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

sherry_wallaceToday we hear from Sherry Wallace, director of MBA admissions at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. We are grateful to her for making time to share some of the things she’s most excited about in the year ahead – not the least of which is welcoming a new class of students to campus today for orientation.

But that’s not all. With a new dean at the helm, Kenan-Flagler is in the midst of wide-spread growth and improvement. Increased application volume, record numbers of job postings, a new energy concentration and continuing emphasis on leadership are just a few of the things you’ll learn about in the interview that follows.

Against this “atmosphere of change,” as she calls it, Wallace wants to make the admissions process as transparent as possible. “We want to see a candidate’s best application. We try to be accessible and transparent. 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 in 1998, she was offered the opportunity to come back to UNC 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.

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

Sherry Wallace: I am so excited about the atmosphere of change underway and the many endorsements our MBA program is receiving. First of all, we have a new dean, Dean Doug Shackelford, who is bringing new ideas and initiatives and inviting us to look at things differently.

The MBA program is experiencing increases and improvements on many fronts right now. To name a few:

  • Application volume for 2014 entry increased 28 percent over a year ago.
  • Our already high student satisfaction survey ratings continue to improve. In 2013-14, our students rated the program higher in 36 of the 50 items measured, including Return on Investment, Responsiveness to Student Needs, Quality of Fellow Students, Preparing Me to Lead and Overall Learning Environment.
  • The Career Management resources available to our students are at all-time highs. We had a 14 percent increase in full-time job postings and a 10 percent increase in internship job postings this year. We had a 21 percent increase in full-time job postings open to students without U.S. work authorization. Those are just some of the ways opportunities for our students increased.
  • On the curriculum front, we have added a new enrichment concentration: Energy. The Energy concentration will prepare students for various roles within the energy sector. Some of the courses include Alternative Energy, Energy Project Finance, Energy Value Chain and the Business of Oil and Gas. We also have a new focus area: Business Analytics and Decision Making. Students who pursue this new focus area will expand their quantitative toolsets, hone their ability to make fact-based decisions and, overall, learn how to recognize competitive opportunities brought by analytics.
  • Our Leadership curriculum continues to receive high marks, including recognition from the AACSB (the business school accreditation body) as the best and most comprehensive leadership program of any business school. Led by our Director of Leadership Mindy Storrie, we have hosted two AACSB workshops that have trained more than 80 faculty, deans and administrators from 70 schools in six countries to enhance their leadership programs with some of the content we are delivering at UNC Kenan-Flagler. We believe we are the only business school that requires a leadership credit for full-time MBA students. Most importantly, we are dedicated to ensuring our students have a range of opportunities to learn the theory and practice of leadership in significant and lasting ways.

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 and 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 prospective applicants discover the fit that they all feel they found here – whether or not it ends up being here.

Let me add that we have a travel stipend program to encourage top candidates from locations that are underrepresented in our class to visit us. We invite candidates from Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East to apply for this stipend.

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: Candidates put a lot of work into their applications, and we spend a considerable amount of time reviewing and assessing their submissions.

First, let me tell you about the people who evaluate the applications. People seem to respect the process more when they know how diverse the admissions committee is. We have representatives from finance, law, marketing, administration, consulting, retail and more who are part of the admissions review team. We can recognize high performers in any function or industry. Our committee also is well trained and experienced in evaluating academic credentials from education systems across the globe.

Once a person starts an application, my colleagues, Phil and Sharon, will communicate regularly with them to let them know what we’ve received and what’s missing. They will also answer any questions the applicant might have. After we confirm that all components of an application have been received, then the review process starts.

Two members of our committee read and evaluate the file – the essay(s), recommendations, transcripts, work history, resume, test scores and interview evaluation. Each of the people who read the file provides a rating and also summary comments that highlight the applicant’s strengths, weaknesses and potential to contribute to the class. We assign a rating from 1 through 5. The rating allows us to compare applicants to each other and to the bar.

After all of the applications for a given round have been read and rated, we hold a series of committee meetings during which we discuss, debate and make the admission decisions.

Every applicant is assigned to a region, generally a geographically based region. One person on the committee is responsible for managing the applications from a given region. In the admissions committee meetings, the region manager will present the applicants in his or her region, providing a profile of the candidate, a summary of the ratings they received from each reviewer and then any highlights. Based on these presentations and group discussion, we reach consensus on whether the candidate will be admitted, waitlisted or denied.

We release our admission decisions in batches, according to the deadline by which the application was received.

Let me explain our interview policy: No one is admitted without an interview. We will review an application from someone who hasn’t interviewed, but the most favorable decision that applicant can get will be a waitlist until they interview.

We encourage candidates to go ahead and schedule their interviews as soon as they are ready. A candidate will gain access to the online interview scheduler after starting the application, satisfying the application fee and uploading a resume. Interviews can be scheduled and completed before the final application is submitted.

We offer interviews on campus, by telephone and by webcam via Skype. In some cities outside the United States we have alumni interviewers. All interview formats carry the same weight!

We want people to visit campus to experience our culture up close. Still, we realize that many outstanding applicants are unable to travel to campus, and that won’t hurt their chances of being admitted.

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: We have high expectations for the essays. The essay is the one element of the application where a candidate can take time and plan her reply after giving it serious thought. No one has to think on his feet with the essay. When someone submits a poorly written essay, it’s really a shame. It makes us wonder how that person might prepare for other things.

Don’t be the person who couldn’t follow the word limit. We know without a doubt that it is possible to give a very appropriate and successful response within the word limit. Sometimes applicants are too focused on writing what they want to say instead of responding to the actual essay question. That’s usually the case when we get an essay that doesn’t adhere to the word limit restrictions. Think of the essay response as though it was as an executive summary.

We have one required essay, and there is no need to submit any of the optional essays if they don’t apply. Optional essays are, indeed, optional.

I have seen many different successful writing styles. We encourage applicants to be themselves. The tone and style of the essay should reflect the style and personality of the applicant. Of course, the essay should be professional – and not so casual that we question the applicant’s judgment.

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 UNC Kenan-Flagler application. The only thing candidates who choose the Consortium application need to know is that they must interview with us.

The second point I’d like to make is that we accept both the GRE and the GMAT. Most of our applicants submit GMAT scores. Often those who submit GRE scores are pursuing a dual degree or have a valid GRE from a previous master’s program.

For candidates trying to choose which exam to take, I would encourage them to choose the GMAT. We have a lot more experience qualifying and assessing students who submit a GMAT. Some of the MBA hiring organizations expect students to have a GMAT. So if you are considering which test to take and you don’t have a reason to do one over the other, I would say that it’s better to do the GMAT.

Next, I’d like to share a bit of advice. Give yourself time. Don’t rush to make the first or second deadline if you need more time to improve your GMAT or if you need more time to practice telling your story. We admit terrific applicants in all four of our deadline batches. I think our admit rate is pretty consistent across the first three deadlines. The final round can be harder simply because there aren’t as many seats left to fill by the time we see those applicants.

Finally, our admissions team, faculty and staff travel to major cities worldwide to interact with prospective students, and we also host several web events. Check out our admissions events calendar to see when we are going to be in your area.

Together with our alumni, we can answer your questions and give you information about UNC Kenan-Flagler. Please, reach out, stay connected and give us feedback on what you need. We are here to help.