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Admissions Director Q&A: Stephan Chambers of the Saïd Business School at Oxford University

Over the past decade plus, Stephan Chambers, the current MBA director at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, has gotten to watch the school grow from about 50 students to more than 200 and from nowhere in the rankings to the top 20 in the world.

Chambers, who is also the chairman of Oxford’s Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship, founded and ran for a decade the Oxford Executive MBA before assuming his current role. Prior to coming to Oxford he had a 15-year career in the private sector, specifically in publishing, where he invested in and ran companies.

In the interview that follows, he shares why he thinks right now is the best possible time – perhaps in history – to be in business school in general, as well as why it’s an exciting time to be at Oxford. A new dean is championing new initiatives, and Chambers tells us all about them below, so read on.

Clear Admit: What’s the single most exciting development, change or event happening at Saïd this coming year?

Stephan Chambers: I’m excited about things both internal as well as external. On the more parochial and internal side of things, we have a new dean who has created a whole suite of initiatives. The new dean, Peter Tufano, came in with a very high level of ambition and immediately pushed us in the direction of two or three main initiatives.

One is called Oxford 1+1, and it combines the virtues of a one-year MBA with a second masters program. So students can come to Oxford to do the breadth of an MBA and the specific depth of another one-year masters. I think that is really fantastic.

Another initiative that we are developing within the MBA program is called Global Opportunities and Threats. Essentially, it is an initiative through which students can examine big existential threats – things like global warming, food shortage, water issues – that will shape business agendas of the next decades. It will take the form of a course within the MBA as well as a range of events, meetings and other activities that will be open to current students, alumni and the larger Oxford community. It will also involve collaborations with the Blavatnik School – the new school of government – the Institute for Climate Change, the Institute for Aging, the Internet Institute and others. So it will also be a way of bringing Oxford’s business school closer to the heart of Oxford the great research institution.

I am also excited about things from a more external perspective. On the one hand, this seems like the worst time to be in business school. Half the world is shrinking, everywhere you turn things seem to be falling apart – from the European debt crisis to Barclays. And there has been declining faith in an MBA. But to me that is the best reason to get serious about this. This is the best moment in my lifetime – maybe even in history – to be in a great business school.

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

SC: I think it can be difficult to understand Oxford from the outside. It is this mythic institution. But what I most want prospective applicants to realize is that the experience people have here is really transformational.

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.).

SC: Once an applicant hits submit, his or her application gets an initial read by a member of the admissions team. Next it is ready by a committee made up of half faculty and half admissions team members. Based on the feedback from these initial two reviews, a candidate may receive an invitation to interview.

If an invitation to interview is extended, the application will then be read by the person who will conduct the interview. Here at Saïd, the interview is absolutely decisive. Most interviews are conducted by faculty, though alumni, staff and admissions team members do also sometimes conduct interviews. I, myself, do about a hundred interviews a year, sometimes more. We only interview about half of our applicants – the other half don’t make it through that far.

After the interview, an application may then be re-read by the committee before a final decision is made.

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?

SC: We are looking for people who can engage with abstraction and who write clearly. We take the essays very seriously. They are another means by which we make the assessment of who will benefit most from our program and vice versa. That being said, the only element we weight disproportionally high is the interview.

As for mistakes to avoid, things to keep in mind – it is not as simple that. There are common mistakes, certainly. To be unclear, to make assertions that are unsubstantiated – those are mistakes you should avoid. But there is really no easy rule to this. You have to have read a lot, written a lot and thought a lot.

Since the interview is weighted more than other portions of the application, I will provide some words of advice for it. Make sure the things you are supposed to know about you know about. If you work in risk in a large institution, for example, you should expect to be asked to develop an argument about risk – not about leadership. Where you should be most comfortable is where you will be most tested.