conscious decision to come here because they wanted to address that weakness, which is that they don't have a quant background.

How quantitative is the school?

Pretty much all business schools are quantitative, no doubt about that. But I don't think this place is more quantitative than other schools. You will have people here who have strong quant backgrounds, quant preparation. The game is much different than in other schools, where they may not have the same proportion of students that we have here who have quant backgrounds.

MIT receives some 4,000 to 5,000 applications for Sloan each year. Given the number of applications, how can an individual stand out?

That of course is a challenge. Two things will make someone stand out. One is what we call demonstrated abilities or demonstrated success, the things that are clearly visible when you look at the application—that is grades, your score on the test, your work experience, reputation of the company, quality of the school, quality of the degree. And then there are things that are not easily visible, and these are what we call "beneath the water." The beneath the water characteristics are ones that are a little bit more difficult to find. [One characteristic is] trust-building skills, so you look for evidence of candidates who are good at building trust, mentoring, coaching, advancing relationships. You're looking for achievers, people who are not satisfied with the status quo. You're looking for people who are not just planners, but executors. But we're also looking for people who can think outside the box. When you look at all 5,000 applications, the first things you look for are things you can easily sort, something that's clearly visible to you. Once you're past that, you need to start doing a deep dive and finding out what more is there.

Do you have a minimum GMAT score or a minimum number of years of work experience?

No, because you look at [the application] as a portfolio. Of course, it has to be within reason. Let me give you an example: One might have a 2.8 GPA and a 780 GMAT, so you don't necessarily eliminate that person, you dig for more data, and really the question that we answer is, is this person a 780 person or a 2.8 person.

Are there any common mistakes that you see in the application?

There are people who just recycle essays from other schools, and that's easy to figure out, because we know their essay questions. I think probably the other mistake [is that] most people are not good at managing their recommenders. It really is the responsibility of the applicant to manage the recommenders, manage the deadlines, and just follow up. The other thing is that people don't know how to write cover letters these days. Some actually ask, "What is a cover letter?" And you know what? If they don't know how to write a cover letter now, they [won't] know how to write a cover letter a year down the road when they are applying for jobs. That is serious.

Who should applicants ask to write their recommendations?

Good recommenders are ones who know the [candidate], someone who has worked with the applicant. The more stories they can tell, the more data they can provide, then the more beneficial it is to the candidate. But in order to do that, the recommender really needs to know the candidate.

Almost half of your students are international. Do you have any tips for international applicants?

Be mindful of the deadlines. I guess this goes the same for domestic applicants, but it's even more critical for international applicants. Apply in the first round. There are applicants from certain countries [who] wait until the last deadline to apply. So in round one, a few people are competing, but in round two, where you have 90 percent of the [applicant] population competing, you can only take a few. Submit their application when they think they're ready. They shouldn't wait [for] the second round.

MIT obviously has a very competitive admissions process. Just 14 percent of applicants got in last year. What should students do who don't get in?

People don't get in for a number of reasons. One, if they're simply not qualified, they just don't have what it takes. And then there are situations when they're good, but not good enough to make it. That is the crux of the problem. There's nothing we can do, and there's nothing they can do. Retaking the GMAT is not going to do it. There are candidates [who] can do something. If the only reason why they were turned down was because they didn't have enough work experience, then staying in the job for a year and reapplying next year might make a difference. In some cases, some people retake the GMAT and improve the GMAT from maybe 560 to 760. And others may just need reflection. My recommendation to anyone who is not accepted the first time is to go back to the application and read the application, or better yet, have someone read and critique the application. As in anything, you need to get feedback. Now, we don't give feedback, but you may be able to get that by asking someone who knows you. Calling us is not going to make a difference. The reason we don't give feedback [is that] very often someone is not admitted because we just don't have room for qualified candidates.

Any recent or upcoming changes to the curriculum?

On the curriculum side—we didn't have this prior to 2008—we started offering two tracks: a track in finance and a track in entrepreneurship and innovation. And starting this year [students] can get a certificate in sustainability. There's been discussion about offering it as a track, but then sustainability cuts across all these areas, so you could be in finance or entrepreneurship, but still be interested in sustainability.

Can you tell me about how MIT students interact with the Boston and Cambridge area, both during the year and also during the job search and internship search?

The good thing about MIT is we are in the city and we've got these clusters [of companies]. We've got energy clusters here, we've got high-tech clusters, we've got biotech clusters. There is a reason why they decided to be here, because they wanted to be close to MIT and they want to have access to MIT. Interestingly enough, the British Consulate [is] here in Cambridge, and again, part of that is because they want to be close to MIT. We're engaged not just on a global level, but also on a local level with MIT and with the community that's around MIT.

The job market for MBAs has been tough for the past several years. How has MIT helped its graduates find jobs?

Certainly, this year is better than last year. Last year was one of the worst. Relatively speaking we still came out better than most. Part of that is we learned from our experience during the dot-com bust. So when this happened, we were prepared to respond. Part of that is just being more aggressive in selling our students. Instead of reacting, [the Career Development Office staff] were being proactive by reaching out to students earlier. They offered new programming in terms of career development for the students. What's interesting about this is while it's a down market here in North America, Asia is booming. So we've had students go to Asia. And that wasn't done 10 years ago. They go there every year in January, and they visit companies.

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