Admissions Q&A: University of Michigan

The University of Michigan's Ross School of Business (Ross Full-Time MBA Profile) ranks among the top 10 U.S.B-schools, and if you want your application to stand out, sincerity is key. The school recently changed some of its essay questions in order to gain "more insight into who the applicants are," said Soojin Kwon Koh, who's been the school's admissions director since 2006. "We want authenticity and honesty in their responses and for them to be self-aware and to say it in their own voice," explained Koh.

Other changes this year include the school's decision to accept the GRE as well as the GMAT. Read the edited transcript of Koh's recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek's Sommer Saadi to find out the effect of that change on how the school weighs the scores when reviewing applications, as well as why work experience is important to the admissions committee, what kind of person is considered a good fit for the school, and how to best demonstrate your achievements through your résumé.

Have there been any major changes in the application process for the coming year?

We do have some new essay questions that we've developed for this year. And our application will be online. We are also going to be accepting the GRE and the IELTS for non-native English speakers this year.

What prompted the change in essay questions?

We realized we weren't exactly able to glean what we wanted from [last year's] essays so we tried to ask questions that might give us more insight into who the applicants are. We're hoping that these questions will better enable applicants to tell us things about themselves that we're trying to find out.

Do you have any tips for how best to stand out when sending in your application?

Often essays sound very canned—[the applicant has] probably read a book that says, "Here are some winning essays that got people into X, Y, Z business schools." Or we have international students who it's pretty obvious that they didn't write their own essays [or] they've had heavy editing. That doesn't help them in the process.

We want authenticity and honesty in their responses and for them to be self-aware and to say it in their own voice. I would focus on what I want the admissions committee to know about me as a person, what qualities do I want them to know about me and what are the stories then that will highlight that those are the qualities that I possess.

One of the ways that they can stand out is to show that they've really done their homework. There are so many people who go through the process and they think, "O.K., I know I want to go to business school, it's my next step, and you guys have a good general management program, Ross looks great…" Those kind of essays don't really stand out. We want the people who know themselves and know our school and how these two things really fit each other well.

And in your experience, what do you think makes someone a good fit for the school?

A lot of what we do is team-based—so people who have had experience or can demonstrate that they can work well on teams [would be a good fit]. We've got such a broad range of backgrounds coming in and career goals going out, we're not a one- or two-function school or an industry school. We want folks who thrive in and value learning from people who have different career goals as well as backgrounds. The last thing I wanted to mention is we do look for students who have shown a propensity for getting involved in things—they are active participants at work or in their communities or in their schools, they really like to engage in everything that they do and not just go through the process.

Do you have any suggestions on how applicants can format their résumés or what they could do with references to help show they are that sort of engaging and participatory person?

Well, in their résumés, one of the things that we always look for is have they had a quantifiable or a qualitative impact in their organizations, not just a description of their responsibilities. Oftentimes those are the kinds of résumés we see—my job is to do X, Y, and Z—and we don't know what they've achieved through that.

Similarly, we hope that their recommenders highlight their achievements and their contributions, how they've interacted, and what kind of a corporate or a nonprofit or entrepreneurial team member they've been in their organizations. For the recommenders, I would always recommend they get direct supervisors, if at all possible, people who will know them pretty well and can be honest about their strengths and development needs. We appreciate people who are self-aware enough and comfortable enough to say, "Yes, I do have areas I need to grow in and business school is part of the solution to helping me develop in those areas."

I saw on the profile for Ross on that students have an average of about five years of work experience. What is your opinion on work experience when you look at an applicant? Is there a minimum that you like to see? What are the guidelines you use for that?

We don't have an official minimum but we do have a preference for people with full-time work experience. Our range is anywhere from less than a year to about 20 years. I haven't instructed the admissions committee to only look for people with five years of work experience, it just averages out that way. The reason we value work experience is because you gain additional experiences, insights, and you bring more to the table when you've actually been in a full-time work setting. We want people to come prepared to engage actively in the discussion [about real life and real organizations] as well as contribute to team projects or to our MAPs projects, the Multidisciplinary Actions Projects, with some degree of experience to add value to the project. We want people to be as much givers to the learning experience as they are takers because it's not just a one-way learning street.

One of the changes to the application you mentioned is that you'll also be accepting GRE scores this coming year. How does that affect how you weight scores in general? And how will the GRE scores compare to those who take the GMAT?

This will be our first year so it'll be kind of a test year for us, but I have talked to a number of peer schools who have accepted [the GRE] this past year to get their insights on how they did things. For someone who has taken the GRE, because it's different from the GMAT, we'll be looking for evidence of strong quantitative skills. The GRE is a little bit less intensive on the quantitative and so we're going to be looking to the undergrad record, work experience, as well as a strong quantitative portion on the GRE to give us evidence that they will be able to handle the quantitative and analytical work of the first year of the MBA program. So we want to have additional information, whether it's calculus in undergrad or if you didn't take it in undergrad, it's fine to take it after you've graduated. But we just want to be comfortable that we're not going to admit you and then you drown in the quant classes.

You have 33 percent international students, which is fairly good for a lot of the top-ranked MBA programs in the States. What sort of emphasis do you place on recruiting people from across the globe and why is that important to the student makeup?

Well, we know that business is extremely global and it would be remiss of us not to have a student body that reflects the way business is done. So we do actively recruit all around the world. We do information sessions and other recruiting activities in Asia, Europe, Latin America, a limited number in Africa as well. And we want to have diverse representation across all of those continents.

How does Career Services handle having to deal with so many students with so many different aspirations and what sort of attention can students expect from Career Services?

It does make it more challenging, but we've been fortunate in that for the coming year we have a new full-time staff person in the Career Development Office, who will be focused on the nontraditional career paths and to do corporate outreach to identify alumni working in those industries or other relationships that we've had so that we create those pathways. And then we continue to have staff who are focused on corporate relationships with the more traditional industries.

What sort of role does the alumni network play for students while they're in school, and then when they're out of school? How much do students tap into that?

Our alumni network, especially in the past couple of years when the economy has been tough, [has] been so open to talking with our students, helping them identify opportunities, posting on our jobs database, and mentoring students and recent grads in their industries. They also are a source of our MAP projects. A large percentage of our MAP projects are initiated by our own alumni. And the great thing about being a part of Michigan/Ross is that not only do you have access to the 40,000 Ross alumni, but our students have access to the half a million University of Michigan alumni around the world. So many of our MAP projects have also been sourced by U of M alums, as well as a lot of our jobs and internships.

What would you say are some of the advantages of being a part of such a big campus? And also, what are some of the disadvantages that people have to consider?

One of the great things about being part of this large university is that we have a lot of top-ranked grad programs on campus so there's a lot of opportunity for students to take classes at the other grad schools, and meet people from the other grad schools. Oftentimes our students partner with students from those other schools to launch a new business or enter a case competition and they've got the expertise of people who are studying medicine or biology or electrical engineering.

There's also great diversity because it is such a large university. And, being top-ranked across a number of fields, it attracts people from all over the world. So while people may think, "Oh, you're in the Midwest," Ann Arbor is a really unique, special microcosm of the world.

One of the challenges for some people may be that it is in the Midwest [and] they think they will be disconnected from large metropolitan areas, that they won't have the access to recruiters that you would get if you went to school on one of the coasts. That's one of the misconceptions that I wanted to dispel. [After graduating], a quarter to a third of our students go to the East Coast, about a quarter go to the West Coast, primarily to the Bay Area. Very few people, I would say only a handful, stay in Michigan or come from Michigan.

The other thing that people often ask me is, "Oh, you're in Michigan? Michigan has been hard-hit economically, especially with the auto industry in decline. How has that affected you?" And the answer is it hasn't at all because we don't get our full-time students from the auto industry, our graduates don't go into the auto industry. It's really a non-issue for full-time MBA students.

You mentioned that a lot of students go out West and to different locations for jobs upon graduation. Is that because so many recruiters come to Ann Arbor and they're able to connect?

The fact that Ann Arbor is such an easy commute from the Detroit Metro Airport, about 35 minutes, it's really easy for recruiters to come to our campus, as well as for students to do flybacks in New York or in San Francisco or wherever they need to go.

What would you say are some of the highlights of the curriculum that make Ross' program stand out?

One of the nice things about our curriculum is there's a lot of flexibility, especially in the second year, to take electives. You can focus if you want or you can continue to be a general management track if you want. We've had a lot of students collaborate with faculty to develop or suggest classes that are of strong interest to incoming students. For example, we've got a course that was developed in the last few years called Sustainable Finance. And then there have been courses that are cross-listed between the School of Medicine and us. There's a class called Integrated Product Development, which is a collaboration between our students, the School of Design, and the School of Engineering.

Along those lines, does the Ross MBA program have a lot of dual-degree options?

We've got some that are fairly standard—a lot of JD/MBAs, MD/MBAs, joint [programs] with the Public Policy School, Public Health, the School of Education, the School of Engineering, and the School of Natural Resources & Environment. But we've also got the flexibility to do any number of dual degrees that you want to create. We've got about 20 that are already in place. You can also create your own dual degree and work with our Academic Services unit to create something that's tailored to what you want to focus on.

And just in general, in your opinion, forgoing two years of work and the cost of tuition for two years of school is a pretty big investment. What makes Ross worth a student's time and money?

Having gone through it myself, I think it is worth the investment. It's not just the immediate return on your investment in terms of the salary you get postgraduation, it's also the investment you make in skills that you'll have long term, the ability to be flexible and adaptable across a wide variety of industries because you're learning not just one thing. And then the network that you're going to get from any top school is tremendous and invaluable. For Ross in particular what you'll find, especially if you talk to our students and our alumni, is there's an incredible amount of passion among our community.

Is there anything else you want to talk about or that you want to make sure that we address for students who are looking at this and thinking about applying?

The recommendation that I give to people that are thinking about going through the application process is obviously start with studying for the GMAT and lining up your recommenders. Think about who knows you well and then spend a lot of time thinking about the essays and the interviews. What do you want us to know about you? And hopefully people have started well enough in advance that they've got enough time to do that in an objective way.

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