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Admissions Director Q&A: Margaret O’Neill of Cambridge Judge Business School

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“Collaboration is a buzz word that is often used, but at Cambridge we live and breathe it,” says Margaret O’Neill, Head of MBA Marketing, Admissions and Careers at Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS). O’Neill has oversight of the whole MBA journey, from the moment candidates first engage with the school, to the time they leave to embark upon their post-MBA careers.  She has spent the past 20 years working with post-graduate business school professionals across projects, careers and admissions at both Cambridge Judge and London Business School.

Margaret O’Neill, Head of MBA Marketing, Admissions and Careers at Cambridge Judge Business School

Located in Cambridge, England, CJBS is a leading MBA program with a condensed timeline of just one year.  During that year, MBA students enjoy intense team projects, workshops and experiential learning opportunities with a diverse class, which represents over 40 nationalities.  In this edition of our Admissions Director Q&A series, O’Neill discusses additional hallmarks of the one-year Cambridge MBA, what the admissions team looks for in the application essays, what to expect during the admissions interview and more.  Read on to learn everything you need to know about Cambridge MBA admissions.

Clear Admit: What is the one aspect of the Cambridge MBA that you wish applicants knew more about?

Margaret O’Neill: I have heard CJBS alumni say they can “spot a Cambridge MBA a mile off” – in short, someone who gets excited by the unexpected, enjoys working with and learning from others, and actively looks for opportunities to do something different and make a difference.

I believe this comes from the truly collaborative and experiential nature of the programme. Collaboration is a buzz word that is often used, but at Cambridge we live and breathe it. You’re working in study groups and integrated projects with clients from day 1, applying your learning live with real clients and learning from your classmates as you go. There are four consulting opportunities over one intense year – I believe that is unmatched by any other school and it means that when they leave, our students can pitch in and add value to any team, anywhere in the world.

Clear Admit:  How might the Cambridge MBA applicant experience look different this year due to COVID-19? How would you advise candidates to get to know your MBA program and student community if they aren’t able to visit your campus?

MO: We have added more virtual experience days, Find out Fridays and webinars to our calendars, and shared virtual tours, faculty lectures and seminars to enable candidates across time zones to hear and see Cambridge voices, and experience something of what makes Cambridge unique. Going virtual has given us the advantage of including alumni from around the globe in Q&A sessions, where they may not otherwise have been available for campus visits. We have had great candidate feedback from our virtual interview days, where applicants have the chance to experience a taster lecture, careers sessions, Q&A with the Programme team and virtual networking with current students and alumni, before their interview with a member of faculty.

CA: Walk us through the life of a Cambridge MBA 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.)

MO: From application deadline to interview is about six weeks; from interview to final decision about 3 weeks.

Cambridge / Judge MBA
Cambridge Judge Business School

Once the application deadline closes, all applications are divided among the Admissions team, who have 3 weeks to read them and make an initial recommendation. Every document is reviewed, and if anything is missing, noted. Every application is then second read by the Head of Admissions and the Executive Director of the MBA, and a decision taken to interview, waitlist or reject.

All those invited to interview are given access to a social platform Unibuddy, which allows them to chat via private instant message with current MBA students. They are also added to a closed LinkedIn Group.

All interviewees are invited to interview on campus in Cambridge, where we arrange a dinner the night before so candidates can meet the team, current students and each other – their potential classmates. A full day of activities is arranged for the following day; an introduction to the School and to Careers, small group career sessions, the actual interview, lunch with current students and a walking tour of Cambridge.  If candidates are unable to make the trip to Cambridge, we replicate interview day virtually, with all elements included except the dinner and the walking tour!

Every student admitted onto the Cambridge MBA must be interviewed by a member of faculty actively teaching on the programme; faculty submit written feedback and a decision to accept, reject or waitlist.

The Admissions Committee meets the week after interviews to review all faculty feedback. The Admissions committee comprises the Head of MBA Marketing, the Admissions team, the Executive Director and the Director of the MBA. All cases are discussed and a decision taken at the meeting to accept, reject or waitlist. That decision goes out to the candidates by the end of that week.

CA: How does the Cambridge MBA admissions 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?

MO: The essays are your opportunity to tell us what you will bring to the Cambridge MBA and how it will help you grow and develop to have an impact in the world. Make the essays authentically yours. Don’t try to “businessify” them by using jargon or exaggerate to give us the story you think we want to hear. And please don’t just cut and paste from another application – really read the question and direct your response to what was asked. If we ask what you have learned from a failure or setback, we want to see some reflection, humility and a growth mindset. We can’t all succeed at everything all the time – how did you recover and what would you do differently next time? Reading that others are somehow responsible for your failure is always a red flag!

For the question on your post MBA career – you do not need to know exactly what you want to do but you do need to demonstrate a clear understanding of your current skill set, what you expect to gain from the Cambridge MBA and potential career outcomes that are specific to you, not a generic MBA wish-list. We want to see some agency and initiative from you – that you are well researched, realistic and responsible for your choices and career. Wherever you go for your MBA, it is not a golden ticket and requires work and commitment – we want to see in your essay that you understand this and are already taking action.

And in general – be succinct, simple, clear and to the point. We wade through a lot of adjectives and hyperbole that disguise rather than enhance the message. Keep it simple and always check your English. You are being taught in English so this is an opportunity to showcase your writing communication skills.

CA: Could you tell us about the Cambridge MBA admissions 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)?

MO: All interviews are 1-on-1 and conducted by a member of faculty actively teaching on the MBA, either in person or virtually. We provide faculty with a resource pack on each candidate, including their essays and CV, but not their GPA or GMAT/GRE scores. Faculty are issued with interview guidelines to ensure consistency of approach, and are looking for candidates who will contribute to the class and have the intellectual ability, critical thinking and collaborative leadership skills to excel. We interview almost 500 candidates a year.

CA: Tell us briefly about two notable professors at your institution.

MO: Lionel Paolella – University Lecturer in Strategy and Organisation.  Students love Lionel as an engaging, interactive lecturer who brings the material to life, but he is great to work with as a colleague too – supportive, witty and with a great dry sense of humour.

Thomas Roulet – Senior Lecturer in Organisation Theory and Deputy Director of the Cambridge MBA. Thomas brings a contagious energy to all he does. He has won many teaching and research awards and is absolutely committed to the success of our students, supporting them in their classes and in their extra curricula competitions.  He always goes the extra mile to support his colleagues in Admissions, too!

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.