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Admissions Director Q&A: Rodrigo Malta of the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business

Our 2014 interview with McCombs’ Rodrigo Malta is available now. 

McCombs School of Business

Rodrigo Malta, a native of Brazil, moved to the United States for high school and college and ultimately graduated from the McCombs full-time MBA program in 2007. While a student at McCombs, he was highly involved in admissions activities, and after graduation he remained in Austin, accepting a marketing position with Dell.

A year later, when then-Director of MBA Admissions Tina Mabley contacted him about a job opening with her team – as associate director of admissions focused on diversity recruiting – he jumped at the chance to return to campus and work on something he was really passionate about. Later, when Mabley was promoted to program director for the full-time MBA, Malta applied for and got the admissions director’s position.

Did he ever imagine as a prospective applicant to McCombs that he would be sitting in the decision-maker’s seat today? “Never,” he says. “Working in admissions while an MBA student was a lot of fun, but I never considered it as a career,” he says. It wasn’t until he returned to the corporate world at Dell that he found himself missing higher education.

Prospective applicants may be happy to learn that Malta understands the position they now are in on such a personal level. Perhaps that’s why he’s so full of useful tips and advice. Read on to learn what he has to share.

Clear Admit: What is the single most exciting development, change or event happening at McCombs in the year ahead?

Rodrigo Malta: We continue to improve our MBA program based on student feedback and guided by our Dean’s Strategic Plan. If you look at the Dean’s Strategic Plan, three key areas of focus for the McCombs School are energy, innovation/creativity and leadership in the intersection of government and business (areas such as healthcare, for example).

In the next year, we look forward to continuing to grow our Texas Venture Labs (TVL) program, which was recently awarded a $6 million gift. Texas Venture Labs is a campus-wide initiative housed at the McCombs School. It connects local start-up companies with talented and entrepreneurial graduate and PhD students from the MBA, law, engineering and natural sciences programs to conduct special projects that help move these businesses forward. Teams of 4 to 6 students interact closely with the entrepreneur and/or investors to make an immediate and direct impact during their engagement. TVL teams have conducted successful market validation, financial analysis, business model assessment, competitive analysis and due diligence review projects, among others. More than $25 million has been raised over the last ten years by new ventures that have launched through the entrepreneurship environment at the McCombs School of Business. This includes eight companies that have raised $1 million-plus in funding and two that have gone liquid. This is an amazing record of success, particularly in an investment environment that has become very difficult for new ventures.

Additionally, we look forward to enhancing the offers of courses that our students are able to take outside the business school. In order for the Texas MBAs to be ready to face the big challenges in the world (like energy, healthcare), we believe a well-rounded foundation in business complemented by courses in many of Texas’ top-rated graduate schools is key. Currently, Texas MBA students are strongly encouraged to explore coursework offered by the many renowned graduate programs at the University of Texas at Austin. Per program approval, students may integrate up to 6 hours of UT graduate-level elective coursework outside the McCombs School into their MBA degree. Some of the most popular electives include courses in communications, community and regional planning, public affairs, engineering and law.

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

RM: When asked this question I usually like to point to the opportunities available for students in our program to apply what they learn in the classroom. Hands-on experiences complement, extend and continually refine our classroom curriculum. Texas MBAs have an array of opportunities to experience hands-on learning—from independent studies to summer internships to research projects with our partners in industry. Students initiate some of these best experiences, like Venture Fellows, which helps MBAs get a leg up in the venture capital arena. A really cool program that started this year and got the attention of Wall Street Journal reporters was our McCombs Brand Experience – where a selected number of our MBA Marketing Fellows experience live marketing roles, with actual results responsibility. In this first year, the selected MBA students are working as the brand team for the chocolate drink Yoo-hoo, a $100 million Dr Pepper Snapple Group (DPSG) brand.

I also always like to highlight our MBA+ Leadership Program. It’s a hands-on professional development piece of the MBA program. Nothing within it is a requirement, but if you are looking to enhance the MBA with hands-on activities or coaching in a particular area, you would go to our MBA+ team. MBA+ is unique among top MBA programs in its scale and depth of services. Basically, MBA+ provides resources across three categories.

First, a student at any point can go through a four- to six-week micro-consulting project with a company. Students identify a company they would like to work with, and MBA+ helps connect them to these organizations by facilitating a micro-consulting project. The client provides a current business question to be addressed and MBA+ provides each team with a budget and guides the team through the project management process, but the students drive the project.

Another piece of MBA+ is they provide us with industry-oriented seminars and other special events that augment the classroom experience. An example is “Training the Street,” which is an initiative for students hoping to head to Wall Street. It is a seminar designed to help the finance students learn to build financial models.

Finally, the third component of MBA+ consists of communications coaching. We hire PhD students from the communications school here to provide coaching, either one on one or through expert-led workshops, to help McCombs students communicate more dynamically. How students choose to use these coaching services varies widely. For example, some students choose to work with a coach to prepare for case interviews. Other students have a communications coach come in to help prepare for a specific presentation, such as pitching an idea to potential investors. Still others, like me, might work with a coach to help overcome an accent if English is a second language.

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.).

RM: The first thing that I like to tell applicants is that no matter what their GMAT score is, how many years of work experience they have – their application will be touched by someone and read by someone here. That’s the advantage of being a small program. Each and every application gets reviewed by a person, with most applications being reviewed by multiple members of the admissions team.

After the application file is reviewed and applicants are interviewed (we interview 40 to 50 percent of our applicant pool, and all admitted students are interviewed), the applicant is presented at the admissions committee meeting. We have gone to rounds since we last spoke, so our admissions committee meets to review applications by rounds. The committee consists of all the officers of our team, and in our committee meetings we present each individual applicant and put his or her candidacy up for discussion.

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?

RM: The essay is where we hope to see a little bit of the personality of the applicant come through. That – along with the interview – is one of the biggest areas where we start to assess fit with the McCombs MBA program. The essay is really your written statement of what you are all about. We like people to highlight why they want to come to McCombs specifically and what they bring to the table that will leave the program better than when they started it.

We look for there to be a tight message around where the applicant has been in the past, where the MBA fits within their career plans and where they want to go after obtaining the degree.

One of the biggest mistakes I see applicants make is trying to write overly generic essays that they can leverage to multiple schools. If they are taking the time to apply to different schools, they should take the time to tailor the essays to those particular schools.

Another mistake some applicants make is they forget or fail to answer the question we’ve asked. One tip I give applicants to avoid this pitfall is to have someone else read their essays without telling them what the questions were and then ask them to guess what the questions were. If they guess correctly, you’ve answered the question well.

Another thing I find is that applicants tend to put off starting the actual essays and instead spend lots of time thinking in their heads about them and making a framework. My suggestion is to sit down right after a school-related experience and start writing. Maybe you went to an event with alumni in your local city. Go home and just start writing things down in a Word document and kind of file it away for one or two days and then come back to it.

People get so worked up around the essays part of it. I always tell people that the essays are available right away in the summertime for a lot of the different schools. You know what the essay topics are well in advance, so just start writing things down to get the process started.

A common mistake we tell people to avoid – and it always, always happens, every application season – is the find and replace where you don’t actually replace the name of another program you’re applying to. Don’t be that applicant.

I’d also like to go back to what I said earlier about having a tight message. What I mean by that is that your essays need to complement to the things you are going to talk about during your interview as well as what recommenders are going to talk about in their letters. So, if an applicant picks a particular work project to highlight for the essay, that means he or she probably needs a different example for the interview. And then they need to coach their recommender to use still a different example. So you say to your recommender, “You remember the time I led that project for X client? Well I was thinking of writing about that for one of my essays so maybe you could choose to highlight something different in your letter of recommendation…” All the application components should work together to create a tight message.