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Admissions Director Q&A: Conrad Chua of Cambridge’s Judge Business School

conrad_chuaConrad Chua met an alumnus of Cambridge University’s Judge Business School while working in business development and was soon sold on the school’s values and ethos. In 2009, he became head of MBA recruitment and admissions.

Chua, a native of Singapore, worked in the public sector there for 10 years, but he completed his undergraduate education at Stanford and a graduate program at London Business School. “The masters I did at LBS really opened my perspective, and I decided I wanted to work outside Singapore,” he told us. He and his wife moved to the United Kingdom seven years ago.

This past June, Chua added oversight of Judge’s career services to his list of responsibilities. In the interview that follows, he shares some of the ways he hopes to include a greater emphasis on applicants’ career goals from the very start and outlines some other shifts in Judge’s application designed to make the process easier for applicants.

He also highlights new construction slated to begin soon, which will expand the school’s facilities. And he reminds prospective applicants that while Judge is, indeed, a center of entrepreneurship and startup energy in Cambridge, its strength in finance should not be overlooked.

We are grateful to Chua for making time to speak with us. If Judge is on your list of target schools, you won’t want to miss this interview.

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

Conrad Chua: The first is that we are going to start work on a new building. It will be an extension to our current building, and it should give us additional space for lectures, classroom activities and more. It is slated for completion in 2017, and construction will begin quite soon. The new building will give us more breathing room, but we do not have any plans to increase class size at this time.

In terms of the application process, we have made quite a few changes to the application in recent years. First, we have reduced the number of essays applicants must write to two. We found that people were not providing very insightful answers to one of the essay questions – we just weren’t getting very much useful information out of it – so we cut it.

We have also made a change in the references we asked applicants to submit. We used to ask for two references, a peer reference and a supervisor reference. We included a peer reference because we wanted to see how people work as a member of teams since collaboration is something we value highly here at Judge. But we found that the peer reference was always glowingly positive and didn’t provide as much insight into candidates as we hoped.

We have also made a change to the supervisor reference. We have kept everything from our original reference form – the templates, etc. But we recognize that many candidates are going to apply to more than one school, so we have made it so that a supervisor can send in a reference he/she may have written for another school.

This all came about earlier this summer when I attended the GMAT conference in Baltimore. The conference highlighted the fact that there are no standards in the MBA admissions world apart from the GMAT/GRE. If a candidate is applying to three schools, he/she very often has to write three complete applications, obtain three different recommendations from supervisors, etc. We are trying to make our process easier for candidates without sacrificing anything in terms of the information we gather about them.

There is one final thing that we are doing this year that I think will have implications in terms of how people go through the application  process. We used to have our careers and admissions functions quite separate. Since June of this year, I am head of both careers and admissions.

As a result, we are seeking to understand candidates’ future career plans as they apply for the program. People who come on campus for our interview days will also speak to one of our career advisors, who will go through their CV, talk about their pre-MBA experience, get an understanding of what they are looking to do after the MBA.

This shift does not change the assessment process, which is to say we won’t use candidates’ employability as a factor in our admission decisions. But, in cases where the candidate is strong and we want to give him or her an offer, but he or she has expressed an interest in a career change that we think might be quite challenging, we can address that earlier on. We will let them know the challenges they may face, so that they can make an informed decision about whether the MBA is right for them.

In this way, we plan to be more involved with career services from the get go. I am looking forward to seeing how both the admissions and career services can work closer together. When we talk to candidates, they obviously often have lots of questions about careers. By having both of these functions under one umbrella, I think we improve our ability to speak to both.

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

CC: One thing that I think people don’t always realize is that finance is one of our greatest strengths. If you look at the number of electives we offer, the number one area is finance. More of the school’s faculty are from finance than any other discipline. Every week we have someone coming from London’s many financial services firms to give a talk in the area of finance. People think a lot about entrepreneurship when they talk about our school – which makes sense given the entrepreneurial activity throughout Cambridge – but they don’t seem to associate Judge with finance as much as I think they should.

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.).

CC: We are different from a lot of other schools because we run five rounds during the admissions year, starting in September and ending in June. Most schools do three or two. We do five because it breaks up the number of applications into smaller groups for us to read, which is important because currently we only have four people reading all of the applications.

In this way, we can ensure quite a high level of consistency in terms of our reading – and we can turn around the applications much faster. Typically we can let people know whether they are invited to an interview just about two weeks after a deadline.

So our team reads the applications and makes a recommendation on whether a given candidate should be interviewed or not. I then review all of the people recommended for an interview and sign off on them. In about one-third to half of these instances, I or someone in my team will arrange to have a 15-minute conversation with the applicants themselves to make sure both the applicants and we truly understood the application.

So once someone is invited for an interview we will have spent about 20 minutes reading the application, and often we will have taken another 15 minutes to speak to them personally over the phone. At the interview stage there are two options: They can come to one of our on-campus interview days or they can have the interview over the phone. (We actually find that the phone is usually a bit more reliable than Skype, which is why we do it that way.) Candidates who come to campus will also attend presentations by the admissions staff, meet with senior management and have those initial career consultations that I mentioned earlier.

Whether or not an applicant is interviewed over the phone or face to face, the interviews are conducted by faculty. This is why we put in a lot of effort up front to determine who gets an interview. Our faculty have been teaching for several years, so calling on them to conduct the interviews integrates a high level of consistency and also means applicants get to understand who is going to be teaching them.

Following the interview, faculty recommendations come to the admissions team, and we decide on who to give offers to. It is at this point that we will also have a discussion with some of the people who may face quite challenging career transitions, so they know exactly what they’re getting into. Candidates will generally be informed of a decision within three or four days of the interview.

If there is some ambiguity at the interview stage – for example, if the faculty member is not sure about a candidate – I might ask the director of the MBA program to interview the applicant again. Although in most cases we will go by the faculty recommendation.

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?

CC: I think that all of our applicants, when they write their essays, need to be quite sure that they are reasonably clear about what they are trying to do with the MBA. They don’t have to be 100 percent crystal clear, but they need to have a general direction mapped out. And it has to be closely aligned with what they have done already.

Now, that’s not to say that you have to have a finance background to go into finance. But if you want to go into finance there needs to be a clear and cohesive story for what you have done to prepare. Or if you want to start a company, be clear about how an MBA in Cambridge will help you with your entrepreneurial idea.

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