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Admissions Director Q&A: MIT Sloan’s Rod Garcia

We circled back recently to check in with an admissions director we hadn’t yet reconnected with as part of our Admissions Director Q&A Series – Rod Garcia of the MIT Sloan School of Management. Maybe it’s all the snow in Boston that gave him a little extra free time to take part. Whatever the case, we’re happy to have had a chance to catch up with him and think you’ll enjoy the interview that follows.

An MIT Sloan veteran, Garcia has been at the school for the past 23 years and admissions director for the last 12. Before coming to MIT Sloan in 1988, he worked in admissions at the University of Chicago.

In the interview that follows, Garcia shares his excitement about Sloan’s expansion into a new building this past September and encourages applicants to look beyond the rankings when choosing a business school. He  also provides some insight into what his team is looking for in response to MIT’s unique essay questions. If you’re considering applying to MIT Sloan, you won’t want to miss this.

Clear Admit: What’s the single most exciting recent development, change, or event happening at MIT Sloan?

Rod Garcia: To me, the most exciting development here is the expansion of our MIT Sloan community space to include our new building, E62. The new building opened in September 2010 and has already increased the sense of community on campus. The building embodies the values of MIT Sloan – innovation, communication and sustainability.

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

RG: It’s really not just one area. I wish MBA candidates would look beyond the rankings and look at schools from their own point of view, not from someone else’s point of view. By doing that I think they will be able to determine whether this place is the right place for them or not, as opposed to using an external ranking.

Let me just say, rankings are good. We have been ranked highly, and we will take that. But nonetheless, I would advise candidates to look beyond the rankings because in the process they will discover things. I think it is really personal to the individual.

When I interviewed here in 1988, I knew nothing about MIT or MIT Sloan. I knew nothing about Boston. But when I came to interview – and I spent only about two or three hours in the admissions office – there was something there that happened that made me feel that this was the right place for me. It was not the facilities, it was the not building, but it was something.

I don’t know what the secret sauce is – I wish I could bottle it. But it changed my view of MIT and my view of Boston, and I really wanted the job so much more than before I came for the interview. That’s something you can’t see in a brochure or on a website. So my advice is to come to campus and see it for yourself. Whether it’s this school or another school – candidates owe it to themselves to visit.

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.). 

RG: Okay. The first thing we do after the application deadline is import the data to our own database. And since it’s a paperless application, this year we’ve made our evaluation process sustainable as well by downloading the applications to our readers’ iPads.

The first person to see the application is me. I review each application online and distribute it for reading to a member of the committee. Applications are distributed randomly, by the way. The reviewers are all internal staff along with some contract readers – it’s controlled by us – we don’t use students or alumni.

So the applications are downloaded to iPads in a batch of 20, 25, or 40 applications depending on how fast reviewers can read them. And then a week later, we all meet to calibrate scores and upload these scores to our database.

That’s right. We score the applications. We don’t have a global rating. Instead, we score a set of attributes. There are about nine that we look at, ranging from GMAT score to GPA to work success to all the other attributes, like leadership attributes. Essentially there are two major groups attributes – demonstrated success (GMAT, GPA, work success) and leadership attributes. We add up the sum of the two scores, and based on those two scores I will decide the 18 percent who will be invited for an interview.

Is it always 18 percent? No. The size of the class is relatively constant – 350 MBAs plus roughly 50 in our Leaders for Global Operations dual degree program. The other number that is constant is the number of people we will interview. The percentage of candidates who are invited for an interview varies depending on the total number of applications we receive. But it is no more than 800 people, and from there we will admit slightly more than half.

They are then interviewed by members of the admissions committee. Committee members will score them again, and based on those scores, we will pick the 50 percent to admit.

It’s actually quite easy. We don’t spend a lot of time debating because we can refer to something specific in the application. Either the attribute we are looking for is there or it’s not. We don’t say, “I like this person because this person is outgoing.” We don’t do it that way. We admit someone because they have a high competency score in creativity, or relationship building, or goal setting, or influencing. (Those are all among the leadership attributes we consider.) It’s a sensible process based on tangible considerations. So when someone says, “Why was this person not admitted?” we can really pinpoint where this particular applicant came up short, according to our criteria.

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?

RG: Our essays are different from most other schools because they are always about looking back. The essay questions are unique because we ask for past examples rather than future assertions. We’re not looking for applicants to say, “I will be this…” Instead, we ask them for detailed examples of past behavior. Based on the examples that they give, we are able to find evidence of a competency and give them a numerical score.

And yes, while we do ask candidates to be reflective in their essays, we are not interested in the results but in the process. We are interested in the details. It doesn’t always have to be a happy story or a successful story. Rather, we want to know how you did x or y. Whether it had a happy or successful conclusion is not what we are judging here.

Very often people seem to be stuck in trying to give examples that are glowingly successful. They’ll dig way back to something that happened six years ago. But we are more interested in examples that happened more recently – say, in the last two years – because your behavior in the last two years is more reflective than something six or 10 years ago. Again, it’s really not the story, but the details of the story, the actions that you took, that matter. So don’t reach farther back because you feel like we need a happy or successful ending.

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