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Clear Admit Admissions Director Q&A Series: Columbia Business School’s Mary Miller


There’s been a lot of news out of Columbia Business School (CBS) recently, what with a $100 million gift from alumnus Henry Kravis ’69 and plans for expansion to a new Manhattanville campus. Given the flurry of activity, it’s no wonder we’ve had a hard time catching Mary Miller to participate in our Admission Director Q&A Series. But catch her we finally did, and her interview follows.

For those who haven’t been keeping up with the admissions office at CBS, Miller joined as assistant dean of admissions in fall 2009, bringing with her almost 30 years of experience in the admissions field. She came to CBS from the College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she managed MBA admissions, student affairs and career services as associate dean from 2002 to 2009. She also served as associate dean of MBA admissions at New York University’s Stern School of Business for several years and as director of undergraduate programs at the College of Business Administration at the University of Iowa.

Read on to learn from Miller about some of the big developments in the works at the school as well as hear her specific advice to prospective applicants about the CBS admissions process.

Clear Admit: What is the most exciting event, development or change taking place in the year ahead at Columbia Business School?

Mary Miller: There are several exciting developments at the business school this year. First, we’re pleased to be moving forward with plans for the future home of Columbia Business School, on the University’s Manhattanville campus.

Second, we have just announced the launch of EMBA Saturday, the newest path to a Columbia Business School Executive MBA degree. Complementing the school’s other EMBA programs, EMBA Saturday will meet weekly on Saturdays only and is specifically designed for highly talented professionals who want to pursue an MBA and aggressively dedicate themselves to their current positions.

Finally, our curriculum offerings are also evolving. This fall, for example, a new course on consumer finance will use the tools of behavioral economics and psychology to better understand consumer financial decisions and the consumer finance industry. We believe this cross-disciplinary approach better reflects the complexities of real-world business challenges.

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

MM: There are a lot of things to talk about when we think about Columbia. We are very proud of our finance faculty and our relationships with recruiting firms, but we have a lot more to offer. For example, our academic centers in real estate, media, pharma and healthcare help leverage our New York City location to broaden and diversify student options.

In addition, interest in social enterprise is growing at the school. In 2002-2003, 23 percent of student clubs fell under the Social Enterprise Program umbrella. By the 2008-2009 calendar year, this number had grown to 45 percent.

I hope people dig a little deeper and recognize all that we offer. There are 130 electives at Columbia that explore topics in marketing, strategy, management and leadership – in addition to finance and economics. Columbia offers a truly diverse education and growth experience.

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.)?

MM: I think one of the things that is a bit overwhelming is the volume that we deal with here. Having said that, I am delighted that there are so many people interested in attending, and we want to give everyone full consideration.

Once an applicant hits “submit,” his or her application goes to a first reader. Because we feel strongly that each application be reviewed by a qualified reviewer, we have very few outside readers in this role, and those who are are usually former employees of the admissions department.

Applicants can be invited to interview at any point in the process and being invited for an interview is a very positive signal to the applicant; the invitation is really, really important. A first reader can nominate an applicant for an interview, at which point candidates are sent a list of alumni in their local area who have volunteered and been trained to interview applicants. The applicants may choose whom they interview with and they arrange the interview. There is an interview format that we send to our alumni interviewers. They conduct the interview blind – which means that all they get is a resume of the applicant – following our format and return their answers to us.

The application then will go to a second reader. If an applicant hasn’t been nominated for an interview by the first reader, the second reader will also have the option to extend an invitation for an interview. I think this is very important because we all have our own biases and are very diverse in our backgrounds. Many of us have come from corporate America, others of us have worked at other business schools. I think it’s important for applicants to know that they get a 360-degree review and that they can be invited to interview at any point.

Then, if everyone agrees on a candidate, it’s easy. Dilemmas come with differences of opinion, so we work as a committee to reach consensus. Sometimes we’ll do an additional telephone interview or we’ll check references – we’ll do whatever it takes to make the right decision. Coming to Columbia is the most important decision applicants make and the most important decision we make. The people we accept will be Columbia alumni for life, and we want to make sure we select people who are right for the school.

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?

MM: I think the biggest piece of advice I would give applicants is to use the essays to tell us about themselves and not tell us what they think we want to hear. So often applicants try to anticipate what we are looking for and then tell us that. We read thousands and thousands of applications – you get rather good at spotting when people haven’t written the essays themselves, when they’ve had a lot of help or when they are trying to write one essay and use it to apply to multiple schools.

Applicants need to learn about the school first of all. We always encourage candidates to visit campus, talk to our students and talk to alumni before they start to complete the application.

Avoid cut and paste mistakes. “I really want to attend ____ school because…” Other mistakes applicants make is they don’t really tell us about themselves, about what makes them unique. All of the administrators here talk about “telling the story.” Students hear it from the admissions office when they apply and later from career services when it comes time to talk to recruiters. Everyone has a unique story to tell. In admissions we are looking at how applicants think about themselves. How they think and what they think is important for us to know. That’s really all we have in admissions, and we use that to evaluate whether each candidate would be a good fit for Columbia.

The last thing I would say is that they need to take this really, really seriously. Answer the questions, and follow directions. If our essays ask for 500 words and they give us 5,000, what does that say about an applicant?

Posted in: Admissions Director Q&A

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