Admissions Q&A: Cambridge

The University of Cambridge has the distinction of being one of the oldest universities in Europe. By comparison, its Judge Business School is brand new. Cambridge entered Bloomberg Businessweek's list of top MBA programs at number 10 in 2010. The 800-year old university opened the Judge school in 1990 and offers a one-year MBA program. Judge hosts a small, distinctly international student body. About 160 applicants enter the full-time MBA program each year, compared to around 580 at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and 400 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

Conrad Chua, Judge's head of MBA recruitment and admissions, notes that 94 percent of Cambridge MBA students come from outside the U.K. They speak an average of three languages, with no single nationality dominating the population, he says. Students from the U.S. and India each account for 12 percent of the MBA candidates—the largest concentrations. A majority of Judge graduates goes on to work in Western Europe (62 percent), followed by Asia (28 percent) and the U.S. (8 percent).

Chua spoke to Bloomberg Businessweek's Erin Zlomek about what potential students can expect from the Judge program and what they might encounter during the application process. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

What is unique about the Cambridge MBA program?

The people we select tend to have more work experience than those in U.S. schools. On average our students have between six and seven years of experience and the average age is 30. The academic side is much more intense because we cover everything that a two-year MBA does within one year. We feel work experience adds a different element to the learning process, and there is a lot of learning from fellow classmates.

The other thing which I think is quite different is that there is a lot of intensive project work. Students do three projects throughout the year. Two of them are consulting projects. In the first, every student has to work with a local organization. At the end of the second term, groups of students work with global organizations for about four to five weeks. At the end of the year, there's a final project that students again have to do in groups.

Why might North Americans want to consider attending Cambridge's MBA program?

For the geographic diversity. Within a short period of time, you get to learn about global businesses and global economic development in a way that you can't get exposed to in the U.S. Or at least [not] to the same degree. If you look at how businesses and organizations in the U.S. are developing, they all want to be global. You need to have that exposure to people of different cultures, different industries, and different backgrounds, which we can provide because of the diverse class that we have.

What makes Cambridge unique from other European MBA programs?

I don't think the entrepreneurial culture is as strong in other areas of Europe as it is here. The area that we are in is kind of like Silicon Valley, where you have a huge research university but also a lot of spinouts from the university and a lot of startups. Many of our students go on to become entrepreneurs.

The quality of our students, the quality of our faculty, and the large number of practical projects in our curriculum also make us attractive.

Tell me more about the global consulting project that you mentioned, and please give some examples.

Most of the projects are done outside of the U.K. and they last about four to five weeks. The students work in groups of about four or five and they help real multinational companies and organizations solve real problems. For example in 2010 we had a group of students working with Toyota (TM) in Los Angeles. Our business school organizes most of the projects. Though if students have a certain area of interest, they can set up a project themselves. One group last year was very interested in e-commerce in China and set up a project.

As for the other projects done throughout the year, some examples would be helping a company think of how to market a new treatment for lymphoma, or how to market some sort of new application or new use for RFID technology.

How do you assist with job or internship placement?

We don't do placement for internships. Most times students find those themselves. When you have a two-year MBA, the internship is an integral part of the summer in between. Because ours is one year, students might choose to do an internship after the academic part of the program is finished. Others may use the summer to write a business plan, they might do a project with a member of faculty, or they might take another class at the university.

We do have a career services office and there are employers that regularly reach out to us. Barclays (BARC:LN) and Standard Chartered (STAN:LN) are two banks that hire our students. Students have also gone on to work at the international units of Google (GOOG) and Amazon (AMZN).

What would you say is the most difficult part of the application process and what are the most common mistakes to avoid?

The interview might be the most difficult. Don't waffle on your answers. Be clear about what you want. Even if applicants are not sure about something they want, they should be clear about that as well. All our interviews are conducted by members of faculty who can see through B.S. quickly. We don't want someone who is saying what they think the interviewer wants to hear. We are looking for honest, direct answers.

What are your tips for writing the essays?

Just be truthful. For the essays, we look at an applicant's analytical ability. We ask what they think the main challenges are in their industry. We want to know what their recommendations are and what courses of action they suggest.

How important are GMAT scores to the application process?

The GMAT is an important prerequisite but doesn't guarantee admission. Once we see an applicant's GMAT is within a certain range, we then look at work experience, work references, and essays.

For work experience, we're looking at people that have a track record of excellence. We want to know if they work well in teams, if they work well in multinational, multicultural environments.

What makes an applicant stand out?

Someone who is intellectually strong, who has good work experience, strong leadership potential, and who has something unique that he or she would bring to the program. When I say unique, I mean there is something that the applicant feels passionate about, that they've invested a lot of time and effort in. It could be something they've done in the workplace, something they've done in the community, or something they've done in sports. We want to know that there is something that they feel strongly about that they'd like to extend, or like to become really great at.

What do you look for in recommendation letters?

We ask for two references—one from a supervisor and the other from a peer. The peer recommendation could come from a colleague or an ex-colleague. The best recommendations come from someone who knows the candidate well, who can write about how the candidate works in teams, and how the candidate has performed versus their peer group. We want to know if the candidate works well with people from different cultures.

What kind of financial aid is available and which students have the best shot at aid?

There are some bursary awards and some scholarships offered through the school. We don't have full-tuition scholarships. We have some scholarships that cater to different groups. For example, there is one for North American women, there is one for people with an engineering background, there is another for people interested in the not-for-profit sector. There are also general scholarships that are need-based or merit-based.

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