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Admissions Director Q&A: Sara Neher of UVA’s Darden School of Business

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Sara NeherWe recently caught up with Sara Neher, director of MBA admissions at Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia (UVA), who had just returned from a family trip to celebrate her dad’s 70th birthday in the mountains of Colorado. Trading one beautiful environment for another, she’s back now in Charlottesville and ready to dive into the MBA admissions cycle just as it begins to heat up.

Neher, who celebrates her ninth anniversary as director of admissions this month, says she initially turned down an invitation to work at Darden. After five years in sales at Proctor & Gamble—including completing an MBA at Emory’s Goizueta School of Business while working—she returned to her home state and undergraduate alma mater to work for the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, which offers merit-based scholarship aid to exceptional undergraduates, graduate students and professors to come study and teach at UVA. During that time, the foundation launched a scholarship program with Darden for MBA students. “I met the dean—everyone was speaking my MBA language—and they said they had a vacancy at Darden in admissions,” she recalls. To which she replied, “No, I love my job.”

A few months later, Neher found she’d had a change of heart. As director of the Jefferson Scholars undergrad scholarship program, she had worked with several classes of really accomplished, driven young students. “Typically, I was the only woman with an MBA they had ever met,” she says. “They weren’t seeing the MBA as a path—especially the women—and I thought, ‘Maybe this is my chance to do something about that.’” Fortunately for her—and for Darden—they hadn’t yet filled the position.

She concedes that change has come slower than she might have liked in terms of increasing female enrollment. “It has taken me a long time to get more women in the program, but that—and increasing diversity in general—is something I think a lot about,” she says. “And I am glad to say that it has changed a great deal since I got here.”

In the interview that follows, Neher talks about the arrival this week of Darden’s new dean, what she’ll miss most about departing Dean Bob Bruner and the (surprising to some) diversity of the school’s alumni network. She also describes—in detail—just how the application process unfolds and how best to approach the school’s essay. Don’t miss out.

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

Sara Neher: That’s easy. The new dean, Scott Beardsley. His first official day was Monday, but I had been emailing with him a lot before that. I foresee his arrival as bringing a lot of good change. We all have a lot of excitement around the network that he brings to us and his ideas and strategic vision.

Scott is very different from outgoing Dean Bruner. For starters, he has a huge European network. One of the first things we are doing is going to Europe with him. Of course, he also has the McKinsey network and all the companies he has worked with through McKinsey.

He is very passionate about getting the right people in the rooms, and I am excited about what he is going to bring to all sides, although what he’ll bring to recruiting here at Darden is most immediately evident.

As for what I’ll miss the most about Dean Bruner, I think his compassion is probably the closest word I can think of. Having been at Darden for as long as he had, he had such an understanding for all the staff and faculty and really tried to help them do anything they wanted to do. His approach was always, “Let’s get in the trenches and figure out how to do this the best way possible.”

He just had such compassion and understanding for others. The students could tell he cared about them. We had lunch with him—just the Admissions Office—to say goodbye. He traveled with us, he really got to know us. So the farewell lunch gave us an opportunity to tell him what we appreciated about him, and he in turn gave us some tips about how he thinks we should onboard Scott.

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