We posed questions to admissions officials at the Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School 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?
A strong academic record and GMAT score are basically the barriers to entry and, once demonstrated, they get you to the next phase—the selection hurdle. At the selection stage, a new set attributes becomes paramount. Here we are looking at individuals who have set high goals and standards, who have achieved success in reaching for them, who have demonstrated their leadership qualities, who have a passion for what they do, and who can readily and persuasively communicate all of these attributes and experiences to diverse audiences.
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2. What do you look for in the application essays? What do the essays tell you about a candidate?
Our application is perhaps a bit unusual in that we ask for only one required essay (and one optional essay); the required essay is a "Statement of Purpose." By offering only one required essay, it allows us to determine the strength of a candidate's writing ability. With limited space, a candidate must make strategic choices about what to include and what to omit. In this sense, it is much harder to present a compelling case within the limitation of one essay compared to several. From a content perspective, we expect applicants to provide us with their strongest argument for admission to the program. This, at least in part, is connected to their rationale for pursing the M.B.A. and the motivations and passions involved in the pursuit of this specific degree. We also look for some sense that applicants have a deep understanding of Olin and why our school may be a particularly good match for them.
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?
The GMAT score is certainly important, but no more or less so than any other element of the application process. We do not employ any specific formula in making an admissions decision.
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?
While we do not have a formal work experience requirement, it is the case that the majority of our students have significant work experience prior to their arrival in the program. The average is typically about four or five years. That said, everyone's case is different. We admit some candidates straight from their college studies, and others have more than 20 years of experience. The most important consideration regarding work experience is quality.
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?
The development of critical thinking skills has become a hallmark of our program. "Critical Thinking@Olin" is a comprehensive, integrated, and well developed program which finds its way into almost all aspects of the program. This is true in both curricular and co-curricular activities. Olin is becoming widely recognized as the place that develops great thinkers who in turn go on to become great business and community leaders.
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?
We neither require nor accept letters of recommendation as part of our process. In short, we do not believe letters of recommendation are a legitimate way to assess candidates.
7. Can you give a brief description of the life cycle of an application? What's the timeline applicants should expect?
Often times, it may be several years between our first point of contact with a prospective student to the point when they submit an application. The decision to pursue an M.B.A. is, for many, a long process that is impacted heavily by both personal and professional factors. Within an admissions cycle, however, we have specific application deadlines and notification dates. An applicant should expect to receive a decision anywhere from several weeks to two months from submission. This will vary based on a number of factors, including the specific round within which a candidate applies, the application volume at the time of submission, the staff travel schedule, and the length of time needed to schedule and complete an admissions interview.
8. Which firms recruit heavily from your school? Which firms hire the highest percentage of your graduates?
We draw a wide ranging and diverse set of recruiters to the Olin School each year. They run the gamut from start-up companies to established local and regional employers to national and international Fortune 55 companies. We recognize that no two M.B.A. students are exactly alike, so their goals and ambitions need to be understood and considered before rolling out a cookie cutter approach to the career search. Fortunately, our program is small enough and our staff and alumni resources strong enough to help accomplish this lofty goal.
9. What are some of the most common mistakes that applicants make that hurt their chances of being accepted?
Beyond the obvious—poor academic history, low test scores, weak work experience—an applicant can hurt their chances in many different ways. One of these is to underestimate the importance of the essay(s) and the admissions interview. For schools that receive many applications, there will always be candidates who are competitive on the standard admissions metrics identified above.
Sometimes, the only point of discrimination between these candidates can then be something that is written in an essay or stated in an interview. Often times, these two components lie at the heart of a person's argument for admission. In order to make a compelling case, applicants must have well-developed reasons for attending b-school and must, by extension, have a clear sense of where they came from and where they wish to go.
10. Can you describe the archetypal student for your school?
The idea of an archetype is a bit of a myth. Great business school students come from all sorts of backgrounds—professional, academic, and cultural. We pride ourselves in recognizing that each student has his or her own personal story and future professional horizon. There is no template for the "ideal candidate." That said, we have noticed a common thread that exists in all great students. It is one that is more psychological in nature than anything else. The commonality lies in the passion to learn and the motivation to grow both personally and professionally, to do so within the context of an academic community, and to strive to excel in whatever directions their passion takes them.
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