Admissions Director Q&A: Kurt Ahlm of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business
~A CLEAR ADMIT EXCLUSIVE~
Earlier this week we featured an interview with Ankur Kumar, recently named the new deputy dean of admissions for the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Today we turn to another new senior admissions director taking the reins for the first time this admissions season: Kurt Ahlm of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
For the past several years, Ahlm has served as the right hand to Rose Martinelli, who led Chicago Booth’s admissions team for more than a decade before stepping down earlier this summer. When Martinelli transitioned to a different role within the university, Ahlm was asked to serve as senior director of admissions in an interim capacity. “We are going to see where things go from there,” he said in our interview earlier this week.
Ahlm, who joined the University of Chicago Booth admissions office eight years ago, brings a strong background in admissions and recruiting. He started his career in undergraduate admissions at Northwestern University, moving from there into a corporate recruiting position. “I really liked higher education but I also liked the more professional type of atmosphere that the corporate world offered,” he says, and MBA admissions seemed to provide a great mix of both.
In the interview that follows, Ahlm tells us a little about how he and the entire Chicago Booth community are looking forward to the start of a new dean and about the school’s recent expansion into China. He also gives an in depth look at the admissions process and provides valuable insight on how best to use the essay portion of the application to help tell the complete story of who you are as an applicant and how you will fit into the Chicago Booth culture. So read on!
Clear Admit: What’s the single most exciting development, change or event happening at Chicago Booth in the year ahead?
Kurt Ahlm: I think first and foremost – like many of our peer schools – Chicago Booth is going to be in the position of getting a new dean. In my initial meetings with Sunil Kumar I’ve found that he very much understands the Booth culture and us as an institution. But as always with a new dean, it’s something of a “wait and see.” We do have a few more months before he comes on board, but that’s a change we’re all excited about in the year ahead.
In other news, in just the last two days the University of Chicago has opened up a center in China that Chicago Booth has played a pretty active part in. The new center is significant as we continue to try to expand Booth’s footprint throughout the world. So we have campuses in Chicago, London, Singapore and now one in China. The opening of this center continues to put Chicago in a very unique space in terms of building our global footprint and brand and putting us ahead of our peers in terms of having an international presence.
CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?
KA: The biggest thing of interest from my perspective is that students commonly recognize us as being one of the most flexible out of any of the MBA programs, which affords students a really unique opportunity to tailor-make a program to be anything they want it to be. And yet many prospective applicants still think of us as solely as a finance program. And while that’s great – we definitely have real strengths in finance – we have tremendous depth and breadth in terms of the things you can accomplish with an MBA from Chicago. Certainly, we are very proud of our finance department, but I want prospective applicants to translate the fact that our program is so flexible to mean that we are much more than just a finance school. In fact, more and more of our students just touch finance but pursue a lot of other things. The true flexibility of the Chicago Booth MBA program allows you to do a lot of different things and really expands what your degree can do.
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.).
KA: When a student hits submit, essentially what happens is that from the backend we have a team that compiles the application and checks that everything is complete. Once that’s been confirmed, the application is put into the read cycle. This cycle starts with a team of second-year students that goes through a pretty extensive training. These students, called Admissions Fellows, perform an initial evaluation of the application and give a recommendation of whether or not to interview.
Each of these Admissions Fellows reports up to a director who does his or her own independent read, after which he or she also votes whether to interview or not. If we have a match, the student is invited to interview. If the recommendations are not the same, the application will then come to me for a third review.
Those students invited to interview can then set up their interview either on campus or with an alum. In either case, it will be a blind interview – meaning the interviewer does not have a sense, other than through the resume, of who that candidate is.
After the interview, the interviewer submits a report and the candidate’s file comes back in and goes through another phase of review, at this point through another director who has not seen the file before. This director will then make a recommendation to admit, deny or send the file to be reviewed by committee. Those that go to committee are the ones that our entire team sees and evaluates as a group.
At any given time any applicant is going to get at least three evaluations, and most can get anywhere from five to six. So it is a very holistic process, and it is very iterative.
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?
KA: I think from our perspective what we really try to look at is how the essay fits within the application as a whole. Essays are just one component of the application. A lot of times people put a lot of emphasize on the essay as the overwhelming factor of how we make our decision. The mistakes applicants most often make are either they focus too much on the essay or they don’t focus enough. In other words, they think, “I’m just going to answer the application questions again in essay form.”
What is commonly done by unsuccessful applicants is that they look at an application as a series of tick marks. They don’t really take the time to step back and ask the deeper questions. “What is it fundamentally that I am trying to communicate to this program to suggest that I am a strong fit within it?”
The people who are most successful are those who really look at that in a very strategic sense and recognize that a resume tells us something about their story – and so does a transcript or letter of recommendation. So the essays become a way to add depth and texture to that story.
Unsuccessful candidates don’t really think in a strategic sense about how the essays help to complete their entire application. Their answers to the essays often just repeat information we’ve gotten from other areas or highlight the same information ad nauseum.
CA: What changes will you make as you step into Rose Martinelli’s role?
KA: I think this is another sort of “wait and see” situation. I feel like I have had a very active hand in the way that we have done things in the past, so I don’t expect to make radical changes going forward. Part of it for me is that there is still the unknown of getting a new dean on board and what that represents in terms of overall objectives.
Having said that, there is a little bit about my background here that I haven’t mentioned but that I think is important. In 2009 I completed my MBA here at Chicago Booth part time. I already had a master’s degree in education before I joined Chicago Booth’s admissions team. And while I’ve always wanted to pursue my career in higher education, I never really wanted to go back for an MBA before I got here, in great part because I didn’t understand what an MBA could do for me.
But I drank the Kool-Aid when I came back to Chicago Booth and really began to understand the value of the MBA. I like to think that as a result of completing my MBA, I am able now to translate my student experience more readily from an admissions standpoint to other prospective students. I really hope in my new role as dean of admissions to translate those experiences in a palpable, tangible way to students who are considering Chicago Booth and to bring what is a very special place to life for prospective students. I will really be trying to open up the admissions process. I hope to make it even more transparent and really give people a candid look into what Chicago Booth is all about so they can then make their decisions for themselves.