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Admissions Director Q&A: SMU Cox’s John Roeder

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As the latest addition to our Admissions Director Q&A Series, we recently connected with John Roeder, assistant dean of graduate admissions at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University (SMU). Roeder is a graduate of the Cox MBA program, so he knows the school and its offerings inside and out.

Roeder oversees all of the graduate programs at Cox, including the full-time MBA, “which is obviously close to my heart since it’s my program,” he says. He obtained his undergraduate degree from SMU as well, before heading into consulting at Andersen. Heading back to SMU for business school he then took an alternate path to head into graduate management admissions. “I graduated on a Saturday here at Cox and was working at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management the following Monday,” he says.

While he enjoyed his work in change management consulting at Andersen, he didn’t get to see the end result of the projects he would help implement. “It was never quite as fulfilling as the roles I’ve been in in graduate management education,” he says. “Today, I see students as they are applicants, while they are in the program and then where they go as alumni,” he says. “I really get to see how the experience in business school has impacted each person in their career path, and I absolutely love working in the graduate business arena for that reason.” After nine years at Owen, he was delighted to have an opportunity to return to Cox and jumped at the chance.

In the interview that follows, he shares details about Cox’s expanded offerings in the area of business analytics, just how the admissions process unfolds and how applicants should take advantage of the interview and essays to tell their stories. Read on to learn more!

John Roeder, assistant dean of graduate admissions at Cox School of Business
John Roeder, assistant dean of graduate admissions at Cox School of Business

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

John Roeder: Right now the biggest changes in terms of curriculum and faculty revolve around the area of business analytics. We have made a lot of additions in that area in terms of courses and faculty. It is a subset within the MBA program and also a separate degree in our master’s degree path.

The Dallas career community was coming to us asking for individuals they could hire who could look at massive amounts of data. We were getting these requests from a lot of the firms in our own back yard, like Sprint, AT&T and American Airlines. In response, we bolstered up this area and brought in Hettie Tabor to serve as faculty director for analytics. She brings 26 years of experience at Accenture, where she helped launch and then led Accenture’s SAP Business Analytics Global Practice. It’s also an area we have seen growing in terms of student interest. And since it’s a STEM program, there is a lot of interest from international students as well.

CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?

JR: The Charter Financial Analyst (CFA) Honors Program. Within our finance curriculum, we have a program through which students can complete levels 1 and 2 of the CFA while getting their MBA. To do so requires going through the coursework at a bit of an accelerated pace, but the benefit is getting to study with your classmates for CFA levels 1 and 2 and then being able to add those additional credentials to your resumé. There aren’t many other MBA programs that offer this option.

Participation is based on the first module of classes. Students who want to do it and demonstrate strong performance in the quantitative curriculum core courses, such as finance, statistics and economics, are eligible to move forward into the CFA fast track program. The majority would need to have a 3.3 GPA or higher in that core subset of initial quant classes. Faculty are on the lookout for a certain number of students to invite to participate.

I do find that not everyone coming through the admissions process knows that the program exists, so I’d like to get the word out for those who might be interested.

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.).

JR: After a student submits his or her application, we will do an initial review. This review is done by one of our associate directors of admission or our director of MBA admission to determine whether to schedule an interview with that candidate. It will generally take place in the two to three weeks after applications are submitted.

We do this initial read to determine whether we want to proceed. The interview is such a critical part that if we are trying to decide on a candidate—do we interview or not—we always slant toward interviewing. We want to learn more and have that face-to-face interaction because there are so many intangibles to each individual candidate.

Once we’ve made the interview selections, candidates are invited to set up or schedule an interview, either on campus or off campus if we are in a particular city or market where the candidate is living. Traditionally we are on the road in the fall through most major U.S. cities as well as several international ones. There is also the third option of a Skype interview for those not in one of the cities we visit who can’t make it to campus.

All interviews are conducted by an MBA admissions team staff member. We look to the interviews to provide us with that third dimension—the students’ story. The interview allows the student to talk a bit more about how the MBA fits into his or her overall plan and how SMU Cox in particular makes sense.

The interview report is added to the file, after which it goes through another review process. Here it is reviewed again by the associate director and director, and then it is brought to committee. The committee includes myself, the associate dean and the director of career management.

We are making a decision based upon two major factors: number one, can they survive the curriculum academically and excel in the core classes, and number two, can we help this candidate get into the job or position they are looking to get into. We want to feel good about both of those factors.

We meet as an admissions committee throughout the year every other week and make decisions on a rolling basis by round. As the decisions are made we do communicate them to each candidate, even though we traditionally batch our candidates together in rounds one and two. We are not going to make the candidates sit around and wait if we already know the answer to their admission decisions. We are also making any kind of scholarship decisions at the same time.

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?

JR: The essay itself is you telling your story as an applicant on paper. It can help to bolster the overall candidacy of a particular student because we are looking to determine how much thought the student has put into why they are pursuing an MBA and how it will benefit their career path once they have completed it. Some candidates talk about wanting to do a particular job, and yet it is obvious they haven’t done the research into that career path. It is important to do as much research as possible at the front end of the process to communicate in the essay and the interview why you think an MBA is right for you now.

Then there are instances where what a candidate describes in the interview doesn’t match what they write about in their essay, and that becomes more confusing to our team. We want to feel confident we can help a candidate get into the career path they want, so not being clear and consistent about what that is as part of the essay and interview makes it harder for the admissions committee to make a decision.

The other area we ask about in the essays is the extracurricular side of the MBA. We feel this is a big aspect. We are looking for individuals who have been involved in extracurriculars in other parts of their life because those tend to be the ones who will be involved outside the classroom in the MBA program. We ask about that to get a better determination of how a candidate will contribute to the overall MBA program at Cox.

CA: What has surprised you most about the current application cycle?

JR: It’s looking to be exactly the same as it was last year for us. We are very happy with the size of the incoming class. It is very stable, and we are continuing to see an upward trend in some of the key metrics that are utilized by various key rankings. For example, we continue to see very strong proportions of women. Last year the final tally was close to 40 percent of the class, and that has been going up and up over the last few years, helping us in terms of diversity in the program. We want to continue to show momentum here.

Contributing to this is the fact that our women have been very, very successful on the job front coming out of school—with many starting at higher salaries than the men. We also have seen many women taking leadership positions while here. Four of the last five student body presidents were women. So that particular part of the applicant pool has changed.

We are also seeing some strong inroads in terms of individuals coming out of the military. Part of that has to do with the partnership we have with the Bush Institute. Some of our students work directly with the former president, which really helps them grow their resumé. The military aspect is always important because those students are traditionally bringing in strong leadership skills and are in high demand by employers. We have seen some increase in the international pool as well, while domestic applications have remained pretty stable. So we are very excited by the overall class mix.

In terms of careers, especially given our additional focus on the business analytics side, we have seen more graduates going to places like Amazon and Accenture than we have in the past. As always, we see strong hiring from the various Fortune 500 companies that are corporate headquartered here in the Dallas Ft. Worth area. And with Toyota moving its corporate headquarters from Los Angeles to Dallas, we are seeing a growing number of our students get job opportunities from Toyota.

CA: Is there anything else you’d like to highlight?

JR: We do see overall more and more students looking at coming into master’s programs directly out of undergrad. Across all of our programs—our master’s in business analytics, master’s in accounting, master’s in management—we have more younger candidates coming into the pool.

For our fulltime MBA program, we remain pretty stable in terms of the work experience we like to see in candidates before they apply. But I’ll point out that our master’s in management is a mirror image to the first year of the MBA program, which means that through that program those who want to can get the foundational underpinnings of an MBA program straight out of undergrad. Those who opt for this program are then positioned to get into a wider range of jobs and positions than they might be able to straight out of college. A number of those students might then potentially come back to Cox through our part-time MBA program and finish out the MBA degree.

Many business schools have told the external public, “Don’t come talk to us until four years after undergrad.” I want to say that you can come talk to us sooner than that. The beauty of our master’s in management program is that students who complete it can then utilize the credits they have from the master’s program and finish out the MBA in one additional year.

We are beginning to see some of our master’s in management graduates return to do this. From the student standpoint, the benefit is that when they graduate from the master’s program they are starting to earn income, and they can then finish out the MBA on a part-time basis while still earning income. We do require graduates of our master’s in management program to work for two years before coming back into the MBA program, so that they are able to relay in classes what they have learned on the job.