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

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We have no quotas for country, gender, ethnicity; we have no quota per round, we have no numerical preconceptions about what defines a perfect class. The class can and will look different each year based on the quantity and quality of those who choose to apply. And as part of our review process we strive to balance reader autonomy and reader calibration. Each reader can decide the order in which they read the applications themselves, the order of the individual components of the application, and how long they spend reading each application.

At the same time, all of our readers use the same form and look for the same criteria. The fate of your review should not depend on the fate of a randomized draw. And we review our readers’ output regularly, because we also know that you can never place too much emphasis and effort on ensuring that there is fairness and equity in the process.

I have been very clear and unambiguous about the fact that I don’t intend to change the application at all this year. I am new to this team, I am listening and learning, and my highest priority is to understand the evaluation process and learn from those who have been evaluating Tuck applications for years. My colleagues have spent years refining our approach to evaluation, and I deeply respect the care and thought therein.

I very much want to take the appropriate time to understand the current process with careful thought and examination. I will be learning, examining, making observations, and gathering thoughts about what we can improve and what we can change. I am also very proud to be part of a Tuck team that is known for being applicant friendly. Any changes that may come in future years will prioritize the applicant experience.

Having said all that, I think it is crazy that the process and timeline for business school applications has not changed in decades. We still ask applicants to compile a large file of materials and send it away and wait and wait and wait while we make admissions decisions. None of the rest of the world still works this way. Elsewhere in the world, we are accustomed to quick feedback and quick turnaround. There is no reason why we can’t move in this direction. We are misaligned with the way that the rest of the world works in terms of decision-making time, effectively utilizing good data, and the kind of service model that would reduce applicant anxiety and provide more transparency and, frankly, more speed. So I do plan to be paying close attention to ways that the application process can be improved.

CA: Can you talk a little about Tuck’s unique approach to the interview?

LAP: At Tuck, we invite and encourage you to schedule an on-campus, applicant-initiated interview before you apply. We are extremely proud of our reputation as applicant friendly. When you initiate the interview, you have control over the schedule. You are not waiting for a call from us to rearrange your schedule around our timeline.

We really like getting you onto to the Tuck campus. We see our campus and location as core strengths and as distinctive to our learning community. We also know that unless you have friends or family here, your chances of passing through Hanover may not be exceptionally high, so we use the interview as a way to make sure you get here before applying.

If we read your application and believe you to be a strong candidate and you have not initiated an interview, we will invite you to interview. Do we look favorably upon candidates who initiate their own interviews? I’ll say that it depends. We understand that many of you would find it difficult to travel to campus due to location, cost, or schedule. We understand this, and it would run counter to our commitment to fairness and equity to penalize you for this.

So you should not feel pressure to interview—and even if we initiate the interview we may offer a virtual option so you do not have to travel to campus. But, if you live or work nearby and demonstrate none of the barriers noted above, we will notice. And in those instances, your choice not to interview may be interpreted as a measure of your interest in Tuck. However, if in such an instance you have a compelling reason for why you have not initiated an interview, you may explain it in the application. The optional essay offers a perfect opportunity to explain such a choice.

We encourage you to use judgment, which is one of the three aptitudes captured in Tuck’s mission. Your judgement will indicate whether your reason is compelling for being unable to interview. We also read with empathy and gently from a place of faith and trust in your good intentions.

We ask behavioral questions and expect answers that are conversational and thoughtful. The best advice I can offer for preparing for the interview is to have lots and lots of normal human conversation. Of course, it’s prudent to have your Tuck MBA rationale handy. But we will all have a much better experience if we can have a candid and natural conversation.

We want you to be able to interview with a student, although sometimes schedules can pose a conflict. The interviewer will write notes that become part of your interview file. They are only one factor, but they are an important factor. Tuck student interviewers have an opportunity to influence our process through their interview notes.

We want you to use the interview to learn about Tuck. You will have the opportunity to ask questions. And if you initiate your own on-campus interview, you can do much more. You can sit in on a class, attend a Q&A session with an admissions officer, have lunch with students, and set aside free time to see the beautiful Dartmouth campus and Hanover. This is why we include interviews as part of our process. Could we find another way for you to see campus on your own schedule? Perhaps. But in a class with 285 students, every voice matters, and we want to be certain that you will thrive in and contribute to this community. Connecting with you and having this personal conversation is the best way for us to ensure this.

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?

LAP: I don’t like focusing on common mistakes. I also think about the psychological effects of the application—we already have introduced far too much anxiety into this process— and I worry that dwelling on mistakes creates the illusion of the application as a minefield, where any misstep is fatal. When we focus on mistakes we encourage applicants to approach it with fear. Approaching the application with fear is antithetical to the Tuck spirit of risk-taking.

Do your essays matter to us? Of course. Do we enjoy reading them? Yes. Do they matter as much as you think they do? They do not. There is disproportionate attention given to the essays. We value your essays, and we truly enjoy reading them. That said, the belief that essays by themselves will swing the admissions decision is not accurate.  If you demonstrate our six admissions criteria elsewhere in the application, we might admit you in spite of a lackluster essay.

A truly good essay should have even more value to you than it does to us. It offers an opportunity to reflect deeply on the direction you want your life to take and how a Tuck MBA helps you get there. The essay is a tremendous opportunity to state your case to the school but also to understand and make sense of the common thread through your past, present, and future. You will be better prepared to benefit from business school and a stronger candidate for business school itself.

Of course, essays do influence admission decisions—your voice matters a lot, and each seat is precious. We are assessing not only your academic and professional qualifications, but also how you will contribute to the Tuck community. What you choose to share in the essay provides insight into how you will contribute to and thrive in Tuck’s distinctly immersive community. On the margin, we are always going to lean in the direction of the candidate who shows the greatest alignment with our mission and values.

The first essay question asks about goals and why Tuck. But really, this is table stakes in the application process. All of our competitive applicants can articulate this without too much difficulty. I am more interested in your response to the second essay question, which asks you to draw a connection between your experience and the Tuck mission. As you do so, I would encourage you to remember that confident humility and trying to stand out are incompatible concepts. If you try to stand out, you will almost certainly demonstrate either excessive confidence or false humility. Confident humility requires self-awareness, honesty, and depth. The greater supply of these traits you have, the better equipped you will be to make a compelling case for admission to Tuck.

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

LAP: I have read tens of thousands of essays, and I refuse to let it become routine. Reading essays is an incredible honor and a privilege. Each is a unique and distinct glimpse into the life of the person who wrote it—of another human being who believes that we can better this world and that education is a vehicle to do so.

I am heartbroken when I read essays that have been heavily edited or written by someone other than the applicant. Doing so elevates the comparably small goal of admissions above your true higher aspirations. If you see admission to Tuck as a goal rather than a stepping stone, then I am failing you.

I have experienced every imaginable emotion as a response to essays, but the most common is inspiration. Reading your essays constantly and consistently renews my faith in humanity. There is a lot that is broken and needs fixing in this world, and when I read your essays, I am inspired by your desire and potential to do so.

I will make one other confession. For all the incredible inspiration I draw from essays, I don’t try to remember them. There is no correlation between memorability and quality. Some are memorable because they reveal something unforgettable and inspiring that enhances our understanding of the applicant. Others can be a beautiful piece of storytelling that never reveals the person behind it. Sometimes an essay can be simple, straightforward, and not particularly memorable or well written and nonetheless provide a clear and transparent window into the applicant.

Many applicants will sacrifice quality for memorability. But essays are snapshots in time, and the candidates who wrote them are evolving and changing. I once had an applicant who asked me with earnest sincerity if we would revoke her degree if she didn’t deliver on the career goals in her essay. We don’t want you to be tethered to your admissions essay; we want you to learn how to grow and pivot and continue to do so for the rest of your career. So while I expect your essays to be true when you write them, remembering you by your essays is not my goal. I am far more interested in who you become than in who you once were.