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Admissions Director Q&A: David Simpson of London Business School

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CA: What about letters of recommendation? What if any steps have you taken to make this aspect of the application process easier for applicants and their recommenders?

DS: As part of the program review I mentioned, we have looked at the questions some of the schools are asking and aligned one or two of ours to be reasonably similar. But we also have to get what we are looking for and put questions out that represent us. We think the recommendation as it stands is not too onerous for our applicants’ recommenders, so for this year we haven’t changed them much. But next year I am thinking about whether we chop those down some. If it becomes more formal or prevalent to use standard questions across all schools, we would certainly consider that. You don’t want to make applicants’ lives harder by being the outlier. But at the moment they do add quite a lot of value—otherwise we wouldn’t ask for them.

Here again we see some cultural differences. When you see letters from British recommenders they tend to be shorter, more to the point and less effusive about the candidate than they might be from a recommender from the United States or India, say. Those are often glowing and long and flowing. So we take those types of differences into consideration.

In terms of pitfalls to avoid with regard to recommendation letters, occasionally the candidate has left the tracking on, showing their own changes. Avoid that. If your recommender asks you to be involved in the process, you have to have the integrity to know the difference between providing them with information to write about you versus writing your own references. We did have a case in a recent year when it came to light that the candidate wrote their own letter. We dismissed that candidate. This was an integrity issue—someone was telling a lie and it came to light and it had to be dealt with. I really hope that it’s a one off.

CA: You’ve been placing a real emphasis on understanding/improving the applicants’ experience. What are some of your key findings so far? What changes do you anticipate making to the application process as a result?

DS: I think it is not necessarily asking for less in terms of essays—it’s just making sure everything you ask for you absolutely need and makes a big difference to your decision making. I think we will be contracting the things we are asking for in the future, but not by much.

We need to improve the technology and make things even more streamlined. We do okay now, but we always want to do as well as we possibly can. We have a new website and we are developing our backend operations.

That candidate journey is something we care passionately about, so we have looked for ways we think we can make their journey smoother and give them things they really want. Happily, we have found they really enjoy contact with our admission team. The part we love the most turns out to be one of the most highly valued aspects by the candidates themselves.

They also seem to really enjoy the challenge of the alumni interview—of sitting down with someone who has done the program, has that sense of ownership and knows the highs and lows. In fact, we put a great deal of thought into the way we match our applicants with alumni interviewers. If you are an engineer who wants to get into management consulting, quite often we’ll match you with a management consultant. We also have found that applicants really enjoy coming to campus and getting to know each other, as well as current students and alums.

CA: You do not accept GRE scores, is that right? Just the GMAT. Do you envision that changing as more schools accept the GRE?

DS: Yes, we only accept GMAT scores for our fulltime MBA program. I find that with the MBA, having that one comparison point that is standard around the world helps me to evaluate those candidates and make those comparisons. If we took GRE scores, it would complicate things.

We are also big believers in how well the GMAT works. We work closely with the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), and they are a fantastic organization. Part of that is owning this really, really useful test.

This is not to say that won’t ever change. And for other programs—such as our Executive MBA program where candidates have more experience—we have accepted other tests.

CA: Anything new and exciting coming up soon?

DS: All I would say is that we expect to be piloting one or two new developments as well—it won’t be a full year before we introduce something new. So stay tuned.