Applying to business school during a pandemic [Show summary]
Soojin Kwon (Managing Director, Full-Time MBA Admissions and Program at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business) and Diana Economy, Director of Full-Time MBA Admissions at Ross, answers pressing applicant questions about applying to Ross. They address how the application process has shifted in light of COVID-19 and what accepted students can expect from their MBA experience this fall.
What prospective MBAs should know about applying to Michigan Ross [Show notes]
Are you among the many MBA wannabes who are thinking about applying for an MBA? Are you wondering whether to apply this cycle or next? We’ve invited Soojin Kwon and Diana Economy to answer the most common applicant questions related to COVID-19 and its impact on MBA admissions, specifically at Michigan Ross. During the podcast, Soojin Kwon provides an excellent framework for evaluating whether you should apply now or not.
Most of us have been confined to our homes for over a month. I first of all want to express my profound hope that all listeners and their loved ones are well. The restrictions and challenges of the coronavirus have wreaked havoc on so many areas of our lives, and this show is devoted to the challenges it has posed in the MBA admissions world, specifically at Michigan Ross’ top-notch, full-time MBA program.
It gives me great pleasure to have on today’s show Soojin Kwon, Managing Director of the Full-Time MBA Admissions and Program at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, and Diana Economy, Director of Full-Time MBA Admissions at University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Both are returning guests to Admissions Straight Talk and I’m thrilled to have them back. Soojin and Diana, in addition to being highly experienced in MBA admissions, and specifically Ross admissions, are both also highly articulate in this extraordinary time in so many ways. I’ve invited them on so that we can learn how the Michigan Ross program is dealing with the challenges of COVID-19. I’ve also used questions drawn from Accepted’s recent COVID MBA webinar, so my questions in this podcast, even more than usual, are really your questions, applicant questions, in an attempt to help you determine if you should apply for your MBA, and specifically if and when you should apply to the Ross MBA. But even if you’re not applying to Ross, you’re going to find a lot of valuable insight in this episode.
Other than the health risks and inconveniences that we’re all dealing with, as admissions directors what are your concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on the MBA classes now at Ross and those considering the 2020 and 2021 application cycle? [2:31]
Diana: This has taken up every meeting, every day right now, and we are regularly talking about both our students and our incoming students and doing everything we can to think about their needs and try to prioritize our planning accordingly. We meet regularly with the Dean’s office, whether myself or Soojin, to make sure that we’re in sync with their plans as they navigate and manage for the fall. Our Dean’s office has been great about doing regular town halls for our students. So we have done town halls for our full-time MBA students at least a few times already. We’ve even done town halls for our admitted students and even prospective students because we recognize the importance of communication during these difficult times.
We’re trying to communicate as much as we can, knowing that there are a lot of answers that are unknown right now, but doing what we can to stay in touch with our constituents. For our current students, one of the big areas that we’re working with them on, of course, is employment, so the internships and full-time opportunities for them. And while at this point, we haven’t seen that many internships or full time offers be rescinded, we are continuing to stay in contact and making sure that they have what they need to be successful this summer. And if something has mitigated their plans, our career office is in touch with our alumni and others to help support our students.
One of the things the career office is doing is a panel of alums from 2008, 2009, and 2010 (which actually is the time that I was in school), using those alums to say, here’s how I navigated things during these times to demonstrate sort of some of the tactics and things they can think about that may apply to them as well.
For prospective students, I think the biggest question is, “Should I apply now or should I apply in the fall?”, right? What’s the situation going to look like? And I’ll let Soojin share a little bit more on that since she also oversees the MBA program and experience, but we recognize it as an unprecedented time in business school, and it still might be one of the best times to apply, given all that the MBA offers.
The reality of the market is that it’s a buyer’s market. There’s a smaller applicant pool, so there’s a strong demand for students. So there’s perhaps never been a better time to apply. In addition, as things potentially trend towards recession, this is a great chance for students to build leadership skills and experiences. We are working, whether school is happening in-person or virtually, to make as many opportunities available for students to stretch themselves and expand their skill set while they’re with us.
Soojin: One of the things that I’ve shared with prospective students is a framework to think about, “Should I apply and come to school or stay at work?” And so I introduced the concept of a two-by-two matrix.
Across the top is: The world is still in stay-at-home regulations, or the world is back to normal of some sort, or we can be in-person again. Those are the two at the top, and then you can either stay at work or you can go to school.
So let’s say you decide to stay at work and the lockdown is still in place. That’s the left top quadrant. In that scenario, you’re still going to be working remotely, if you’re still able to work as the economy downsizes. There’s a lot of risk to all of our jobs. So that’s kind of a precarious box to be in: staying at work, continued lockdown.
Now, if you stay at work and there is no more lockdown, what happens then is the economy is still going to be sluggish and your opportunities for growth and moving to different jobs are kind of limited, and you’re not developing new skills certainly. So when the world comes out of this COVID crisis and we’ve got a vaccine, 2022/2023, you’ve got no MBA. You’re still doing what you’re doing at best, and your options are limited.
Now, let’s go to the quadrant where you choose to get an MBA and the world is back to normal. So in that quadrant, you’re going to be going to business school, getting an MBA, expanding your opportunities, developing your skills, expanding your network, having a great experience. Even if it’s delayed or partially online, you’re going to end up in 2022 with an MBA that expands your career opportunities like nothing else can.
Now, if you decide to get an MBA and the world is still on lock down this fall, most schools are still planning to deliver their programs. Whether it’s a virtual start or a delayed start, you’re still going to learn. You’re still going to have opportunities for career development, leadership development and the network, and then in 2022, guess what? You have an MBA, and the market’s going to be hungry for talent.
What changes have you made to the admissions process for the 2020 incoming class? [8:33]
Diana: We are of course accepting the at-home test, whether it’s the GMAT, the GRE, the TOEFL test that people can take online. We also recognize those tests are a work in progress. So we are doing our best to be able to accommodate candidates as they start to take those tests in this new frontier. What I will say is we are not going to waive the test. We will accept a test score after a candidate applies, so they can apply without a test score, but we cannot render a decision until we have that test score in-hand. We won’t give them a positive answer if we don’t have a test score.
For international students, we really need international students to have complete applications sooner rather than later. And while we have extended our application deadline to May 29th, we have encouraged international students to apply by May 6th. May tends to be the months by which we stop admitting international students from the waitlist or in general. And even though we’re in this new environment, we believe it’s even more important than it ever has been for us to be able to give international students a decision for them to deposit so that we can begin the I-20 process and that they have every chance of being able to get a visa, as we know that the visa centers are closed right now. Any later, and they risk not getting a spot in line essentially even when they do open up to get their visa in a timely manner.
So we are going to allow for a later test deadline, but we do want internationals in particular to apply with their test to the extent possible. For the American candidates that have a little bit more time, we’ve offered an extension to when they can submit that test. But again, we are planning on starting orientation August 24th, and at this point, we are moving towards an in-person, public health-informed start in the fall. With any transition, time is of the essence, and we recognize people need that time to be able to make those transition plans.
One of the concerns I’ve heard from applicants over and over, especially those planning to take the GMAT, is that the online GMAT (the only one available right now) takes more time, and the scores are going down. Are you taking that into account as you evaluate scores? [10:47]
Diana: That is a good question, and I think one of the elements of this process is we, as an admissions team working with candidates, are very human, right? We very much want to work closely with candidates on that path. We always take a look at much more than the test score anyways to assess academic readiness. So of course we’re taking a look at your undergraduate transcript or taking a look at your professional work experience. There may be elements that help us understand how likely you are to be successful in the classroom. And I’ll be honest with you, Linda, one of the things I tell candidates is that scrappiness matters sometimes, right? The candidate who wants to do well in school, who tries hard, who goes to the office hours, who puts the work in, sometimes you see those students do a lot better than those with a much higher score who don’t put the same amount of effort into being as successful in the classroom. Perseverance, resilience, all of those things matter in the MBA experience and in the classroom.
What is the deadline for submitting the test score? Any chance you’ll further that application deadline for domestic applicants beyond May 29th? [12:09]
Diana: We will accept test scores as late as late July. And again, I don’t recommend that candidates wait that long to submit a test score because we cannot give an admissions decision. But if we get the test score by late July, as I mentioned, we’re starting orientation on August 24th. That still gives a small window for candidates to be able to get the admissions decision and transition to the full-time experience. I do not anticipate that we will extend beyond May 29th. The deeper that we get into the summer, the later that admissions decisions are given, the more difficult it is for our students to have a really successful onboarding experience, and we do a ton with our students over the summer.
And while we’ve always brought people up to speed later, if they’re admitted off the waitlist, let’s say in June or later, it is helpful to have the career preparation over the summer: the quantitative skills workshops and experiences that we have planned, the student life, health and wellness committees and DEI panels and such that we’re already planning for our students. We want our students to have as much opportunity as possible to be as ready as they can be for the full-time experience.
How is Ross going to treat international accepted applicants who cannot get into the country due to visa processing delays? [13:57]
Soojin: If international students are unable to get their visas despite their best efforts or for travel restriction reasons, and if they aren’t able to get to the US, they can choose to start online or get a deferral. For international students who received a scholarship offer this year, we will do our best effort to honor that in the next year. Now, budgets are what they are. We don’t know what our budget will be next year, but we’re going to make every effort to honor those.
We don’t know what percentage of international students will choose to defer. There are a lot of international students who’ve already said, “I’m really excited as long as I can get my visa or even if it’s online, I’m coming.”
Have any members of the class of 2020 had job or internship offers withdrawn? [15:12]
Soojin: We’ve seen just a couple of full-time offers get rescinded. There are a few more for internships. Some of them have been shortened, but some of the ones that are getting shortened are getting guaranteed full-time offers in consulting. I’m hearing this happening. So that’s something that’s brand new. And then Ross is creating some summer action learning experiences, kind of like our math program or Living Business Leadership Experience, LBLE, with companies where our alums are to ensure that students can continue to develop their skills and be ready for full-time recruiting in the fall. And I talked to our career development director just before our podcast, and she said that the good news is that recruiters have been requesting dates to come to campus next year, so they’re still interested in recruiting MBAs. So we’re very hopeful for our incoming and continuing students.
Let’s say an applicant lives in a country where they cannot take the online GMAT or GRE (China is probably the most prominent example), and they would like to apply to Ross. Would Ross consider an application without a test score? [16:08]
Diana: We aren’t going to consider an application without a test score this year. We recognize there have been some changes in the market, so we will take a look again at that as we look at the next application cycle, but I don’t actually anticipate any changes in the test score. What we are reviewing right now is other alternatives to the standardized tests that might also be a substitute, but we’re not certain if that will happen in the coming year. But for consistency with the rest of this application cycle, we aren’t going to admit anybody without a test score. So I realize that in some countries, that may be restrictive for the fall of this year, but we look forward to welcoming the applications of those candidates next year.
If a significant percentage of the academic year ends up being online, are there any discussions at Ross about providing a discount, or a partial or full refund? [17:05]
Soojin: We know that’s on the minds of a lot of students right now. Decisions like that about tuition are made at the university level. We don’t make it at the school level, and they have to be approved by the regents. So it’s something that is on the University of Michigan President’s radar, but no decisions have been made. I’ve not been informed about anything.
If people are nervous about starting school now (not the ones who can’t get to campus, but the ones who can and are nervous to attend due to concerns about getting a job, etc.), can they defer? [17:42]
Soojin: We’re not granting deferrals for people who are not wanting to start online. When we say “online,” it doesn’t mean what a lot of people think online is: recorded lectures that are sent out, asynchronous. That’s not what we’re going to be. Online for us just means remote learning. It’s synchronous. The professor is still going to cold call you. There’s a lot of engagement. There’s a lot of breakout discussions. So it’s going to be very interactive; that’s still going to be delivered. And they’re still going to be getting the career prep. They’re still going to be getting the leadership development, the networking opportunities.
In fact, they’re going to have more networking opportunities, now that the world is used to being virtual, than they ever had before. So many of our alumni have been willing to host webinars or chats with our incoming students that would have had a harder time getting their schedules to accommodate coming to Ann Arbor because they’re really busy or they have kids. This has really opened up a new way of connecting our current and incoming students with the vast alumni base that we have. So they’ll have that.
And then our student clubs. I’m already working very closely with them to deliver a lot of the stuff over the summer online so that students can hit the ground running in the fall, hopefully in person, so they’re aware of what the clubs are, what they plan to do, what they’re going to get out of it, and then be more prepared to make decisions about what to join. That’s often an overwhelming time, actually, when students first come to campus and they’ve got to figure out, well, what do I want to recruit for and what clubs do I want to join and what extracurriculars do I want to do? Because we’re now so used to being virtual, we’re going to deliver a lot more of that over the summer, so they have time to digest and get more full information. I’m really excited for how much more prepared incoming students can be in this format.
At our commencement address today, we had Brad Keywell, Tom Brady, Jim Harbaugh, Steve Ross, Robin Washington, who was formerly at Gilead. I’m kind of excited about it because it does open up so much more opportunity, so much more connectivity, and it changes our thinking about how we can connect with each other and how we can learn. Not everything has to be the way it used to be.
Diana: The other thing that’s incredible is we’ve made significant amounts of investment in digital technologies. We are the most highly-ranked MBA program with an online MBA. And while the experience would be different for our full-time MBA students, we have what I would call the equivalent of a CNN studio at the business school where you can move around charts and graphs, and it feels very visually engaging. That also means that we have faculty who have taught in an online environment before. This is not a brand-new thing for them, and the ramp up period isn’t going to be as severe for our faculty as it might be for others. And so while it’s not our preferred format, I think Michigan Ross was really, really well positioned to deliver an incredible experience, whether it’s going to be in-person or online.
Are you waitlisting more applicants now than in other years? How is the process for them different than in previous years? [21:49]
Diana: Our round two notification deadline was March the 18th. So when we made decisions about round two candidates, which of course is the bulk of the candidates that have a response at this time, it was with an awareness that this was going to be happening, though of course not with the full awareness that we have right now. So I would say we waitlisted a healthy amount of students, but we never waitlist any candidates that we don’t think have a viable shot at getting in. That still continues to be the case. I would say a slight difference this year is we actually did start admitting waitlist candidates earlier than we ever have. We’ve admitted some into the middle to the late of April already. And even now, we will continue to evaluate waitlist candidates as we also are simultaneously reviewing our round three candidates.
At this point, we’ve got waitlisters, we’ve got folks in a rolling round three timeline, and almost daily, we’re reviewing and re-reviewing and trying to stay in touch with our waitlist candidates to the extent that we’re able to understand their plans and priorities and also answer questions that they might have. We recognize it’s a confusing time for many, with a lot of unknowns. And so we want to try to be as compassionate and empathetic about that as possible. So we do encourage candidates to reach out to us at email@example.com if they have any questions.
And we always have kept in touch with waitlist candidates, I would say maybe even more so in this year with so much uncertainty. I think historically, we would say, “We’re going to review candidates again during this timeframe, you may hear from us,” those types of things, but now we’re trying to put ourselves in their shoes to think about what information we need to be providing and how often. I realize they probably would want to hear from us even more often, and I think there’s only so many times that you can say that it’s still unknown, right? So we’re trying to be mindful of that balance of communicating, but also trying to be thoughtful about communicating when we have something to say or a new decision or a timeframe to be able to share.
Is there scholarship money available to applicants admitted during the extended deadline rounds? [23:57]
Soojin: Absolutely. We specifically set aside money for candidates who apply in later rounds. Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to get a scholarship. Scholarships are still going to be merit-based, and they’re discretionary. But absolutely, everyone still has a shot at some money.
If applicants apply by the extended deadline, which is May 29th, and they don’t get in, will they be hurt if they reapply round one? [24:17]
Soojin: We’ll have a very different way of looking at round one re-applicants this year than in any previous year, but it won’t hurt them in the process. And in fact, we’re going to waive their reapplication fee and the reapplication process is going to be much easier than the initial application. They don’t have to submit a new essay. They don’t have to submit a new recommendation letter, and if they are invited to interview, they don’t have to interview again. So it’s really just an updated resume. If there’s anything new, it will be a cover letter saying, “Here’s what’s new and different since I last applied,” and then the form so we have all of your information still, but no app fee.
Diana: We also recognize that for candidates who are applying right now, there’s a variety of reasons for that, right? There are some candidates for whom, maybe, rounds one and two weren’t what they thought they would be, and now they have a little bit more time to apply. But there’s also a whole host of candidates who, in the last handful of weeks, have said, “Wow, I need to apply to MBA, and this fall seems even better, maybe because I’ve lost my job recently or things have changed.” Or maybe this time at home has allowed them additional time to reflect. But that also might mean that they haven’t been preparing for 12 months. They now have three weeks to kind of think through some of these things, and so we’re going to take that into consideration as candidates do apply this round, and we’ll use that and try to review what we can.
And like I said, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll take a look again in the fall, with a respect for where they’re at in the process and what we might learn from them in both of these rounds.
Will you give feedback to rejected applicants, or do you not have the resources for that? [26:36]
Soojin: We don’t have the resources for that. We are actively trying to recruit for next year, still trying to make decisions, still trying to figure out how we do classes and doing contingency planning, and we can’t just plan for a regular orientation. We’re planning for plan B, plan C. So there’s so many things going on right now.
Diana: When I talk to candidates who are re-applicants, somebody might come up to me at a fair to say, “I’m trying to reflect.” And when I ask them, “Well, what do you think it was?” And almost every single time they know, right? They know, “I think my GMAT probably wasn’t where I wanted it to be, and I knew I wanted to take it again, but I didn’t get a chance.” Or, “I don’t think I put my best foot forward in my interview or my essays.” Candidates know. And so while I think that the feedback can be reassuring on an individual basis, we do try to give general themes of things that we see in candidates and an overview of really what we’re looking for to try to be as clear as possible, so the candidates can use that to take this time to do some self-reflection as to what they might do to strengthen their app next year.
Would you encourage applicants who were rejected round one or round two to appeal that decision? [27:46]
Soojin: We’re not taking appeals.
Is there anything you would’ve liked me to ask you? [27:56]
Soojin: We always want people to ask us, what is the biggest misconception about Ross? The biggest misconception is that you’ll get stuck in the Midwest. I have two things to say about that. We have a phrase that goes, “Go blue, go anywhere,” which means you get a degree from Michigan, and your network is the world’s. We’ve got the largest living alumni network in the world, and our Ross MBA grads go to the coasts, primarily. San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Boston, D.C., LA, and then Chicago. There are very few who stay right here, although we’re seeing a lot more of our grads who go off somewhere and then they’ll move back here because they loved Ann Arbor so much.
That’s the second thing about Ann Arbor is that people are surprised at how livable this is. It’s 20 minutes from an international airport, easy for our recruiters to come here, for our students to go elsewhere, for them to travel the world, which they did in crazy amounts before all of this happened. And they leave here feeling like, wow, I never thought I could have loved a place so much. But this is home. They think of the place as home. Even after they leave here, they can’t wait to come back for football games, for recruiting, to see friends. They say, “Those were two of the best years of my life.”
Any final advice for this cycle’s or next cycle’s applicants? [29:22]
Diana: One of the things that I tell candidates to look for is when you talk to people who are a part of a community, the Michigan Ross community, whether it’s students, whether it’s alums, whether you are able to engage with us, when you’re putting your spreadsheet together and trying to assess which school is going to be the right one for you to apply to or the best fit, I really encourage students to write down how they’re feeling after they have those conversations. Were you energized by that conversation? Were you de-energized by that conversation?
And not just the one person. If you reach out to the one person who is from your country or the one person who is doing exactly what you want to do, you’re probably going to hear exactly what you want to hear, and it sounds good and it sounds like you could go to school with that person. But you’re not just going to school with that person. You’re going to school as part of a community of faculty, staff, students. If you’re hearing consistency with the third, fourth, fifth, sixth person you talk to . . . and I don’t mean the same thing, the same lines or anything like that. I just mean consistency in the way that people are reflecting on the program, the energy that’s coming from that program and how you’re personally responding to that energy to see if you might be a fit, that’s going to be really important. If you don’t have that on your spreadsheet, you’re going to only evaluate a school based on the programs that they offer and certain objective characteristics. There’s another facet that needs to be part of your consideration set as you evaluate and talk to candidates or talk to our community.
Soojin: That’s great advice, Diana, because my son is a high school junior, and his high school counselor has a framework for how to choose colleges. And one of the things that they ask these juniors to do is when you do college visits or you talk to these students who are in the programs, write down how you are feeling after you have gone on the school visit or talked to others who are in the community. See what you observe, record what you observe, record how you feel, and then go back to it after you’ve done that across all schools because there will be something surprising that might emerge based on your feelings. And the feelings are really important because that’s kind of a glimpse into how you might feel being a part of that community.
Business school is not just about going to classes; it’s not just about getting a job. What kind of people are you going to be surrounded by? How much are they going to inspire you to be your best self? How much are they going to be there for you when you take that risk and you fail? Are they going to be there for you? Those are the intangibles that are going to matter so much to a student’s experience. It’s going to matter so much to what you end up doing because of the community. You’re either going to be inspired or you’re just going to stay on the straight and narrow path and take these classes, get that degree, and go. If that’s what you want, there are plenty of schools where you can do that. But find the school where you are going to feel like, “I can’t wait to do all of these things. I can’t wait to be a part of this community. There is something about this place that really connects with me.”
Diana: As we reflect on this new recruiting environment, which is to say, it’s both a mix of candidates that are applying right now as well as those this fall, we as an admissions team would be traveling around the world over the next couple of months, but that’s obviously not going to be the case. We’re going to have to do things virtually to the extent that is needed to promote the health and wellness of our teams and the fair environments. If you’ve ever been to one, there are many, many people in the same room. So I don’t know when that will start up in that format again. But candidates often ask, what can I do to get on your radar? Or what do I need to do to impress you? Or what types of events do I need to go to?
The reality is this: With any online or other events or relationships that you’re building with our student ambassadors, for us, what matters is that you learn a lot about the school in a way that helps you make a good decision for yourself. It’s not about checking a box, and you’re not going to even probably be able to visit campus anytime soon, right? Even as things come together in the fall, if we are in-person, we have talked about, what does a socially distant in-person fall look like? Well, it probably doesn’t look like bringing a whole lot of people to come to campus to visit in a way that we might, but we’ll see what happens. So take your time to review our website. We’ve got a lot, probably over 40 recorded webinars. “Why Ross” for consulting, finance, marketing, life in Ann Arbor. “I have a partner,” “I’m a veteran,” “I’m from this country.” Lots of ways to connect with our community.
Over 200 student ambassadors are listed on our webpage. You can filter by their backgrounds, their interests, where they’re from. And if you did nothing other than read the bios of the student ambassadors on the webpage, you’d get a really good idea of who was at Michigan Ross. But the good news is you can actually reach out to them right from that page, chat with them, get a feel for their experience. So tons of virtual opportunities to stay connected and engaged, and we hope that you do, and we’ll continue to offer more and more opportunities to get to know more about the program in the community.
Where can listeners and potential applicants learn more about Ross’ MBA program? [34:47]
Diana: They can certainly go to our website or email firstname.lastname@example.org to gather more information. Our full-time MBA website has a lot covered there, and our events page is where you’ll find all the webinars.
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