Admissions Q&A: Columbia University

Applying to Columbia Business School (Columbia Full-Time MBA Profile) can be a daunting prospect, considering that only about 15 percent of applicants are accepted. Mary Miller, assistant dean of admissions, doesn't want that statistic to keep prospective students from applying, as decisions are made on an applicant-by-applicant basis.

Miller has been at Columbia for little over a year, though she's been working in admissions for a decade and a half. Having read "way more than 10,000 applications," she says: "It's pretty easy to pick out who really shares themselves." Sincerity is part of what makes an effective impression on the admissions council, which also favors applicants who demonstrate that they're "participants rather than spectators."

In a recent interview with Bloomberg's Sommer Saadi, Miller gave some specific examples of just how applicants can make themselves stand out. She also spoke about the importance of GMAT scores and work experience and she described the unique culture of Columbia Business School. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

Have there been any major changes to the application process that students should be aware of, or is everything familiar territory?

One of the new developments at Columbia Business School was to integrate and combine the full-time and the executive MBA admission process. In the past, there were two separate portals and the applications were different. To make it easy for our applicants and also to make them aware of how diverse Columbia really is, we took the best from both and combined them. And so when someone is applying to Columbia Business School, whether it's an executive MBA student or as a full-time student, they now enter through the same portal and basically fill out the same application.

Do you have any tips or guidance for students when they're applying? Is there anything specific that makes a student more attractive to the admissions council?

One of the things that Columbia prides itself on is the student involvement. What I tell prospective students is that we are looking for participants rather than spectators. While we have many, many terrific, well-qualified candidates, if someone is going to sit at the back of the room and maybe set the curve on the exam—but not contribute any of her expertise, background, knowledge with classmates—that's really not the kind of person we want in the classroom or as part of the Columbia community.

When you talk about wanting a student that participates, what is the easiest way for applicants to express to you that they are that sort of student?

There are many ways they can demonstrate that they are participants. Certainly extracurricular activities [is one]. We're looking for long-term commitment, somebody who was actively involved in some community service activity, some organization, some social or sports [activity]. Whatever it is, we want that long-term involvement, which would demonstrate loyalty as well as being a participant. Most companies have certain organizations that complement the work environment. There are a whole bunch of different ways applicants can demonstrate that they really are actively engaged in their life and they're going to bring that same commitment, enthusiasm, passion to Columbia Business School.

Do you have any tips on how they can better portray what sort of participant they are through their resume?

We have a special part that asks them to specify what they do outside their resume, this is actually in the application. So this would be their opportunity to elaborate. Let me give you an example of someone I was talking to yesterday. On his resume it indicated that he played the cello and the violin and has done so for 19 years. Pretty impressive, but that's all it said. So when I had a chance to talk to him I said, "What does this mean? Are you still playing? Are you taking lessons? Or is it just that you've played and it's now in the back of the closet?" And he said, "Oh no, I jam on a regular basis with a group of friends." That shows a real passion, you know, even though he has a very demanding job, he finds at least some time. And while that may not be appropriate for a resume—it could be—but in our application, we have a special section that asks about extracurriculars and that would have been a perfect place for him to share that with me.

How important is it in the application process that the students reach out to you, either via phone or a campus visit? A lot of schools stress that sort of personal contact, in addition to simply filling out the application. Is that really important at Columbia as well?

It is, but maybe not in the same way. While we are happy to interact with prospective students, we understand they're busy people and we may not be always as accessible. I mean, we're on the road a lot. We don't want it to be forced. While it's natural, that's wonderful. And we do ask if they've visited campus.

They are going to be spending two years of their life and a significant amount of money to pursue something that they will have for the rest of their lives. They're going to be part of the Columbia community forever because it's always going to be on their resume. So I think they need to realize that this is a significant decision in their life that if all goes well, will change their life forever. The best way to learn about a school is to observe as well as participate in that whole process, [by] visiting campus, interacting with alumni, with current students.

Is there anything in particular that students can do to help their applications stand out?

Be yourself. We're all unique individuals, we all present ourselves in a unique way, even though we may have similar likes or dislikes. And I think it's really important to be self-reflective and then just be natural. Don't try to tell me what you think I want to hear, don't listen necessarily to what your best friend says or a GMAT prep course is telling you. I think what candidates many times forget is that it is a joint decision. We choose them but they also need to choose us and it works best if we both agree.

How long have you been Director of Admissions or working in the admissions of the school?

I've only been at Columbia for nine months, but I've been doing this for more than 15 years. What I tell candidates—I don't know if you've read Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Outliers—he talked about doing something 10,000 times and getting really, really good at it. Well, I've read way more than 10,000 applications and I tell people that. After you read 10,000 applications, it's pretty easy to pick out who really shares themselves.

How can people best express their authenticity in an application? Are there any specific examples you can share?

Just this year I read an application and I actually got tears in my eyes. That's pretty unusual. It wasn't that the story was sad, but it was so beautifully done, so sincere, and so honest. In the end I said, "If I can't admit him, can I hire him?" I had to pick up the phone and talk to him. And you know, he was just as real on the phone as he was on those two pages. I don't know if he was any more special than anyone else, but he certainly was able to capture his essence. And there's another woman's application that I read this year. She was working in Afghanistan. She speaks eight languages and she talked about why she was there. Totally different from this other young man but again, I felt really drawn to her. She was so real to me that I knew that if she walked into my office, we could sit down and have a conversation.

Are there any common mistakes that you see in the application process—either in the interview, the essay, the resume—or things you see repeatedly and wish students wouldn't do?

Of course. It's kind of the antithesis of being authentic; it's being very, very fake. The other thing we see all the time is where candidates try to write one essay that will be all-inclusive, that they can use for multiple schools, and it really does them a disservice because each school is unique. We look for different things and we look for people who are going to contribute to the class.

The other thing we often see are [applicants] who are not very careful about grammar, punctuation, [and spelling]. Candidates who don't take the time to proofread are at a real disadvantage. Candidates who don't follow directions, don't answer the question, answer somebody else's question, or when we say "500 words," they write 1,000. Candidates forget that it takes time and effort to make a really tight, well-constructed, powerful essay and so they just go on and on and don't follow directions, and that hurts them a lot.

Another part of the application that people always seem to be concerned about is their GMAT score. Is there a certain bar that you expect a student to meet? Should students be discouraged if they didn't get the score they wanted and be realistic in their application process?

Well, that's tough. It goes back to doing your best. Not everybody is a good test-taker, we recognize that. Not everybody can score a 720. But everybody can do their best, and if somebody only takes the exam once and scores a 620 and thinks that's okay for us, I'm not sure it's believable, especially if they have a strong GPA. [The] GMAT doesn't predict career success—we all know that, and that's not what it's designed to do. But it is a very important indication of your commitment [to] doing your best.

Let me give you an example. We had a candidate who applied early decision and we liked her a lot, but her GMAT wasn't as high as I thought it could be. We asked her if she thought she could do better. She said, "Yes, I think I can do better." So she took it again and she didn't. I admitted her anyway because she tried, I think she gave it a good-faith effort; everything else about her was very strong. Two months later, I got an e-mail from her and she said: "I felt like I let you down. I knew I could do better. Even though I didn't have to, I went and took it again." And she increased her score by 60 points. She didn't have to do that, I had admitted her anyway, but with the pressure off, she had to prove something to herself. That's the kind of student I want at Columbia. She got in without it, but to her credit, she didn't stop there. And I think that's true with a lot of candidates. We see people who take the GMAT every single month for four months. To me they're just wasting their money. How can you study and really do your best in that short period of time?

Looking at the school profile on the website, it's reported that the average applicant at Columbia has an average of about 50 months of work experience, which is from four to five years. Do you have a minimum in mind when looking at an applicant?

We really do gauge it applicant-by-applicant. I've always believed in this, but now that I see [the] executive MBA population, I'm even more convinced that we need to be flexible, that somebody with 15 years of experience may not be more qualified than someone with three. It's more of a readiness issue and convincing the admissions committee that now is the right time. It's a real individual thing.

What do you think it is about the Columbia program that makes it distinctive from other business schools?

I've worked at other business schools, but it's hard to differentiate when you haven't been at other business schools. I can describe our culture. I hate to use the word—but it's all-consuming. From the very beginning there is just so much going on that students start out being overwhelmed and then they have to make choices, set priorities. It becomes their life for two years. I think that's a misconception about New York because there are lots of distractions here, heaven knows, lots of other things that you can do outside business school. But you know, I go into the building and they're all there. And they bring their outside friends with them. It's really interesting. It really is a very inclusive, and also a very involved and committed group. I think all business schools try to foster that, but in a large, urban school, it's much more difficult. Columbia seems to have mastered it very well and it is passed down from class to class.

Have you found that this close-knit nature carries over into post-graduation and do you think that it strengthens the alumni network?

Oh, definitely. Being kind of an outsider—I mean, now I'm an insider, but I'm new and I'm getting ready to go on the road, recruiting to Asia for the first time. I cannot keep track of all the e-mails with alumni [saying] "Oh, we're looking forward to meeting you. Can you do this? Can you come to that?" They are making me feel so welcome and such a part of the community, even though they've never met me. And they do that for our students.

I was looking at the student makeup for Columbia. About 33 percent are minorities and there's also a fair number of international students. Can you tell me about the recruitment effort with reference to international students and why it's important to Columbia that you have that sort of diversity in the student body?

Part of it is just being in New York. It is a very accepting city of differences, of personality and languages, and we want to replicate that in the classroom. I like to talk about [how] this is a two-year laboratory where students can come to experiment. And part of the experiment includes culture. So you can make mistakes in this environment and your classmates are going to help you, correct you, guide you because when you get out in the real world and you're talking to someone from Mexico or from Tokyo or wherever, if you make a mistake it could [mean] loss of business, loss of money, loss of clients. The cost of making a mistake is great. Here it's very low. Replicating the world within our classroom is really critical to successful business leadership of the future because the world is getting smaller all the time. And so we need to expose our students to as many different situations as we possibly can.

The post-graduation employment numbers are fairly good for Columbia—86 percent last year had jobs three months out of school. Could you tell me a little bit about the efforts that you make, anything you're working on now, goals for the future that would give students an idea of what it'll be like for them once they've graduated the program?

Part of it is the relationship that admissions has with career management. I feel a certain obligation when I read an application from somebody that says "I want to do x, y, z"—that if I admit them, what I am really saying is: "We have an agreement here that you said you wanted to do this and Columbia can help you get there." And I have a real dilemma if somebody says that, and they can be a terrific student, but I know Columbia really isn't in a position to help them, or that their goals are so unrealistic and unlikely that they're not going to get a job. Therefore, if I get something like that, I will share the application with our career management staff and say, "Is this real? What can you do to help?" Because we do realize students are making a huge investment, both time and money, and that this is a partnership. While we don't give out jobs, we need to be able to facilitate and support their job search.

And so we work together very closely. This has been a challenging time, as you know, with the economy what it is. Our career management staff has really changed their focus. They're doing a lot of one-on-one coaching with students, trying to help them navigate through the network to find the right people that will encourage and support them. They're doing a lot more outreach to alumni, they're looking at smaller companies [that] have just-in-time needs where someone didn't know a month ago that they were going to get a new project or a new client and they need someone just in time. [It's] a lot of hands on, a lot more time intensive, a lot more personal service than ever before.

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