The Leading Independent Resource for Top-tier MBA Candidates

Admissions Director Q&A: Rodrigo Malta of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin


We are excited to add the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin to our Admissions Director Q&A Series this season. We caught up with Rodrigo Malta earlier this week and got to learn how he went from being a full-time McCombs MBA student to directing admissions for his alma mater in just a few years. As you’ll see in the interview that follows, we then drilled him about the McCombs MBA and the admissions process he directs, and he provided some great advice for prospective applicants.

Malta, a native of Brazil, moved to the United States for high school and college and ultimately graduated from the McCombs full-time MBA program in 2007. While a student at McCombs, he was highly involved in admissions activities, and after graduation he remained in Austin, accepting a marketing position with Dell.

A year later, when then-Director of MBA Admissions Tina Mabley contacted him about a job opening with her team – as associate director of admissions focused on diversity recruiting – he jumped at the chance to return to campus and work on something he was really passionate about. Later, when Mabley was promoted to program director for the full-time MBA, Malta applied for and got the admissions director’s position.

Did he ever imagine as a prospective applicant to McCombs just five years ago that he would be sitting in the decision-maker’s seat today? “Never,” he says. “Working in admissions while an MBA student was a lot of fun, but I never considered it as a career,” he says. It wasn’t until he returned to the corporate world at Dell that he found himself missing higher education.

Prospective applicants may be happy to learn that Malta understands the position they now are in on such a personal level. Perhaps that’s why he’s so full of useful tips and advice. Read on to learn what he has to share.

Clear Admit: What is the single most exciting development, change or event happening at McCombs in the year ahead?

Rodrigo Malta: We pride ourselves on being a very flexible and collaborative program and a program that really listens to what our students are saying, so the changes we implement are very often in response to that. In the past year we had a pretty big curriculum change. Specifically, the core classes are now taken in mini-semesters. This will be the second year we are doing that. We also have had our share of new student organizations.

But the biggest development here at McCombs is that in the year ahead we will have five new concentrations offered within the business school, in healthcare, consulting, innovation and leadership, ethics and corporate social responsibility and public and government affairs.

In fact, we will have a whole new focus in the business school around the relationship between business and government, and the new concentrations on ethics and corporate social responsibility and public and government affairs come as a part of that.

If you look at the dean’s plan to drive McCombs in the future, his main points of emphasis are on healthcare and innovation, a departure from the finance and marketing paths most students in the past have followed. And with regard to the point where business and government intersect, we really have an opportunity at McCombs to leverage the local government, being in the state capital here in Austin.

CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?

RM: The one piece that I always kind of like to highlight is our MBA+ Leadership Development Program. It’s a hands-on professional development piece of the MBA program. Nothing within it is a requirement, but if you are looking to enhance the MBA with hands on activities or coaching in a particular area, you would go to our MBA+ team.

Basically, MBA+ provides resources across three categories. First, a student at any point can go through a four- to six-week micro-consulting project with a company. Students identify a company they would like to work with, and MBA+ helps connect them to these organizations by facilitating a micro-consulting project. The client provides a current business question to be addressed and MBA+ provides each team with a budget and guides the team through the project management process, but the students drive the project.

Another piece of MBA+ is they provide us with industry-oriented seminars and other special events that augment the classroom experience. An example is “Training the Street,” which is an initiative for students hoping to head to Wall Street. It is a seminar designed to help the finance students learn to build financial models.

Finally, the third component of MBA+ consists of communications coaching. We hire PhD students from the communications school here to provide coaching, either one-on-one or through expert-led workshops, to help McCombs students communicate more dynamically.

How students choose to use these coaching services varies widely. For example, some students choose to work with a coach to prepare for case interviews. Other students have a communications coach come in to help prepare for a specific presentation, such as pitching an idea to potential investors. Still others, like me, might work with a coach to help overcome an accent if English is a second language.

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.).

RM: The first thing that I like to tell applicants is that no matter what their GMAT score is, how many years of work experience they have – their application will be touched by someone and read by someone here. That’s the advantage of being a small program. Each and every application gets reviewed by a person. The application itself will be reviewed probably by more than one person. Those individuals may be members of our admissions team or a trained first- or second-year student. They help us read applications as well.

Then, every applicant’s file, after it goes through a number of reviews, is presented in an admissions committee meeting. When our admissions cycle is in full swing our admissions committee meets every week. The committee consists of all the officers of our team, and in our committee meetings we present each individual applicant and put his or her candidacy up for discussion.

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?

RM: The essay is where we hope to see a little bit of the personality of the applicant come through. That – along with the interview – is one of the biggest areas where we start to assess fit with the McCombs MBA program. The essay is really your written statement of what you are all about. We like people to highlight why they want to come to McCombs specifically and what they bring to the table that will leave the program better than when they started it.

We look for there to be a tight message around where the applicant has been in the past, where the MBA fits within their career plans and where they want to go after obtaining the degree.

One of the biggest mistakes I see applicants make is trying to write overly generic essays that they can leverage to multiple schools. If they are taking the time to apply to different schools, they should take the time to tailor the essays to those particular schools.

Another mistake some applicants make is they forget or fail to answer the question we’ve asked. One tip I give applicants to avoid this pitfall is to have someone else read their essays without telling them what the questions were and then ask them to guess what the questions were. If they guess correctly, you’ve answered the question well.

Another thing I find is that applicants tend to put off starting the actual essays and instead spend lots of time thinking in their heads about them and making a framework. My suggestion is to sit down right after a school-related experience and start writing. Maybe you went to an event with alumni in your local city. Go home and just start writing things down in a Word document and kind of file it away for one or two days and then come back to it. People get so worked up around the essays part of it. I always tell people that the essays are available right away in the summertime for a lot of the different schools. You know what the essay topics are well in advance, so just start writing things down to get the process started.

A common mistake we tell people to avoid – and it always, always happens, every application season – is the find and replace where you don’t actually replace the name of another program you’re applying to. Don’t be that applicant.

I’d also like to go back to what I said earlier about having a tight message. What I mean by that is that your essays need to complement to the things you are going to talk about during your interview as well as what recommenders are going to talk about in their letters. So, if an applicant picks a particular work project to highlight for the essay, that means he or she probably needs a different example for the interview. And then they need to coach their recommender to use still a different example. So you say to your recommendor, “You remember the time I led that project for X client? Well I was thinking of writing about that for one of my essays so maybe you could choose to highlight something different in your letter of recommendation…” All the application components should work together to create a tight message.

One final piece of advice: Once you do the research around which schools you are going to be applying to, plan to visit at least your top three MBA programs. Now, I know that applying to an MBA program is a pretty expensive venture – between taking the GMAT, the application fees, etc. But don’t underestimate the importance of visiting campus.

It’s best if you can visit before you apply, but if not before, then at least before you make your final decision of where to go. The school visit changed my mind in terms of what my top choice would be. The biggest deciding factor was the collaborative atmosphere at McCombs ,and I really didn’t get that until I was here. So don’t underestimate the value of that trip. You are going to be living somewhere and interacting with these people for two years, so it is definitely worth the money for a plane ticket and hotel stay.

Posted in: Admissions Director Q&A

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Sign Up For Our Newsletter

    Expert admissions advice and the latest news on top business schools delivered straight to your inbox.