Get to know UVA Darden’s thoughtful application process [Show summary]
Dawna Clarke, Senior Assistant Dean of Admissions at Darden School of Business explores the program’s unique case method and recounts how the school proactively adapted during COVID-19.
What makes UVA Darden unique? A choice-rich MBA experience and a close-knit student community [Show notes]
Welcome to the 439th episode of Admissions Straight Talk, thanks for tuning in. Are you ready to apply to your dream business schools? Are you competitive at your target program? Accepted’s MBA Admissions Calculator can give you a quick reality check, just go to accepted.com/mbaquiz, complete the quiz and you not only get an assessment, but also tips on how to improve your chances of acceptance. Plus it’s all free.
It gives me great pleasure to have on Admissions Straight Talk Dawna Clarke, Senior Assistant Dean of Admissions at UVA Darden. Dawna is one of the most experienced and respected MBA admission directors I’ve had the privilege of knowing. She started her career in MBA admissions at UNC Kenan-Flagler, then moved to Darden (which is where we first met) and served for 15 years as director of admissions, and then served in the same role at Tuck and even spent a short period as an MBA admissions consultant. She returned to Darden in 2017. In all her positions and roles in MBA admissions, Dawna is known for running an applicant-friendly admissions process while attracting great candidates to the schools that she has been associated with. Dawna, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk and congratulations again on your new title.
Can we start with a basic overview of the Darden MBA program for listeners who are not that familiar with it, focusing on its more distinctive elements? [2:18]
Sure, absolutely. I’m happy to give an overview of Darden. Darden is a two-year, full-time, general management program. Assuming we’re primarily talking about the full-time format, we do offer other formats as well, but I will focus on the full-time format. I will say one of the most distinctive elements of Darden is that it is primarily a case method school. Over the years, our faculty has revisited the curriculum and asked whether a case method is the most relevant teaching method. To date, since the school was founded in the 1950s, they continue to commit to the case method.
The philosophy is that the best way to learn how to make business decisions is to start making them. At Darden, we’re trying to cultivate a variety of skills, leadership skills, team skills — it’s a general management program. So people are going to get accounting skills, financial skills, global skills, but one of the most relevant skills that we’re trying to cultivate are strong business decision-making skills. The philosophy is that the best way to start to cultivate those skills is to practice. Students do over 500 cases while they’re at Darden. So there’s a lot of practice. It’s very practical and relevant. One of the benefits of the case method that a lot of people don’t know about is that it exposes you to a lot of industries. So for students who are coming to Darden, a lot of people know that they want to transition into a business career, but they may not know what functional area. Through the general management program, you’re going to get a lot of exposure to all the functional areas of business like accounting and economics and finance. But because it’s a case method school, every case is set within an industry. So in your two years at Darden, a student is going to get exposed to almost 70 different industries. Even if you don’t go into energy, knowing a little bit about energy may be really valuable to you if you have a client in the future, who’s from the energy industry. You’re going to have cases from transportation, hospitality, financial services, consulting, startups, petrochemical companies. I love the phrase, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
The average age for entering MBA students to the full-time format tends to be 27 or 28, and I’ve just seen so many examples of people who were not sure what they wanted to do come through our program. I can think of one woman who was never previously exposed to the airline industry. She hadn’t even thought about pursuing a career in the airline industry. In her first year, she did about three or four cases in the airline industry, and it really resonated with her. She did an internship with American Airlines, got a full-time job offer and ended up rising the ranks of American Airlines to a C-Suite position. That is the beauty of the case method. You get to experiment and learn a lot about different industries.
Darden is also known for its sense of community. There are a multitude of things you can get involved in at Darden. There are affinity groups that you can become involved in. There are professional organizations, there are things like the choir and social organizations. I also think our location is an asset. Darden is part of the University of Virginia. UVA has nine professional schools where Darden students can cross register and take up to two electives in the second year at any of those nine schools, as long as they’re a graduate level class. I always encourage students to tap into some joy and just get lost on the UVA website as well as the Darden website. I also think our location in Charlottesville, just in terms of a place to spend two years of your life, is an asset. I think if I didn’t work for Darden, I’d work for the Charlottesville tourism department. It’s rated the number one foodie town in the country by Rand McNally, has 41 vineyards, lots of breweries, and lots of history so I do encourage people as they’re looking at Darden to take advantage of the opportunities that are at the University of Virginia, as well as Darden and the opportunities to try a different area of the country.
We also have Amtrak right here. If I have to go to New York City for work, I hop on the Amtrak. It’s a five hour trip. I can take Amtrak up to DC. I would prefer to be on the train rather than driving, but we also have a decent airport here with direct flights to Atlanta, New York and Chicago. It’s a little bit more accessible than some people think.
What COVID adaptations does Darden intend to keep in its MBA program and admissions moving forward? [8:24]
I’m really glad that you asked this question because I think the manner in which the school has navigated COVID says a lot about the school, and I could not be more proud of the way that Darden navigated COVID. I’m going to give everybody a little bit of an overview of how we navigated it so you have some context about how I think that’s going to carry forward.
First of all, I think it starts from the top down. I’m on the Dean’s leadership team, and the mantra from the beginning was really to navigate COVID with a great deal of compassion, obviously a high level of commitment to the safety and health of our entire community, but to do so with a great level of compassion. When COVID struck in March, you may remember that a lot of students who were applying to business schools in Round 3 could not take a GMAT or GRE because test centers were closed worldwide. Again, the guiding mantra was to really be compassionate. Imagine what it would be like if you were a student and you wanted to apply to business school and you couldn’t take one of the entrance exams. So Darden immediately went to a model of test flexibility to help accommodate students. During COVID we granted 94 deferrals of students who could not get here last year to this year. In a 35-year career in the industry, I have never been in a position to have to grant so many deferrals, but it was the right thing to do.
Darden is the only top business school that introduced the option to start in January. Say you’re an international student from around the world, I think that they felt really cared for because they could defer their enrollment for a full year. Any of our admitted students also had the option to start in January and that was a heavy lift on the part of the faculty and staff to have two starts. I think that says a lot.
Darden also has a lockstep first year, is that right? [10:42]
Yes, we do. They condensed it so that if you didn’t start in August, you start on January 4th and finish on July 4th. They condensed the entire first year into that six month period of time. That is what we call Section J. They are incredibly close. I mean, they were kind of in this bubble of about 56 of them together and they were virtual. But I think that that is a good example of the lengths that Darden went through to accommodate students who were navigating and trying to get here.
We were one of the only schools that did not have to shut down last year. The protocols that were in place were really top notch. I was fortunate to be on the COVID-19 committee. They had epidemiologists from UVA on our committee to help guide us. At no point did we have to completely shut down. There was a virtual hybrid rotation that was going on, but we did not have to shut down.
The school was very concerned about the sense of community, we’re really known for our sense of community. So what the school did was provide free lunch for all the first year students and provided permanent tents outside and places where they could eat safely together to foster a sense of community. Darden was named by Poets & Quants the school that navigated COVID with the most flexibility and compassion, and I’m really proud to have been a part of that.
I think some of these things are self-perpetuating. You do it because it’s the right thing to do, you get positive feedback and then there’s more of that, that is done. I think that what will go forward is a good reinforcement of how important flexibility and compassion are to each other in these times and also generosity. I think it was amazing that the school provided free lunch for the whole year for students to foster a sense of community at a time when that sense of community was really vulnerable, because people were virtual.
We did not replicate the January section this year. We’re going to study the January section and see what they have to say about it and then how they do in terms of recruitment as second years. But it went well. One of the silver linings is that they are such a close cohort and they just came back. They started today as the second year class and it’s kind of fun because they’re meeting some of their classmates for the first time. Again, I’m very, very, very proud to be part of a school that handled COVID so well and I think that kind of sensitivity to human beings and a sense of being accommodating is really something to be proud of.
Did most of the deferrals go to Section J or were they deferred a full year? [14:05]
That’s interesting because about 55 started in January and then an additional 94 were deferred to this class. Some of that, we also have the future year scholars program. So I think 16 of the 94 were future year scholars and 81 of the 94 actually matriculated last week. They really stuck with us. I think, again, these things are self-perpetuating. I think students really appreciated the accommodation. They had a dream. They wanted to be here last year and in some cases just couldn’t get here because of COVID or visas or both. They were very loyal to us. So 81 out of the 94 deferrals showed up to Darden.
Did the deferrals mean that you had to accept fewer people from the applicant pool last year? [14:57]
It was more competitive last year. This year it’s back to a normal level of deferrals because fortunately most of the students were able to get here. Their orientation started last week. It’s a really excellent class in terms of objective measures like the average GMAT and the record high GPA. We’re also really proud that it’s the most diverse class in Darden’s history, across multiple dimensions: 40% international students, 40% women, highest percentage of underrepresented minorities, highest percentage of total minority students, highest percentage of first generation college students, highest percent that identify as LGBTQ+, highest percentage of dual degree students and numbers with an advanced degree. We’re really excited for this class. It’s such a stellar class and really, really diverse which is nice because the previous year in many business schools, it was hard to get the same representation that we normally have of international students because of COVID.
You mentioned Darden has made test waivers requests available to applicants. Who should seek them and who shouldn’t? [16:21]
Great question, Linda. Thanks for asking that. The philosophy behind offering a test waiver really stems from our belief that not all stellar applicants are stellar test-takers. I’m sure that you, as a very experienced, highly reputable admissions consultant have interacted with lots of those students – people who are incredible and have so much to offer a business school and will be high impact leaders that they can’t master to the extent that they wish they could in a three and a half hour exam. Our philosophy is that it’s 2021, it’s not 1950 anymore. We have great respect for the GMAT and GRE. The validity studies that we participated in the past do show that they’re valuable instruments, but we did a lot of data analytics in advance of this policy shift to see what other factors correlate with academic success at Darden.
There have been a couple phases of those studies. For example, we found that the interview correlates more with academic success than we would have thought. We found that the verbal GMAT is a better predictor than the quantitative GMAT. The GPA is a better predictor than the test scores. We’re going through analysis right now and looking to see if there is a correlation if you have a CFA, if you have a CPA, if you’ve done some Darden Coursera classes, if you have a master’s degree in a relevant area, if you have a quantitatively oriented job, etc. We’re continuously looking at data to help guide our policies but to answer your question about who should apply, I would recommend the test waiver process for candidates who have strong alternative evidence that they can do well academically. Maybe a candidate has a strong undergraduate GPA in a relevant field. Maybe he or she has earned a master’s in a relevant field. Maybe they have a very quantitatively oriented job, maybe they have earned a CFA or CPA, maybe they’ve taken some post-bacc classes. I would say the test waiver is not for someone who has no alternative evidence. It is really for people who maybe struggle a little bit with a standardized test, but perform really well in a class.
I’m a big fan of HBx CORe, which is now HBS online. I’ve seen hundreds of applicants who have taken that class. My own son took that class as a liberal arts major, and I heard such great things about it. We have Coursera classes at Darden people can take. Wharton has Business Fundamentals. There’re a lot of certification programs out there, but ultimately we’re looking for high impact leaders, and we believe that the GMAT was carrying too much. There’s too much emphasis on GMAT scores when in this day and age there’s so many alternative ways that somebody can prove that they’re academically ready.
Do you get comfort from seeing grades from accredited institutions? [20:39]
We do. Hopefully we’re all entitled to continue to evolve and maybe somebody didn’t have a lot of quantitative exposure at the undergraduate level and the person is interested in working on those skills now – go for it, whatever it is that you feel like you need to improve upon. I do think having worked at multiple schools, it is anything that an applicant can do to be better prepared so that you can really take advantage of the full Darden experience to take advantage of the networking and all the clubs and activities and all the speakers as well as opportunities that are at UVA in Charlottesville because it’s part of the life experience and evolution of living in a new area and taking advantage of the culture. I think anything that somebody can do, not only for admission, but to make your life a little bit easier when you’re actually a student you’re going to be so grateful for.
For example, we don’t require any of these, but if an individual hasn’t had accounting, I would say, it’d be great to take an introductory accounting class. If you haven’t had business statistics, it’s super helpful to have a business statistics class. If somebody hasn’t had finance, maybe an introductory finance class or an economics class could be helpful. That’s why I’m a really big advocate of HBS online. It’s an introduction to the types of subjects that you would be studying if you’re in an MBA program and can be really good confirmation that yes, I do want to study an MBA. I’m interested in these topics. It gives you some terminology and familiarity with them. It is highly well regarded. I don’t want to put words in other people’s mouths, but I have high regard for that certification program.
I think it’s an 150-hour commitment. I would put it on my resume if I did it and say you go to Darden and you went to a different undergraduate school and you did HBS online while you were working full-time, I would use it as a talking point when you’re working with recruiters, because I think that also speaks to somebody’s motivation level. I want to prepare for the program, but I also want to stand out a little bit in terms of the admissions process. I would put it on my resume under education and it can stay there forever. Having a certification from Harvard Business School is never going to hurt. That is my favorite certification program.
The other one I recommend is learning Excel. You don’t have to be a master of it, but have some familiarity with Excel before you come. That’s something that isn’t a requirement, but it’s something that you can do to make your life a little easier.
What happens to an application once it’s submitted? How is it processed and evaluated? [24:20]
Well, I’ll answer this in two ways in terms of the application flow and then also you might be getting at what we evaluate. We’re very proud of how many touch points there are with our applicants. You know this well as a very experienced admissions consultant – the blood, sweat, tears and hours that these applicants put into this process and the stress that can be involved. We really acknowledge that and want people to know we’re part of the reason we’re in these jobs is because we love reading your stories. We love interviewing you. We’re inspired by them. Every application is reviewed by three people. There’s what we call a pre-interview read where a member of the admissions committee will review an application and decide if that person should be invited for an interview.
The exception is early action. And early action applicants can opt into a self-selected interview. Then after the interview, it is read again sometimes by one or two people before it goes to me. So there’s a process to read it before an interview is conducted. We intentionally have different people looking at it because we’re human beings. We want to make good decisions and as much as we’re trained, we can all bring biases in that we try to work against. But just having more opinions and experienced opinions, I’m really proud of our team in terms of how experienced they are and the lack of turnover on our team. It is definitely a holistic process and I’ll mention some things that are taken into consideration in the evaluation process that are not necessarily an order of importance, but we do want people to do well academically, so we want you to be successful.
We’ll look for evidence that somebody can do well academically, but we do it in a progressive way. That’s why we have the test waiver. So if you don’t perform well on a standardized test, but you perform well in other ways, then let somebody prove it beyond just the GPA and standardized test score. We look at professional experience in the first year class, there are people who come from 28 different industries. Some of them have traditional business backgrounds. Some are from healthcare, nonprofits, Peace Corps, and startups. Financial services, consulting, and tech seem to be some of the popular ones, but you don’t have to have a business background. We’ll look a lot at progression to see how has this person progressed in his or her career.
I encourage people to talk about the impact they’ve had either on an organization, on a team, on a project, or on an individual. We do ask a series of what we call short answer questions, not big essay questions. The intention of short answer questions is to try to get to know about different elements of a person’s background. This year we have a lot of choices with the short answer questions because some of us have a really great answer for one prompt, but not another. So we wanted to provide more choices for applicants. Everybody is assigned to a learning team section at Darden and one of my favorite questions is, “What do you want your learning team to know most about you?” I love reading those because for each person, everything they could possibly say, what is it that you most want your learning team to know about you? I love reading the answers and I encourage people, I know it sounds clichéd, but just ask yourself, what am I most proud of? What’s relevant to the business school process that I want to let these people know about?
I read a great essay last year. A woman was applying from China, and it was in the middle of the pandemic, and she talked about how she is driven by being helpful to other people. She talked about the lengths she went to to help her grandmother learn technology so that her grandmother who was isolated in COVID wouldn’t get depressed and would have a way to connect with the family. It was so heartfelt and it was a tangible example of her thread of helpfulness. So anyway, the short answer questions are a part of it.
Recommendations are sort of a third party objective way for us to get information. 100% of our students are interviewed, and the interview is so helpful in terms of learning more about interpersonal skills and communication skills and some elements of a person’s background that are a little harder to assess on the basis of a written application. It’s very broad and I will say on this note, business schools is like a little bit of a space issue. If you apply and you get into your top choice or two or three choices, that’s great. If for some reason you don’t, remember that a lot of these schools have finite amount of space. I think it’s really important for applicants to know if you’re waitlisted or denied that does not mean that that candidate wouldn’t have thrived at Darden, or isn’t going to be a really impactful leader in business. Sometimes it just comes down to numbers. You get a volume of applications and so many people apply and have so much going for them, but I think it’s really important to try to depersonalize this process a little bit and say, “I am not going to allow this letter of denial mean that I wouldn’t have thrived at this school,” or “I am going to be successful by taking another path.” I think it’s a really important message.
Everybody’s unique in different aspects. If you can, try to minimize the stress in this process. I know that is easier said than done, but so many alumni tell me that their time at Darden was the best two of the best years of their life. If people can occasionally come up for air and say, “I’m going to tap into the joy,” they’re embarking on a really exciting journey and going through the application process can really help.
Some of the essay questions really get you thinking. What am I most proud of that’s relevant to a business school admissions process that I’m just really excited to share with these people? For the applicants out there that are listening, just try really hard to tap into the joy and the precipice of this exciting chapter. Like I said before, it’s not just Darden, it’s UVA. I mean, there are phenomenal resources at UVA, and I’m a big fan of Charlottesville. Spend some time just getting lost, not only on the Darden website, but exploring what you can learn virtually about UVA and Charlottesville, because I think these are a big part of the growth opportunity too.
These five questions each have a different focus and I think that enables applicants to better bring out their individuality. [34:04]
Exactly. One is more sort of leadership and impact oriented. Another is a little bit about your worldview. Everybody’s going to be a leader in some way. Whether it’s in a traditional business function or using business skills in a nontraditional way. We really believe that it’s important to have global skills and DEI skills and embrace others’ opinions and gravitate to the person who doesn’t look like you and learn more from that student from a country that you’ve never visited. We really are trying to look for people who are going to embrace the diversity of the people around them.
If somebody is lucky enough to be invited to interview at Darden, what can they expect? [35:!3]
Good question. I think our interviews are intentionally conversational in nature. Our philosophy is that our interviewees are going to perform better if we put them at ease. I think you can expect for your interviewer, maybe a full-time member of the admissions committee and maybe one of our second year student interviewers who take a class with us for credit, whether you interview with a member of the admissions committee or a student, they all carry the same weight. There’s no advantage or disadvantage either way, but I think you can expect the person to just chat with you and put you at ease and make you feel comfortable. There are no behavioral questions. There are no oddball questions. It’s conversational. A lot of questions may be kind of aimed at, “Why did you make this choice of undergraduate school” or maybe, “What prompted your interest in a specific major?” They’re just kind of going through their background. I think it’s less about what someone says and more about their interpersonal and communication skills.
Is it a blind interview? [36:31]
It is blind. They’re intentionally blind. We do that because we don’t want anything in the application to positively or negatively influence us. Too much research shows if you know a GPA or a GMAT, even if you try to block it out, you might make assumptions. So they are blind. I think people will find that they’re quite conversational and a pleasant experience.
What’s the most common mistake you see applicants make? [36:58]
It’s such an easy mistake for us all to make, maybe writing an essay with more the lengths of, “I’m going to write what I think these people want to hear” as a opposed to being really in tune with yourself and like, “I am so excited to let them know about this.” Like I said, maybe that example that I gave earlier of the woman who used the example of teaching her grandmother might not be an obvious response that we got, but it worked really well, and it was very authentic to her.
I think sometimes when people are writing an essay you see people who say something like, “According to Thomas Jefferson, blah, blah, blah.” That’s not really helpful because it tells me something about Thomas Jefferson, but not the applicant. We see this one every day, somebody might apply to Darden and say this is why XYZ school is my top choice and it’s not Darden. Basic proofreading is important. I think another one is to watch my video blog.
I have a video blog that I encourage people to watch because we try to be transparent about the process and try to give you some helpful tips. It is not a requirement to have a perfectly polished resume. However you’re going to have to do a resume eventually when you’re in an MBA program; why not do a little research? Learn the format for what’s a really professionally oriented format and really spend some time on your resume, both in terms of the substance and also the layout. Occasionally we see some not very professionally looking resumes, and a resume is an opportunity to show your personality and your impact. When I’m interviewing someone, sometimes I see their personal aspect of their resume. What are they interested in? Where have they traveled? Sometimes it’s nice just in terms of striking up a conversation with someone, but that is an opportunity to really show your professionalism and personality and impact that some people might not take so much care with.
How do you view applicants who had a dip in grades, perhaps a period of unemployment due to depression or emotional illness? [39:49]
I’m going to speak for myself because I can’t speak for other admissions officers at other schools. We are fortunate in that I think I’ve had a fair amount of education around mental health issues. I personally am really inspired when people feel comfortable disclosing that as part of their history. If people fell and broke their ankle, there would be no shame in telling us they fell and broke their ankle. There should be no shame affiliated with having had a bout of depression either. It’s a growing number of students that experience mental health issues. I think the important question to ask yourself, regardless of any medical condition, whether it’s mental health or physical health is, “Am I ready?”
We empower you to make that decision for yourself. The vast majority of mental health issues happen. They’re not chronic ongoing issues. Even if they are, I’m really proud to say Darden has two full-time psychologists here to help students who might need some support, whether it’s just a low level of stress or maybe a mental health challenge. We have some incredible resources here. Some people are much more open about it and some people choose to be private, that’s your choice but I have seen in the last couple years, an increase in the number of people who talk about, “Maybe I needed to take a year off or a semester off because of one of these challenges,” and it’s no different than any kind of physical challenge. I think again, the most important thing is, regardless of what your medical issue is, is this timing the best for you? Or would the following year be better for your timing in terms of having proper treatment or surgery or whatever an individual needs for a medical challenge. I am more impressed and I think this is a good sign of our times so that this generation is comfortable disclosing something that maybe in a previous generation they would not be. That’s a positive trend.
How about somebody with either academic infractions or a criminal record? [42:44]
I think it depends on what the infraction was. If it was an assault, I think we’re going to be pretty concerned as opposed to being caught with an open can of beer. We’re all human beings, human beings make mistakes. I think it’s important to be honest because there are background checks that are done later, and it’s so much better to be up front about it from the beginning. I would say the overwhelming majority of things that are disclosed are things that fall into the camp of “We were all immature at one point and may have made some misjudgments as human beings.” I have seen a few in my career where the red flag was more concerning. But that’s rare.
Where can listeners learn more about Darden?
- UVA Darden’s website
- UVA Darden MBA Essay Tips & Deadlines [2021 – 2022]
- Navigate the MBA Maze: 11 Tips to Acceptance, a free guide
- Accepted’s MBA Admissions Consulting Services
- Duke Enrolls Its Strongest MBA Class Ever, Hear From Its Admissions Dean
- Are You Interested in NYU Stern?
- How to Get an MBA From Dartmouth Tuck
- How to Get a CMU Tepper MBA
- All About Becoming a Georgetown McDonough MBA