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Admissions Director Q&A: London Business School’s David Simpson

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It’s an exciting time to be in London – and an exciting time to consider an MBA or other masters program at the London Business School (LBS). In the interview that follows, David Simpson, LBS associate director of client services, highlights recent enhancements to the organization of the school’s MBA curriculum and shares details about a review currently underway of the school’s Masters of Finance program.

He also stresses the global focus of LBS’s offerings and the remarkable diversity of the LBS class. Finally, he 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 you’re considering adding the school to your target list, or have committed to apply for next year already, 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 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 or so as an institution exploring our own values and what makes us special and unique. Together we have all examined what we all love about this place, what makes it tick and what we really stand for.

The greatest development this year at London Business School has been the focus on reviews to our MBA and Masters in Finance programs. At regular periods we look closely at all our programs, taking time to appreciate what works really well and what we should be offering our students to give them a well-rounded global business education. Top programs have to adapt and change constantly. Last year the program directors and senior faculty had the major job of looking at the MBA and making some changes to it. This year is the turn of the Masters in Finance.

The MBA changes are being rolled out for the first year class now. What we have tried to do is organize and structure our learning into key themes, creating an overarching structure that will flow through in a sequence to help our students learn in the most effective way.

One early highlight of the program is the Leadership Launch right at the beginning. This is really about students taking a look at themselves and reflecting on what they have done so far and how they want to develop.

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 pre-existing areas and built on 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 and organizational skills to become a true leader. Students in their second year can choose from lots of electives. (We are currently carrying out a review of our elective portfolio – nothing stands still in this place!) We have added new elements that extend further our already impressive focus 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. That’s a huge part of our offering. Our MBA students also have to take a second language.

There are many other elements of the program that are designed to enhance its global nature. Integrating learning with practical, global experience is a powerful part of the London Business School MBA. Global Business Experiences form a key part of the second year. Accompanied by members of faculty, groups of students will be travelling to destinations such as China, India, Turkey, the United States and South Africa to work in small teams completing projects and gaining insight into international business practices, visiting a number of leading and interesting companies. The portfolio of assignments has been designed to offer a choice of both location and theme, allowing students to tailor assignments to their own interests and development needs.

All these global elements highlight our commitment to developing future global business leaders.

To leverage the fact that we are based in an amazing city we ensure that students have every opportunity to make the most of London. We have launched 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 fieldwork experiences are about doing more with the fact that we are right in the heart of this fantastic global business center. The current MBA class visited Chelsea Football Club, Saatchi and Saatchi and The Bank of England. We are building in new opportunities every year to really leverage our central London location, which I personally think is fantastic. We strive to ensure that our profile is extremely high in London, as it is all around the world.

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 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, bringing us into Capstone, which is the finale of the program.

Finally, we have retained the incredibly popular flexible exit points. So students can opt for a 15-, 18- or 21-month route through the program.
Our world leading Masters in Finance program is undergoing a curriculum review this year which will focus on specialisms in key areas of finance. For pre-experience candidates our Masters in Management goes from strength to strength. And for more experienced managers our Executive MBA runs intakes in both London and Dubai. Our EMBA-Global Americas & Europe and EMBA-Global Asia programs, run in conjunction with Columbia Business School and Hong Kong University, give a very special group of outstanding people the opportunity to study across continents, alongside their global careers. Finally our Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy shapes today’s senior executives to become tomorrow’s effective leaders.
So much has been changing in these last few months in the masters degree programs area. It has been an absolutely fantastic period to work at the school.

I haven’t even had a chance to mention all the innovation taking place in our Executive Education business!

CA: What is the one area of your programs 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. The one thing I really want applicants to be aware of before they apply is the energy within the school community and the power of our diversity.

It is difficult to put across exactly how much the international and professional diversity of our classes adds to our participants’ learning experience. It is truly amazing. 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, a 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 MBA 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).

Incoming students from corporate business backgrounds may underestimate how much they will learn from their peers who join us from less typical areas. When the MBA starts they find out exactly why each individual was recruited. We work hard to ensure that every single student has something special to offer to his or her classmates – which is why our MBA class is as likely to include concert pianists and heart surgeons as it is to include bankers and traders. Our thorough and competitive admissions process helps us to recruit such talented individuals.

The remarkable diversity of the LBS classes shines even brighter due to those curriculum changes I spoke about earlier.

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 in 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 and prepared for distribution to our Admissions team members. They will read the application and decide if the candidate is to be granted an interview or not. Unlike some schools, we don’t use student readers. However, students who have met and interacted with any applicants are encouraged to pass on their feedback to us for use in the admissions process.

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 who we may have 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, alumni add the huge 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 our all-round “perfect class.” If a place becomes available at the very last minute we will do everything we can to fill it – there are occasionally some last-minute offers, delighting and surprising candidates on the waitlist!

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 very strong applicants. We received roughly the same number of applications last year as the previous year, which reflects a levelling off from an upward trend that had characterized the past several years. But even as volume has levelled 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. We have carefully honed the guidance we give alumni in terms of what we are looking for.

We draw on the recruitment practices of our top recruiters…after all, they are a very important group of end customers, and we have to ensure that they are as excited by our classes as we are.

We also have to ensure that we give the “non corporate” budding entrepreneurs a chance to shine. No class would be complete without some strong, interesting, creative characters to challenge the rest of the class’s thinking!

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 the applicants’ 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 show your excitement for your chosen schools. The content of the essays helps us to check if you’re a good match for us…and if we can help you achieve your aspirations.

I truly believe that every top school’s MBA class has a slightly different identity and character. The values a school lives by should be incorporated into their recruitment processes to ensure that future classes of students represent the institution as they would want them to in years to come. We have changed our essays slightly to make sure they really reflect the values of 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. So by trying to reflect more of our values into the essays, we are looking for evidence of candidates with an even better fit. Essays give opportunities for candidates to really show us what they stand for, what they will add and what they want to get from their MBA.

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 the London Business School Admissions Committee wants to read in your essays. Good luck!

Get in touch with us if you’d like to hear more about our outstanding masters programs and amazing global community. Come and visit us at our magnificent Regent’s Park campus.

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