We are excited to kick off our annual Admissions Director Q&A series, in which MBA admissions directors shed light on their program’s application process, essays and more. To start the 2021-2022 round of exclusive Q&As, we welcome Columbia Business School’s Director of Admissions Emily French Thomas. Emily has been a proud member of the Columbia Business School community since 2008. She joined Columbia as part of the Academic and Student affairs team in the Executive MBA program, and now leads recruiting for EMBA, MBA and Deferred Enrollment programs on the Admissions team. In a past life Emily produced and designed theater. She has a BFA from NYU, and an MA in Organizational Psychology from Columbia.
In this interview, Emily talks about:
- The life of a CBS MBA application – from the moment the candidate presses submit to the moment they get a final decision
- Tips about the application essays and, in particular, the addition of a DEI-themed essay
- Preparing for the admissions interview
- Early decision vs. rolling admissions
- Who should consider deferred enrollment
…and more! Check out the abbreviated transcript below, or listen to the podcast episode (hosted by Graham Richmond and produced by Dennis Crowley) here – or in your favorite podcast app.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Graham Richmond for Clear Admit (CA): What is it that you like most about the work that you do now in MBA admissions? And maybe is there something that you dislike?
EFT: I’d say that MBA admissions is a wonderful place to really talk with people at this moment in their lives, when they’re making huge decisions. It’s just this pivotal moment in people’s lives. And I think being part of that, and even helping people think through what they want, and why they want it, and what place might be the best proving ground for them –the place that’s going to give them the teammates, the skills, but also the experiences that will help make them incredible in the rest of their lives. And so I feel it’s a very special place, being able to invite people into this community. And I love developing those relationships.
I think, what I don’t like, obviously, there is the part of admissions where we can’t let everyone in that we like, and I that’s something I actually have a hard time with. And so as I’m working with candidates, and reviewing files, I’m really looking for people who will do well at Columbia, and where this is the right place for you, and where this is the place where you’re going to not only be able to make a difference, but you’re really going to be able to grow here. And so that’s how that’s how I get around it. But I’ve never liked saying no to people.
CA: Give me a Columbia Business School stereotype that you would like to debunk.
EFT: I think that the classic stereotype is something about sharp elbows or that we’re not very collegial, and it’s just the most wrong thing I’ve ever heard. Or that there’s no community. I think people watch movies about New York from the 80s and they think that being at Columbia is going to be likesome weird, stereotypical New York movie. The reality is that it’s an incredibly strong community. I know that not only our students, but also our alumni will bend over backwards to help each other and to make sure that people feel welcome and included. It’s a very collegial place.
People also think that they’re not going to spend that much time on campus because everybody’s going to be off in New York doing other things. And I got news for you: you’re going to spend most of your time on campus, because there’s so much going on, you’re going to be so busy. In a lot of ways, you’re just not going to be able to take advantage of the fun stuff in New York for the first year at least.
CA: Tell me about something new that’s happening – or will soon be happening – on campus that you wish people knew more about.
EFT: The big thing is that we’re moving into two beautiful big buildings in Manhattanville, which is five or six blocks north of where our current campus is. And we are so excited, I can’t even tell you, especially on the administration side. This is something that students don’t realize, but my office, for example, is several blocks south of the main campus; the business school just doesn’t have enough room right now, for all of the administrators to be in the same place. Obviously, this past year, no one’s been in the office but we’re really excited not only to be getting back to campus this year, but we’re actually going to all be together in our new buildings.
It’s going to have a lot of really beautiful open spaces that are designed for people to run into each other and be able to sit down and collaborate with each other on things. There’s a lot of very intentional work that’s been done on the design of the building, to reflect the collaborative nature of our program. And I think that’s very cool.
CA: When is that campus going to open, in theory?
EFT: January. The administration starts moving in probably late this year, just to get everything set up and ready. And then January, the students will be back on campus in the new building after the holiday break.
CA: Speaking of admissions and what goes on in your offices, can you walk me through the life of an application? What happens between the moment that the candidate hits “submit” and the time they get that final decision?
EFT: I know, it can really feel like submitting your life into a black hole. And it is not – I want to reassure people that you’re submitting your life into the hands of people who are very excited to read your application.
So what happens: it will come into our system and then be assigned to an initial reader. So every application is read, usually by a couple of people. There’s an initial reader, and then there’s a second reader who tends to be a bit more senior, who’s kind of looking at, “did that initial reader make the right decision?” Every application gets multiple eyes.
And then hopefully you will get an invitation to interview at that point. But, you know, obviously, we can’t interview everyone. So at that point, it might be the end of the application process for a particular candidate for this round. But for those who are invited to interview, then you will be given the name of an alum, usually in your area. And you’ll set up the interview with that alum and get an opportunity to talk with them, ask them questions. That’s a really important piece.
And then when [the feedback from the interviewer] comes back to us, we work in a committee format and go through the feedback from the alumni. We’ll sit and look again at the application and really think through, “okay, I think this person is wonderful,” or, you know, “we have questions still, and we’re not sure that this is going to work.” So usually you’ll get a final decision from the committee a couple of weeks after the interview.
CA: And from beginning to end, roughly, how long does someone typically wait from submitting their application to getting that final decision, if they’re interviewed?
EFT: It depends a little bit on the time of year. If you’re one of the people who’s submitting on a deadline, you know, the last day to submit, it might take a full six plus weeks to review that application and then let you know if you’re invited to interview. So depending on how long it takes you take to arrange that interview, it could be eight weeks?
I’ve seen it be much faster, or if someone takes a while to set up their interview, I’ve seen it take a little bit longer. But eight weeks is probably the rough estimate I would give most people.
CA: If you had to give candidates one tip about the application essays, what would it be?
EFT: My take is that the essays really are this incredible opportunity for you. And I think if you look at essays as an opportunity, and not just as a box you have to check, that’s going to be very helpful.
This is a time in your life when it’s all about you. You are making this decision, you get to explore what schools are going to be the right fit for you. You never know who you’re going to meet in the MBA program, right? You could meet a future partner professionally, you could meet a future partner personally, you’re going to meet people who are friends for life. You want to be yourself as much as possible and really answer those essays for you.
Our first essay, we’re asking you about your short-term and long-term goals. Really think about what do you want in life; people aren’t going to ask you this that many more times! So this is a prompt for you to really be reflective and take that time. In a weird way, I would say enjoy it. And I think the more that you enjoy really reflecting and answering those questions, the more you’ll be able to communicate your excitement and your interest in Columbia and whatever path you’re looking to take.
And even if you don’t necessarily have that exact, perfect answer to your long-term dream goal, take the time to really think through what it is that you’re passionate about. What do you really like? What would you change in the world if you could? And do you have skills that could actually push you in that direction?
So, that’s my advice: take the time, and enjoy it.
CA: I know that you have a new essay about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Walk us through some of the changes to your essays and where they came from.
EFT: One of the things that we were recognizing [is that] this past year has been just a watershed year in terms of recognizing all of the disparities in how people have suffered through the pandemic, just a real recognition of the inequality that we’ve all tried to pretend didn’t exist in the world. But of course, it is still there, and there’s still a lot of work to be done.
At Columbia, the reaction was to have a lot of very hard conversations. There is a diversity team, essentially faculty, staff, and students that got together and set up over 40 listening sessions with students where they just opened the floor to hear from them: how they’ve experienced the world, how they’ve experienced each other, how they’ve experienced the school. I think we have always had the value of inclusion and wanting this to be the best place it can be for all of our students, but with these listening sessions, I think we all really came to the conclusion that this needs to be a core value that is front and center.
So, part of this essay is to highlight a new program, which is the Philips Pathway to Inclusive Leadership. And it’s a really incredible program where all students going through CBS will get this training with several focus points: creating an inclusive environment, mitigating bias, communicating across identities, addressing systematic inequity, and managing different difficult conversations. So we wanted to make this part of our essay, because we want to give our candidates the opportunity to highlight, if this is something that you are passionate about. And you know, not everyone is going to have this focus, and that’s okay, that’s why it’s optional.
Another essay is about “why Columbia,” and that has essentially been our essay number two for years and years. I think that’s an opportunity for students if Columbia is your very best, first top choice, this is where you absolutely want to be. It’s an opportunity for you to highlight exactly why that is true and why you think you’re a good fit for the school.
And then the third essay, some people really want to make sure that we’re getting to know them in a more human way. So we did keep our essay three from last year, which is about your favorite book, movie, or song.
I want to emphasize that our decision making isn’t going to revolve around which essay you pick. They’re really just opportunities for you to share yourself and tell us who you are.
CA: Tell me a little bit about the interview. What are you looking for?
EFT: [Alumni interviewers] don’t have a specific set of questions that they are supposed to ask. So it’s going to be a conversation; it’s a professional conversation, so keep in the back of your in the back of your mind. But they’re very broadly looking and thinking, “Would I have wanted this person on my learning team? And do I want this person in my in my alumni network? Is this person someone that I’m that I’m going to be excited to reach out to, or excited to have reached out to me? Is this someone who I think has that leadership potential?” And that’s a little bit amorphous. But ultimately, it comes down to: do you have some sort of focus as you’re talking about your career – and you will end up talking about your career.
The alumni don’t get anything from us; they don’t see your application. They don’t even get your resume, so you should send your resume to the to the alum who is interviewing you. They’ll ask you about what you have done in the past, and what you’re hoping to do in the future. They’re really trying to gather from you information about whether you have a good feel for the industry you’re looking to enter. If it’s a new industry, have you done your research?
So in an interview, what you’re demonstrating is that you know, what you’re talking about. You’re demonstrating, to some degree, emotional intelligence. I think that there is a very important piece of leadership that is communication, and that is the ability to talk with people and be engaging.
And so a good practice tip (this is advice that my former colleague, Bob Shea, used to give): talk to people. It’s actually as simple as that: have a few conversations with people and feel comfortable in your story. And that’s a great way to prepare for an interview.
CA: Let’s talk about early decision vs. the regular decision round. What advice do you have for someone who’s not sure yet about which round to apply in?
EFT: Something I want to highlight is that we have rolling admission, which also makes us very different from most other schools. And it means that when you apply, we are able to read your application and render decisions fairly quickly. We’re not doing it on a specific timeline. So at the beginning of the process, we have more seats. And at the end of the process, we have fewer seats.
So part of the advantage of early decision is that we are reading you a little bit earlier. But I don’t think it’s a measurable advantage. We’re admitting most of the people we admit through the regular decision process. Early decision is really a way for you to declare loud and clear that we are your first true love, that you want to come to Columbia. And that there aren’t other things, like a partner’s job move, that ware getting in your way to saying yes to us. Because if you’re admitted early decision, then we ask you to withdraw your applications from other schools and commit to us.
From the admissions standpoint, one of the reasons we do it is that we tend to find people who are going to be culture carriers in the early decision round, people who are really going to be cheerleaders for the school, you’re kind of all-in if you know from the get-go that Columbia is where you want to be. And not all of our students are going to be that, but it’s a very important pool of students for us. And I think it makes it makes the experience for the rest of the class very, very positive to have those people in the mix.
A lot of people hesitate to apply early decision because they’re afraid that they won’t get a fellowship. And I just wanted to note that roughly the same percentage of people in early decision are getting fellowships as the percentage of people who are applying by our fellowship deadline, which is in early January.
CA: You also have a deferred enrollment program for college students who are thinking of heading off to business school eventually and want to lock in their spot. Who is the right candidate for this kind of program?
EFT: This past year, we saw the world turned completely upside down. I think, in some ways, it’s for the people who like to have a little bit of security in their back pocket, that idea of having admission to a great business school, and knowing that’s an opportunity, an option for you.
It’s essentially, for people who are organized enough in college, that they are already thinking about [an MBA] to some degree. And I’ll be candid, from an admission standpoint, part of the reason we do the deferred enrollment program is to get in front of those college students earlier, and plant this little seed in their mind – whether they’re applying deferred enrollment or not – that there are a lot of different very interesting people who will come to business school.
I want to emphasize that you don’t have to have a business undergrad degree in order to do a deferred enrollment program. We’re not really looking for just one type of candidate, we’re definitely looking for a variety of different people to come into the program. And it’s a great program, I just love it. And I think it does give people a little bit more flexibility in their early career. For example, if you’re thinking, “I want to work for a small startup, but I don’t know if it’s going to work out,” you can take a little bit more risk knowing that you’re then going to be able to go to business school.
You also get access to the other people who have been admitted to the deferred enrollment program, so there’s a nice social group for that population. You also just get a little bit more access to Columbia, you get more access to some of the events and speakers we have on campus, and I think that that helps start to guide your thinking about a particular industry.