Admissions Director Q&A: Sherry Wallace of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business
In another addition to our Admissions Director Q&A Series this year, we are pleased to include the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business. We spoke with Director of MBA Admissions Sherry Wallace, who shared her enthusiasm about making the admissions process as transparent as possible. “There is no advantage to us in our selection process if people feel like they are in the dark,” she said.
Wallace herself graduated from the Kenan-Flagler MBA program in 1987 and pursued a career in advertising and marketing with several major consumer packaged goods companies. She later married and returned to North Carolina, and about 12 years ago she was offered the opportunity to come back to Kenan-Flagler as part of the admissions team. “It fit me to a tee, and I didn’t need to think very long about coming back to work in Chapel Hill,” she recounts. While she might not have imagined herself in her current role at the start of her career, that she is here now shows the power and flexibility of the MBA, she says.
In the interview that follows, Wallace takes the time to completely demystify the admissions process for prospective applicants to Kenan-Flagler, sharing candidly about what they can expect and how best to prepare. Enjoy!
Clear Admit: What’s the single most exciting development, change or event happening at Kenan-Flagler in the year ahead?
Sherry Wallace: I think what I am most excited about is the quality of the students that we are bringing in. One thing I can say without a doubt is that in the 12 years I have been here, this has been an organization committed to continued improvement. Every year the bar goes up and we tackle new and bigger things, and all the while we are seeing the quality of our students improve. This year we welcomed a fabulous first-year class. We hit the GMAT median of 700 for the first time, which isn’t important in absolute terms, but it does reflect the strength of the pool we are attracting over all. We are just very proud of our class.
CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?
SW: Absolutely. Now, this isn’t true of all applicants. Many people seek us out specifically because they have had an opportunity to work with alumni or know about our strengths in this area, but there are always people who I think are surprised to discover the depth of our finance program.
We are known as a good place for general management – but we actually have three different finance concentrations – corporate finance, investment management and real estate.
Of course, it is also very important for us to be industry relevant. Just having certain courses is not always enough to be sure that your students are as prepared as they need to be to make the contributions they want to in their career.
With this in mind we launched the finance professional development program, which is intended to be a bridge between the curriculum and marketplace requirements. Students participate in 14 sessions over a period of time. The topics of these sessions include things like QuickStart, tracking the markets, a finance career overview, best practices in Excel, interview prep. Now these are all things students are going to hear about and take courses that touch upon, but these professional development program sessions are about how to make the rubber meet the road. We want students to be able to say, “I understand these things technically, but now I have the experience of having rolled up my sleeves and touched it.”
We will have similar types of sessions for other areas, for instance the marketing team has a similar program and we have very extensive prep for students pursuing consulting. But the finance one is the one I want to bring most attention to for prospective applicants who may not know about it.
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.).
SW: I am someone who really believes in trying to demystify the application process for prospective applicants. There is no advantage to us in our selection process if people feel like they are in the dark. We do try to be as open as we can be so that people can feel like they understand the process. There is a lot of work that you as an applicant go through to present yourself, and we want you to know how much we do with that work on the back end. We want you to know how that work is put to use.
We even did a video tour of the admissions office on YouTube. It’s a walk through where we introduce the team in an effort to show that there are real people behind the process. We get a lot of feedback from people who have seen it. They seem to like it, and it helps them feel more comfortable with the process.
People also seem to respect the process more when they know how diverse the admissions committee is. We have representatives from finance, administration, consulting, retail and more who are part of the admissions review team. I hope it will make people feel comfortable to know that there is enough perspective on this committee that we can recognize high performers from different backgrounds.
Before I launch into a description of the process, let me disclose one thing. We have just transitioned to an admissions software different from the one that we had been using for 11 years. This year has been a little bit of a learning process from the back end, and there have been a few bugs from the applicant end. So we do apologize to anyone who may have gotten an error message as part of our transition.
Back to how the process works. Once a person saves his or her application through our online system, we know about you and we have a team of people whose job it is to just help pull you through. Phil and Sharon are their names, and they will let you know what we’ve received and what’s missing.
At any point after the process begins you might get an invitation to interview. In general, we have an invitation policy so not everyone is invited to interview. Some people might get invited very early, while others will get invited very late in the process and some won’t receive an invitation at all.
Once Phil or Sharon has confirmed receipt of all components of an application, then the review process starts. Generally there will be two members of our committee who will review and rate the file. And by file I mean the aggregate collection of the application, letters of recommendation, transcripts, everything. Each of the persons that read the file will provide a rating. In addition to the rating there will be some summary comments that set up the applicant’s strengths, weaknesses and potential to contribute to the class in the context of the overall applicant pool for the class under consideration.
In addition to the reviewers there is the interviewer, if an applicant is invited to interview. Most of the time the interviewer is a third person, so more than half of the time there are three people who have spent a significant amount of time with a given candidate’s application.
In terms of the rating reviewers provide to an application, we have a scale. We assign a point value from 1 through 5. But I want to stress that we don’t use a formula to arrive at this point value. The rating is a way for us to assess each applicant we review based on a scale of all the people we have read this year and what we know the bar to be in our current pool. So, for example, a 2 this year might not be as competitive as a 2 last year was. The rating is only done so we can see it relative to other candidates in a given pool. There is no official calculation that produces the number.
After all of the applications for a given round have been read, we then review as a committee. In terms of notification, we generally stick to the date that we promise for each batch, though sometimes there might be a specific reason why someone might hear earlier or a decision might need to be held.
For each batch we hold a series of admissions committee meetings. The number depends on how many applicants we review in that round. Every applicant is assigned to a region, generally geographically based. One person on the committee is responsible for each region.
For those who are interested, we also have a video of a mock committee showing how we review applications. We really want people to know what it is we talk about.
In the committee meetings the region manager will present each applicant in his or her region, providing a profile of the candidate, a summary of the ratings they’ve gotten from each reviewer and then any highlights. Based on these presentations and group discussion, we then come to a consensus as a committee of whether it’s an admit, a possibly, or a not going to happen.
I believe very strongly that if a person takes the time and submits an application they deserve our complete review. So even if we see something early on that suggests an applicant may not be the right fit, that person still gets their day. Because sometimes all of the upfront signs may point to “not going to happen,” but when you look at the whole thing together it tells a different story.
In terms of the interview specifically, I think I mentioned before that from the time a person starts the application we are sweeping the pool for individual components that stand out as perhaps being among the competitive group. And whenever we spot such a component, we might invite an applicant to interview.
We do interviews by invitation not because we want to screen out great people. Rather, we don’t want to waste a candidate’s time or our interviewers’ time. Interviews very often are helpful, but even the best interview can’t save someone who doesn’t have the other things that it is going to take to be competitive.
Having said that, anytime we see something about a candidate that says, “Hey, this might put them in a very competitive spot,” we’ll consider inviting them in for an interview. Sometimes it might be a really strong GMAT score, other times it’s a letter of recommendation that really stands out. The way we look at it, it’s in our interest to let you know as soon as possible if we might want to interview you.
For this reason, I advise applicants that no matter when you plan to apply, you should go ahead and start populating your application. Because the earlier you start putting some of these other pieces in the earlier you might get an invitation to interview. It might be that you have a unique background from a part of the world we don’t have in our current class. It could be your GMAT score. It could be that really stand-out letter of recommendation. You don’t ever know what the component might be that jumps out to us. Because really it can be any combination of components. And for some people it’s not until someone reads that whole application and says, “Gosh, this is a good story.” They might not really stand out on resume, GMAT, or GPA, but when I look at all of the pieces together they might get that invitation.
We have a team of alumni who have been trained to interview on behalf of admissions, so if people are located in parts of the world where it’s not feasible to come to campus for an interview they can interview with a representative in their region. Anywhere between 35 to 40 percent of our applicants are from outside of the United States.
I do want to underscore that it is not an expectation on our part that you come to visit. Now, we do think you can make a better decision about where you fit or belong if you visit, but I don’t want to discourage or take out of consideration some excellent people for whom a visit is just not a possibility.
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?
SW: Essays to me – I happen to like to write – they are like the “gimmes.” Here is the one element of the application where you can take your time, give it some real serious thought. You don’t have to think on your feet. So when someone does a crappy job on essays it’s really a shame and kind of a reflection on how they might prepare for other things. You can own this and take your time and make sure it is what you intend to tell us. So we have high expectations for the essays.
We know without a doubt that it is possible to give a very appropriate and successful response in the word limit we suggest. We have vetted all of these essays. Sometimes people are very committed to telling you what they want you to know instead of what you ask, and that’s usually the case when we get an essay that doesn’t adhere to the word limit restrictions.
You definitely want to avoid some of the really irritating things. You don’t want to stick out as that one who couldn’t follow the rules. You want to give it some good thought and then cut. Think of it as an executive summary. Most people don’t want to know everything, they want to know just the salient details.
Our first essay is kind of unique. We wanted a question before the question that asks what are your career goals. In trying to come up with what this question might be, we asked ourselves if there were things we might be able to do in the admissions process that could help applicants come to business school more ready to take advantage and be successful in the internship search.
One of the observations that our career team made was that the students who are struggling in the internship search are those who haven’t thought enough about what they are bringing to the table. Do you understand what has made you successful so far? What is your currency? What have you relied on thus far? Are there some things that you have that you haven’t put into the game yet?
Our first question is designed – we want people to be able to abstract and to understand – not just that it’s been leadership, or team work, or whatever it may have been. It’s really about being able to understand how you have been successful. “My ability to blank, blank, blank has allowed me to be successful until now, and this is how I plan to use this same attribute to compete in whatever my future goal is.” That’s what we are looking for in response to that first question.
We introduced that question a couple of years ago. I think this year might be the third season. Some people do a better job with it than others. But it helps us in admissions to see that people understand what they bring to the table and where they want to go.
There are some schools that have moved toward opening admissions to applicants without an established track record. We haven’t. We are still very interested in admitting people who are bringing significant experience and have produced results in whatever they have chosen to do before business school. We think this first question has helped us identify those people who have a pretty well reasoned case for the MBA – as opposed to those who are coming because they have always thought it might be a good idea to get an MBA or some graduate degree. We are looking for applicants for whom the goal is something else and who can tell us how business school will help them get there.
As for specific mistakes to avoid, I’d say not heeding the word limits or trying to force an answer that doesn’t fit the question asked. Applicants need to recognize that most schools look to the essays as a means of assessing a candidate’s readiness to do this and marketability. But there are also questions designed to help us assess is this the right environment. So if you don’t answer the questions that we ask, we aren’t able to compare you apples to apples to other candidates. It is really important for the applicant to respect that the school has assembled these questions for a reason. We don’t want to read any more essays than we have to. When someone is clearly not responding to the question that is asked, it’s not good.
Another piece of advice I would give is to be yourself. Sometimes people are trying to write stylistically in a way that they think we want them to be. Of course, you should be professional – and not so casual that we question your judgment. But we can take many different styles. Sometimes people make them so sterile. The tone of the essay should be a pretty good indicator of the tone and temperament and personality of the person.
Finally, we have an essay where you can tell us any information that is not presented anywhere else, Optional Essay Number Five. Here, optional means exactly that – optional. If the question doesn’t apply to you, don’t feel obligated to answer it. You can have a perfectly competitive application that does the required essays only.
CA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
SW: We certainly want to encourage people to come check us out. Interviews are by invitation only, but anyone can come and visit. We want people to come, sit in on a class, participate in our visit program. If you drop in – not as part of the official visit program – we will do our best to work with you. But sometimes prospective applicants drop in on a date when students are in exams.
If you do come and you are an official visitor, we will offer you a chance to have lunch with a group of students – and we even buy! These are not students who are evaluating you. You also can sit in on a class. A number are offered and we have a schedule of those online. We also have a tour of the business school facility led by a current student – kind of a “day in the life, here’s what’s happening at the school around these places” tour. It’s a great way of collecting people you can stay in touch with beyond the day that you visit. I would recommend to prospective applicants that you do your best to reach out to students and to alums because that is going to give you a good sense of what the school’s vibe is like and whether it is a network you want to be part of.