Admissions Director Q&A: Sara Neher of UVA’s Darden School of Business
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?
SN: I suggest that people think about the fact that I am trying to imagine you in the case method. So, if the essay question we ask is for you to give us an insight into your work and what you have learned at your job, I don’t want anything fancy. I want an answer to the question—specifically because I am trying to imagine you telling that particular example in the classroom to help others learn.
This year the question is about professional feedback you have received and what you have learned from it. So here I am looking to see how you communicate that to me in writing and how you would do that in the classroom.
On the whole I find that people actually do pretty well with the essay, especially since we went to just one. They spend time on it, and they answer the question. Sometimes people want use personal examples, and that doesn’t always work so well. In general, professional examples end up being more relevant.
CA: Are the applicants you talk to often curious about anything in particular?
SA: Hmmm. I think they always want to ask what role the GMAT—or the test—plays in the process. In some respects that does depend on the school. For us it really is just one part of it. At Darden, class participation is half of your grade. You have to be able to do the work, and the GMAT can be a predictor of that, but you also have to have something to say. We have a lot of high GMAT scores that we don’t admit because I am not convinced they have something to say. So when applicants ask how much weight we give the GMAT, I say there is really no answer for that. It’s not something that has a particular weight.
As for which test to take, I am very test blind. I have actually taken the GRE, GMAT and LSAT myself. And we even accept the LSAT and MCAT for our dual-degree candidates. Really, they are all testing your ability to study, to do something nobody wants to do with toughness and perseverance in a weird computer environment. They are testing those things and some basic math and verbal skills.
Yes, the different tests are testing slightly different things. And since I’ve taken them all, I know what those differences are. Typically we only see GRE scores from people who have taken it for some other purpose. I will say this: Don’t take them both. That’s not a good use of time or money.
CA: If you could change any one thing about the admissions process, what would it be?
SN: I do wish sometimes that people wouldn’t be as stressed during the process. We just can’t update you every week on what is going on with your application because we are reading several thousand files. We just can’t do that.
I want people to be patient, to not call us, to know that we are working on it. But at the same time, I don’t want people to be unnecessarily anxious that something is not happening with their file.
CA: Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you really want to share?
SN: Just that I wouldn’t still be here nine years later if Charlottesville weren’t an amazing place to live and if Darden weren’t an amazing community of people to work with. Everyone, no matter their level, cares about you as a person, wants you to be successful and knows that if that happens then the school will be successful. It is a lot of fun, and people are very caring and genuinely interested in helping people being successful.