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

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Since 2017, Dartmouth Tuck‘s Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, Luke Anthony Peña, has developed and implemented strategies for recruiting, selecting, and enrolling MBA candidates who possess the greatest potential to become tomorrow’s wise leaders and contribute to and thrive in Tuck’s distinctly immersive learning community.

Peña previously served as director of MBA admissions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he led its marketing and recruitment teams, and managed all external outreach including events, online programming, and social media. At Stanford GSB, he introduced and implemented data analytics to enhance recruitment and yield efforts, and created digital resources to improve relationship management with both alumni ambassadors and prospective students.

In this Admissions Director Q&A, Peña talks about Tuck’s enhanced first-year core curriculum, the new two-week long orientation, the emphasis Tuck places on Full-Time MBA students, and more.

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

Luke Peña: I can’t pick just one – there are a lot of exciting things happening at Tuck! I’ll briefly share three. First, Tuck has significantly enhanced its first-year core curriculum. We spent nearly a year gathering deep insights from students, alumni, faculty, recruiters, and influencers in the marketplace about the skills our students and graduates need to reckon with today’s rapidly evolving digital, global, and social forces. The resulting enhancements include a refined leadership framework, a restructured winter term that better balances academics and recruiting, a new portfolio of data analytics courses, and increased optionality for elective coursework.

Luke Anthony Peña, Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth Tuck

We also have an expanded orientation program to ensure our students begin their MBA experience with a strong foundation and the confidence to jump headfirst into their rigorous studies. Tuck Launch, our new two-week long orientation, includes case method preparation, primers on career skills and how students can articulate their personal narrative during recruiting, small group dinners, CEO panels, and more. Tuck Launch initiates our students’ journeys and personal growth through integrated experiential learning and facilitated reflection.

Tuck is also in the midst of a $250 million capital Campaign for Tomorrow’s Wise Leaders. There are several pillars of the campaign, including financial investment in physical places where students study, programs that elevate student engagement with the global economy, and hiring the faculty of the future. The pillar nearest and dearest to me is strengthening our financial support for scholarship awards, and I’m delighted to say that we have nearly doubled our scholarship budget in the last year alone. Earning an MBA is a considerable investment, and my colleagues and I want to reduce as much of the financial burden as we possibly can.

In Admissions, in addition to continually refining our application with applicant-friendliness in mind, we’re excited to create more pathways for you to connect with our students and alumni. We’ve already upgraded our student ambassadors page to enable you to filter and find a student perspective of interest to you.

We’re also laying the groundwork to have ambassadors proactively reach out to more of you, even before you apply, and to create more small group chats with students and alumni in markets around the world. Our extraordinary community is our greatest asset and we want to give you more opportunities to reach this same conclusion for yourself.

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

LP: Our location is the answer I gave in my last Clear Admit Q&A, and yet I’ve come to appreciate that most applicants know exactly where we’re located. Some just haven’t yet realized how essential our location is to maximizing your return on investment. An MBA – especially a two-year, full-time MBA – requires investments of time, effort, and money. I believe that most, if not all, of you want to maximize your return on those investments.

It’s a lot harder to fully realize those returns when you, your classmates, and your faculty are consistently being pulled away from your community by the distractions and disruptions of a big city. At Tuck, you have fewer barriers and obstacles to building deep relationships with classmates and faculty, reflecting on and synthesizing your new experiences and learnings, and dedicating yourself to succeed in the classroom and the recruiting process.

So while most of you know where we are, I’ve learned that fewer of you know about our emphasis on the full-time MBA, and fewer still have unpacked how meaningfully and positively that sole focus impacts our learning community. Over Tuck’s 119-year history, the MBA has always remained the heart of what we do. Tuck has no Ph.D. program.

We have no Executive MBA, no part-time, night, or weekend MBA, and no undergraduate business major. And while that means you have more attention and greater partnership opportunities from all of our resources – Career Services, TuckGO, our Centers, just to name a few – the group I will highlight here is our faculty.

There are no Tuck Ph.D. students to occupy the faculty’s time. Just like our students, our faculty researchers and educators choose Tuck with intentionality. They choose to bring their research and industry experience to the MBA program, sharpen your intellectual inquiry and business acumen, and connect with you inside and outside the classroom. At Tuck, you have a faculty better equipped to challenge you, support you, and know you because our program offerings are focused on you.

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.)?

LP: I continue to believe that you are the owner of your application, and my colleagues and I are merely stewards of it. You choose to create an application, you choose to curate the content therein, and you choose when and where to submit this meaningful representation of yourself. This is more than semantics to me; this is about agency.

I care that each of you feels a sense of ownership and agency in this application process. When you do, you approach the application with more confidence and enthusiasm, which will both improve the quality of your application and reduce the stress and anxiety of writing it.

I am truly, genuinely proud of our transparency at Tuck. Our evaluation process is no exception. On our website, we have posted a detailed and revealing overview of the mechanics of how we evaluate. Few schools talk as openly as we do about how they evaluate, and fewer still put it in writing on their website for all to see. If you are interested in the mechanics of how we evaluate, I encourage you to see for yourself how open we are about our process.

Being open, honest, and transparent about how we handle your applications is a no-brainer to me.  I’ve heard some wonder aloud if discussing our process in detail will be off-putting to you. I see it differently; the absence of information is always more stressful than the abundance of it, especially in a high-stakes process like selective admissions.

I’ve never quite understood how admissions officers can urge you to be authentic, revealing, genuine, and vulnerable in your applications and then be so tight-lipped about what we do with them. As an admissions profession, we need to move past the concept of applying as an asynchronous transaction and do more to earn and reciprocate your trust. When you apply to Tuck, you are trusting us to carefully and thoughtfully evaluate your application. It stands to reason that you deserve to know how our team evaluates your materials.

Again, how we evaluate is on our website, but in case you don’t click the link, here are a few of the highlights: our evaluation process is decidedly human – no equations, no algorithms, no numerical ratings – as we do not believe your talents, abilities, and experiences can be reduced to numbers. Each reader reads your application in its entirety to see the full picture of what you have shared with us.

The stronger your application, the more people will read it; we do our diligence as we get to know those whom we will strongly consider. And for applications where a final decision is not clearly evident, we depend on the collective wisdom of group decision-making, so that we have numerous perspectives and voices to enrich our deliberations and improve our decisions.

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? What is one key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write?

LP: As with our evaluation process, my colleagues and I are open and forthcoming about how we assess essays, and I’ve written at length on our Tuck 360 blog about responding to each of our three essay prompts. We’re clear and unambiguous about what separates a strong response from an unremarkable one.

In addition to transparency, my colleagues and I also believe in simplicity. The application does not need to be unnecessarily complex. The push for simplicity was the impetus for streamlining our admissions criteria into four accessible words — smart, accomplished, aware, nice — that are more accessible and digestible manifestations of qualities which have long described the Tuck community.

The push for simplicity also prompted us to assess and clarify how each component of the application directly maps to our four criteria. We look for evidence of all four in your reference letter and interview notes. Your transcripts and test score reports map directly to ‘smart.’ Your resume maps directly to ‘accomplished.’ The essay prompts are written to give you the opportunity to demonstrate ‘aware’ and ‘nice,’ so these criteria are what we’re seeking to find.

I tend not to dwell much on mistakes or pitfalls, because I want to empower you to apply with confidence, and that means focusing on all that can go right rather than all that can go wrong. I do often tell applicants that the best way to stand out is to stop trying so hard to do so. We care a lot at Tuck about your awareness, both of your strengths and your areas for growth and development.

Talking up the former and downplaying the latter might seem like a tempting approach, but it misses the point of pursuing an MBA. Presumably, you’re pursuing this degree to grow, professionally and personally, in ways or at a pace beyond what is currently possible. So lean into this opportunity to tell us with confidence all the strengths you bring to Tuck, and also tell us with humility the ways Tuck can help you grow.

The best advice I can give for the essays: write them, share them with someone whom you know and trust, and ask them not “Is this a good Tuck MBA essay?” but instead “Is this truly me?”  If yes, you’ve done good work.  If no, keep at it – you’ll get there!

CA: How many essays would you wager you’ve read in your tenure at Tuck? Thinking about the essays that have been the most memorable, is there something they have in common?

LP: I read every Tuck application in my first two years here, which sums up to about nine thousand essays. I’ve read tens of thousands more at my previous institutions. I will say that there is no correlation between a memorable essay and a good essay. The goal of a good application is not to leave a lasting impression on the reader, and if that is your mark, I will encourage you to reconsider your approach. The goal should be to answer the question, obviously, but to do so in a way that reveals who is the applicant behind the application.

The MBA application is imperfect. My colleagues and I are constantly striving to improve it with you in mind, but it still does not and cannot capture the totality of you. One of its greatest shortcomings: it offers only fractional glimpses into the applicant who authored it.

With this in mind, my colleagues and I think of the essays as perhaps our best opportunity to get an unvarnished glimpse into the person you are. The reference letters and interview notes give us necessary insight into how others see you; the essays are you in your own words. Straining to make them memorable usually clouds rather than clarifies our understanding of who you are.

So the best essays are not facades but windows into how you think, act, and self-identify. The most effective essays are those that my colleagues and I finish reading and say “I have a clear sense of who that person is.” The most confounding are those where we say “That was interesting – perhaps even memorable – but I have no better idea who this person is than when I started reading.”

So I return to the encouragement in my previous response: share your essays with someone you trust and ask “do these essays, in content and tone, accurately reflect the person you know?” If you are willing and able to bring your full self to the essays, we have more confidence that you can do the same as a student at Tuck.

CA: Could you tell us about your interview process?  Approximately how many applicants do you interview? Who conducts the interview (students, admissions officers, alumni) and what is the nature of the interview (blind, non-blind)?

LP: We’ve written on our blog about interviews too! We’re proud to be one of a few schools that allow you to schedule your own interview on campus. We do this for three reasons.  First, we like getting to know you personally, so we want to give each of you the opportunity to share your stories beyond the written essays.  Second, we want you to get to know us. The interview offers the opportunity to meet students, admissions colleagues, and faculty if you interview on a day when classes are offered.  Finally, we love our location but know that very few of you are passing through Hanover by happenstance; the interview gives you a good reason to visit and see Tuck with your own eyes.

For each of these reasons, the interviews you initiate must be on campus. That said, I care immensely about fairness and equity in our evaluation process, and I recognize that the opportunity to visit to campus is not equal for all of you. For legitimate reasons – distance, cost, and schedule chief among them – many of you cannot visit campus. And yet we only admit applicants whom we have interviewed. So we offer another path to an interview: you can apply without one, and if we are interested in knowing more about your candidacy, we will invite you to an interview.

If you are invited, you can choose to visit campus or interview virtually, the latter of which accommodates those of you who cannot travel to campus.  Last year, we invited just over one in four applicants who hadn’t self-initiated an interview to have a conversation with us.

We hire and train second-year Tuck students to conduct our interviews, both on-campus and virtual. Regardless of whether you interview before or after you apply, your interviewer only sees your resume. In additional to training our students on general interviewing techniques and implicit bias awareness, we coach our students to seek and record evidence of our four admissions criteria.

While the student interviewers have discretion over the questions they ask, they tend to broadly fall into one of two buckets: questions about the past, and questions about the future. Questions about the past ask you for behavioral examples from your prior experiences, e.g. “tell me about a time when you…” Questions about the future ask you to describe motivations and goals for an MBA, your Tuck experience, and your future career.

My best encouragement for your interview: have a normal, natural human conversation with your interviewer. This involves finding a comfortable balance between under-preparation and over-preparation. Yes, it’s helpful to reflect on past experiences and future goals before talking with your interviewer.

It’s also a good idea to set aside the prepared script, literally and mentally, and connect conversationally as you would with a future classmate. Remember that your interviewer is ultimately making a call on whether you will be a good addition to this community they already know well and love – so help them see you as a future member of the Tuck community.

CA: Anything else you would like to add?

LP: Tuck is a community where we invest in relationships and one another’s success, and that extends to our Admissions and Financial Aid team. We want to get to know you! We want to invest in helping you confidently and successfully apply. If my colleagues and I can answer any questions or address any concerns about the above or otherwise, please reach out to us. We’re accessible, responsive, helpful, and we care so much about helping you navigate the application journey ahead.

Jonathan Pfeffer
Jonathan Pfeffer joined the Clear Admit and MetroMBA teams in 2015 after spending several years as an arts/culture writer, editor, and radio producer. In addition to his role as Contributing Writer at MetroMBA and Contributing Editor at Clear Admit, he was also a co-founder of the Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast. He holds a BA in Film/Video, Ethnomusicology, and Media Studies from Oberlin College.