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Admissions Director Q&A: MIT Sloan School of Management’s Dawna Levenson

dawna_levensonAs we continue to make the rounds, checking in with admissions directors at top business schools around the globe, we had the good fortune recently to speak with Dawna Levenson, director of MBA admission at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Levenson’s MIT roots run deep. She has an undergraduate degree from the school as well as an MBA from Sloan. She spent 18 years working for the company now known as Accenture but then decided it was time do something new and different.

“Why not my alma mater?” she thought. She initially took a job in professional education, but while in that position she reconnected with Sloan and became part of the Admissions Committee as a reader. She read for many years while continuing to work in professional education, but Sloan “just felt like home,” so when a position there as associate director focused on the Master in Finance (MFin) degree program arose, she jumped.

A year ago last February, she became the director of MBA admissions, responsible for all three of the school’s masters programs: the MBA, the MFin and the Master of Science in Management Studies (MSMS).

“To be perfectly honest, this job is better than I ever imagined,” she says. “To work at MIT Sloan in this capacity certainly is a dream come true.”

Read on to learn more about why Levenson is excited about some of the changes to MIT Sloan’s application this year, whether candidates without a background in engineering should bother to apply and just how the application process unfolds for her and her team.

CA: What’s the single most exciting development, change or event happening at Sloan this coming year?

DL: We are very excited about our application. We posted the questions on our website earlier this summer, and the application went live last week.

Every year we tend to change up one of the questions. For some time we have included a question related to our mission statement. We think it’s really important to understand that we are a mission-driven school, so we’ve kept that question in this year.

We also have an optional question that invites applicants to tell us anything else about themselves that may not have been captured elsewhere in the application. A couple of years ago we decided that people can send in videos, PowerPoint presentations, really whatever format they choose. That remains the same this year as well.

New this year we are asking people to write their own professional recommendation about themselves, as if they were their own supervisor.

How did the question come about? I don’t know exactly the moment when it happened, but someone in the room proposed it, and it sort of took off from there. Yes, in part, it is a nod to the fact that we know that applicants are sometimes asked by recommenders to draft their own letters of recommendation. But that was really secondary.

We really like to be innovative and change our question every year, since applicants can find sample responses to our last year’s question online. Who knows? Maybe they can even buy one on Amazon. We went with this question because we like the data we get from recommenders in terms of the different qualities we are looking for in an applicant.

We also realize that many people are being asked to write self-reviews in the work place. In fact, I just finished doing my own earlier today. We like to look to industry and pick up on trends and practices there when we can.

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

DL: I think a misconception is that given that we are the MIT Sloan School of Management, people feel that they have to have an engineering background to come here. In fact, many, many people who don’t have engineering backgrounds apply, and we wish more did. It is really not the case at all that you need an engineering or science background to apply to Sloan.

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.).

DL: Our first deadline is coming up in September, and it is really important to emphasize that we are looking for completed applications on that date, including recommendation letters. Nobody wants to review a partial application.

Once our deadline arrives, we then review all of the applications. We have a core group of people who review them.

Based on the recommendations of those reviewers, we invite a subset of our applicants for an interview. Interviews are a required step in the process and are by invitation only. Toward the tail end of October we will start sending out interview invitations, and we will interview candidates in November and through the first week of December.

Our interviews are face to face. We travel the world going to major cities to make it as easy as possible for those invited to come interview with us. The interview runs between 40 and 45 minutes, and interviewers will ask similar questions to those on the application itself. In some cases the people who reviewed the application will still have some open questions, and the interviewer will dig a little deeper – probe a little more.

Ours is a behavioral interview model, and we always leave room for candidates to ask questions of us. Our interviewers are all trained to provide consistent feedback, so that one interviewer’s “great” means the same as another’s (although “great” is not the language we use).

We then take all that feedback, and a subset of the Admissions Committee – a smaller committee – goes through the feedback from the interviews and the initial application reviews and makes a decision to admit, waitlist or deny.

Everyone who is waitlisted from Round One will then be considered as part of our Round Two.

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?

DL: We very much have a behavioral interview style and a competency-based approach to everything. We have identified a set of competencies that we are looking for in our applicants based on research done 14 to 15 years ago; they have really stood the test of time.

They include qualities like leadership, relationship building, the ability to pursue goals, creativity, innovation. We are looking for evidence of these qualities in the essays as well as in the interview.

CA: Anything else you’d like to add about the admissions process?

DL: I’d just like to emphasize that there are not tricks at all in our admissions process. We really want to get to know people. We want to make sure people are capable of being successful in the classroom and that are a good fit for Sloan.

We provide many, many ways for applicants to get to know us, and we really encourage people to take advantage of them. One way is to attend one of our events around the world. We have just begun a global trek that will take us to every corner of the globe, and I encourage prospective applicants to go on our website to see when we will be in their area.

Get to know us, get to know our process, what we value, our students, our alums. When you do this, you are signaling to us that we are a school you are seriously interested in.

CA:What is the most challenging part of your job?

DL: What keeps me up at night is making sure that my team and I are representing Sloan to prospective applicants as best we can. I fully understand that the responsibility my team has is to be that first impression all over the world. For someone at an information session, we set the tone for all future interactions with Sloan.

That’s a huge responsibility on our part. We have to have the right level of enthusiasm, to be able to answer their questions timely and accurately. It is all very important for us to do in the right way, and I think that is a challenge.