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

MIT Sloan School of Management

An MIT Sloan veteran, Rod Garcia has been at the school for the past 24 years and admissions director for the last 13. Before coming to MIT Sloan in 1988, he worked in admissions at the University of Chicago.

In the interview that follows, Garcia reveals that MIT Sloan had a record yield this year, exceeding the target class size by 15 students. “It is a good problem to have,” he says, noting that some schools are struggling to meet their targets amid declining application volume. He forecasts recovery in the year ahead in terms of overall business school application volume – and a very competitive season at MIT Sloan.

So you’ll want to pay close attention to the insight he provides regarding the application process at MIT Sloan and what his team is looking for in response to their unique essay questions.

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

Rod Garcia: Well, it’s not exactly a development, but we are really looking forward to welcoming our new class this week. Orientation is the result of nine, 10, 12 months of hard work that begins with finding the students, recruiting and selecting them, admitting them and then making them want to come here. We have had such a good year in that final regard that we are way, way, way over our target. The target is 400 or so, and we are at 415.

What that means is that it’s a larger class. We are very fortunate to be in this position. I don’t think there are a lot of schools that can say they are in the position we are in right now. So, we have more students than we anticipated, but with the new building we’ll be able to accommodate all of them. [The new building, E62, opened in September 2010.] We will make it work.

We are really excited because while other schools struggle to fill the class we have a very good class. In fact, we only admitted one person from the waitlist this year. Because we found ourselves over our target, we did ask some people to defer their admission and many exercised that option. So, since several people who were admitted this year deferred their admission, they are going to take up room next year. That means we will accept fewer people next year, so next year will be more competitive, more selective.

Why was the yield so great this year? One thing we did differently this year is that we engaged our alumni and asked them to call admitted applicants. I think that really made a difference. To get a call from a senior alumnus congratulating you on your admission and encouraging you to attend – that is hard to pass up. That is something we did not factor in. We knew it would make a difference, but we were not prepared for it to make such a huge difference in terms of yield. It’s all good – no one here is panicking. We have certainly been over our target before, although in the past we have been maybe five or six over, never as many as 15. But again, it is a good problem to have.

It is no secret that in the last few years business school application volume has been declining. We are fortunate to be in the top tier, and our declines have not been very great. But if you look at other schools the picture is not the same in terms of applications or in terms of conversion or yield. I know some schools haven’t met their target enrollment, and some schools have gone to their waitlists late in the period. We did not need to do that.

I also think that there will be recovery next year in terms of applications. At all of our Asia events this year attendance has more than doubled. We had to get extra rooms in Beijing just to accommodate all the people who were interested in attending our information sessions. We also did two back-to-back events in Seoul and Tokyo and still had to put a limit on attendees.

Based on attendance at our Asia events, I think we will start to see a recovery in application volume next year. I can confidently and safely say it is going to look good next year. So with the people who deferred from this year and an increased number of applicants next year, it is going to be a very competitive process. Of course, that will make our job even more difficult – as though it’s not already difficult enough. But that’s a difficulty we like to have.

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, 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 of 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.

Applicants will notice that we reduced the number of essays we require this year, but that’s not because we don’t care about the question we eliminated. We interview everyone we admit, and we decided that there was one particular essay question that is best evaluated as part of the interview. It’s interesting that other schools, like Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB, have also reduced their essays this year. But I see this not as a trend but rather a coincidence that we all arrived at that outcome. The conclusion for us was simply that some essay questions are best asked during the interview.

CA: Anything else you’d like to add?

RG: I’d just like to close by mentioning that although we have already conducted many of our recruiting events in Asia, the North American events are just starting. So prospective applicants should definitely go to our website and check which places we are going to be in the next few weeks and come talk to us. We’d love to see you.

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