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Fuqua Admissions Dean Dishes on Essays and Life

fuqua admissionsIt’s not every admissions director who will make time during her vacation to discuss how prospective business school applicants should approach their essays. And yet Liz Riley Hargrove, associate dean for admissions at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, did just that. Speaking from North Carolina’s Outer Banks this morning, before the kids woke up ready to head to the beach, she shared insights with Clear Admit on the essay prompts released last week.

Not a lot has changed this year in terms of Fuqua’s application, it turns out. Applicants will find they have twice as much space in which to answer three short-answer prompts—one on short-term goals, one on long-term goals and one on an alternative plan should that first short-term goal not pan out. This year candidates get 500 characters for each response, up from 250 last year. “We wanted to give candidates a little more opportunity to expand upon their responses,” she says of this year’s doubled answer field.

If the rest of the application looks pretty similar to last year’s, that’s because it is. “We approach the admissions cycle really wanting to get to know our candidates,” Hargrove says. “The essay questions we asked last year really helped us do that—we really liked how we were able to engage applicants and glean information,” she adds. “Absolutely, we are keeping them the same this year because they help us build a class that truly represents a microcosm of the world.”

It doesn’t hurt that applicants seem to really like the prompts too, she adds. “The 25 Random Things, tweeting out their short- and long-term goals—they absolutely love it,” she says. For her team to feel like they really get to know their applicants and for applicants to enjoy responding to the prompts is the epitome of a win-win.

Fuqua’s “25 Random Things”
As was the case last year, all applicants must reply to one required prompt and then select between two others. The required prompt, “25 Random Things,” invites applicants to share just that, 25 quirky aspects of who they are. It grew out of a brainstorming session a few years ago when Hargrove and her staff were trying to come up with an outside-the-box idea that would be in line with Fuqua’s entrepreneurial reputation. The prompt has been on the application ever since. In fact, Hargrove likes it so much that she makes everyone who joins her own team share their own 25 random facts.

She acknowledges that for as welcome as this unusual prompt may prove for many applicants, it may seem daunting to some others. “We always worry about how the process appears culturally,” she says. “I think if you are on Facebook and you tweet and you’re on Instagram it seems pretty natural—but sometimes internationally it doesn’t always translate.” With this in mind, she and her team have shared their own random facts on the Fuqua blog and elsewhere to give people an idea of how to respond.

Here are a few of Hargrove’s own:

  • I have traveled to 39 countries, and had the best meal of my life in Thailand.
  • I was captain of my high school drill team and can still remember the kick routine I learned for the audition. I’ve been known to throw a high kick during the welcome at Orientation for our new students …
  • Since we all make mistakes, I firmly believe that everyone is entitled to a “do-over” and as human beings we should graciously allow them to have it.
  • I ADORE my children!! I aspire to be a great example to women, of how to balance a demanding career and being a good mother.
  • I’ve been told that I have enough personality for a small Latin American country. That was a compliment — right?

Her team does worry some about how candidates feel about revealing personal things, but that’s really what they are looking for. “We want them to be a little bit vulnerable,” she says. “Our objective is to admit people who will be impactful and really want to come to Duke, and we find you can really get a sense of who people are and why they do what they do when they tell you about the quirky parts of their life.”

When to Opt for the Optional Essay
Like many other schools, Fuqua does invite applicants to provide an optional third essay outlining any circumstances the Admissions Committee should be aware of. This is the perfect opportunity to explain a gap in work experience, a semester of lower grades in college, anything that might not appear consistent with the rest of your application. “When someone uses this space to explain something that doesn’t make sense to me, it’s awesome,” she says. For instance, learning that a family member got sick during your sophomore year in college can really help her team understand why your grades may have slipped then. “But if it is a regurgitation of another essay or something a candidate has written for another school, it’s just irritating,” she cautions.

In an attempt to make things easier for both applicants and their recommenders, Fuqua has taken steps to standardize its letters of recommendation some this year. “We want to make it easier for people who are applying to multiple schools,” she says. “We get that.”

The most valuable letters of recommendation, though, are those that provide a good assessment of both a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. “Oftentimes, candidates think it has to be from the CEO of their company and say really good things about them—but the best recommendation is the assessment of the good, the bad and the ugly,” she says.

To drive this point home, Hargrove shares a few very personal things about herself. Once, when her daughter was an infant, she burped her before heading off to work, where someone asked her what was on the back of her shirt. “I went to work with baby vomit on my back!” she says. More recently, in the past year, she has experienced several major losses and expanded her family to take in an orphaned nephew. “I think about all of that and how it may have impacted me. ‘What would someone write about me this past year?’” she wonders aloud.

“Perfection is not required,” she says. “In fact, the students who go into the job search process trying to be perfect are the ones who struggle the most.”

Parting Advice?
“My advice is always be yourself,” Hargrove says without a moment’s hesitation. “The thing I love about welcoming our incoming class is feeling like they have represented their most authentic self, individually and collectively.”

She looks at her job as needing to build a microcosm of the world—and to do that effectively she needs to get to know the applicants. “The diversity of the incoming class is what makes the MBA so transformative,” she says. “Just be yourself, because everyone else is taken.”