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Admissions Director Q&A: Alex Lawrence of the UCLA Anderson School of Management

alex_lawrence~ A CLEAR ADMIT EXCLUSIVE ~

Alex Lawrence, an alumnus of the UCLA Anderson School of Management (MBA ’99), took the helm as assistant dean and director of MBA admissions and financial aid in August 2012.

Lawrence, who replaced interim director Rob Weiler, knows the school intimately. Five years after receiving his MBA, he returned to campus to serve as executive director of the Riordan Programs, an initiative founded by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to help high school and undergraduate students attain higher levels of education. In this role, Lawrence developed programs targeting students who are the first in their family to apply to college or seek an MBA degree. Under his guidance, nearly 70 percent of Riordan MBA Fellows went on to obtain their MBA at some of the nation’s most elite business schools.

In his current role as director of admissions, Lawrence is turning his focus toward assembling the strongest and most diverse incoming MBA classes he can at Anderson. 

We are grateful to Lawrence for his continuing participation in our Q&A series. In the interview that follows, you’ll learn about the wide-ranging benefits of Anderson’s southern California location and exactly how the Anderson Admissions Committee will review your application. Lawrence also shares some valuable advice on approaching essay questions that will serve you well whether you’re applying to Anderson or any other top MBA program.

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

Alex Lawrence: Our strategic location in one of the most vibrant cities in the world is a key strength that applicants may undervalue. Southern California’s diverse economy features almost every major industry in organizations of all sizes, providing students countless opportunities to engage with a variety of companies at many points throughout the MBA program.

Industry experts often come into the classroom as guest speakers or lecturers to share their real-world knowledge and advice with students, and many are connected to our professional clubs, which open up valuable networking and mentorship opportunities. Our collaborative culture is directly tied into the multitude of extracurricular and community service activities offered on and off campus as well.

Finally, Los Angeles is a wonderfully eclectic city with varied neighborhoods to explore, and our mild climate with easy access to outdoor activities from the mountains to the beach offers a great backdrop to complete your MBA studies.

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.)

AL: Once an application is complete, it is sent electronically to an admissions committee member for a thorough review. We have a paperless file evaluation via an iPad app called Matchbox, which has helped streamline our operations, not to mention save countless trees. Our review is holistic and based on the strength of the entire application, as we look for evidence of academic and managerial potential.

Depending on the applicant, a file can take 45 minutes or more to evaluate; on average most applicants take about half an hour for the initial evaluation. Each file is read by at least two readers to consider all factors fairly, and no formulaic weighting is applied since different candidates have different strengths and timelines in academics, focus, leadership, etc. Applicants whom we wish to interview are contacted via email to set up an admissions interview on campus, off campus or via Skype.

All interviews, regardless of where they are conducted, are credited equally since interviewers are trained on the same evaluation metrics. Post-interview, the application will receive at least one more evaluation, at which time a formal admission recommendation of admit, deny or waitlist will be made. The admissions committee convenes on a weekly basis during application season to ensure proper calibration on all our metrics and to discuss any trends or questions that come up throughout the week.

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?

AL: Essays are one of the most important vehicles to add your distinct voice and personality to the MBA application. Being genuine and introspective with focused short-term and long-term post-MBA career plans is important. In addition, we want to admit future students who will carry on our culture of collaboration, active participation both inside and outside the classroom and humble confidence.

Accordingly the essays are a great place to make a compelling case for fit with our school by highlighting specific aspects of our program that mesh with your own personal and professional goals. In fact, this admissions season we changed the question posed to applicants to reflect UCLA’s three defining principles: Share Success, Think Fearlessly, Drive Change. It’s the perfect opportunity to indicate to us whether your professional experience overlaps with our goals.

We continue to require only one essay submission per application, but you are also encouraged to complete an optional essay of no more than 250 words if there are any extenuating circumstances not covered in your required essay question that you feel the Admissions Committee should be made aware of.

Solid written communication skills are essential in business school, so pay attention not just to content, but also to style and clarity of thought in your essays. Some advice when it comes to writing your application essays:

– Answer the question directly. Every school has its own set of essay questions, and the most compelling answers are customized thoroughly. A very vague and generic response does not add value or make one stand out in a highly competitive pool, so make sure your answers are well-researched, thoughtful and concise, tailored to the school and program to which you are applying.

– Follow instructions. Every part of the application is a data point, including judgment calls made as part of the admissions process. Blatantly disregarding word counts, font sizes or other instructions can make a negative impression on the admissions committee, so it is important to respect the guidelines set forth in the application instructions as best as you can.

– Proofread. We see typos, grammatical errors, even putting the wrong school’s name in an admissions essay more often than people think. Taking time to proofread carefully and catch any of these mistakes before hitting the submit button is worth the time investment.

– Make it compelling. The best essays come from those who figure out a clear vision for a future that excites them, and they share this excitement with the admissions committee. Doing thorough homework on yourself and on the school is a prerequisite; you must show you understand how to use the MBA as a springboard to your dreams, and how our school in particular can add the leverage that you need.