Admissions Director Q&A: London Business School’s David Simpson
With just a few weeks to go before the October 5th Round 1 application deadline for London Business School (LBS), now is a great time to hear directly from the school’s admissions director himself about what sets its MBA program apart.
In the interview that follows, David Simpson, LBS associate director of marketing and admissions, highlights recent changes to the organization of the school’s curriculum, as well as the remarkable diversity of the LBS class. He also walks us through the admissions process step by step and provides some concrete pointers on how to write strong application essays, as well as how to prepare for the admissions interview.
So whether your already busy preparing your application for the upcoming Round 1 deadline or you’re considering adding the school to your target list for a later round, you won’t want to miss what Simpson has to say.
Clear Admit: What’s the single most exciting development, change or event happening at LBS this coming year?
David Simpson: There has been a lot going on at the school, so I guess this year I have a lot to talk about. We are very progressive in terms of looking at where we want to go and how we can have an impact on the way the world does business. We have spent the past year as an institution exploring our own values and what we think makes us special and unique. Together we have all examined what we like about this place and what makes it tick and what we really stand for.
The greatest development this year at LBS more reflects how we communicate with the world than it involves necessarily making any changes. We have had a program review of the MBA. Basically once every five years we look closely at the MBA program, taking time to appreciate what works really well and the kinds of things that have given us our Financial Times number one ranking. Obviously we want to keep those things, but like anything else, the MBA program has to adapt and change according to its environment. So this year the program director and faculty had the major job of looking at the MBA and making some changes to it.
What we tried to do was organize and structure our learning into themes, creating an overarching structure that would flow through in a sequence to help our students in the best possible way. Right from the start we have reordered some things and added a few new areas.
One is a Leadership Launch right at the beginning of the program. This is really about everyone taking a look at themselves and reflecting on what they have done and what they’d like to be. For this purpose, we have combined some of those leadership activities that existed before early on in the program into a more formal launch initiative that includes two core courses, one on understanding general management and another on global leadership assessment for managers.
As part of our reorganization, in the first year of the program the themes are based around analytical frameworks designed to let students build their skills, knowledge and insight. In the first term we are focusing on tools and techniques – accounting, finance, economics, etc. The second term is focused more on managing the organization with courses like marketing, operations and strategy. The third term we have entitled “Engaging with the World.” It involves looking at organizations in a global context and includes more practical application courses. Finally, we have also added a new course to the first year – a business, government and society course that looks at ethics, corporate social responsibility and regulation in government. In this course we have gathered together some preexisting areas and built on top of them. Having that within the first year shows our commitment to business and society and the fact that we want our students to make a real difference and have a profound, positive impact on the way they are doing business.
In the second year, the focus changes to become a lot more personal. It’s about developing the leadership skills and organizational skills to become a true leader. Students in their second year can choose from lots of electives. We are also adding a new area focused on global business. This will take the form of a compulsory, week-long international assignment that will entail spending time in a different country. Students will go out in groups on a week-long assignment, at the end of which they will produce a substantial piece of written work. Of course, students can also still choose to go on international exchange just as they always could. And LBS students also have to take a second language.
Under this new organization, the flexible exit points remain. So students can opt for a 15-, 18- or 21-month program. We have also added an LBS case competition. We found that students were entering lots of case competitions around the world and doing very well, so we decided to add our own case competition to the internal program. It will involve reviewing a case study and highlighting strategic challenges faced by real global companies. The case competition will take place toward the end of the second year, and that brings us into Capstone, which is the finale of the program.
So much of the new developments this year are really about restructuring, but there are also many new elements to the program designed to enhance that sense of a global education and make sure students have every opportunity to make the most of London. We will be having London talks and London business experiences, where we get high-profile business people to come in and talk about what they are doing. These and the London field work experiences are about doing more with being in this fantastic global center. We are building in opportunities to really leverage London, which I personally think is fantastic. We want to make sure our profile is extremely high in London, as it is in many other cities.
So much has been changing in these last few months with the program review. It has been an absolutely fantastic period to work at the school.
CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?
DS: I think this is a great opportunity for me to talk about what I really consider to be a differentiating factor at LBS, which is that we have this amazingly eclectic community of engaged students. All of our students are ambitious and courageous in what they are doing, and one thing I really want applicants to be aware of before they apply is the community of the school and that diverse nature.
We strive to highlight exactly how much the international and professional diversity of our MBA class adds to our participants’ learning experience. It is easy for any business school to talk about ‘being global,’ but making diversity work and maximizing value for students is less straightforward. At LBS, an MBA class can represent more than 60 nationalities with students bringing diverse professional backgrounds. We create a collaborative learning environment that includes study groups, classroom discussion and practical projects and provides a unique and challenging experience. The first-year study groups, for example, offer a challenging and yet supportive learning environment due to the outstanding caliber of each participant and the depth of personal and professional experience each brings (an average of 5.5 years work experience).
I will point out that often our many incoming students from corporate business backgrounds will underestimate how much they will learn from their more ‘non-traditional’ peers…and then the MBA starts and they find out exactly why each individual was recruited. We work hard to ensure that every single student will have something special to offer to his or her classmates – which is why our MBA class is as likely to include concert pianists and plastic surgeons as it is to include bankers and traders. Our thorough and competitive admissions process helps us to recruit such talented individuals.
But this year, in addition to the remarkable diversity of the LBS class, I also want prospective applicants to know about those curriculum changes I spoke about earlier so they can really see the extra areas we are putting into the program. This year I want prospective applicants to pay attention to the revised curriculum and also that flow within the school, the direction we are taking and our ambitions to truly embrace and showcase global business.
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.).
DS: Like many schools we have a staged admissions process, but we run ours over a fairly long season. Our first deadline is in October, with offers made in December. Our final deadline is at the end of April, with offers made in July. Although we expect applicants to carry out a lot of research, which takes time and effort (often including a campus visit at some point in the process), we are aware that candidates’ personal and professional circumstances can change rapidly, affecting their application submission.
Online applications are downloaded after the admission deadline, printed out and additional documentation added. Admissions team members will then read the application and decide if the candidate is to be granted an interview or not. Nobody joins the LBS MBA class without having been through a face-to-face alumni interview. We find that alumni interviews offer us a consistently high standard of detailed feedback from the perspective of someone who has gone through the program themselves. Interviews offer candidates we considered to be “borderline” for some reason a chance to shine. After all, when it comes to gaining post-MBA employment, it is the all-round package of knowledge, experience, intellect, personality and charisma that will get you a job. Because interviews are carried out in locations all around the world, usually wherever candidates are based, they add the benefit of local market/cultural knowledge.
Senior admissions staff may follow up with a secondary interview in certain cases where we require further information in order to make a final decision.
Once the alumni interview results are added to an application, our Admissions Committee makes its final decision. The committee makes decisions on applications from each of our four admissions stages, managing a waitlist throughout. This enables us to select the highest caliber individuals to create the best possible culturally and professionally diverse class. It is a very long and involved process and we utilize all stages of the admissions schedule to add individuals from different backgrounds and craft the best all-round “perfect class.”
In terms of any shifts in the application process in the past year, I will say that we spend increasing amounts of time having to pick between some fantastic applicants. We received roughly the same number of applications last year as the previous year, which reflects a leveling off from an upward trend that had characterized the past several years. But even as volume has leveled off, the quality of the applicants has continued to increase, so it is getting harder to pick between people.
We have continued to set in place systems and measures so we can select the very best for our program, and we continue to focus a lot on the alumni interview and have carefully honed the guidance we give alumni in terms of what we are looking for. We have also changed the essays we ask people to complete slightly to make sure they really reflect the values we want in the school. There could be some fantastic candidate who would be great for another top MBA program but might not be quite right for us or vice versa, and so by trying to insert more of our values into the essays we are looking for an even better fit. We are also trying to gather a bit more information about individual applicants as well, giving them more opportunities to tell us more about what they stand for.
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?
DS: We read everything we ask for very carefully. Essays are an applicant’s chance to tell their story, describing why they wish to study for an MBA at this stage of their career. Essays add color and depth to the basic core facts and timelines given in a resume and application. Candidates should make sure they research each school they apply to in detail, using all the resources offered by schools and organizations like Clear Admit before sitting down to write their essays. Each school has its own identity and personality, and candidates need to exhibit an understanding of that. Remember that the full application, including the essays, is passed on to the alumni interviewer, who will focus in on certain areas. So be prepared to talk in depth on any topic you wrote about. When submitting any business school application – be honest, be thorough, be self-aware and be excited about your chosen school.
That’s all the detail I am prepared to give you on how to answer our essays…it is for you to interpret what you think London Business School Admissions Committee wants to read in your essays. Good luck!