Admissions Director Q&A: UCLA Anderson’s Mae Jennifer Shores
As we near the end of our Admissions Director Q&A series, we are pleased to bring you a recent interview with Mae Jennifer Shores, admissions director at the Anderson School of Business at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
As reported by BusinessWeek earlier this fall, Anderson is currently experiencing an application volume surge, in part due to the fact that more students seek haven in business school when the economy slumps. But in the BW article, Anderson’s dean also attributed the rise in applicants to the strength of the school’s entrepreneurship program and increased interest among candidates from Asia.
In the interview that follows, Shores provides a ton of information regarding social enterprise at Anderson, an area she feels applicants don’t always know enough about. She also gives some excellent pointers on how to craft strong and compelling application essays. (Hint: Don’t submit a 27-page answer when the question asks for 1,000 words…)
Clear Admit: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?
Mae Jennifer Shores: I wish applicants knew more about UCLA Anderson’s commitment to social enterprise. The school has a long track record of demonstrated involvement in social enterprise that predates much of the recent interest among business schools in the area. UCLA Anderson’s activities are unparalleled as they extend beyond student clubs and activities to include academic training and professional experience.
Social enterprise is found in the following academic, co-curricular and career areas:
• Elective courses: These include Leaders in Sustainability, Social Entrepreneurship, Business and Economics in Emerging Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Venture Initiation, Business and the Environment and others.
• Leaders in Sustainability Program: This multi-disciplinary program provides a mechanism for UCLA Anderson MBA students to pursue their interests in sustainability in collaboration with graduate students from across the university. The program prepares students who will be leaders in their professional fields to make key business and public policy decisions with an eye to sustainability. Students gain experiential knowledge by collaborating on client projects for local businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.
• Price Center for Management Development Program: This program offers industry-specific, executive development programs that are designed to help managers build essential skills as well as effective and profitable organizations. MBA students serve as teaching assistants or fellows in Price Center programs.
• Johnson & Johnson Health Care Executive Program: This program trains executive directors of community-based health care organizations, Head Start agencies and HIV/AIDS programs in Africa in health literacy. The program has effectively reduced work absenteeism, Medicaid costs for children’s ER or clinic visits by as much as 58 percent.
• Applied Management Research (AMR): As part of these projects, students spend 20 weeks examining a specific company, industry and strategic opportunity and develop strategic plans for recommendation and implementation. Past projects have included studying low-income Indian consumer attitudes and behaviors surrounding packaged foods and improving wait times at the nation’s largest free clinic.
• UCLA’s Net Impact chapter: The local chapter of national organization Net Impact is housed at UCLA Anderson. Net Impact’s mission is to improve the world by growing and strengthening a network of new leaders who are using the power of business to make a positive net social, environmental and economic impact.
• Careers in hundreds of organizations with missions involving social entrepreneurship, including the American Red Cross, Amnesty International, Hong Kong Trade Development Council, J. Paul Getty Trust, RAND Corporation, National Endowment for the Arts, US Agency for International Development, US International Trade Commission and others.
These opportunities are enhanced by the school’s location in Los Angeles, which has one of the most diversified employment bases in the United States. Los Angeles is home not only to small business (98 percent of firms hire fewer than 100 employees), but also to major industries such as finance, aerospace, biotechnology, defense, media and entertainment, high tech, health care and consulting.
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.).
MAS: Once applications are complete (i.e., all required parts of the application have been submitted), they are sent out for review to individual committee members. Our review is holistic and based on the strength of the entire application. We read all files in their entirety rather than pre-screen applications based on academics, test scores or other criteria. We allocate whatever time is required to thoroughly read and assess applications. First reads can take up to an hour or more. Subsequent reviews may take less time.
Each file is read in its entirety and evaluated for the applicant’s admissibility in a given year. In the first phase of reviews, all applicants are either invited for an interview or denied without an interview. The number of reviews a file receives in this phase depends upon how clear the decision to interview or deny is.
The clearest decisions receive two to three reads. For those candidates who are interviewed, their application is read again in its entirety with the interview results included. Each file is read by two to five individuals before a decision to admit, deny or waitlist is recommended.
Following the post-interview evaluations, the committee meets formally and collectively reviews all the files once more, revising any decisions as deemed necessary based on group consensus. The makeup of our committee is very diverse, which allows for multiple perspectives in the evaluation process. The committee is comprised of seasoned admissions officers who represent formal training and direct experience in business, higher education and the not-for-profit sectors. Our varied, deep industry experience allows us to collectively craft a similarly rich and diverse class of students.
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?
MAS: When my team reads essays we are looking for clarity of thought and cogency. We look for an ability to clearly articulate what has transpired in your personal and/or professional life, how this has shaped who you are today and how these experiences have led you to pursue an MBA at this time. The best essays are genuine and introspective. The best advice we can offer any candidate is to heed the advice of admissions professionals rather than the advice of well meaning, but less informed, friends, colleagues and even alumni of MBA programs.
The biggest mistakes candidates make arise from ill-conceived assumptions about what the admissions committee is looking for in applicants. As a result, many essays are clearly tailored with a false sense of impression management. These mistakes play out in the following ways:
• Over-editing one’s essays. While it is fine to receive input from others regarding the clarity of one’s thoughts in essays, overreliance on others to edit, fine-tune or carefully craft verbiage in essays often leads to sterile essays in which one’s own personal voice is lost. Essays may also read as if they were written by multiple authors. Both actions call into question the authenticity of your work, as well as your personal integrity.
• Crossing the boundaries of appropriate disclosure. As admissions officers we are interested in getting to know applicants as individuals. Including details about one’s life are fine as long as they are relevant to your MBA candidacy. While it is fine to highlight, for example, that your mother was ill for much of your undergraduate experience and that your need to attend to her illness negatively affected your grades, we do not need to hear the intimate details surrounding her illness.
• Ignoring guidelines. Applicants are evaluated not only upon their academic, professional and extracurricular experiences, but also upon the judgment calls they make as part of the admissions process. There is flexibility in the word limits of essays, but wide divergence from specified guidelines calls into question one’s ability to act professionally or perform well on a team. For example, I will never forget the essay from an applicant that ran 27, single-spaced, pages. The applicant had disregarded the 1,000 word limit (the equivalent of three double-spaced pages). Exacerbating matters, the applicant submitted an additional five-page essay to explain his decision to submit 10 recommendation letters, rather than the requested three. My reaction was: “This is very sad because this is an incredibly accomplished individual. I would have some real concerns about this person’s suitability on a team.”
• Confusing Shakespearean prose for business school writing. Applicants are eager to have their essays sound sophisticated and polished, full of lively prose and witty observations about their careers. That’s fine. Yet a common trap applicants fall into is being overly verbose, losing sight of the main points they want to communicate. Keep in mind that we are assessing your communication skills, not assessing your ability to write prose in the style of William Faulkner.
• Focusing on impression management. Applicants are prone to relying upon any number of techniques to improve how they appear to admissions committee members. While candidates should present themselves in the best light possible, they should avoid any hint of misrepresentation that can come from using business jargon, exaggerating achievements and failing to recognize the contributions of others to their success. It is all too common for us to read essays that are intentionally peppered with vague phrases such as “I’m a socially responsible businessman” or “I want to work in the technology space.” If you don’t support these statements with real-life examples of what you want to do, it sounds contrived and purposeless. Similarly, embellishment of one’s accomplishments or focus on oneself to the exclusion of others calls into question one’s integrity and capacity for teamwork.
Avoiding these mistakes can dramatically enhance your candidacy and chances of admission. We receive upwards of 4,000 applications annually and draw a diverse set of talented applicants to our program. In a pool this diverse, the need to find some unique way to differentiate yourself from the others is not the critical element that many believe it to be.
While we do admit exceptional individuals to UCLA Anderson who have worked on nuclear submarines, been Olympic athletes or achieved great success in investment banking, there are other candidates we find equally attractive. These individuals may never appear on the cover of Financial Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek or the New York Times, but they are striking and noteworthy for being well-rounded contributors to their communities, thoughtful, genuine and ready for an MBA.