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Admissions Director Q&A: Sue Oldham of Vanderbilt Owen

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You may have already seen the Real Humans of Vanderbilt Owen’s MBA Class of 2021, and now we are back to hear directly from the admissions office.  In this edition of our Admissions Director Q&A, we head back to Nashville for an interview with Associate Dean Sue Oldham.

Working closely with colleagues in the dean’s office, faculty, staff and student leaders, Oldham strives to enhance the end-to-end student experience from the moment a prospective MBA student becomes interested in Owen until they graduate. This includes oversight of Admissions, Academic Programs and Student Life, Shared Services, Extracurricular Learning, and the Career Management Center (CMC).

Oldham joined Vanderbilt Business from Rice University, where she was most recently the Executive Director of Alumni Engagement, External Relations. Previously she was Executive Director of Recruiting and Admissions for all five MBA programs at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. She had joined the Jones School in 2008.  Prior to her job at Rice, Oldham had a 10-year career in information technology consulting spanning several companies and cities from Los Angeles to Charlotte to Dallas. Oldham earned a BA in English at Rice University and an MBA ’93 in Marketing from Vanderbilt Owen.

Oldham’s community involvement is extensive, as she continues to be very involved with leadership positions at her church, children’s schools, and neighborhood. Sue currently serves on the board of directors for Avondale House and Friends of Fondren Library and is an active leader in the National Charity League. Sue and her husband Ted have two children.

Oldham took time to chat with Clear Admit about Vanderbilt’s STEM-designated finance concentration, reflections 4,000 essays deep into her career, and the emphasis Vanderbilt places on PERSONAL SCALE.

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

Sue Oldham, Associate Dean at Vanderbilt Owen

Sue Oldham: The Vanderbilt MBA program is excited to announce that, effective Fall 2019, its finance concentration has been designated as a STEM degree program. The STEM designation allows international students the eligibility to prolong their post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) in the US by 24 months.

This STEM designation is a direct result of the leadership team here listening to what our students are saying, specifically our international students. Under the leadership of Dean Eric Johnson, we were able to work with our faculty to ensure that this STEM designation in the Finance concentration is one that would have an immediate impact, not only for our current students but for all prospective students.

This exciting development is at the crux of what Vanderbilt Business is about: PERSONAL SCALE. We heard our students. We hear the prospective students. We recognize the changing landscape of the MBA market especially for our international students and we are proud to say that we responded to you.

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

SO: Two humbling moments immediately come to mind:

  1. We had a record year in terms of our employment offers and salary for the Class of 2019. For the class of 2019, 97% had job offers (95% acceptance) with an average salary of $119K which are all-time record highs for Vanderbilt Business. We are grateful for all of those companies who find their top talent here at Vanderbilt Business and are reaffirmed by their confidence in our program and our students.
  2. We received a #1 Ranking by AIGAC (Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants) for The Human Connection: The “school that got to know their applicants the best.” Such a humbling accolade that resonated the most with our teams where this business of “recruiting and admissions” is still a personal one that ties back to our school mission of “PERSONAL SCALE” and is reflected in our record-high employment numbers because the relationship building continues when you step foot on this campus and actually grows in your two years here.

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: The life of an application here at Vanderbilt Business starts WAY BEFORE you ever hit the “submit” button and that again, is reflected in our #1 Ranking for The Human Connection. We are connecting with you as you are starting the journey of inquiring about the MBA world. We are reaching out to you to invite you to campus.

We are calling you to personally answer your questions about the application process. We are meeting with you in cities all over the world because we believe that you are NOT defined by an online application; you are a unique individual with your own personal story and journey. Every coffee chat, every interview, every fair table interaction—these all allow us to have a peek into who you are. By the time you hit that “submit” button, we should already know who you are and we’re just waiting for your application!

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?

SO: Your essays are the window into your unique story. It’s the one place where you can really showcase your individuality and your personality.

The keys to a great essay are as follows:

  • Build it around a story and then weave several facets of your personality into that story
  • Creativity is always welcome
  • Answering the actual question is required
  • Keep in mind that many will be reading your essay who have never met you in person, but if they eventually met you, would those readers be able to say “You are exactly as I pictured you when I read your essays”!

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

SO: It’s scary to even think of how many essays that I’ve read over my 11 years in higher education. Maybe something like 4000 essays? And I’m an English major and I love a good essay so yes, I did read all of those essays.

You are not defined by your online application or your resume. The most memorable essays have been those that give me a glimpse into who you are that does NOT show up anywhere else in your actual application. The best essays are ones where I literally have to pause, sit back, breathe and then reread it.

Some things these great essays had in common: vulnerability, self-awareness, and a focus. Make sure there’s a FOCUS to your essay because someone has to read it.  And when I get to the end of the essay, I don’t want to say, “Now why is this essay here?”  I want to say, “WOW, that really added something to this person’s story.”

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)?

SO: We interview close to 80% of all applicants which is a lot of interviews. But again, it goes back to our mission of PERSONAL SCALE and also the idea that “you are not defined by your online application or your resume.”

We believe that each person has a unique story and we really strive to hear those stories. Our standard policy is that interviews are on an “invitation only” basis and if you come to campus for a visit, you will automatically be invited to interview. But for all of you out there who can’t make it to campus, we hear you and this fall, we have been inviting prospective students to “self-select” for an interview in any city where we will be visiting.  We have removed this barrier to let you do your admissions interview from where you are and you don’t have to wait to see if you are selected to interview.

In addition, we launched our Recruiting and Admissions Fellows program this fall where a select group of 1st and 2nd year students will now be conducting all of the interviews. It’s a wonderful way for our current students to be involved in the recruiting process but it’s also a tremendous benefit to the prospective student to interview with a peer and really be able to get a feel for the program and the culture.  We are excited about this initiative and look forward to the conversations to come.

CA: Anything else you would like to add?

SO: There are a lot of choices when it comes to selecting a business school. In the end, it’s about academic rigor and culture.  It’s about “Do I Belong There” because this investment is way beyond the two-year investment; it’s an investment for life both personally and professionally.

Come meet us while we are on the road. Come visit us in Nashville. Call us. Answer our calls. Email us. Get to know us and most importantly, let US get to know you. Let us show you why “You Belong Here.” #VanderbiltBusiness #YouBelongHere

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.