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.
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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.
5. What sets you apart from other schools? What can students gain from your school that they might not be able to find anywhere else?
From a high-level point of view, we relish the intimate experience at Vanderbilt. Students will always have one-on-one time with world-renowned professors and administrators. And those who go through the M.B.A. program here tend to form durable, lasting bonds. We also offer a unique Leadership Development program in partnership with Korn/Ferry that includes the kinds of assessment and coaching often reserved for executives once they arrive in the C-Suite.
In terms of programs, health care is rapidly becoming one of our biggest draws, in part because of our academic and industry expertise and partly due to our location in a major health care city, home to both Vanderbilt University Medical Center and HCA.
Finance has also long been a cornerstone of Vanderbilt's M.B.A. program. As many as 40 percent of students specialize in finance and our faculty includes some of the biggest names in the field, including J. Dewey Daane, who played influential roles at the U.S. Federal Reserve and Treasury Department; Hans Stoll, a towering figure in futures and options markets; Robert Whaley, creator of the VIX Market Volatility Index; and Craig Lewis, currently serving as chief economist of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
6. What do you look for in recommendation letters? How important is it that the letter's writer has worked regularly with the candidate in an office or school setting? Do you put much weight on letters from prominent public figures who may not know the applicant well?
Typically the best person to write a recommendation is an immediate supervisor at a current or recent job. It should be somebody who knows the applicant well and can discuss in concrete terms how an individual made a positive impact on an organization. Don't bother with prominent figures unless you happened to work directly with somebody like a famous CEO or senator. We also suggest that candidates take the person writing the recommendation out for coffee or lunch to talk one-on-one about how an M.B.A. will fit into and bolster your career goals. Ideally, that explanation will be reflected in the recommendation letter.
7. Can you give a brief description of the life cycle of an application? What's the timeline applicants should expect?
From the date you submit a completed application, it takes four to six weeks to receive a decision. We have five rounds of rolling admissions that run from October to May. Applying early won't necessarily increase your chances of admissions, though more scholarship money is available the earlier you submit an application.
8. Which firms recruit heavily from your school? Which firms hire the highest percentage of your graduates?
Here are the top employers listed in our Employment Report: Deloitte; Bank of America Merrill Lynch; General Electric; Goldman Sachs; Johnson & Johnson; Barclays Capital; Delta Air Lines; Mars, Inc.; Procter & Gamble; Nissan North America; Hanes Brands; Credit Suisse; DaVita; Exxon Mobil; Mattel; HCA.
9. What are some of the most common mistakes that applicants make that hurt their chances of being accepted?
Perhaps not the most common, but the most damaging, mistake applicants make is simply being inconsistent. We want a person's story to make sense. If you express an interest in a finance career, yet have a weak quantitative aptitude and no work experience in the field, you'll need a compelling explanation for why. In addition, we want applicants who show that they've spent time researching our school and thinking about why they'll make a good fit at Vanderbilt.
As for more common missteps, it always helps to remind applicants that they should act with professional decorum in every interaction they have with us—including small details like an outgoing voicemail message or E-mail signature. That's not to say everything has to be stiff and formal, but applicants should conduct themselves as they would on a job interview.
10. Can you describe the archetypal student for your school?
Our students almost universally have a high level of involvement and commitment to organizations and issues beyond the classroom. We also have a healthy competitive streak and our graduates don't hesitate to fight for (and land) roles assumed to be reserved for M.B.A.'s from the top one or two business schools. Yet our students, alumni, faculty, and administrators tend to form very tight bonds because of our small size. One of the best ways to explain the Vanderbilt M.B.A.'s is to tell candidates that we are less about a two-year decision and more about making a lifelong commitment.
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