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Admissions Director Q&A: Soojin Kwon of the Ross School of Business

soojin kwonWe are thrilled to launch the latest edition of the Clear Admit’s Admissions Director Q&A Series. We began interviewing admissions directors at leading business schools back in 2008, and we circle back regularly to capture changes and new developments in the dynamic field of graduate management admissions.

We kick off this most recent round of interviews with Ross School of Business Admissions Director Soojin Kwon, who has been leading the admissions team at the Ann Arbor school since 2006. A Ross graduate herself, she knows the school’s admissions process from both sides. During her tenure at the school, she has worked to increase the transparency of the application process through her blog and other online forums.

Kwon was named one of the 40 Under 40 by Crain’s Detroit Business in 2008. Prior to joining the Ross Admissions Committee, she put her Ross MBA to work as a manager at Deloitte Consulting and as an analyst for both the U.S. Senate Budget Committee and the U.S. Department of Commerce. She is currently on the board of the Forté Foundation, which encourages talented women to pursue careers in business, served as the chair of the 2012 GMAC Annual Conference, and is chair of the ETS Business School Advisory Council.

Kwon, who we’ve interviewed several times now for this series, was kind enough to make time again this summer to bring us up to speed on all things Ross, including new developments in the past year and plans for the year ahead.

Enjoy! And look for additional interviews with admissions directors from other leading schools here on the Clear Admit blog in coming weeks…

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

Soojin Kwon: This past year had several exciting developments: Stephen M. Ross’ second gift of $100 million, which will support additional facilities renovations to enhance the MBA experience; Michigan Ross being ranked #1 in graduate entrepreneurship programs by Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine; and the roll-out of the team exercise as part of the admissions process. We piloted it in the fall 2013 cycle and implemented it globally for the fall 2014 cycle. The results were better than we expected in terms of participation and engagement.

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

SK: The breadth of opportunities to take classes at the University of Michigan’s 99 Top 10-ranked graduate programs (as ranked by US News and World Report) as well as the breadth of opportunities to gain international experience through MAP (Multidisciplinary Action Projects, which are essentially 7-week consulting projects), exchange programs, courses, and various student-led treks (both career-focused and adventure-focused).

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.).

SK: We first evaluate two things: (1) will this applicant be able to handle the rigor of our program; and, (2) will they bring interesting experiences to the program. To assess the first, we look at an applicant’s academic record: undergraduate major, GPA, and institution; GMAT or GRE score; and, for non-native English speakers, the TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE score. For the second, we look at the quality of an applicant’s professional experience through their resume, essay, and rec letter. We’re only requiring one rec letter this year, so we strongly encourage applicants to ask a supervisor as this is one of the components of our assessment of professional achievement and potential.

After this first review, some applicants will be invited to interview and their app will simultaneously be moved on for a second review. Other applicants will be moved to a second review without an interview invitation. Those who are invited to interview have the option to do their one-on-one interview on campus or in their local area, either with an alum or via Skype with one of our interviewers on campus.

Interviewees are also invited (encouraged) to participate in an optional team exercise in which groups of four to six applicants collaborate on developing and presenting a short mock business challenge and solution using random words (literally picked from a bag).

The purpose of the team exercise is for us to get a glimpse into applicants’ teamwork, interpersonal, and communication skills as well as to give applicants an opportunity to meet and engage with other Ross applicants and students/alumni, who serve as observers of the exercise. Applicants reported having a great experience with it. They said it wasn’t as “scary” as they anticipated, and they enjoyed getting to interact with other applicants.

Next, the whole file, including the interview report and team exercise evaluation, is reviewed by our associate directors, who make preliminary decisions on each candidate. All decisions are then reviewed by the senior associate director, then the admissions director, and finally, the senior associate dean for graduate programs.

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?

SK: We look to the essays to gain insight into how applicants think, how they look at things. This year, we reduced the number of essays to two and the total word count to 800 (400 each).

Admissions essays are, to a large extent, a relic of the past. It used to be the primary means of assessing goals and fit. Now with applicants being able to do live interviews – in-person or via Skype – we have a means to gain those insights in real time, and interpersonally, which is a more important perspective as interpersonal and communications skills are critical success factors in business school and in post-MBA careers.

The thing to keep in mind as applicants write their essays is that we’re not looking for applicants whose writing skills will get them admitted to graduate writing programs. We’re looking for applicants who are self-aware and can thoughtfully and clearly communicate their experiences and perspectives. These are skills that organizations (and MBA recruiters) value; they’re skills that you need to be an effective leader.

So, in a nutshell, self-awareness, thoughtfulness, and clarity are what we’ll be looking for. Applicants don’t need to stress about telling a “unique” story or a “hero” story. Based on the questions we’re asking this year, we expect that we’ll see a lot more diversity of responses. We’re really looking forward to learning about each applicant’s thoughts and experiences through these questions.