Admissions Director Q&A: Sara Neher of UVA’s Darden School of Business
CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?
SN: The diversity of the job opportunities and network that we have. People often think, “Oh, well you’re so small, or you’re a finance school (which I find a little baffling since we are a general management program), or you’re in Charlottesville—as though that limits the opportunities our students have.
Now, with Scott coming in I am certain that we will have more opportunities with consulting. But what I want applicants to know is that our students and alumni do all things everywhere. Part of that is due precisely to our location. You can’t stay in Charlottesville after you graduate—which means that our alumni are all over. People underestimate how diverse that Darden network is.
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.).
SN: Once people hit submit, their application is reviewed by an account manager. Each has a portion of the alphabet. That person’s job is to make sure the application is complete. Once an application is complete, the account manager will assign it to a first reader, who is a member of the Admissions Committee. We don’t have anyone new right now, so everyone has ample experience reading applications.
At this stage, applications are randomly assigned. We don’t read by region, and no one is expected to have a specific expertise, so there’s no bias. The first reader reads the file electronically “cover to cover” on an online system. In terms of what that looks like, they are either reading it on a computer with two screens or on an iPad. It’s interesting—somehow we’ve found we can’t read it on a computer with one screen, but we can read it on a single iPad.
After reviewing the entire application, the first reader will make a recommendation as to whether we should interview or not interview. Taking the best case scenario first, let’s imagine the first reader says, “Yes, interview.” The application then goes to a second reader—and in this case it goes to one person if the applicant lives in the United States or to another if they live outside the U.S. That person then reads it again.
If the second reader says, “Yes, we should interview this person,” then the file goes to Jenna, who assigns the interviews. She will trigger an interview invitation to be sent. If the applicant is in the U.S., they will come to Charlottesville. If not, they can interview either by Skype or with an alum (or alumnus or alumna) overseas. In terms of scheduling, we give applicants a range of options. It is definitely not, “You must come on this day.”
As for the interview, it is fully blind. By that I mean that the interviewer has no information in advance except for your name. He or she will come to the lobby and call out your name or wait for your call on Skype. Given that the interview is blind, it is up to the applicant to really share what is most important to share—what is most important about their life or what they want us to know. So there is no bias there either, but it does put the burden on the applicant to identify the most important aspects to highlight.
One piece of advice: Please ask your interviewer a question at the end. Don’t say, “Oh no, I think I am good. I don’t have any questions.” This is your opportunity to spend a little more time with your interviewer and get to know Darden better—take advantage of it. For those who interview in Charlottesville, you can also go to a class or have lunch with a student or meet with the career or financial aid offices.
After the interview, the interviewer writes up a comprehensive account—an assessment of the person, his or her poise and professional presence, what he or she has actually done at work. This account then gets added to the application, which is then read by a third person. That person makes a recommendation of whether to make an offer, waitlist or deny. And then the file comes to me, and I look at them all. So it’s not a committee decision in most cases, but if people disagree or I am not sure for any reason, then we will talk about it as a group.
Going back a few steps, here’s what happens if that first reader doesn’t say yes. In that event, it goes to a different reader for a second read. That person can still say, “Yes, we should interview” or “I agree with the first reader—we shouldn’t interview.” I look at them all at the end of that process, too.
There have definitely been occasions when two people say no and I take a third look and decide to interview. This can happen, for example, when I have looked at everybody else that has applied and we haven’t seen anybody from the applicant’s particular industry or country.
The interview is an important part of the process, and it is also something I want to give as many people as possible a chance at. Of course, we do have some capacity constraints, but that is typically not why we wouldn’t give them a chance to interview.