How can MBA hopefuls- especially those who are members of special applicant groups- best position themselves for acceptance? [Show summary]
A valued and recent addition to Accepted’s staff, Dr. Christie St-John reveals what her career as an admissions director taught her about applying to business school (particularly for veterans, international students, and those from underrepresented groups), plus what’s ahead for the future of MBA programs.
MBA admissions advice from an admissions insider [Show notes]
Previously, Dr. Christie St-John was a guest on our chats as Associate Director of Admissions for Tuck, and more recently on Admissions Straight Talk as director of Vanderbilt Owen’s MBA Recruiting and Admissions. Now, this MBA admissions veteran just joined Accepted as an MBA and Graduate Admissions Consultant. Today, I’m going to speak with her about MBA admissions and graduate admissions in general, as well as specific subgroups, including veterans, international students, and underrepresented groups. I’m also going to get her insight into the impact of COVID and business schools going test-optional.
How did you get into Admissions? [2:10]
It was one of those peculiar things about who you know and being at the right place at the right time. I was doing my PhD at Vanderbilt and a friend of mine in the Spanish department had been recruited to the business school to run their program that they were doing in Latin America. When she was promoted to do that, she called me and said, “They’re looking for somebody to fill my former job with exchange programs, and they want somebody with international experience, and you’d be perfect.” And I thought, the business school, really? I was on my way to becoming a university professor of languages.
So I went over and talked with them. I convinced them that I knew the difference between Saks Fifth Avenue and Goldman Sachs. I had worked in the business world before I went back to school and in the U.S. and in Europe. It was not like business was a strange thing to me, but I’d never really known this kind of job was available. Had I known, I would’ve started it years ago because I had only been in the position at Vanderbilt about a week, and the Dean came down to me and said, “Okay, you’re going to go to Miami with Lori on Friday, and then you’re going to South America for a month.” I said, “Okay, let me just dust off my passport and I’ll be ready to go.”
That was the start of it. It’s been the most fun job I’ve ever had. It’s almost like not really working, although it is; it’s tiring, going through all the time zones. There’s a lot of work to do, but it’s been great because I love getting to know all the students and seeing where they’re from and being able to talk to them about, “Yes, I’ve been to Delhi.” “Yes, I’ve been to Seoul” or wherever it might be. That helps, I think, create a rapport with them.
You have a wealth of experience in MBA and grad admissions. How do you feel about moving to the other side of the admissions desk? [4:30]
As you know, when I was at Tuck, I invited a lot of the MBA admissions counselors up to visit us, and I got a lot of flack from schools about that: “Oh, how can you invite those people? You can’t do business with them.” And I said, “You know what? They’re providing a service. And if we want them to talk about our schools to people, they need to know about our schools. And that’s why I invited them.” And I think it was really good, not only for the consultants who came, but it was certainly good for me to understand more about what you were doing out there. It was all a bit vague. “Why do people need help getting their applications done? It’s so simple.” But it really isn’t.
It’s a terribly competitive area, more so now than it used to be when I first was applying to graduate school. It is something I think that’s necessary. People don’t realize that you really have to stop and think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I’m excited about being on this side of it because I still get to work with the students, but certainly on a deeper and more personal basis than I did when I was on the other side.
Just to give listeners a little bit more context, Christie started the conference that led to the founding of the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants and an era of increased dialogue between the schools and the admissions consulting industry. But let’s get back to your role today as an Admissions Consultant as it was informed and colored by your experience for so many years as an Admissions Director.
What do you wish applicants did before they would come to you for assistance with their applications? [6:53]
Know why you are doing this and know what you know now. Because a lot of people, their resume is full of interesting things, but it could be so much more interesting once you start talking to them. “Tell me about this, and tell me about that.” On this side of the fence, I get to really go into detail with them. When I was working for a university, I did do some career counseling, mostly with international students, but that’s how I first found out there’s so much more here. “Why don’t you talk about this wonderful thing that you did? It may look small to you, but it really sets you apart from other people.” And when I start talking with somebody, I always say, “Think back. What do you know how to do? And what do you think you have to learn how to do to go to your next step?” And then find the right school. Because that’s really important.
There are so many different schools out there. The reason for that is because there are so many different paths that people can take. There’s not one right school for everyone, and there’s not a wrong school either, but you can have a better experience if you’re at a school where you really feel like, “This is me. I like these people. I feel comfortable here.” And I think that’s really important because you get so much more out of it. It’s the same thing with a job.
Let’s say the applicant has found his or her best schools to apply to, they’ve analyzed what they’ve done, and they’ve analyzed where they want to go. How should they approach the application, and the essays in particular, from that point? [8:48]
First of all, don’t assume that you can just write one essay and copy and paste it into every other school’s application, because each school has a personality, just like each applicant has a personality. They’re asking questions that fit what they’re looking for or what their personality is. It doesn’t mean there’s a right or wrong answer, but it does mean that you have to look at the question and be thoughtful about your response. The worst mistake I’ve seen people make is to be very general. “I want to do the MBA because I want to reform the US healthcare system.” Really? I don’t think that’s all going to be on your shoulders to do. Be realistic, and have goals that are achievable.
When you start thinking about your career path, because all schools are going to ask you about that, think about the fact that your first job out of an MBA program is not going to be your last job. It’s just a step to many, many more. And occasionally you may have to sidestep into the job you really want. I think it’s good that people can work with consultants because you can bounce ideas off somebody who actually knows what’s going on in the world of MBA admissions or graduate admissions and they can say, “No. Think about that again. Let’s talk about this. Let’s think about this.” If you have somebody to bounce ideas off of, you come up with a much better application, I think.
One of the things I like to tell applicants is that each element of the application should reveal something different about you. The resume might list barebones and results, but the essay can talk about interpersonal challenges. They should each be bringing out something else. Would you agree with that? [10:44]
I definitely would. And it’s the same thing with the letters of recommendation. You want your recommenders to underscore what you’ve said about yourself but also to bring out other aspects from their point of view of how you work.
The full application’s purpose is to create a portrait of you that is more than your resume, more than just your essay, more than just your interview or your grades. One of the things that everybody in admissions goes a little crazy about after a certain amount of time is somebody coming up to you at an event and saying, “Hi, I’ve got a 700 GMAT. What are my chances of getting into your school?” And my response is, and I try not to be flippant about it, but if it were only a question of your scores, we wouldn’t ask you for all this other stuff. We’ve got better things to do than read 5,000 applications and essays, but we want to know who you are, and a test score doesn’t tell us anything really, except whether you can possibly do the work in the program.
What would you say are the most common mistakes? [13:21]
One thing I wanted to go back to what you said about the letters of recommendation and writing them yourself. This is something that the audience may not know, but most schools now have very sophisticated software programs for the applications, and that software can detect whether or not the recommendation letter or the essays or anything else in there came from the same computer, contains the same meta language. So if you’ve written an essay and then you write your own letter of recommendation, the chances are very strong that we’re going to know that. And if we know that, that means your application will probably be tossed out because it’s a violation of the honor code for every school out there. If you get a recommender who says, “I don’t have time to do that. You go write it and I’ll sign it,” don’t. Find someone else.
We used to see it all the time. In fact, when we got one of those red flags, we would actually call the recommender and ask them, “Did you write this letter? Can you tell us a little bit more?” We wouldn’t come out and ask like that. But we would say, “Can you tell us a little more about your statement about John? How did he really come up with this project?” And a lot of times the recommender, you could tell, had no idea what’s going on.
Most admissions directors — we all know each other pretty well. We’ve traveled together. We hang out together. A lot of us have known each other for 20 or more years. It’s good because we all know about each other’s schools. If somebody comes up to me and says, “Well, I’m looking for something about X, Y, and Z,” I’ll say, “Well, my school actually doesn’t have that, but the school over there, they do. Go and talk to them.” We work together on that. It’s a good thing, and I think it’s also good for the candidates. No school wants to admit someone just to fill a seat. Well, perhaps some of them do. But for the most part, we want to get a class where each student is there for a specific reason, they’re going to fit in, and that we have what they need.
You began your admissions career in international admissions. What are some of the most significant challenges that international applicants face when applying to top business schools and graduate programs? [18:03]
There are a couple of things. One, because they’re so far away, they can’t often visit the school. Nobody can visit the schools now, but before, very few of them can actually visit the school to know what it’s like to be there. A lot of times when the international students would arrive, we always had them come in early, both at Tuck and at Vanderbilt, so they could get their feet on the ground and at least find out where they were and how to get through from one place to another. And it’s a huge pain to have to think in a different language all the time, too. I learned this when I went abroad. So I had a special affinity for all the international students. I said, “You know, you’re going to have a headache for the first month you’re here because you’re going to be thinking and listening and reading everything in a foreign language. You will eventually get over that, and it does get better, but just be prepared. Go buy a bottle of aspirin now because it is hard.”
Now, with the situation being what it is in the United States with the visa problems, I feel really badly for them because they’ve spent a lot of time. They’ve been brave enough to come all the way over here. They spent the money, the time, left their families, left their jobs, and all they want is a chance to work over here for a few years. Some may want to stay longer, but when trying to get a job, companies are afraid because they don’t know what the regulations are going to be and if they’re going to change. They have that big burden as well. They’ve got to work twice as hard as the domestic students to even get an interview.
Let’s move on to another special interest of yours: military. What are the most common challenges that people coming from the military face when they apply to business school, and how can they handle it most effectively? [20:21]
Most of them are worried about not having a business background. They think, “Oh, I probably shouldn’t even apply because I don’t know anything about business.” I say, “You’ve done inventory. You’ve managed $5 million worth of heavy equipment. You’ve managed hundreds of people. That’s all you have to know. You’ve got more qualifications than people who’ve been consultants for 15 years probably. You just have to understand how to translate your military resume into civilian language.” That’s the first hurdle.
And then the second one is, of course, understanding the business lingo and abbreviations. Of course, they’re all familiar with abbreviations because all the armed forces have their own special abbreviations for various things. So they understand that part of it, they just don’t know what people are talking about. Something as simple as ROI or SOP. They get it, but they’re first looking at you a little bit. I remember one of the funniest things: One of my early admits from the military was saying, “Everybody’s going around and talking about class packs, class packs.” He said, “I thought this was something I was going to have to carry around with me like on my back. And then I realized it’s just a notebook of cases.” Every field has its own jargon, and I didn’t realize that. So we went over a lot of that, and I started doing an orientation for the veterans in the program, just to make sure they understood this is how things work and this is what you’re supposed to do.
Another thing they were not used to is the fact that you actually have to get out and look for a job, and you have to prepare, and you have to interview. When you’re in the service, it’s just a hierarchical procedure. If you get to a certain rank and you do everything right, then you’re promoted to the next one. They had to learn to interview and how to do research on companies and figure out what’s out there. They just weren’t used to doing it. A lot of them were intimidated about that. “I have to interview for this job. What do I do?” And of course the career office is going to take care of you. Don’t worry. Most schools do have Armed Forces clubs, so they help each other out. And they’re stars. They’re usually stars, absolutely in service. That’s another thing: A lot of times they weren’t really sure what direction they should go in. You suggest to them, “I’ve never done that.” “Well, that’s okay. That’s why you’re here.”
You served on the Consortium for Graduate Studies and Management’s board of directors and as a liaison to the Management Leadership for Tomorrow. Both groups serve African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans. What advice do you have for those underrepresented groups in management, in particular in business schools, and also in graduate schools? [23:28]
Apply. We need you. We need your thoughts. We need your perspectives. And don’t be afraid. A lot of times because of the test scores and things, I’ve talked to some candidates with fabulous work experience and heard, “I don’t do well in standardized tests.” And a lot of times they would be denied by schools because of their test scores. And I just always found that horrible because as you know, the test score will tell you a certain amount and whether you’ll pass the first year of the program. It doesn’t say whether you’re going to be a great business person or not. It doesn’t say whether you’ve got a strategic vision or not. It just says, can you do the quant stuff? If you’re worried about that, go take a class at your community college or something online, even a free class. Don’t let your fear keep you from applying and from trying to go to the best school possible.
And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Admissions counselors and admissions staff are there to help. In most cases, and this goes for everyone, we’re all looking for a reason to get you in, not to keep you out. And that’s very true even for schools that get 40,000 applications. They’re looking for the best people to bring in. And also financial concerns are a big issue for a lot of the underrepresented minority population and for women as well. Don’t worry about that. Finances, they’ll work themselves out. If you get into a good school, don’t let that stop you. There are lots and lots of opportunities out there for funding at low interest rates. And for the most part, if you’re going to a renowned, accredited university, you’re going to make that money back. You’re going to be able to pay off your loans in probably 10 years. And that may sound like a long time, but you’re going to be doubling your salary in a lot of cases. So take out a loan; go for it. You’re worth it.
In your opinion, how is the coronavirus affecting and going to affect MBA admissions and business schools? [26:22]
I think it is having a very definite impact on admissions because suddenly, the schools that were requiring people, “You’ve got to come here to do your interview,” can’t do that anymore. “Oh, we want to meet you.” And they can’t. Luckily, we have the technology to at least see people via Skype or Zoom or some sort of online recruiting event and that sort of thing. But I think it is going to make us think, hmm, there’s got to be a different way to evaluate people. What can we find out about people? I think you’re going to see more schools doing some video essays. That’s becoming a trend in a lot of schools in the past five years, but I think you’ll see more schools doing that so they can get a feel for you.
On the other hand, the candidates really have to make an effort. Go to these webinars. Reach out to students. And that’s one thing that I always tell anybody I’m working with. Every single school out there has a bevy of students who are ambassadors, or whatever they may call it, peer counselors. You can find them on the website. These are the people who have the inside information. Reach out to them. They can give you so much more information than an admissions officer about the day-to-day life. About what’s going on. About, “Do you like the classes that you’re taking? What’s life like there daily? What do you think about your classmates? What kind of clubs could I get involved with?” Granted, the admissions officers know this, but it’s different getting it from a student.
If you make that effort to get to know a student and to ask them questions, when you do your essays, you’re going to have a lot more depth to your essays. We’re going to understand you are interested in our school. Something that’s not on the website, and the only way you could have found that out is through a student. And that’s good. We like that. And it’s good for you too, because you may find out details that, say, an admissions officer might never tell you.
More schools are going to go test-optional. What will be the impact of going test-optional? [28:59]
It’s certainly going to hurt all the rankings magazines and their fake rankings. I think trying to rank a business school solely on the basis of what your incoming GMAT score is… Some do theirs based on various statistical inputs. There’s a lot of that too, but that seems to play a bigger part than the job market or the career placement part of it, which is really the important thing. That’s why you’re there, is to get a new job, right? That should be what that’s based, on or what employers say.
I do think that the GMAT and GRE can tell us a certain amount about if the person can do the work. Because on the candidate side, by studying for the GMAT or the GRE, you’re going to be refreshing your knowledge, let’s say, of quantitative problems that you will see when you get to an MBA program. And this is good for you. But I also think that I’m happy to see a lot of schools now accepting the executive assessment, especially for military candidates who have been in the service for 10 to 15 years. They want to do any MBA program because they want the immersive experience. They don’t want to do an exec program. They’ve been out of school for so long. Are they going to remember high school geometry? No. So I think the executive assessment might be the right tool to use for some candidates, and I’m glad to see that more and more schools are accepting that.
I’ve worked with somebody who had a 3.8 in finance, and he couldn’t get above a 550 on the GMAT because of test anxiety or whatever it might’ve been. It wasn’t because he didn’t know how to do the work. I certainly think the work experience will count more. Not just the quantity, but the quality of that experience. That’s a question you get a lot at these MBA fairs, you know? “I’ve got five years of experience. Is that enough?” Well, it may be, but were you making photocopies and nothing else? What were you doing?
Do you think more schools are going to go test-optional? [32:23]
I think they will, especially if COVID continues so that they can’t get into the test sites. Last week, I think, GMAT made the announcement that okay, if you’ve done the online test before, you couldn’t take it again. And now you can, but only once. No idea why. I think it’s because they don’t know how to set it up. I think they’re just very, very worried about fraud. They should be. If that’s the case, then let’s throw it out. (NOTE: At the time this show airs, applicants can take the online GMAT up to two times. Check with GMAC for updates. )
What about MBA re-applicants? We’ve talked about some different groups in the MBA applicant pool. What advice do you have for MBA re-applicants? [33:13]
I love re-applicants because it shows me that they are persevering in their desire to do whatever it is they want to do. What I don’t love is somebody who gives the same application they gave the year before without any changes. That just tells me you’re not terribly self-aware. I’ve had those, and I know other admissions directors have too. You get the same application year after year after year. You tell the person until you’re blue in the face, “You really have to retake this. You really have to rewrite your essay,” or whatever it might be. And they just don’t do it.
Take a hard look at it. You know what’s wrong. You know where your weaknesses lie. If you’re honest with yourself, you can say, “Oh yeah, maybe I shouldn’t tell them I want to go into private equity since I have never done anything in finance. I’ve only been human resource director. Maybe I should think that over.”
An admissions consultant can look at it and say, “You know what? You don’t have the background for this yet, but doesn’t mean you can’t ever do it. But you don’t have the background yet, so let’s start off here.” Oftentimes, at an early point in your career, you don’t know what’s out there. Everybody applies to an MBA program. “I want to do management consulting.” They don’t know what it is, but, “That’s what MBAs do, I’m going to do that too.” So there’s so many things that you will discover.
That’s why I’ve always told people, the MBA is the most useful degree that you can ever, ever get out of everything out there, all professional degrees, because it prepares you to do anything. You develop a network. You learn about how each part of a company works with the other parts and what they do. Some people don’t know that. They could work in the same company for 50 years and still not know what the marketing department does. That’s why I think it’s the best degree that anybody could get. Everybody go out and get an MBA now and come and work with us.
What do you wish I would have asked you? [35:35]
Why do I keep doing this? Because I really love working with the candidates, and although I haven’t had as much experience on this side of it as on the other side, that’s one of the things that makes me really happy at the end of the day: working with someone, and they come and say, “I got in. I can’t believe it. I got in. Thank you.” And I say, “You know, I didn’t really do anything. You had it all there. We just had to direct you in the right way.” And then I’m still in touch with a lot of the alumni from my very first class that I recruited and seeing what they have become now, watching them grow, watching them with their families, they progress, they move around, it makes me feel like, okay, in some small way I’ve had a tiny little effect on somebody.
I also learn a lot from all the candidates, and I’m a big proponent of learning something every day, even if it seems totally useless at the time. You never know. I love to listen to their stories and listen to what they’ve done and find out why they did something or how they got into something. I think it’s fascinating. I think human nature is intriguing.
- Academic De-Greening, Part 2: Applying to Graduate School After Military Service
- Applying for Your MBA Through The Consortium: Best Deal in Town
- How Will COVID-19 Impact Your Admissions Journey, a Q&A session
- Journey to Duke Fuqua: Marine-Turned-MBA, Entrepreneur, and Dad, an interview with an MBA student
- Work with Dr. Christie St-John
- Accepted MBA Admissions Services
- Expert Advice for Applicants and an Inside Look at UCLA Anderson from an Intl MBA
- An Admissions Expert’s Top Tips for Business School Applicants
- Is an MBA Worth It, or Is the Sky Falling Down on the MBA Degree?
- International Students: How to Finance Your U.S. Education
- A Conversation About Today’s MBA Marketplace