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Admissions Director Q&A: Soojin Kwon of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business

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We continue to deliver insights into MBA admissions with our Admissions Director Q&A series. This week, we are excited to welcome Soojin Kwon, Managing Director of Full-Time MBA Admissions and Program at Michigan Ross.

Soojin Kwon, Managing Director for Full-time MBA Admissions and Program at Michigan Ross

Soojin has led MBA Admissions since 2006 and, since 2016, also oversees the MBA Program, which includes student experience and academic advising. Before joining Ross, Soojin was a Manager in Deloitte’s Strategy and Operations practice. Prior to consulting, she served as a Presidential Management Fellow, doing stints with the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, House Appropriations Committee, and Department of Commerce.

Soojin received an MBA from Ross, a Master in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a B.A. in Economics and Political Science from Yale. She was recently selected to join the board of the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC). She has also served on the boards of the Forte Foundation, Greenhills School and ETS’ Business School Advisory Council, and as an alumni interviewer for Yale for 20 years.

Read on for her insights into the Michigan Ross MBA program, the admissions process, and what students and alumni have to look forward to.

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

Sookin Kwon: I wish applicants knew about the number of hands-on, action-based learning experiences that students can participate in through classes, co-curricular activities, and clubs at Michigan Ross and the University of Michigan. These opportunities allow students to gain tangible experience leading organizations, planning global events, managing millions of dollars in real money, and engaging with their classmates, peers from across the university and beyond, faculty, alumni, and industry leaders. Here are a few examples:

Student-run funds – the most at any business school
At Michigan Ross, MBAs are able to manage our many student-run investment funds in all aspects of their operations. Right now, students are managing $10 million through the various funds. The newest fund is the Michigan Climate Venture fund, which was launched by Michigan Ross MBA students and faculty. The fund will invest in early-stage climate tech companies that have potential to make a real difference on climate change. Another recently launched fund is the International Investment Fund, developed in partnership with the William Davidson Institute, and is the first of its kind at a business school. It invests in and supports small- and medium-size enterprises in emerging economies, starting with India and expanding worldwide. Other funds include the Social Venture Fund – the first student-led impact investing fund at a business school – and the Zell Founders Fund, which supports graduating or recently graduated U-M student entrepreneurs.

Opportunities at the Centers, Institutes, and Initiatives at Michigan Ross
Michigan Ross is home to a number of world-class centers, institutes, and initiatives, which provide innovative and interdisciplinary programs and opportunities for action-based learning across a range of focus areas. Many of MBA students’ favorite co-curricular programs are offered through them, including the Sanger Leadership Center’s Leadership Crisis Challenge and Story Lab and the Business+Impact’s +Impact Studio.

In October, we formally announced the launch of our new Business+Tech initiative, which is aimed at preparing students for thriving careers at the intersection of business and technology. Along with hosting established annual events, such as the Datathon, FinTech Challenge, and SportsTech Conference, Business+Tech is organizing many new events and programs this year, including a +Tech Innovation Jam, which will take place in October and November. There was also the +Tech Literacy Download at the beginning of October, which allowed students to develop their tech literacy skills from a selection of 25 sessions, covering everything from blockchain and artificial intelligence to cybersecurity and analytics, and digital branding and marketing.

Seeking to serve as the hub for all things real estate at U-M, the Weiser Center for Real Estate is another new addition to Michigan Ross. The center’s mission is to connect the next generation of real estate professionals with the tools necessary to make a positive impact on built environments in the U.S. and across the globe. Most of its programming and events will engage students, faculty, and alumni with those in the industry. The first event was a Future of Real Estate Competition that a team of Full-Time MBA students won with the concept of building generational wealth through community investment in historically disenfranchised communities.

Finally, we also launched a Pinkert Healthcare Accelerator this year that aims to support needed innovation by helping students develop and launch their creative ideas for addressing major challenges in healthcare. The new accelerator — which is managed by the Zell Lurie Institute at Michigan Ross — provides student teams with seed funding as well as mentorship from U-M faculty, staff, and alumni.

Student Clubs
Michigan Ross has 65 clubs that students can join, from those focused on specific industries like the Consulting Club and Data Analytics Club to affinity groups, such as the Black Business Student Association and Armed Forces Association. Many of them offer great opportunities for action-based learning and leadership development. I’ll highlight two examples.

This year, Michigan Ross MBA students in the Health and Life Sciences Club organized a case competition focused on health disparity for graduate students from universities across the world. The inaugural Henrietta Lacks Health Equity Case Competition was a great success, with 49 teams from 27 universities, spanning three continents, applying to participate. During the virtual event, student teams had the opportunity to present their ideas to experts in the field, form new connections with their peers, and engage with industry leaders.

Another interesting and popular student club at Ross is Detroit Revitalization & Business Initiative, which seeks to promote economic development in Detroit through on- and off-campus events, an annual Impact Conference, student-run consulting projects, and a mentoring program. The club’s Impact Projects provide students the chance to partner with Detroit nonprofits to help them solve real-world business challenges. Not only do the projects support the nonprofits, but they allow students, who work in small teams, to enhance their leadership, consulting, project management, and communication skills.

CA: Will the applicant experience look different this year due to COVID-19? Will prospective students have the opportunity to visit campus?

SK: While our Visit in Person program will be suspended this fall due to COVID, we are incredibly fortunate to have hundreds of rising MBAs serve as student ambassadors. Applicants can filter their search and look for students with similar backgrounds and career interests. They can also benefit from reaching out to students who have an entirely different background from their own so they can get a sense of the diversity of the community at Michigan Ross. Applicants can get the perspectives of students from different parts of the country and the world on what the Ross community and Ann Arbor are like. In addition to connecting with student ambassadors, I would recommend applicants take advantage of other virtual ways of getting to know Ross, such as through our virtual admissions events and virtual tour of the buildings.

Applicants can also learn more about the MBA student experience through our MBA Admissions Blog and Ross News page. The admissions blog provides information about the application process, as well as highlights of recent activities at Ross. The news page contains stories — some of which are written by students — about Michigan Ross and being a part of the Ross community as well as Q&As with current students and alumni.

Finally, the Ross student-hosted podcast — Business Beyond Usual — provides a student’s-eye view of what’s happening at Ross as well as student perspectives on issues that may be of interest to prospective students — e.g., MBA life with a significant other, what recruiting is really like and what to do the summer before you start your MBA. We’ve heard from many applicants, including those who didn’t end up applying to Ross, just how helpful the podcast was during the  application process.

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.)?

SK: There’s a “first read” and a “second read.” We typically start each read with the applicant’s resume to give us a big picture of who the candidate is. Then we delve into the transcripts, essays, and letter of recommendation. Every member of the admissions committee reads applications of candidates from all different regions and backgrounds to get a sense of the strength of the pool.

The two things we focus on in the first read are academic ability and the nature of their work experience. We’re trying to assess whether they can take on the rigor of the MBA coursework, and whether they’ll be able to contribute to the learning experience of their classmates. Based on the first read, some applicants are invited to interview and their application is moved on to a second read, which is done following the interview. For second reads, we assign evaluations based on applicant backgrounds so the reader can utilize their expertise on the backgrounds of different groups. Those who do not receive an interview invitation are reviewed again by another reader. This latter group could be waitlisted and invited to interview in a subsequent round or denied at the conclusion of the round in which they applied.

All applicants invited to interview will have the opportunity to interview with a current student or an alum — this year, interviews will be virtual due to COVID. Following the interview, the admissions committee will meet for two group discussion sessions. The first is typically a calibration session. The second is a multi-day final decision review session.

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?

SK: The essays are intended to give us a sense of who the applicants are and the experiences that have shaped them — outside of what we learn about them through their resume.

Some common “mistakes” we see in essays are: (1) applicants think they need to share a “hero” story – i.e., one in which they demonstrate how they saved a project or helped someone in need so they “look good”; and, (2) career goal essays that are vague or general. The essays should give us a fuller picture of who an applicant is, not to share an accomplishment that isn’t in their resume. We want to see that applicants are reflective and self-aware, as those are important aspects of leadership. The career goal essays that fall short are the ones that don’t clearly explain why they are interested in a particular career. We want to know how an applicant’s experience, interests, and skills influenced their goal.

The thing applicants should be sure to share are the “why’s”: Why are you interested in something? Why did you feel ___ (humbled, challenged, out of your comfort zone, etc.)? That is the most interesting part of someone’s story because it tells us more about who they are and how they think about themselves.

See this year’s updated essay questions and how I would answer the Michigan Ross essay questions in this blog.

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?

SK: Our one-on-one interviews will be conducted by Michigan Ross MBA alumni this year. We know that applicants have ample opportunity to connect with our current student ambassadors throughout the application process. There are fewer opportunities for candidates to connect with alumni outside of their personal networks. Virtual interviews allow us to facilitate more of these connections. The Q&A portion at the end of the interview is a great way for applicants to gain perspectives on the Ross experience from.

Interviews are “semi-blind” — i.e., interviewers only see an applicant’s resume, not their application. We conduct about 1,500 interviews each year. One thing my team is often asked is whether we match interviewers and interviewees based on past work experience or career interest. We don’t, and interview assignments are random. Given that, applicants should be prepared to talk about their professional experiences and stories with someone who may have a very different background from them.

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

SK: A student favorite is Fred Feinberg, who is chair of the marketing area at Michigan Ross. His research examines how people make choices in uncertain environments. Fred teaches Marketing Engineering and Analytics, which was recently named one of the most popular courses for Ross Full-Time MBA students. The course is designed to help students develop a systematic and analytical approach to marketing. Many alumni have cited Professor Feinberg’s class as being influential and instrumental in their career path.

One of our newer, “up and coming” professors is Lindy Greer, who joined Ross from Stanford a few years ago and is the faculty director of our Sanger Leadership Center, which provides experiential learning opportunities for students to develop their leadership and communication skills. Lindy is an expert on team dynamics, emotions, and conflict management, and teaches the highly popular The Psychology of Start-Up Teams course.

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

SK: In updating our admissions process each year, the admissions committee thinks very critically about: what we need to know about an applicant to evaluate whether they will be successful in our program; and, whether the questions and materials we ask for give us the information and insights we need. A candidate’s potential for “success in our program” is evaluated in three areas: demonstrated potential to handle the coursework, potential to be a positive and contributing member of our community, and potential to get a good job (through a combination of prior experience, coursework, and interpersonal skills).

One notable adjustment this year is the continuation of our test waiver process. Last year, we created a test waiver process in response to the challenges caused by the global pandemic. We had heard from countless candidates about different issues related to online testing, health  concerns and overall access, which contributed to their difficulties with the testing process. We found that many incredible applicants applied using a test waiver last year, and not only were many admitted, they even received a scholarship. Whether it was through prior coursework, their work experience, or professional certifications, they demonstrated their ability to handle the rigor of the MBA program without a standardized test. We look forward to seeing how these students perform in the classroom this fall and getting feedback from recruiters and faculty as the waiver process evolves.

Our philosophy in developing our questions and requirements is to give applicants a platform to reflect on and share their unique experiences, thought processes, and goals while making the application process as applicant and recommender-friendly as possible. That is why we only require two short answer essays (100 words each) plus a short career goals essay, and only one recommendation letter.

We look forward to learning about candidates’ backgrounds and experiences and developing a relationship with them over the course of the admissions process. By the time students start their MBA at Ross, many of them feel like students we’ve known for a long time, and they maintain their relationship with the admissions team well beyond their admit call.

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.