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Admissions Director Q&A: Luke Anthony Peña of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business

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Luke Anthony Peña joined Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business this past summer from Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), where he’d worked as part of the admissions team for five years, since graduating with his own MBA from the Palo Alto school in 2012. In coming to Tuck, Peña fills the role of executive director of admissions and financial aid left vacant when Dawna Clarke, who had headed Tuck admissions for more than a decade, set out to establish her own admissions consulting firm last fall.

In fact, Peña’s admissions expertise dates back to before attending business school himself. Prior to enrolling at Stanford GSB, he also worked for four years as assistant director of admissions at the USC Annenberg School of Communication. But it’s not just his long career in higher education admissions that makes clear his passion for education. The internships he pursued while a business school student were also both education focused.  Click here to learn more about Dartmouth Tuck’s MBA Program.

In the interview that follows, a few more things about Peña come through loud and clear. The first is just how deeply the mission of the new school he has chosen to call home resonates with him. The second is his conviction that Tuck’s Hanover, New Hampshire, location is an enormous asset that lends itself to the school’s uniquely intimate culture. And third, Peña is very clear that he intends to spend his inaugural year at Tuck listening and learning from a team he feels lucky to work with—but also that he views MBA admissions as ripe for disruption and will be on the lookout for ways to make an admissions process known for being applicant friendly even more so in years to come.

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

Luke Anthony Peña: Everything happening at the Tuck School is firmly grounded in the school’s mission of educating wise leaders who better the world of business. Tuck has long been known for its personal, connected, and transformative learning community. The new and exciting piece is the crispness and clarity of the mission as articulated by our dean, Matthew Slaughter. The faculty and students are aligned with this mission, and the curricular and extracurricular offerings are measured against this standard. It is rare to find a community with such cohesion around a greater purpose.

Not only is the Tuck School committed to this aspirational model of leadership, we deliver on it. We have all witnessed the focus of a business education evolve well beyond simply teaching skills to cultivating leadership. That is no longer enough.

The next evolution in business education entails going beyond teaching leadership to providing opportunities to practice leadership. We take a position on the kind of leadership our graduates will practice. We believe in confident humility, empathy, and judgement as core aptitudes of wise leadership. Everything happening at the Tuck School embodies that mission.

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

LAP: This question sounds simple, but the answer has complexity and nuance. On one hand, if you are an aspiring MBA student, I want you to know about more than one aspect of Tuck. I want you to know about all aspects. Your decisions about where to apply and where to enroll will change your life.

At the same time, I want to reduce anxiety, not raise it. I think admissions professionals sometimes do a poor job of this. Our intentions are good, but we unwittingly stress you out. The pressure we create around researching schools is one way we make your journey hard and your anxiety higher. Yes, we want you to know more about Tuck. But there is more content about each school than you can possibly consume. At some point, that pursuit yields diminishing returns. That’s not good for you, so it’s not good for us.

Each of you has a core set of values, so each of you has a finite set of criteria you are evaluating. I liken it to choosing a life partner. Who you choose will be life altering and, one hopes, life lasting. But you don’t need to know every single detail about that person to conclude that they are the right life partner for you. You do, though, need to conclude that there is alignment on the values you hold dear.

The same goes for choosing a business school. You have to identify your values and how they inform your career, and then you need to conduct research related to those varying values and criteria.

Clear Admit: But is there one aspect of Tuck that you’d like applicants to better understand?

LAP: Acknowledging each of you has varying criteria, I will say that I strive to help applicants see the merits of our location in Hanover, New Hampshire. And I believe that location is a huge benefit. Tuck is the very best business school located outside of a major metropolitan area, which means it is the best business school for an immersive experience.

It is very difficult to be transformed if you are not fully immersed. If your goal for business school is to spend most of your time in the city outside of it, I would carefully consider whether you really need business school and if you will get the most of your time, money, and effort while there.

Tuck students travel throughout the world—through TuckGO, to engage socially, conduct internships, and visit companies. We also regularly welcome alumni and visiting scholars to our campus. So there is significant engagement with the world beyond Hanover, and then when our students are on campus they are deeply and meaningfully engaged with each other. This happens without the distractions and disruptions of a large city.

Tuck also provides a local environment with a high quality of life bolstered by the warmth of our parent Ivy League college and lots of outdoor adventure close by. There are many elements of a robust business school experience, but the two most enduring are your critical thinking and your relationships—and at Tuck you cultivate both through full immersion.

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.).

LAP: The life of an application starts long before you click the submit button. In a literal sense, an application begins when you create it. But in reality, it began years and years ago, likely before you even consciously started considering business school. Your application’s life doesn’t begin when we receive it, it begins when you start it. And your application doesn’t belong to Tuck, it belongs to you. So the best are not portraits of Tuck, but portraits of you.

I am constantly thinking about fairness and equity. In a world fraught with biases, privilege, and differing levels of opportunities, how do we ensure fairness and equity throughout the application process? There are also nontrivial incentives to overstate qualifications. These are questions I wrestle with daily.

I believe the business school evaluation process is ripe for disruption. There is too much complexity, too little transparency.  We can do better. Nothing is being turned upside down this year, but I promise to have Tuck at the forefront of how we can innovate in the coming years.

But back to your question. We wait until after each application deadline to begin review. Tuck has 10 application readers in total not including myself, and all of our evaluations are conducted by staff. Two have very deep regional experience, one in Latin America and the other in Southeast Asia. We strive to assign applicants from those regions to those readers. Applications not assigned to regional readers are randomly assigned to our other eight readers. I believe this randomization is important to bias reduction.

Each reader then reads and evaluates the application in its entirety, including notes from your interview if you have interviewed. Applications are reviewed entirely online. I wish I could give you more detail about our reader form, but we are literally still designing it as we are transitioning entirely to online evaluation for the first time.

We have six evaluation criteria: academic excellence, demonstrated leadership, professional accomplishment, interpersonal skills, diversity of background and experience, and global mindset. When the first review is complete, there are several possible outcomes:

If you have already completed your own applicant-initiated interview, the first reader will recommend a decision. If that reader is recommending admission, then your file will be routed to a second reader. If the first reader is not recommending admission, then your file is routed to a final reader.

If you have not interviewed and you are not recommended for admission, your file will go to a final reader. If you have not interviewed and you are considered for possible admission, then you will be routed to interview. All admitted candidates will have interviewed, either at their prerogative or ours.

After interview notes are added to an application file, the file is then routed to a second reader. The second reader then evaluates the application in its entirety, recommends a decision, and the application is routed to a final reader.

The final reader is me, so I expect to see all candidates. Now, I do not review every file with the same level of depth as the first and second readers do. They are great at what they do, and I trust them to have reviewed the files thoroughly. But unlike those first and second readers, I am seeing the admissions pool in its entirety.

This points to a fundamental reality of the admissions process. It is necessarily subjective, and it is comparative. We must enroll a class so we must compare candidates and decide who will thrive in and contribute to our distinctively immersive culture.

Our readers recommend far more candidates than we can enroll. We do not assign numbers or quotas to our readers. They call each and every application as they see it. It falls to me to build a class of 285 candidates best suited to thrive at Tuck.

As final reader, I will review the earlier readers’ recommendations and decide to admit, deny, wait pool, or send to committee discussion. All of our readers are on the committee. The committee reviews each remaining application, one by one, and collectively decides whether to admit, deny, or wait pool each applicant. The number we discuss by committee is very high and takes several days.