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

We are excited to announce the relaunch of our popular Clear Admit Admissions Director Q&A Series. Beginning today, we will feature two new interviews each week with admissions directors at leading MBA programs around the globe. In the course of these conversations, top admissions officials share exciting news about upcoming developments at their schools as well as valuable information about the admissions process and more. You won’t want to miss this unfolding series. To kick things off, we turn to Columbia Business School’s Assistant Dean of Admissions Mary Miller.


Miller took the helm of Columbia’s admissions office in 2009, bringing a wealth of experience from similar stints at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and New York University’s Stern School of Business.

The news out of Columbia Business School (CBS) recently centers on a $25 million gift from Leon Cooperman’67, CEO of Omega Advisors, toward the school’s newly planned campus at Columbia University’s Manhattanville site and the announcement of a new Executive MBA program, EMBA-Americas.

Read on to learn more about these developments as well as the admissions process at CBS.

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

Mary Miller: Clearly, we’re pleased to be moving forward with plans for the future home of CBS, on the University’s Manhattanville campus. The generous gift from Mr. Cooperman ’67 is further evidence of our alumni’s unwavering commitment to the school.

Secondly, we have just announced the launch of Columbia EMBA-Americas, an Executive MBA program that provides more convenient access to the Columbia MBA. This new EMBA stream will be delivered in week-long modules to make it easier for executives in various parts of the United States, Canada and Latin America to participate in the five-semester program. After three semesters of core classes and cohort electives, students will have access to the EMBA New York pool of week-long global electives, as well as traditional electives and international seminars.

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

MM: There are so many things at Columbia to talk about. We are very proud of our finance faculty and Career Management’s relationships with recruiting firms. Further, our academic centers in media, pharma and healthcare help leverage our New York City location and provide students with a broad array of options.

Entrepreneurism, social enterprise and our real estate programs are areas of growth at the school. Columbia’s support of student entrepreneurial initiatives has reached new heights, and the opportunities to learn from faculty and practitioners engaged in real estate finance and development, central to New York City’s economic engine, are unparalleled.

Social enterprise has long been one of Columbia’s strengths, with curricular focus on Public and Nonprofit Management, International Development and Emerging Markets, Social Entrepreneurship, and Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability. Experiential learning in nonprofit board leadership and international development consulting provides another dimension to the student experience. Last but certainly not least is the remarkable Columbia community – diverse, intellectually curious and leadership-bound. It’s our true “Columbia advantage.”

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: Although we receive literally thousands of applications, we feel strongly about giving each candidate full consideration and careful review. Once an applicant hits “submit,” his or her application goes to an experienced and qualified first reader, usually former employees of the admissions department. A first reader can nominate an applicant for an interview, a very positive signal as the interview is an important step in the admissions process. However, applicants can be invited to interview at any point. All interviews are conducted by trained alumni volunteers located in the applicant’s geographic area. Once invited to interview, applicants select an interviewer from a list of available alumni and then connect with that person to arrange the meeting. The interview is “blind,” meaning that the alumni receive only the resume of the applicant and return their observations and comments to us.

All applications are reviewed by a second reader. If an applicant hasn’t been nominated for an interview by the first reader, the second reader has the option to extend an interview invitation. I think this is very important because it helps smooth out individual biases and the diversity of our backgrounds. Many of us in the Admissions Office have come from corporate America; others have worked at other business schools. It’s important for applicants to know that they get a 360-degree review and more than one chance to be considered for an interview.

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 drill down into the references – we’ll do whatever it takes to make the right decision. The people we accept will be Columbia alumni for life, and we want to make sure we select those 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: The most important piece of advice I would give applicants is to use the essays to tell us about themselves in a straightforward manner. So often applicants try to anticipate what we want to hear. We read thousands and thousands of applications and you get rather good at spotting essays that don’t ring true; that have been “manufactured” for multi-school submission or that have had too much “polish.” Applicants need to take the time to learn about the school so they can write from the heart as well as the head. We always encourage candidates to visit campus, talk to our students and talk to alumni before they dig into the application.

The essay portion of our application process is where we can learn what makes each applicant unique. How prospective students think about themselves and how they communicate that is so important for us to know as we evaluate each candidate and whether they would be a good fit for Columbia.

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