How did southern California native James Holmen end up in Bloomington, Indiana, directing admissions at the Kelley School of Business? And what’s kept him there for more than 20 years? We caught up with him earlier this week to learn that and much more.
Holmen studied economics and sociology at UCLA, but what he learned was that he really liked working in a university environment. He spent a few years working at UCLA before heading to the University of Indiana in Bloomington to pursue a master’s degree in higher education administration. From there, he headed even farther east, to the University of Vermont to work in new student orientation. But a few years later Bloomington beckoned once again, drawing him back to work as Kelley’s assistant director of admissions. “After four years or so, I was named director—and that was about 20 years ago,” he says.
In the two and half decades that Holmen has been in the admissions office, Kelley has been making a name for itself as a leading MBA program. This year, Princeton Review ranked Kelley number one for best professors. And in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings, the full-time MBA program came in 22nd overall, seventh among public universities and third in the Big Ten.
In the interview that follows, Holmen shares some of what makes Kelley special, as well as what he and his team are looking for in prospective applicants and what applicants can expect as the admissions process unfolds.
Clear Admit: What most sets the Kelley MBA program apart from other MBA programs?
Jim Holmen: There are a number of things that set Kelley apart. A big feature of our program is the care and attention that every student will receive while they are here. That’s where our program size and our culture come into play. Every Kelley MBA student is assigned an academic advisor, a career coach and a second-year student career coach. They also each join one of our six career-focused first-year academies. (These academies, unique to Kelley, are designed to prepare students for their internships and their eventual careers through a combination of company-based consulting projects, leadership experiences, corporate visits and networking opportunities.) So our students really have a team of advisors that work with them throughout their MBA experience.
So much of our program is not only providing students with the academic skills they need, but also the career placement assistance that will help them succeed in the job search process. In particular, our career services team spends a great deal of time helping our students understand themselves.
We have a program called Me, Inc. that begins even before students get to campus with assignments they complete over the summer. These mostly involve reflection exercises to give the students opportunities to think about where they are, where they want to be, what their career interests are and how those fit with their individual personality traits.
Then there’s a professional development conference once they arrive on campus where they take what they have learned about themselves over the summer and begin to develop their personal brand and strengthen their networking skills. The process is designed so that they are beginning the program from a position of knowledge about themselves from the very first day of classes. The whole Me Inc. program and our ongoing career development offerings puts our students in a really great position as they begin to network.
CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?
JH: I think that some prospective applicants wonder whether being in a college town in Indiana will limit their abilities to network or to secure internships or full-time positions. The answer is no. Due to the ease of communication and transportation, location doesn’t make a difference. Our students work all over the country and the world, and recruiters come to us from all over as well. Flying into Indianapolis and driving down to Bloomington doesn’t take any longer that flying into most major airports.
The one benefit is that all of our students are coming to Bloomington, and once they get here they all live within a few miles of campus. So they are all making a transition to Indiana. That common experience, that common transition, really pulls our students together as a class. The relationships they build really are special in a place like Bloomington. Bloomington is also a community that revolves around the university. It’s truly a great community, the cost of living is low and students career opportunities here are no less than they would be elsewhere.
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.)
JH: When a candidate submits an application one of the first things we do is pull together all the pieces and parts that may have arrived separately—transcripts, scores, recommendations, etc. We do conduct a quick review in the beginning to identify candidates we want to immediately invite to interview. But we also conduct a full review of every file once it is complete.
Our admissions review team is made up of staff members but also a small group of eight second-year students who went through a competitive and selective process to become members of the student admissions team. They help us do application review.
Once the application is complete, it will be reviewed by one or two members of our admission review team, and then the files come either to myself or to the associate director. As I mentioned, some candidates are invited earlier in the process to schedule an interview, but as we read the applications deeply and thoroughly there are also candidates who are extended an invitation later in the process. Really, an invitation to interview can come at any point.
There are a whole variety of reasons that a candidate might not receive an invitation earlier in the process. We don’t use any formulas—there is no part of the application that we consider any more or any less important than any other. Of course, we are looking at their academic record and test scores to assess their ability to handle the academic rigor of our program. But we look at far more than just the GPA. We are going to take a close look at transcripts to look at grade trends. When we do come across a deficiency in a certain area, we look to see if there are strengths elsewhere to balance it out. So, if there’s a low GPA, for example, we’ll look to see if there’s a higher GMAT score to help us feel confident they can handle the academics when they get here.
Beyond that we are looking at their reasons for pursing an MBA—the degree to which they have given their goals some thought and how Kelley can help them achieve them. We’re also interested in what their recommender has to say about them. And then, of course, we want to know about their work experience. We have a very collaborative environment here, so we want to see a track record that suggests they will be successful in a team environment and that they have something valuable to bring.
In most cases, applications are read first by one member of the review team and then they come to the directors. Once the files come to us, we review them closely. Sometimes it’s an easy “yes” decision—other times it’s a clear “no.” But there are always those candidates who require a little more thought and discussion, in which case we’ll get together to talk about the candidate more. Sometimes these discussions will include a member of our career services team, for example, to help us assess potential.
The interview report is always complete and included by the time it’s reviewed by the directors, but depending on how quickly the candidate schedules his or her interview, it may not be a part of the initial read. Our interviews are blind, so the interviewer is only looking at the candidate’s resume. That is to say, we are not using the interview to question them on aspects of their application but rather to try to get to know them beyond what we learn in the application.
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?
JH: The question I sometimes ask myself after reading the essays is, “Have I learned anything more about this candidate having read his or her essays than I knew before I started?” In some respects, essays can help add personality, bring the candidate to life, clarify their reasons for pursuing an MBA.
The most obvious suggestion I have in terms of mistakes to avoid is to make sure you have answered the question asked. Our first essay asks them to talk about their short-term goals and an alternate goal or “Plan B.” It’s always interesting when you get to the end of the essay and you realize they didn’t mention what their goals are. It seems obvious, but answering the question asked is a really good idea.
We are always hoping to hear candidates’ authentic voices come through in their essays. It’s not something specifically we are looking for, but you know it when you see it. It kind of pulls the application together. The best essays explain why candidates are pursuing the MBA but also offer some glimpses into their personal qualities and what they will bring to the table as an MBA student.
Fit is vitally important. The students who enter our program are going to spend two years with us, but they will be a part of the Kelley family for the rest of their life. So we want students who will thrive in our family and our environment. We are a program characterized by collaboration—our students are learning from each other. So we are looking for students who have the tenacity to work hard and work their way through situations that may not be easy but who also have the humility to recognize their shortcomings and be willing to work on them.
We bring in 185 to 200 students per year, so our program is small enough that everyone gets to know each other. You want people to be strong contributors to that community and to the program in general.
CA: What has surprised you most about the current application cycle?
JH: We had a good year. Our applications were up a little bit more over last year, when they were also up over the year prior. I don’t know if that’s a surprise, but it’s nice. Of course, the fact that not much surprises me might be a reflection of the length of time I have been doing this.
In terms of student interest, we have always been a program that isn’t characterized by the majority of our students going into any one particular function or career path. We typically have a good portion going into marketing, finance and consulting. We also have a smaller but growing percentage pursuing careers in the supply chain. So student interest in terms of post-MBA career paths is a healthy mix and balance, and that has continued over the years.
We did launch a business analytics major several years ago, and that is becoming a very popular option among our students, especially as a second major or a minor. The big data tools they gain through this can be a valuable addition to their other courses.
We are also always working hard to increase our enrollment of under-represented minorities and women. We actively recruit applicants from these groups and are sponsors of Forté Foundation and a founding member of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. We were one of the three founding schools of the Consortium, an organization whose mission is to increase the number of under-represented minorities in MBA programs and in business. It is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and it has always been an important part of our outreach. I can say that we saw a significant increase in applications from under-represented minorities this application season, although applications from women were pretty flat this year over last.
CA: You’ve been with Kelley for quite some time. What keeps you there?
JH: There’s a lot that keeps me here. Indiana University is a great university, Bloomington is a wonderful community and working in MBA admissions continues to be challenging and ever-changing. There are so many changes—from competition for students to the kinds of academic programs available to students interested in graduate management education to changes in technology, population, the job market—really everything. That makes each year seem very new and different. I also just love helping people change their careers, change their lives and achieve their career dreams. It’s a pretty great role to have. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.