Admissions Director Q&A: Conrad Chua of Cambridge University’s Judge Business School
Conrad Chua met an alumnus of Cambridge University’s Judge Business School while working in business development and was soon sold on the school’s values and ethos. Three years ago he became head of MBA recruitment and admissions.
Chua, a native of Singapore, worked in the public sector there for 10 years, but he completed his undergraduate education at Stanford and a graduate program at London Business School. “The masters I did at LBS really opened my perspective, and I decided I didn’t want to stay in Singapore,” he told us. He and his wife moved to the United Kingdom five years ago. As Chua heads up admissions at Judge and his wife works toward her PhD, they are also learning the ropes as new parents to an eight-month-old baby.
We are grateful to Chua for making time to speak with us and share some of his hopes for the school under the leadership of Christoph Loch, who joined as its new director last year. Among the things to watch, Chua says, is for Judge to become the center of entrepreneurship and startup energy in Cambridge. He also helps define what collaborative diversity means at Judge and why it’s such an important part of the experience there. If Judge is on your list of target schools, you won’t want to miss this interview.
Clear Admit: What’s the single most exciting development, change or event happening at Judge this coming year?
Conrad Chua: I think the most exciting thing to watch will be the changes that our new director Christoph Loch will make. By his own admission he is still the new kid on the block, but I think he is really being quite modest about the impact he has already begun to have. One direction he wants to push us in is helping to position the business school to be a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship in the area around Cambridge. There are lots of tech startups and spinouts from the university, and the region attracts 25 percent of all venture capital investment in Europe. So there is already lots of startup entrepreneurial energy around Cambridge, and Loch wants to make Judge the center of that.
To that end, we will see lots of changes in terms of faculty gearing up toward entrepreneurship. It will also mean changes to the MBA, with more people who are interested in entrepreneurship wanting to get involved with the school.
CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?
CC: There’s not really any specific area of the program. Rather, I hope that people would understand better the collaborative diversity that we have in the MBA. Many schools talk about diversity and collaboration, but what we do in the MBA is different. I am not in the business of collecting passports or country flags, though we do have a lot of diversity in that regard given that 94 percent of our students come from outside the United Kingdom. More important to me is the kind of background and experience they have. We have traditional finance, entrepreneurs, people from family businesses. And then we also have people from the arts – for example, we have a ballet dancer this year.
There is a reason we seek to have this wide range of backgrounds. When you look at it, most MBA programs – whether in Cambridge, UK, or Cambridge, MA – will have the same classes. It is really that range of insight from the students in the classes that will make their learning experience different.
The other aspect I’d like to highlight is the collaboration at Judge. Again, many people talk about collaboration, but here we really look for people who can work with people from different cultures, different backgrounds. When we talk to our students after they finish their studies here, we find that many didn’t quite understand the importance of that collaborative diversity when they started. Often, only after they have gone back to the workforce do they realize how powerful that collaborative diversity is in this new globalized world.
CA: Walk us through the life of an application in your office from an operational standpoint. What happens between the time an applicant clicks ‘submit’ and the time the committee offers a final decision (e.g. how many “reads” does it get, how long is each “read,” who reads it, does the committee convene to discuss it as a group, etc.).
CC: We are different from a lot of other schools because we run five rounds during the admissions year, starting in September and ending in June. Most schools do three or two. We do five because it breaks up the number of applications into smaller groups for us to read, which is important because currently we only have three people reading all of the applications. In this way, we can ensure quite a high level of consistency in terms of our reading – and we can turn around the applications much faster. Typically we can let people know whether they are invited to an interview just about two weeks after a deadline.
So our team reads the applications and makes a recommendation on whether a given candidate should be interviewed or not. I then review all of the people recommended for an interview and sign off on them. In about one-third to half of these instances I will arrange to have a 15-minute conversation with the applicants themselves to make sure both the applicants and we truly understood the application.
Once someone is invited for an application we will have spent 15 to 20 minutes reading the application and then will take another 15 minutes to speak to them personally over the phone. At the interview stage there are two options: They can come to one of our on-campus interview days or they can have the interview over the phone. We actually find that the phone is usually a bit more reliable than Skype, which is why we do it that way.
Whether or not an applicant is interviewed over the phone or face to face, the interviews are conducted by faculty. This is why we put in a lot of effort up front to determine who gets an interview. Our faculty have been teaching for several years, so calling on them to conduct the interviews integrates a high level of consistency and also means applicants get to understand who is going to be teaching them. Following the interview, faculty recommendations come to the admissions team and I will sign off on them. Candidates will generally be informed of a decision within three or four days of the interview.
If there is a disagreement at the interview stage – for example, if the faculty member is not sure about a candidate – I might ask the director of the MBA program to interview the applicant again. Although in most cases we will go by the faculty recommendation.
CA: How does your team approach the essay portion of the application specifically? What are you looking for as you read the essays? Are there common mistakes that applicants should try to avoid? One key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write them?
CC: I think that all of our applicants, when they write their essays, need to be quite sure that they are reasonably clear about what they are trying to do with the MBA. They don’t have to be 100 percent crystal clear, but they need to have a general direction mapped out. And it has to be closely aligned with what they have done already. Now, that’s not to say that you have to have a finance background to go into finance. But if you want to go into finance there needs to be a clear and cohesive story for what you have done to prepare. Or if you want to start a company, be clear about how an MBA in Cambridge will help you with your entrepreneurial idea.