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

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Luke Peña is the Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.  Luke still vividly remembers the highs and lows of applying to business school 11 years ago. He cares deeply about reducing stress and anxiety for business school applicants, and regularly provides updates for applicants on the Tuck360 blog as part of The Tuck team’s commitment to transparency and accessibility. He shares more below—including how you can guarantee an interview—so read on for his insights in this edition of our Admissions Director Q&A series.

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

Luke Peña: Tuck is unique among business schools due its unique combination of focus, scale, and place.  I find that applicants know well our personal scale of 285 students, deliberately sized so you can build strong relationships with each other, and our immersive environment in Hanover, New Hampshire, free from the distractions and disruptions of a large market… and with plenty of space and natural beauty to aid with physical distancing in this COVID-19 world.

Luke Peña, Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business

In my conversations with applicants, I find that fewer of you have fully considered our focused emphasis on the full-time MBA, and fewer still have unpacked how that meaningfully and positively impacts our learning community.  Over Tuck’s 120-year history, the MBA has always remained the heart of what we do.  Tuck has no Ph.D. program.  We have no EMBA, no part-time, night, or weekend MBA, and no undergraduate business major.  This means all of our famously loyal and supportive alumni completed the same degree you are pursuing.  This means you have more attention from and more opportunity to build partnerships with our Career ServicesTuckGO, our Centers teams.

And it means you will engage more regularly and more deeply with our faculty.  We have 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, connect with you inside and outside the classroom, and sharpen your functional expertise, your analytic skills, and your ability to develop and defend points of view amidst disruptive ambiguity.  At Tuck, you have a faculty better equipped to challenge you, support you, and know you because our program offerings are focused rather than diffuse.

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?

LP: We’re contending with two different pandemics, one of global health, and one of racism and racial injustice in the United States. Amidst this turbulence, we’ve pledged to be steady and stable in our application process.  Our world needs wise, decisive leaders more than ever before, and our mission to develop these leaders has never been more urgent.  We’re seeking those for whom this call to lead is resonant – hopefully you – and we’re confident in what we look for, where we find it, and how we assess it.

We updated a few words in our admissions criteria, but the four attributes we seek are stable.  The components of the Tuck application are stable, including the three essays prompts.  The questions we ask your references are stable.  Our application rounds and dates are stable.  We’re seeking to enroll another smartaccomplishedaware, and encouraging class of 285 students, same as the prior year.  As always, our approach at Tuck to the application is firmly rooted in appreciating and empathizing with the applicant experience.  Applicants, there is more than enough upheaval in the world around us right now.  You don’t need the Tuck application changing on you too.

The one application component that must necessarily change is the interview.  Before COVID-19, we were one of just a few schools who encouraged MBA applicants to initiate and schedule their own interview on our campus.  Alas, at the time of this Q&A, we cannot offer campus visits or on-campus interviews per public health guidance.  This was a dilemma for us, because we’ve long prided ourselves on offering those of you with strong interest in Tuck the agency to tell your story in an interview.  So in true Tuck fashion, we worked together to create a solution.  We will guarantee a virtual interview for all of you who submit a complete application, including reference letters, by September 1.  Consortium applicants, you have until October 1.  If you are confident in your decision to apply to Tuck, you have a clear path to a guaranteed interview.

Of course, many pre-COVID applicants visited campus not only to interview, but also to experience the campus itself.  We recognize there is no perfect substitute for experiencing the vibrancy of Tuck in person, but you have alternative options to better get to know our community.  You can tour campus virtually, and see the physical beauty of Tuck and the Upper Valley on our YouTube channel.  We expect to offer additional interactive tours in the months ahead, and you will be able to see faculty and students interact live in online class visits in the Fall 2020 term.

You can also engage with our Admissions and Financial Aid team, our students, and our alumni at live online events.  For the coming year, we invite you to connect with Tuck representatives and ambassadors online at a variety of events, including virtual information sessions, Tuesday Q&As with Tuck, coffee chats with me, and an array of small group events tailored to specific geographies, industries, and affinity groups.  These events will be offered at varying times to acknowledge time zone differences, and will be mostly small in size – that’s the Tuck way, so you can connect and engage with others on the chat.  We won’t be traveling the world for the foreseeable future, so we’re excited that these online events will accommodate all of you, including those outside the cities we would typically visit.

We have also worked closely with our student ambassadors to simplify your ability to directly connect with our students.  Our Tuck Ambassadors page lists the name, class year, contact information, and profile of well over a hundred Tuck students, and you can filter by region, activity and club, career path, and Center involvement.  Reach out to our ambassadors!  They are your best contacts for learning about the Tuck experience.  And although our interviews are virtual for now, do know that our Tuck Admissions Associates – our second-year student interviewers – will continue to conduct almost all interviews so you can have yet another touch point with a Tuck student.

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: First and foremost, you own your application; not us.  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.  It’s important to me and my colleagues that you approach your application with this sense of agency.  I care that each of you feels ownership and control 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 your stress and anxiety while preparing it.

I am incredibly proud of our transparency at Tuck.  Our evaluation process is no exception.  On our website, we gladly offer 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 examine our process for yourself, and see how open we are about it.

Being open, honest, and transparent about how we handle your applications is a no-brainer to me.  Some have asked me if I worry that discussing our process in detail will be off-putting and scary to you.  Quite the reverse; I believe you have a right to know.  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 retire 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 exactly what our team does with your hard work.

The full details are on our website, and yet I share here 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 additional diligence as we get to know better those whom we will strongly consider for admission.  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 shared guidance on our Tuck 360 blog about responding to each of our three essay prompts.  We’re clear and unambiguous about what separates a strong essay response from an unremarkable one.

In addition to transparency, my colleagues and I also believe in simplicity.  Unnecessary complexity only adds to stress and anxiety, which we seek to minimize. Our admissions criteria – smart, accomplished, aware, and encouraging – are simple, accessible, digestible manifestations of qualities which have long described the Tuck community.  We also have clearly and directly mapped each component of your application to the four admissions criteria.  We look for evidence of all four in your reference letters and interview notes.  Your transcripts and test scores map directly to smart.  Your resume maps directly to accomplished.  The essay prompts are written to give you the opportunity to demonstrate aware and encouraging.  These latter two qualities are precisely what we seek to find in your essays.

I try 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 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.  If you’re already perfect, you don’t need this degree!  Instead, 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: 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?

LP: We’ve written on our blog about interviews, too!  As noted earlier, we’re abiding by public health guidance and doing our part to limit the spread of COVID-19, which prompted us to adjust our interview policy.  For the upcoming admissions year, you have two paths to an interview.  If you submit your complete application by September 1, we guarantee an admissions interview.  If you submit your application after September 1, we will review your application and invite you to interview if we would like to learn more about how you demonstrate our criteria.  Last year, our Admissions Committee invited just over one in four applicants to interview.  I don’t yet know how many of you will apply, and how many of you will take advantage of the guaranteed interview option, but I expect that percentage of applicants we invite to interview to be higher this year.  Across both the guaranteed and invitational interviews, I predict we will interview somewhere between one-half and three-quarters of our applicant pool.

All interviews, both guaranteed and invitational, will be virtual until Tuck, Dartmouth, and the state of New Hampshire determine it is safe to welcome external visitors to campus.  This may extend through part of the upcoming application season, or all of it; we can’t know yet.  What we do know: we want you to feel confident that you will have every opportunity to shine in a virtual conversation.  My colleagues have shared good guidance on how you can succeed in a virtual interview format.  While we will certainly miss seeing you on campus, our updated interview policy preserves the distinctly-Tuck option to guarantee the opportunity to tell your story in an interview, and it ensures all of you have a fair and equal opportunity to do so.

A few words about invitational interview logistics: my colleagues and I send interview invitations on a rolling basis all throughout the application round.  If a reader reads your application and believes we should get to know you better, that reader immediately sets in motion an interview invitation.  The timing of interview invitations correlates with when we read your application, and we read applications in a random order, so there is nothing to read into timing beyond the randomness of when your application came up in our reading queue.  When you receive your invitation, you will confirm an available 45-minute interview time and receive additional details about logging into the video call.

We hire and train second-year Tuck students to conduct our interviews.  Your student interviewer sees only your resume.  In addition to training our students on general interviewing techniques and implicit bias awareness, we coach our student interviewers 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 literally and figuratively set aside the prepared script, especially in the virtual format, 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 your interviewer see you as a future member of the Tuck community.

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

LP: Limiting to two is impossible! I will share five, but keep it brief. Our students recently voted Ramon Lecuona and Governor John Lynch winners of our 2020 Teaching Excellence Awards; Ramon worked for the Office of the President of Mexico for seven years and now focuses on firms’ productivity and innovation, while John draws from his prior experience as Knoll CEO and one of New Hampshire’s longest-serving governors in his popular elective “The CEO Experience.”  Jennifer Dannals is one of our brightest rising stars; her recent work highlights how diversity and inclusion are fundamental to organizational success, and that teams thrive when leaders encourage new voices to be heard.  And Lindsey Leininger and Ella Bell Smith are both bringing timely insights into the public domain; you’ll find Lindsey’s work on vulnerable population healthcare in in The New York Times and NBC News, and you’ll find Ella’s work on organization change, race, gender, and class in Marketplace and HBR’s Women at Work podcast.

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

LP: If you work well with others, Tuck is for you.  Embedded in our mission is the philosophy that the best wise, decisive leaders can craft a compelling vision for the future, and then execute on that vision with and through other people.  Just about everything you do at Tuck, inside and outside the classroom, is alongside other people who are invested in your success, and you in theirs.  If you aspire to be a leader that motivates, inspires, empowers, and invests in others, then you belong at Tuck.

This encouraging, collaborative, and empathetic spirit extends to our Admissions and Financial Aid team.  If you are excited about Tuck, we want to get to know you!  We care a great deal about helping you confidently and successfully apply.  No matter where you are in your application journey, please reach out to us.  You will find that our team is accessible, responsive, helpful, and deeply invested in helping you navigate the application journey ahead.

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.