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Admissions Director Q&A: Sherry Wallace of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School

English: Kenan-Flagler Business School

Our 2014 Admissions Director Q&A with Kenan-Flagler’s Sherry Wallace is now available. 

Sherry Wallace, director of MBA admissions at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business, told us that she wants to make the admissions process as transparent as possible. “There is no advantage to us in our selection process if people feel like they are in the dark,” she said.

Wallace herself graduated from the Kenan-Flagler MBA program in 1987 and pursued a career in advertising and marketing with several major consumer packaged goods companies. She later married and returned to North Carolina, and 15 years ago she was offered the opportunity to come back to Kenan-Flagler as part of the admissions team. “It fit me to a tee, and I didn’t need to think very long about coming back to work in Chapel Hill,” she recounts. While she might not have imagined herself in her current role at the start of her career, that she is here now shows the power and flexibility of the MBA, she says.

In the interview that follows, Wallace takes the time to completely demystify the admissions process for prospective applicants to Kenan-Flagler, sharing candidly about what they can expect and how best to prepare. She also underscores the strength of the school’s career services offerings, notes the development of a new healthcare curriculum and more. Enjoy!

Clear Admit: What’s the single most exciting development, change or event happening at Kenan-Flagler in the year ahead?

Sherry Wallace: I have had the privilege of being in my position for 15 seasons now, and every year I see our candidates get stronger. So I am very excited about our student population, especially as it relates to the career search. Our students are interested in consulting, management, investment banking…and we are seeing a lot of great curricular offerings in these areas. But I also want to call attention to all of the things our career management team and our leadership team are doing to supplement what’s happening in the classroom. I’m excited about bringing students on board who will really benefit from a comprehensive offering. At Kenan-Flagler they will be getting a lot of practical exposure, preparation and networking so they are prepared to compete for jobs and, more importantly, prepared to excel when they enter them. Our career management team continues to be really strong, and the members of that team all possess very relevant industry experience.

One other development I am excited about is that we have invested in a new healthcare curriculum here at Kenan-Flagler. We recognize that we have a great market industry demand from students in the healthcare sector, so we have created a healthcare focus here at the school that complements what we had already been doing in that space.

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

SW: The feedback we get from applicants is that it’s when they interact with current students/alumni that our school and our culture really seem to crystallize for them. I want prospective applicants to realize there are many ways to make that happen. If you come to campus it happens automatically. But I want them to know there are resources in place to connect those who can’t come to campus with students and alumni. Our alumni and our students are the kind of people who want to help people discover the fit that they all feel they found here – whether or not it ends up being here.

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.).

SW: We do try to be as open as we can be so that people can feel like they understand the process. There is a lot of work that you as an applicant go through to present yourself, and we want you to know how much we do with that work on the back end. We want you to know how that work is put to use.

People seem to respect the process more when they know how diverse the admissions committee is. We have representatives from finance, administration, consulting, retail and more who are part of the admissions review team. I hope it will make people feel comfortable to know that there is enough perspective on this committee that we can recognize high performers from different backgrounds.

In terms of how the process unfolds, once a person saves his or her application through our online system, we know about you and we have a team of people whose job it is to just help pull you through. Phil and Sharon are their names, and they will let you know what we’ve received and what’s missing.

Once Phil or Sharon has confirmed receipt of all components of an application, then the review process starts. Generally there will be two members of our committee who will review and rate the file. And by file I mean the aggregate collection of the application, letters of recommendation, transcripts, everything. Each of the people who read the file will provide a rating. In addition to the rating there will be some summary comments that set up the applicant’s strengths, weaknesses and potential to contribute to the class in the context of the overall applicant pool for the class under consideration.

One of the things that I want to make sure I communicate today is that we encourage people to do the admissions interview as early as they want to. We no longer have an invitation-only interview policy. Over the years we have had several different policies, but last year and continuing this year everyone is invited to interview. All they have to do is start the application and submit the resume – that needs to be in place to schedule the interview.

We find that people are waiting on some type of invitation from us, so I want to definitely encourage prospective applicants to go ahead and start the application and schedule an interview. (Note: We do review applications without the interview, and applications can be considered complete if you have not completed the interview, but the most favorable decision you can get in that instance is waitlist. We will not issue an admit decision until someone has been interviewed. Interviews can be done by scheduling one on campus, by telephone or by Skype. We also have alumni outside the United States who interview in some locations.)

In terms of the rating reviewers provide to an application, we have a scale. We assign a point value from 1 through 5. But I want to stress that we don’t use a formula to arrive at this point value. The rating is a way for us to assess each applicant we review based on a scale of all the people we have read this year and what we know the bar to be in our current pool. So, for example, a 2 this year might not be as competitive as a 2 last year was. The rating is only done so we can see it relative to other candidates in a given pool. There is no official calculation that produces the number.

After all of the applications for a given round have been read, we then review as a committee. In terms of notification, we generally stick to the date that we promise for each batch, though sometimes there might be a specific reason why someone might hear earlier or a decision might need to be held.

For each batch we hold a series of admissions committee meetings. The number depends on how many applicants we review in that round. Every applicant is assigned to a region, generally geographically based. One person on the committee is responsible for each region.

In the committee meetings the region manager will present each applicant in his or her region, providing a profile of the candidate, a summary of the ratings they’ve gotten from each reviewer and then any highlights. Based on these presentations and group discussion, we then come to a consensus as a committee of whether it’s an admit, a possibly or a not going to happen.

I believe very strongly that if a person takes the time and submits an application they deserve our complete review. So even if we see something early on that suggests an applicant may not be the right fit, that person still gets his or her day. Because sometimes all of the upfront signs may point to “not going to happen,” but when you look at the whole thing together it tells a different story.

I do want to underscore that it is not an expectation on our part that you come to visit. Now, we do think you can make a better decision about where you fit or belong if you visit, but I don’t want to discourage or take out of consideration some excellent people for whom a visit is just not a possibility.

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?

SW: Essays to me – I happen to like to write – they are like the “gimmes.” Here is the one element of the application where you can take your time, give it some real serious thought. You don’t have to think on your feet. So when someone does a crappy job on essays it’s really a shame and kind of a reflection on how they might prepare for other things. You can own this and take your time and make sure it is what you intend to tell us. So we have high expectations for the essays.

We know without a doubt that it is possible to give a very appropriate and successful response in the word limit we suggest. We have vetted all of these essays. Sometimes people are very committed to telling you what they want you to know instead of what you ask, and that’s usually the case when we get an essay that doesn’t adhere to the word limit restrictions.

You definitely want to avoid some of the really irritating things. You don’t want to stick out as that one who couldn’t follow the rules. You want to give it some good thought and then cut. Think of it as an executive summary. Most people don’t want to know everything, they want to know just the salient details.

Our first essay is kind of unique. We wanted a question before the question that asks what your career goals are. In trying to come up with what this question might be, we asked ourselves if there were things we might be able to do in the admissions process that could help applicants come to business school more ready to take advantage and be successful in the internship search.

One of the observations that our career team made was that the students who are struggling in the internship search are those who haven’t thought enough about what they are bringing to the table. Do you understand what has made you successful so far? What is your currency? What have you relied on thus far? Are there some things that you have that you haven’t put into the game yet?

Our first question is designed – we want people to be able to abstract and to understand – not just that it’s been leadership, or team work or whatever it may have been. It’s really about being able to understand how you have been successful. “My ability to blank, blank, blank has allowed me to be successful until now, and this is how I plan to use this same attribute to compete in whatever my future goal is.” That’s what we are looking for in response to that first question.

We introduced that question several years ago now. I think this year might be the fifth season. Some people do a better job with it than others. But it helps us in admissions to see that people understand what they bring to the table and where they want to go.

There are some schools that have moved toward opening admissions to applicants without an established track record. We haven’t. We are still very interested in admitting people who are bringing significant experience and have produced results in whatever they have chosen to do before business school. We think this first question has helped us identify those people who have a pretty well-reasoned case for the MBA – as opposed to those who are coming because they have always thought it might be a good idea to get an MBA or some graduate degree. We are looking for applicants for whom the goal is something else and who can tell us how business school will help them get there.

As for specific mistakes to avoid, I’d say not heeding the word limits or trying to force an answer that doesn’t fit the question asked. Applicants need to recognize that most schools look to the essays as a means of assessing a candidate’s readiness to do this and marketability. But there are also questions designed to help us assess is this the right environment. So if you don’t answer the questions that we ask, we aren’t able to compare you apples to apples to other candidates. It is really important for the applicant to respect that the school has assembled these questions for a reason. We don’t want to read any more essays than we have to. When someone is clearly not responding to the question that is asked, it’s not good.

Another piece of advice I would give is to be yourself. Sometimes people are trying to write stylistically in a way that they think we want them to be. Of course, you should be professional – and not so casual that we question your judgment. But we can take many different styles. Sometimes people make them so sterile. The tone of the essay should be a pretty good indicator of the tone and temperament and personality of the person.

Finally, we have an essay where you can tell us any information that is not presented anywhere else, our optional essay. Here, optional means exactly that – optional. If the question doesn’t apply to you, don’t feel obligated to answer it. You can have a perfectly competitive application that does the required essays only.

CA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

SW: There are a few final things. The first is that we are members of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. The Consortium member schools have a common application that we all use to make admissions decisions – it’s the same application the Consortium uses to make its membership decisions. I want to stress that anyone who wants to apply should feel very comfortable using the Consortium application. We collect the same information through it as we do through our regular application, and we have a process where that information will flow smoothly into our regular admissions process. You are going to be as competitive submitting the Consortium application as you would be submitting the Kenan-Flagler application. The only thing candidates who choose the Consortium application need to know is that they need to make sure they do interview with us.

The second final point I’d like to make is that we do accept both the GRE and the GMAT. This coming year will be our third year accepting the GRE. We still are seeing far fewer candidates submit GRE scores that GMAT scores, and very often those who submit GRE scores are doing a dual degree with another program. For students trying to choose which exam to take, I would encourage people to choose the GMAT. As an admissions office we have a lot more experience qualifying and assessing students who submit a GMAT. So if you are considering which test to take and you don’t have one reason to do one over the other, I would say that it’s better to do the GMAT.

In closing, I would just urge applicants to start early and give themselves time. And the final thing I want to say is that our team and representatives and alumni are going to be all over the world looking to interact with prospective students and answer questions. So please reach out, stay connected and give us feedback on what you need. We are here to help.