We posed questions to admissions officials at the Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management regarding the application process, what they look for in applicants, and what sets their school apart. These are their responses:
1. What can applicants do to set themselves apart from their peers?
To make a strong fit at Vanderbilt, you must show a clear record of not just getting involved with an organization, but making things happen within it. We recognize that this isn't always feasible in an entry-level job, so we take very seriously your unique accomplishments both in the workplace and beyond. One of Vanderbilt's greatest assets is its small, collaborative environment. The school draws a great deal of strength—and offers much in return—from its tight-knit community. As such, we are not looking for people who simply want to work anonymously toward a degree. One of the first things we consider about candidates is whether they make an effort to pay us a personal visit—or at least attend one of the admissions events held each year in as many as 100 cities around the world.
[Discover more insights on how to gain admissions to the country's top business schools.]
2. What do you look for in the application essays? What do the essays tell you about a candidate?
Overall, we are looking for a clear story about how an applicant arrived at the point where a Vanderbilt M.B.A. would help them achieve their career goals. We want to know where an applicant has been, where she or he is going, and how Vanderbilt fits into those plans. Applicants must be able to articulate a coherent path reflecting a sense of leadership, maturity, and self awareness.
In addition, we intentionally ask how you will plan to be an active student and alumni. We take this question very seriously because our collaborative culture marks a bedrock value here. There's also an optional question asking candidates to explain any gaps in employment or education. Candidates should not feel compelled to answer this unless they can't address a gap or inconsistency in their background elsewhere in the application.
3. How important is the applicant's GMAT score? How do you weigh it against undergraduate GPA and work experience? Which of these carry the most weight? The least?
Regarding the GMAT, a good starting point is to look at our middle 80 percent range (640 to 760 for the 2011 incoming class) instead of the average score. We regard the GMAT as an important data point for several reasons. First, it reflects an apples-to-apples comparison to other applicants. Second, it tends to be a more recent indicator than an undergraduate GPA since candidates typically have four to five years of work experience. And third, all GPAs are not created equally since the rigor of programs varies across disciplines and schools. However, a high GMAT will help make up for a low GPA, and vice versa. The same holds true for great work experience—although it's less about the name brand of a company than showing clearly how an applicant made a direct, tangible improvement in an organization.
4. How much does prior work/internship experience weigh into your decision making? What's the typical or expected amount of work experience from an applicant?
The most recent incoming class had an average of 4.5 years of work experience, which is typical. In general, work experience makes up a key element of any M.B.A. application we get. For the handful of exceptional students who come straight from their undergraduate institution, we still expect to see meaningful business-related internship experiences—not just getting coffee or making copies.
Ideally, candidates are pursuing an M.B.A. to push their career forward, and not merely as a way to gain access to a different field. We understand that career switches happen, but it should be done in a way that leverages both past work experience and a graduate management degree. We welcome a variety of professional backgrounds and make an effort to look more at candidates' positions, paying attention to how they showed steady forward progress, rather than a particular type of company or operational function.