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Admissions Director Q&A: Sue Oldham of Rice University’s Jones School of Business

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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.)

SO: For us, there is a lot of work that happens well before “submit,” as soon as a prospective student is in our application pool. The submit button is almost like an afterthought for us.

We are known for our personal touch—for literally walking candidates through the process. In fact, we just did our survey of incoming students, and the kinds of things we heard were, “Nowhere else did I feel this personal attention,” “You answered all my questions about my essay, should I submit this test score or retake the test?” “You knew me before I even hit submit.” “If this is how you treat me even before I apply, I can’t imagine how you will treat me once I’m there.”

We do a lot of sessions called Admissions 101, which are very popular with prospective students. Basically we break our entire application down—GMAT, resumé, extra-curriculars, letter of recommendation, interview, follow up—and we walk you through each one. We tell you exactly what we are looking for and offer tips on how best to do each part.

We want you to be able to put together your best application, regardless of which school you ultimately choose. This is such a life-changing experience to take on—business school—and we want you to feel when you hit that submit button like you gave it 110 percent. We’ll often have applicants say to us, “You know that I am applying to multiple schools, right? You know I could probably apply what you’re telling me to another application?” And we say absolutely, you should. We want you to be at the right school for you.

So once candidates hit submit, some will be invited to interview. Our interviews are invitation only, and not everyone will be asked. Our interviews are conducted by current students. The “Admissions Ambassadors,” as we call them, volunteer for the position and then undergo a thorough training process. They are our frontline—our Admissions Ambassadors are very much involved in helping select our incoming class. They conduct all the interviews.

Class visits are another huge component. If we can get you here, when we get you into the classroom you’ll know if this is the right place for you. Here again we hear things from applicants like, “I forgot that I was a prospective student. You all made me feel like I was already in.” All of our classes are open for class visits. You can go online, research the class, the faculty that you’re most interested in. When you show up, we pair you with the class host. That person is now your buddy. He or she will take you to class and introduce you to the faculty member and other students. Often the class visits are coordinated with students’ taking visitors to lunch and doing a building tour. We really roll out all the stops.

Now, in terms of the logistics of the application process. As head of admissions, I read every single application for all three of our programs—that’s more than 1,000 applications. The essays are my favorite part. I was an English major, and I love a good essay.

I’m also a grammar fanatic, so be forewarned. And I really do read all of the applications. In fact, my entire team reads all the applications. Everyone on the recruiting team reads for every program—that keeps us from getting too siloed. There are at least two reads of each application, and then you add mine to it.

There are instances after the application has been read multiple times that we will pull others in on the committee to discuss. The committee is made up of the head of the Career Management Center and other associate deans. We convene if there is disagreement. We don’t have the bandwidth to sit down as a committee with every application, but when we don’t align, we certainly get together to discuss.

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?

SO: The key thing about the essays is that you are trying to showcase personality on paper. It is very difficult to do, and we recognize that, but it is also the one part of your application you can really use to pull together your story. We firmly believe that everyone has a story. You can weave together your story—try to showcase what makes you, you. The best essays are the ones where I emerge from my office and say, “I have never met this person, but if I did, this is what I think they would look like and their voice would sound like.”

Write what you are passionate about, not what you think we want to hear. You can easily tell when it’s not natural. If you want to showcase personality, you need to be as natural as possible. So write about what you want to write about, not what you think we want you to write about.

In terms of common mistakes, one would definitely be regurgitating our web page and our course catalog back to us. In the question that asks why do you want your MBA, if you are listing that it’s because you would like to take these four classes, that’s a mistake.

Another common mistake comes in response to the question about short- and long-term goals. I always tell prospective students that they should be able to articulate their short-term goals (two to three years out) pretty clearly. It’s okay to be less clear on your long-term goals. It’s fine to say, “I’m not totally sure about my longer-term goals, but here are two possibilities.” We want to see that you have put some thought into possible career paths, but we also recognize that a lot may be dependent on what your MBA experience reveals to you.

In terms of the overall application process, we are a small program, which means we want to make sure that you want to be here, but at the same time it has to go the other way as well. So, as you are assessing fit, we are also assessing fit. We do not view ourselves as gatekeepers who are opening the door and peeking out and saying, “Yes, you can come in,” or “No, keep out.” We encourage people to call us, email us, come meet us at the fairs when we are traveling around the world, come to Houston, do a class visit—the more touch points we have with each candidate, the better it is for your application.