Recent article on BW regarding admissions:
University of Washington Admissions Q&A
The school's admissions director on some do's and don'ts for applicants
The University of Washington's Foster School of Business jumped into BusinessWeek's top 30 rankings of U.S. full-time programs in 2008, helped by plaudits for the school's career center. Of 651 total applicants to the Class of 2010, 31% were accepted.
Erin Dennet, the school's MBA admissions director, says that while some people equate Seattle and the Northwest with "laid-back casual," the school's students are as driven to succeed as many Top 30 counterparts. Still, students show real concern for each other, and they benefit from having Seattle and its resources at their fingertips. The curriculum is collaborative by nature, fostering teamwork and not competitiveness among the class.
Dennett, who joined the school as an admissions assistant in 2001 and became admissions director in October, recently spoke with BusinessWeek's Alysa Teichman about the application process , how it has changed, and what it's like to be a student at the Foster School of Business. She advised candidates to emphasize where they plan to take their MBA in great detail, rather than why they deserve to get in. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Are there any changes in the application process this year?
No, we haven't had any. The biggest changes we had made were two or three years ago when we started inviting candidates to interview and requiring that as part of the process. That's been in place for a couple years. Our biggest focus in terms of admissions is attempting to interview as many candidates as possible in person.
Are you seeing more applications now than in the recent past?
At this point it's difficult to say. We've had one deadline pass and a second just a couple days ago. Our prospective student events were very well-attended, and a lot of people are very interested. Whether that shows in application volume is difficult to tell. Some people get very interested in the MBA and then take the GMAT to apply for the following year. If the attendance is any indication, there's a lot of interest out there. We have yet to see if that will translate into any more applications.
What's the most or unusual or difficult essay question on your application? What's your advice to students on how to answer it?
For our program, we have a goals essay like many programs have, although ours is very specific. We have a program where we are looking for candidates who want to come to customize their studies to make them work for their goals. Candidates tend to be general as to what they want to do. We're looking for students to give us a very detailed road map of where they're trying to get to and what their goals are, rather than an essay they could use for any school. That's difficult to do in two-and-a-half-to-three pages.
What do students tell you is the hardest part of the admissions process at Foster, and how do you help them deal with it?
You know, it depends for students. I think the GMAT can be a big speed bump for some people; it's very intimidating. Our advice is to recognize that applying to MBA programs takes a lot of time. Every part takes time, and so does the GMAT. Be O.K. with taking the test over; we take the highest score. We encourage students to apply when their application is at its best, and not necessarily at the earliest deadline.
How important is an applicant's quantitative GMAT score?
The GMAT is something that we use to asses a candidate's potential to be successful in the core curriculum of the program, but on its own it's not going to be enough. My best advice with the GMAT is to submit whatever is your strongest score, to put forth the effort to achieve whatever is your strongest score. We don't have a minimum requirement, but we have to look at this applicant pool, and at some point a GMAT below a certain score might indicate a student can't handle the academics. However, it's a factor but there's no equation to it, it's just one of the pieces we look at when we consider the application.
Do students apply in rounds? Are there any benefits to being in an earlier round?
Not necessarily because the acceptance rates from round to round are very similar. Our advice to applicants is to apply to the earliest round that they can submit their strongest application. There is no sense in submitting an application in the earliest round if it compromises the quality.
What do you look for in applicants' essays?
For our program we look for honesty and a story, the ability to tell their story confidently and passionately, and also—and this sounds very obvious—really answering the question. Admissions committees ask questions for a reason and candidates can sometimes get lost in how unique their essay is, but often we're really looking for the answer. We're looking for people who have compelling stories and who are thoughtful and honest about their reasons for wanting to pursue an MBA at our program.
What are good reasons for wanting to get an MBA at the University of Washington?
I think one is if you want to go to a program where you can make it an experience that will not just get you a job but will really transform you and put you in a place that's an ideal fit for you because we have a very individualized focus and customizable program.
People go here who want to define their path and make the most of a program. This program is also very collaborative in its culture, so people who want to come and learn from their classmates and professors and people in the business community really thrive here. And I think also this is a program that offers students incredible connections and opportunities to connect with the business community because we are a small program in a large university in a dynamic city.
How is the program customizable?
Almost every ranked program has the core and the second year. In our mind, customizing is a lot more than choosing electives. A big part of our program here is the professional development side and customizing your whole experience here. There are so many options to customize your studies here outside of the classroom. That's where you get the benefit of the network and the resources. It's about what you want to gain from the multitude of opportunities outside the classroom and making the most of the experience here in and out of classroom.
What's the typical amount of work experience you're looking for in an applicant? How do you regard applicants with less business experience than that?
Our average experience tends to be between five and six years. Last year, it was 5.7 or so, but what we're looking at is really the quality of a candidate's work experience. There is no magic number for work experience. More experience can mean a stronger application but you can also have someone strong with less experience.
We look very closely at not only the quality of a candidate's work experience, but what they've done so far with what they want to do with after the program and how compelling that story is. If you have less than that, it means you have to prove a little more why this is the right time for you to pursue an MBA and why you'll be successful after the program.
What do you want to see in applicants' recommendation letters?
They should get a recommendation from someone who knows them well, ideally a supervisor. We're not particularly impressed with a really high-level individual or a really famous name unless the person really knows that candidate well. We have a form that asks questions about the candidate. We're interested in a candidate's leadership, interpersonal skills, and how they deal with challenging situations. A supervisor can give examples of actual times that they showed those qualities.
How do interviews work, and what are some of the key mistakes that applicants make?
Probably the biggest mistake a candidate might make is coming to the interview prepared to talk about strengths and weaknesses and what they've done so far. Most people come in prepared to go over their résumé.
Candidates don't put as much thought into talking about where they're going from now and what their plans are for accomplishing goals. The whole application shows what they've been doing until now, but the interview is their chance to tell us what they are hoping to accomplish with the MBA, looking forward, what are their plans, and what have they done so far to research their goals.
What financial aid opportunities are available for students?
We consider all candidates for scholarships, domestic and international. That would be one case where you might want to look at earlier deadlines or at least apply in one of our first three deadlines for the most scholarship opportunities. We have a model where we give a larger quantity of partial scholarships, so those are based on merit. They're based on what you submit in your application, not just GMAT and GPA numbers, but all the qualities you present in your application.
Then we have other types of scholarships that you can apply for when admitted that look for students with particular characteristics and interests. A portion of our students have scholarships. Most domestic students are taking out some loans to cover their studies as well. We have some sample student budgets on our Web site to get a feel for where current students get their money and spend their money.
How do you attract women and underrepresented minorities to your program?
We've partnered with the Women in Business organization, which often brings business leaders in the business community together, and we also have a business diversity club. We have a couple of students working in our office on underrepresented minority outreach, hosting events. We have partnered with some of the undergraduate clubs to tell them about the MBA and how to make it work with your life.
A big draw is the community and support network and that's really important to people, particularly if you're in a population of students that isn't represented statistically. It's about outreach, and so having a lot of on campus events and engagement with current students is key.
What percentage of the student body is international, and do you have any special initiatives or procedures for international applicants?
Currently, it's about 18%, but the average is about 20% to 25% international students. Again, our focus is getting to them, so we participate in recruiting trips like the World MBA Tour. Another avenue that's been really successful is our interviewing trips where we travel to places like India and China to do interviews. That gives them a much better feel for our program to meet with an admissions representative in person. We also have highlighted and profiled current students and alumni from regions in the world to show what they're doing and what their experience in Seattle was like.
Can you take me through the life cycle of an application?
We have four rounds, and each round is treated individually. We start with an initial review of the applications. Every word of every application is looked at very closely. The admissions committee is made of primarily staff, but we do have some feedback from second year students. It goes through first review, and we make some calls on interviews. Those invited for interviews have a second full read of their applications. Those who aren't invited to interview on first review get reviewed a second time. If they're invited at that point, they come in and have a final look by the admissions committee. Most applications have two to three full reviews.
What are some common mistakes that candidates make in their applications?
One might be the overall quality and making sure that you're not leaving sections blank. When you're being compared to other candidates and all we have is something on paper, you don't want to be hindered by not having it polished.
Another thing is making sure you're telling us everything and not leaving gaps. You don't ever want to leave questions to the admissions committee. In the earlier rounds, we can tell if someone rushed to get their application in as early as possible.
In a nutshell, what kind of person would be a good fit at the University of Washington?
I would say this program attracts very intelligent, driven people who want to be successful but who want to also give back to their classmates and community, who are passionate about their goals, but also roll up their sleeves to get the job done. This is a program that attracts people who want to be strategic leaders who think differently, who are competitive in the sense that they want to succeed but are collaborative because they want their classmates to succeed as well and want to make a positive impact on their community. I think that the fact that we have such a customizable program means that we attract a really interesting, diverse array of people. People come with an open mind to learn from other peoples' experiences.
Can you describe someone you admitted recently who is a surprising fit? Someone who doesn't fit the profile?
I don't know if I can pinpoint one individual. There used to be this saying "nontraditional MBA," meaning there are always going to be a lot of MBA students in finance and marketing, but more and more now, we see people who have a wider variety of interests outside of your standard finance, marketing, and consulting. We have a lot of people interested in a bunch of different things; the standard MBA has changed. More and more are using the MBA program to improve management within nonprofits or to start their own business or do something different.
Are there any stereotypes about the program that you'd like to dispel?
I think particularly here in the Northwest and being a very collaborative program, you can also get the stereotype that Seattle is very laid back and that maybe the students aren't as competitive. I think over the last couple of years, we've shown that our students are very competitive in the sense that they're very prepared to succeed.
Also, we have a large percentage of students who choose to stay in Seattle area because it is a desirable place to live, but people see those numbers and think that means this is a school where you have a lot of opportunities in the Northwest and not outside. That's a misinterpretation of the numbers. Students who are interested in looking outside the area have been very successful.
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