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Admissions Director Q&A: Dana Brown of Saïd Business School at Oxford University

dana brownDana Brown recently assumed the role of MBA director at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. In this position, Brown has overseen the review of the MBA program and implemented new elements to help “ensure that Oxford MBAs – as future leaders – have the skills, knowledge and personal qualities needed to meet the world-scale challenges of the 21st century,” she says.

Brown is no stranger to Oxford. Having received her PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she came to Oxford to study for an MPhil in Russian and East European Studies as a Rhodes Scholar. She went on to teach international business at Saïd until 2010, when she relocated to France as academic director of the International Executive DBA at EMLYON Business School. Brown has recently returned to Oxford and continues her research on international business and corporate social responsibility while serving as MBA director.

In the interview that follows, Brown details the relaunch of Saïd’s MBA program this year. The revamped program includes three guiding themes that ripple through all core and elective courses as well as extracurricular programming. The school has also placed even greater emphasis on talent development, assigning each student to work with an individual executive coach and adding an array of soft skills development workshops.

Get the complete low down on these and other shifts at Saïd, as well as a detailed explanation of just how the admissions process unfolds. Our thanks to Brown for taking the time to participate in our series.

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

Dana Brown: This has been an exciting year at the school. We have undertaken a complete review of the MBA and have relaunched the program to the MBA Class of 2014-15, who started in September. The business landscape is in a constant state of change, and some of the issues executives are discussing in the boardroom are significantly different from those of, say, 10 years ago.

Our goal was to ensure that the program is as rigorous and relevant to a rapidly changing business environment as it can be. We particularly want to equip our students with the skills to address large scale business issues which might encompass social, environmental, political and economic challenges.

The program retains the core business disciplines and offers a wide range of electives, including a selection of inter-disciplinary courses that bring in knowledge from the wider Oxford University. We have introduced three cross-cutting themes that shape today’s business environment: responsible leadership, the global rules of the game and entrepreneurship. These three themes permeate all aspects of the program, from core and elective courses to guest speaker sessions and student-run competitions.

We believe that, as future business leaders, our students will be confronted with complex global issues, so knowledge in these areas is key whatever the scale of enterprise or sector they ultimately work in. Through immersion in these areas, our MBAs will learn how to inspire and influence a range of stakeholders and demonstrate responsible leadership in the face of complex and often conflicting interests.

Another new feature that I’d underscore is the talent development program. All of our MBA students will have an opportunity to work with an executive coach and to participate in a selection of soft skill development workshops. From the very start of the program, they receive help to define their strengths and weaknesses and are given support in specific areas to ensure they have a rounded picture of who they are and how they want to develop their future career. It’s pretty unique for MBAs to have access to these opportunities.

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

DB: I’d like applicants to have an appreciation of the benefits of being part of the University of Oxford and what this means for them. Our position within the university gives us the opportunity to integrate a lot of what’s happening in terms of innovation and thinking in other academic areas into our curriculum. An example of this is in our electives – last year we brought in academics from the humanities, and our students were given the task of conducting a choir to learn the power and qualities of leadership. And this year, we are inviting scientists from around the university to participate with our students in their entrepreneurship projects.

All faculty and students are members of one of Oxford’s colleges. This means that they partake in the social life of the colleges and meet and interact with people from other disciplines. This gives them a chance to talk about what we are thinking about in the school as future business leaders and compare and debate this with what, for example, philosophers, scientists or lawyers are thinking.

This has a powerful impact on our MBAs, and it expands their thinking, as well as their networks, beyond the broad business knowledge. I think this is an incredible learning experience and one that can’t really be matched by standalone schools. Our students also all belong to the Oxford Union, one of the most prestigious debating societies in the world, and they participate in a range of sporting and other social events at Oxford.

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.).

DB: The process of connecting with us starts even before an applicant submits an application. We now have a team of specialists who can talk to candidates and answer any questions they have about applying. We travel around the world as well and meet candidates at fairs, information events and special lectures.

That gets us to the application. Once an application has been received it will be thoroughly reviewed by our admissions team. Based on this review, applicants may be invited to attend an interview. These are held either in Oxford or at other locations across the world where we have faculty or the admissions team traveling. Interviews are conducted by the MBA director, our faculty, our sector consultants or admissions professionals. A few interviews may be conducted by Skype, but we feel it is important to meet as many applicants face to face as we can.

The interviews are a key part of the admissions process to consider each candidate holistically and to understand their ambitions and potential. We are looking for people with an open mind, an ability to learn and who can think critically and creatively about issues.

After the interviews, the Admissions Committee reconvenes to discuss each candidate before a final decision is made whether to make an offer.

I’m always really happy to hear from applicants and can put candidates in touch with students and alumni to hear directly about the program from people who are in a similar field. We also more than welcome candidates to visit Saïd Business School and Oxford! There is a buzz in the air here that no words could ever capture.

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?

DB: The essays are another important tool for us to understand the applicant and to understand who will benefit most from our program and vice versa. We expect the essays to be written clearly, to contain arguments that can be substantiated and to reflect the candidate on a personal level. That is to say, we want your essays to focus on areas of expertise in work or reflect strong views about issues so we can understand you as an individual. You will be tested more on those areas where you should feel most comfortable.

The most common mistake that applicants make in the essay is to try to portray an image that is not true to themselves. We want to know who our applicants are, what their real passions are, what motivates and drives them. Applicants should talk about what they feel has been a real success or achievement for them rather than try to second guess what we might be seeking.

Another common mistake is to have very ambitious career goals without evidence that the candidate has done any research or groundwork about what it takes to get from where they are to where they want to be. Applicants should talk about their path, why their career goals are realistic and how they are going to get there. It is always good to mention more than one career option.