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Admissions Director Q&A: Donna Swinford of Chicago Booth

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Get an inside look at admissions at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business with Donna Swinford, Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions for MBA Programs, in this edition of our Admissions Director Q&A series.

Donna has been at Booth since 1997 and joined the Office of Admissions in 2005. She’s seen the admissions process at Booth from pretty much every angle over the course of her tenure, having served in several roles, including head of Operations and Evaluation, before transitioning to her current position as Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions for MBA Programs.

Read on for her insights into what to expect as a “Boothie” MBA student and throughout the admissions process this year.

Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions, MBA Programs at Chicago Booth

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

Donna Swinford: Booth has cohorts, we just approach them differently than other MBA programs. At the beginning of your first year, students are placed in cohorts of 60 people for our Leadership Development course. It’s more of a typical cohort situation where you are going through the academic experience together. Students get to know each other really well and begin to form networks early on in the curriculum. It jumpstarts that sense of community and students get comfortable, make friends, and build bonds.

Every quarter thereafter, you are selecting all your classes of preference and branching away from the cohort academically, but not socially. Students continue to hang out with their cohorts, attend events, plan trips, and engage in spirited cohort-centered competitions. The thing a lot of people don’t realize until they’re here is that our non-fixed curriculum guarantees exponentially more opportunities to widen your social circle and friend base. You are constantly meeting and learning alongside new first- and second-year classmates, who also chose to be in that exact class. 

Also notable is that around 70% of the class lives in close proximity to one another in one of three apartment buildings across the street from each other in downtown Chicago. Our students love Chicago because it is a fun, convenient city that’s comfortable, affordable, easy to get around, and central to many major industry hubs. It’s the best of collegiate lifestyle with the advantage of modern amenities in a metropolitan setting.

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?

DS: At Booth, we wait to review applications until after the deadline is past. So once that round is closed, your application will enter the preliminary review process. Our office does an initial check of every single application to see if it is complete. If there are missing materials, we reach out to the candidate to let them know and allow them to get the missing piece(s) in. 

All of our applications have multiple readers who review the submission in its entirety—background information, academics, recommendations, resume, career goals, essay responses, etc. We take a holistic approach to our evaluations and believe each section is as essential in the assessment as the next. We do not weigh application components, so no section is more important than another. Your test score does not have more value than your essay, or letters of rec, or any other factor! 

All of the readers’ evaluations are accumulated and a decision is made on whether or not to interview. Invites are extended at the same time and interviewees are asked to submit a short video in response to a supplemental question. Following the interview, our team reviews the application in its entirety again, this time including the interviewer evaluation and video response. At that point, a recommendation for admit, waitlist, or deny is made. Then the application goes through one last review by the Admissions Committee before a final decision is determined. For the decision release, candidates will receive a notification to log into their application status portal and see the results.

CA: How does your team approach the essay portion of the application specifically? What are you looking for as you read an essay? 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?

DS: With the essays, as with the entire application, we are looking to get to know candidates and understand your motivation for an MBA from Chicago Booth. We believe everything you share with us is important to your candidacy. It’s not only about your academic record or resume bullets, we want to understand who you are as a whole and what you hope to achieve with your Booth degree. 

As you may know, our essays have a word minimum but no max. We get a lot of questions around why that is, but really it’s just to allow you to use the space how you see fit and to ensure we have enough substance to review. I always say it would be a missed opportunity if applicants fail to use the essay, and other elements of the application, to express the passion behind what drives you. We want to know what motivates candidates and how that influences their MBA paths.

I think it’s helpful to have another person read through your essay(s) and relay to you what they gleaned from it. Getting an outside perspective on your own words can be very insightful. My other piece of advice is to answer the question posed instead of using the essay as a catch-all for everything you want to tell the Admissions Committee. Regardless of the essay question, your response should be an authentic reflection of your unique perspective and it should provide a glimpse into who you are as a person, both professionally and personally. In short, be yourself! 

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 (resume-based, application-based, behavioral)? Will your admissions interviews be in-person or virtual for the 2023-2024 admissions season?

DS: All of our interviews are conducted by members of the Booth community, mainly with current students and alumni. The number of applicants we interview varies from year to year. The only thing interviewers receive beforehand is the applicant’s resume. We are continuing to do a mix of in-person and virtual interviews for this upcoming admissions cycle. In-person interviews are generally held either on campus with a current second-year student or in your local area with a Booth alumnus. You have the option to do either of those virtually as well. 

Regardless of the format, the intention of the interview is to connect you with a member of our community to a.) learn more about you and what makes you tick, and b.) give you a chance to learn more about Booth and what this place is all about. It’s important for candidates to know that we consider our interviews to be a conversation. Tell us about your professional aspirations, why you’re seeking an MBA, and why you want an MBA from Booth in particular.

We realize culture is a very important part of choosing your MBA program. The interview is a great opportunity to see whether there is a cultural value add and fit. I hope applicants feel comfortable asking candid questions to explore whether Booth is a school and a community they want to be a part of.  

CA: What is your testing policy? Do you offer exam waivers? Why or why not? 

DS: We accept both the GMAT and GRE for the Full-Time MBA application and have no preference for which you submit. Please note that test scores must be from within the last five years to be valid. You can self-report your GMAT or GRE scores at the time you apply, we do not require official test scores until you have been admitted and have accepted our offer of admission.

Test scores are required to apply at Chicago Booth. We do not offer exam waivers except for the limited case of UChicago undergraduates applying to the Accelerated Option of our deferral program; they need to have a certain GPA in particular business courses in order to be eligible for the waiver.

CA: Could you tell us about the waitlist? What can waitlisted applicants do to maximize their chances of being accepted to your program? Does your office allow for waitlisted applicants to submit additional materials (e.g. letters of support, job updates, new test scores, etc.)?

DS: First of all, I want anyone waitlisted to know that they are Booth caliber and we would be thrilled to have you join our program. There simply aren’t enough seats to take everyone we want to admit. So if you are on the waitlist, your application will continue to be reviewed as part of our ongoing evaluation process. 

We ask candidates who have been waitlisted to either accept or reject their spot on the waitlist. Waitlisted applicants are welcome to submit a short video response to their choice of three prompts, as well as provide updates such as significant changes in employment, academics, certifications, or test scores. Please note, Booth does not accept additional letters of recommendation. 

We also encourage waitlisted candidates to continue engaging with the Booth community by attending events, reading student blogs, and learning more about our MBA. We appreciate the patience and diligence of our waitlisted applicants, and know that we admit many people off of our waitlist every year.

CA: Tell us briefly about two popular courses at your institution.

DS: Interpersonal Dynamics is a very popular course, it follows the well-known T-Group concept. The class focuses on enhancing interpersonal communication skills to foster more effective relationships. The idea is that you have ample opportunity to interact within a small group to test out assumptions, determine if you are having the impact you intend, explore your own reactions and feelings, and practice giving and receiving feedback in a productive way. Developing personal knowledge and capabilities in these areas is critical to becoming an effective manager in the increasingly complex, diverse, international, and interdependent business climate of today’s world. There are only 12 students in a class so it is in high demand at Booth.

Our experiential learning opportunities are also extremely sought-after. There are lab courses in PE/VC, social impact, consulting, entrepreneurship, art, and business, you name it. For example, the Marketing lab courses facilitated by Kilts Center professors prepare students by working with a company-as-client on an actual project. Operating as a team to find solutions for real-world problems with monetary impact on businesses is invaluable experience to gain during your MBA. Students in the field often report that the lab work is extremely relevant to their careers as product managers and associate brand managers, and that they were very prepared to succeed in their internships and full-time roles across CPG, tech, and other industries.

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

DS: I’m very excited about the new opportunities students will have in the coming year for various ways to expand their education and maximize their MBA experience at Booth. We’re lucky to have the other University of Chicago graduate schools to collaborate with and create specialized programs with additional academic focus and long-term career value. In fields such as healthcare and pharma/bio tech, we are introducing a new concentration in Healthcare, as well as a joint degree MBA/MS in Biomedical Sciences in partnership with the Pritzker School of Medicine. This is building on an already robust catalog of joint degree options that include our JD/MBA, MBA/MB, and MBA/MPCS—many of which we are integrating the application process so that candidates are applying to both programs through one streamlined application.

Christina Griffith
Christina Griffith is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She specializes in covering education, science, and history, and has experience in research and interviews, magazine content, and web content writing.