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Admissions Director Q&A: Simon School of Business’ Rebekah Lewin

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Completed applications then go down two paths simultaneously. First, the candidate is considered for an interview. The logistics of scheduling an on-campus interview is more complicated than a Skype interview, so this happens sooner for U.S. applicants. We try to give enough lead time for students to participate in campus events. We also allow students to register for those events—and set up an interview—even prior to submitting their application. So that can present an opportunity to be evaluated even before submitting their application. That option allows applicants to plan further in advance if they are trying to arrange a campus visit.

Concurrent to the process of considering whether an interview makes sense and beginning the process of scheduling one, a staff member on our admissions committee will also be reading the file fully. Students don’t read applications. They do help host visits and communicate with students via Skype, so they are part of the process, but they are not the people reviewing applications or interviewing candidates. That is done exclusively by staff.

As the files are read in full, we are also still considering whether we should offer an interview opportunity. The timing is such that sometimes one happens before the other. That is, an invitation to interview is offered before the file is read completely. But philosophically, we believe in doing a lot of interviews anyway. We do care about the overall profile of a candidate, so you do need to be competitive, but quite a large percentage of candidates who apply are interviewed. We view the interview just as much of an opportunity for the candidate to get to know us as for us to get to know the candidate.

After the interview has been conducted, the application goes under another full review, and then the team convenes to discuss. We group applicants into a few different buckets. First there are the candidates we know for sure we want to admit—and of those we make admissions and financial aid decisions at this juncture. A second bucket is for candidates we think we want to admit but are deciding between admit or waitlist. And then there is a third bucket for applicants we don’t think are the right fit for Simon.

Every application goes through a minimum of two reads, but there could be more than two depending on the situation. It’s quite common for applications to receive three full reads. I would consider ours a very comprehensive review in the sense that we really want to get to know the candidate and understand the non-quantitative components of the application.

We don’t release all the decisions on the same date—every few weeks some decisions will be released, or sometimes they will be released weekly depending on the time of year. We try to reach admitted candidates by phone or Skype to share the news if at all possible.

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?

RL: What we are looking for in our essays is pretty inherent in terms of the questions we are asking. If a candidate fully answers the question, then we usually get what we are looking for. One thing we’re looking to understand is a candidate’s fit for Simon—and by that I mean both the value a student expects to find by attending the program and the value they expect to add if chosen to join. Secondarily, we want to know why an MBA, why now, and how it fits into longer-term career goals. These questions need to be adequately answered in the essay and then, we hope, further validated during the interview.

As far as common mistakes or things to keep in mind as you sit down to write—we really would like candidates to be themselves. I talk to candidates who way overthink what the admissions committee is going to think about every potential response or entry. The candidate should know how to answer the question based on what they really feel and think. Also, it is very tempting when you are applying to several schools to start with a template and work off of that, but there are enough nuances with different schools that that strategy can backfire. Candidates could end up not answering a given school’s question or not fully answer the question—or fail to change the school name!

For us, the essays are really a chance to get to know the candidate and have the initial framework for the motivations behind his or her decision to go to business school and, more specifically, Rochester’s. And then we look forward to getting to know a candidate better during the interview. I should point out that it is rare that a candidate will interview with someone who has read their application. This is intentional, so we get two different perspectives. In most instances the interview is blind, with the interviewer having seen nothing but the candidate’s resume.

CA: How many essays would you wager you’ve read in your tenure at Simon? What percentage of those essays do you remember now? What about those most memorable essays made them so?

RL: I have probably read at least 10,000 essays. There are essays that I remember—and particularly for candidates who end up coming through our program. But it’s always a fine line between being memorable enough to stand out but not stand out in the wrong sorts of ways—there have been a few bizarre essays that were memorable in the wrong way.

Essays that are the most memorable in a positive way are those in which a student is succinct but also speaks from the heart in terms of describing his or her decision to pursue business school. It’s also memorable when students have overcome significant personal challenges in their quest to business school or have some unique examples they can point to that substantiate their fit for Simon. Being able to back up your basic story with an example or two is usually what helps make an essay stand out.