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Admissions Director Q&A: Emily Thomas of Columbia Business School

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Imagine having New York City as your b-school campus—and that being just one of many hallmarks of your MBA experience. Columbia Business School, located in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City, may be the place for you. Director of Admissions, Emily Thomas, is here to talk all about the leading MBA program in this Admissions Director Q&A. Emily joined the admissions committee after working for a number of years in Academic and Student Affairs for Columbia’s Executive MBA program. Read on for her insights into what stands out at CBS, what to expect in the admissions process and more.

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

Emily Thomas, Director of Admissions, Columbia Business School

Emily Thomas: This is always a tough question because there are so many opportunities that I am excited about, from the warm supportive student and alumni communities that help each other through life and career transitions to our Executives in Residence program, where students can sign up for a one-on-one meeting with a former C-suite executive from a number of different industries.

This year I am especially excited that all of our MBA programs have been given the STEM designation. This recognizes that, no matter the student’s background, each graduate leaves CBS with a strong quantitative and technical foundation in areas like data analysis. It is also an important designation for our international students if they hope to work in the United States after graduation.

CA: How might the 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?

ET: While we normally enjoy welcoming our prospective students to campus and meeting them on the road, this year will, of course, be different. All of our prospective student events will be virtual. The good news is that this makes our events more easily accessible to candidates who are not able to travel to campus. We will be offering a wide array of virtual events from information sessions to small group chats with current students over Zoom. We will also have special events highlighting clubs, faculty, diverse communities at the Business School, and regional alumni. I encourage applicants to look at our events page to see the most up-to-date opportunities to get to know us.  

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.)?

ET: One of my favorite parts of the admissions role is getting to know our applicants’ stories. Typically one or two people from our team will read the application before deciding if we will invite the candidate to interview with us. After the interview, which is often with an alum in your region, we will meet as a committee and make the final decision.

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?

ET: The essay is a great opportunity, not only to share something of yourself with the admissions committee, but also to really reflect on why you want to get an MBA and why CBS is the right school for you. I often tell people that the more convinced you are that this is a good fit, the easier it is for us to see that you will be a great addition to the community. We want to get to know you, so please be yourself and really answer the question. There is no perfect candidate or perfect story. Instead, there are lots of different great stories that come together to form an amazing class of future leaders and lifelong community members. We want to see who you will be at Columbia Business School.

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?

ET: The interview is typically with one of our alumni, though sometimes you will interview with a member of the admissions committee or a current student who is part of our Hermes Club, which works closely with admissions to share the CBS experience with prospective students. There are no set questions that the interviewer will ask. Instead, think of it as a professional conversation, where the alum is asking herself if she would want you in her learning team, if your goals are realistic and well thought out, and what you will bring to the CBS community. If the interviewer is an alum, she will not have access to your application, so please do provide your resume. Most importantly, this is a two way conversation – it is a chance to ask any questions you have about life at CBS and the community of alumni you hope to one day join.

CA: Tell us briefly about two notable professors at your institution (ideally one student favorite, and one up-and-coming).

ET: One of our great professors and leaders at the Business School is Gita Johar. She teaches popular classes on marketing strategy and design thinking, including a Global Immersion course to India on Design for Social Impact. In this class, students use design thinking to co-create products and services in villages in Northern India. Professor Johar is also our Vice Dean for Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI). She leads DEI initiatives at the Business School including: faculty recruiting, refreshing cases to increase the number of diverse protagonists, and hosting numerous events and conversations to help our community lead diverse teams in today’s world.

Daniel Guetta is another amazing professor and an award-winning faculty member who teaches courses on business analytics, python, and cloud computing. He is brilliant at taking complicated technical topics and teaching them in a way that is approachable both to experts and those who have no background in analytics. He teaches a masterclass on Analytics in Action where students work on real business analytics problems with clients from a variety of industries such as media, AI, financial services, retail, and mobility. It is an example of one of the many classes at CBS where students can apply what they learn in class to real-world problems.

CA: Anything else you’d like to highlight about your MBA program or admissions process?

ET: Columbia Business School is a place where you can learn from faculty and classmates with expertise in a range of industries. With over 300 electives and no required concentration, you can truly tailor your experience to help you reach your individual goals. There is a tremendous benefit in having so many opportunities at CBS to help you become your best self, but at the same time, it can be overwhelming. The best advice I can offer is to take the time to reflect on your true dreams, who do you want to be, and what impact do you wish to have on your community and the world? This can take on many different forms, and should be completely individual to you.

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.