Q&A; with Sherry Wallace, Admissions Director, UNC Kenan-Flagler

Ranked 16th among US business schools by BusinessWeek, University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School is popular among Indian applicants and accepts a median GMAT score of 690 for its MBA class of 298 seats. PaGaLGuY interviews Sherry Wallace, director of MBA admissions to learn about the post-MBA job market in the US and the bearings it has on the expectations that international applicants to US b-schools must keep.


What does your role entail and what are the measures of performance for your department?

I am the director of admissions for the fulltime MBA programmes at Kenan-Flagler, UNC. I also have a colleague who manages financial aid and who reports to both the MBA programme office and to the university. At our institution, financial aid is guided by the main financial aid office of the university.

My office is responsible for the incoming students, from their recruitment to our communication about the benefits of our MBA programme to the students and also for the selection of the students. So I am responsible for the generation of the applicant pool from which we are going to select and the establishment of the criteria against which we sort, evaluate and select the students.

Admission teams do not act alone, obviously we are acting on behalf of the university and the business school. The criteria I set is going to reflect where we’re trying to be as a b-school as well as the reality of that year as well as the demands of that year’s applicant pool. So it’s very dynamic and we’re constantly shifting and using new data to revise and tweak the class that comes in.

My team and I are measured on the kind of class that we bring in. Is it the size and quality that we expected, how well do they do in the programme academically and socially. And obviously how successful they are after leaving the programme. That is measured not only by how successful they are at meeting their career objectives after leaving the programme, but also by how successful our alumni are in the long term.

How has the applicant pool at Kenan-Flagler been for the 2012 admission cycle. Have you observed any effects of the economy on the quality or quantity of the pool?

The applicant pool changes every year and this year has been no exception. In general we have seen a smaller overall pool this time. It looks like we are going to end this year with slightly fewer applications than we had last year. It was apparent from the first round and has been very consistent since then. We’ve seen a greater decrease in the number of domestic US applicants than we have seen in the overall international pool. Among Indians, we are seeing pretty much no change in the pool size. It might be slightly down but certainly not indicative of the overall market. This was only from the point of view of quantity. In terms of quality, in terms of the decisions our committee has made, and based on our application ratings which are given after the applications are read by three members of the admission committee, we are not seeing that our evaluations are down. So it appears that the pool is smaller, but the quality has remained consistent.

Any industries or backgrounds whose representation has increased or decreased in the pool?

I haven’t done a thorough analysis yet on the applicant pool so I have not discovered all the tid-bits, but today we are not seeing anything standing out as being significantly different. Over the last few years, we are seeing fewer of the corporate banking or finance experience students, but not a very significant decrease. What I am seeing is that many people are seeking their post-MBA jobs in marketing or in digital marketing. Our school is especially popular among students who want to work in sustainability or sustainable practices. But yes, there are still a great number of students who want to go into investment banking or consulting, and that hasn’t changed much.

While sending their admission applications to Kenan-Flagler, do the post-MBA objectives of applicants have to be realistic in relation the prevailing economic scenario?

The truth is that when we are evaluating candidates based on their short term and long term goals, we are considering what an applicant does on a number of levels. There are a number of checks, like whether the post-MBA goal is well-thought out and rational. Often applicants write down a goal and we ask them a couple of clarifying questions and realise that it is not a very firm or informed or well-thought out goal. We want to see if the applicant understands that goal and do they know what they are saying. We check if they have really assessed themselves against the qualities and skills required for the job, or is it because the job looks like a fun job that pays well. Then we look at their background, academics, what the recommenders say about them, their past academic and test scores to see if they are attractive to hiring organisations.

A little more difficult is making a market assessment, because you have to recognise that we are working two to two-and-a-half years in advance. So if I make a decision based on what the market looks like today, the market might be very different when the student graduates. So yes, we pay attention to the current market condition, but I doubt if we can let the market drive us too much. One of the thiings most important to us when it comes to international students is trying to be as transparent as we can. I believe that someone who wants to do an MBA in the US and is not a US citizen needs to understand how feasible or attractive they are to the US job market regardless of the school they graduate from. I don’t want to help someone make a decision that is not for the right reasons and without good information. So once students are admitted, we give them as much data as we can about what international students are facing today and how things are looking now. We encourage them to talk about international students. I am never going to tell anyone what they can or cannot do, because all of that is going to be a result of how hard that student works and what he or she brings to the table. But I can let them in general see what the path looks like, so that they can make informed assessments of the risk.

Does that mean that the career services office is also involved in assessing admission applications?

Absolutely. The career service officers work with us. We are constantly checking with them if we have a question about the candidate. Our career services team have to be there for students that are currently studying in Kenan-Flagler so I can’t turn them into admissions people because they have their own jobs to do. But yes, we work very closely with them and make them educate us and consult to us as much we can. So we want to bring in people who have the best post-MBA opportunities available to them.

Can you recall a case from recent times in which the applicant’s goal was not realistic but it was a borderline case?

Most of the time when we have a candidate who looks fantastic in every way — very well spoken, has demonstrated that he is a great team player, had good impact on the organisation, or has competitive academics and test scores, that kind of a candidate is not going to be the one that’s going to have a goal problem. Because these are all signs of a very mature and practical candidate. Sometimes we see candidates who have lesser experience, who they tend to be a little more idealistic and not as educated about various industries. We don’t want to be looking at candidates who are looking at the MBA as some sort of a magic wand. What you’re going to encounter after the MBA is going to be a function of what you had brought to the MBA programme and the skills that you added, and how you are going to leverage them to tell your story moving forward. I want applicants to understand that they don’t get to erase their whole background because now they’ve got an MBA. What they can do is complement and reposition and repackage what they’ve done so that they are able to solve problems in the organisations that they’ve targeted to be part of after b-school. So if people can’t do that, they would usually fail our goal feasibility test.

Any other countries from where the increase or decrease in applications stands out?

We saw an increase in the number of applications from Japan, Taiwan and Israel. There are consistent volumes from China, Brazil and South Korea apart from India. The big drop for us was from the US.

What kind of an applicant is the best fit to study at Kenan-Flagler?

In general, when we are considering applicants, there are two levels. First, whether the candidate is academically prepared to do well in the programme and whether they will raise the overall bar of the academic experience. That’s going to cover everything from how they’ve done in their college before and how well they will be able to communicate with each other and the professors. The second hurdle which is way more subjective and much harder, is that of all these people who are admissible, which ones do we really want and who is going to represent the best combination of talent in the programme?

So we want to know how people are going to represent the range of industry experiences that we want in the class and are these people that hiring organisations really want.

People who stand out are those who are very strong in terms of how they stack up with people from their country and industry. Having the ability to work with others means a lot o us. We deny admission to candidates who have excellent intellectual capability and the highest test scores if we don’t see them as people who will survive in an environment where working through others is just as important as their own individual accomplishments.

So the interview and what your recommendations say about your impact on the organisation is also important. We also look at people who really want to be at UNC. That does not mean that everyone who gets into UNC had it as their first-choice school, because that is probably not true at all. But we want to believe that there is a reason that UNC is one of the five or six or ten schools that they applied to and with good reason and goal compatibility. We have a very specific approach to business education and our culture and values are pronounced. And there is a kind of person who is going to do well here and be content. And then there would be another kind of person who may not be the best fit. So we are also looking for people who fit where we want to go as well.

When you’re looking at past academic performance, how do you reconcile between different universities and their scoring systems, especially in India where most undergraduate education does not use relative grading?

The good news is that because we have been receiving applications from all over the world since many years, we have a good sense of what is a good score in a particular environment. We try to look at the students’ performance in their country and how well they did in their environment. The breadth of applicants from India has been so much greater than in the old days.

When we opened our criteria to include the three-year BCom-type degrees from India, it allowed us to see a greater representation of Indian applicants. But foreign applicants should not worry about the academic scoring part. Often foreign applicants send us some background information about their college’s scoring system because they are afraid that we may not understand their score. We do not mind receiving that but it’s not really necessary because we do have a lot of experience evaluating and we use experts in the field whenever we have a question about a particular school system.

How can an applicant demonstrate to you that their past bad academics are not an accurate representation of what they are capable of now?

We have a number of candidates every year in that kind of a situation, who say that the person you see in the college grades is not the person they are now. And sometimes there are very specific situations, like people who were undergoing a personal crisis at the time. The admissions committee is very interested in knowing the reason behind bad academic performance. There is an additional essay that students can write containing that explanation. But the best thing someone can do to show that they are now different is to create a new academic record. If you attended university 7-8 years ago and your grades are not good then maybe you should take a course near your university now, preferably related to the MBA like accounting or economics or statistics. That is a great way of showing us how they perform now. The other way is to use the GMAT score. We know that the GMAT score varies by country but we know that it is one common exam taken by everybody. So sometimes we try to look at the combination of the GMAT and the academics to get a true picture.

The hard part though is that just because you convince us that you are more capable than your past academic record does not mean that you are through. I still need a reason to pick you over these ten candidates or those ten candidates. So sometimes you can be very convincing but it’s just that someone else looks as good as you but he didn’t have the academic performance problem. That is a reality of admissions.

When you suggest that people can take an extra course and perform better in it, does it have to be a degree course?

Not at all. But it has to be a competitive course in a highly regarded school or university. Sometimes you might want to do this course just so that you can be more prepared for an MBA, in which case we would be more interested in knowing what knowledge have you gained rather than your scores. But I think that we probably pay more attention to the quality of the work record than we do to the academics. No matter how good you are academically, if you don’t show why somebody is going to want to hire you after business school, then your chances are going to reduce.

It is said that admission committees expect higher GMAT scores from countries with strong math education such as India and China. Is that true?

It’s not so much that we look for them, but we just get higher GMAT scores from these countries. If you are trying to show us that you are among the best of what we’re seeing this year, and if your GMAT score is among the lowest of what we see from people with similar education and experience, then it’s going to be hard for you to stand out not only among those like you, but also among the larger applicant pool. So it is absolutely true that in markets where the average GMAT scores are higher, the candidates who are successful at getting admission to our school are going to have higher GMAT. But that does not mean that we do not sometimes admit someone whose GMAT is relatively low for India or China? We do. There may be other parts of their application that were outstanding. It’s not just a GMAT game. If it were that then all we could have done is write a formula to calculate the highest GMAT and grant them admission. The decision is clearly a lot more complex than that.

What is your view of the Next Generation GMAT? If someone has taken the GMAT before June 2012, should he take the GMAT again with the new pattern to stand a better chance at UNC?

Absolutely not. The GMAT score is valid for five years and whenever you take it is fine. I am excited about the new features of the GMAT such as the integrated reasoning (IR) section. I like data and it’s always nice to have more data but I don’t expect to be making significantly different decisions based on the new GMAT scores. If anything, we are going to watch it and try to do some reconciling over the next few classes that come in. If we can see that students’ performances in the classroom or their attractiveness in the job market starts to correlate to the IR section, it could very well shake our decisions but I do not expect that we are going to make any significantly different decisions right now. It is too early to do that.

So one need not take the GMAT again with the new section?

Not at all. I mean take it by all means because it sounds interesting. I am myself tempted to take it just to see what it would say about me. But if you have a valid GMAT score, it is sufficient.

Is it true that b-schools in the US are increasingly preferring younger applicants because they are more employable in industries such as finance and consulting of late?

I can’t speak for other schools, but it’s not true at Kenan-Flagler. Our students might be getting slightly younger but I’m talking about a change from 60 months of work experience to 56 months on an average. But we have not joined some of the other top MBA programmes that are actively taking students right out of undergraduate school. Recruiters who take students from our schools frequently have told us that they still value that deep work experience. Last year’s class had four people in the class with lesser than two years of work experience and only one with no work experience.

What is your assessment of the job situation in the US compared to how it was two years ago?

2009 was an all-time low for our school in the job market. We had probably some of the lowest overall students employed before graduation. In the last two years, we have seen a lot of improvement in the job market and how our students are doing. It has got a lot to do with the market and to some extent with the quality of our students who are more focused in the current scenario. But it’s difficult to predict a cause or effect. Over the last few years we have tried to add more resources to our career management team so that they could help students prepare and help them have a good plan B and C. We created more programmes for international students. Firstly, not all international students are looking to work in the USA although many are and we recognise that. But we also have many international students who do not come to the MBA programme expecting to work in the US. They have many opportunities back in their own countries or some third country so we are not evaluating them to see how well they could get a job in the US. But we do know that many are coming to the US because at least in the short term they are looking to work in the US. So we try to give them the information so that they can make an informed decision. We have an i-class or an international class in which our career services team and communications professors help students get accustomed to some of the networking and social skills that are common in the US. We are also helping our international students to network with our huge alumni network across the world. Many alumni who were in the US earlier have now gone back to their home countries because the global markets are sometimes better than the US markets. Our alumni in various countries can sometimes be good resources for students who want to work outside the US.

What are the challenges in acquiring a work visa in the US after finding a job?

I don’t think there are any challenges once you get a job. One of the challenges in getting a job in the US is having an organisation that is willing to sponsor your work visa. That is a challenge. Last year our career management team reported that about 40% of the companies that interviewed on the campus were those that were open to hiring international students. So if you are an international student, you are looking at playing with about half or 40% of what a domestic student is playing with. It’s important for international students to understand that not every company that is coming on campus for recruiting is open to hiring international students. That becomes important when international students are doing a feasibility check. It’s very important for an international student to have a solid plan about finding work in the US but despite doing their best nobody can guarantee it. So what is their next alternative and are they going to be okay with those alternatives? My suggestion is that if they are not going to be okay with the alternatives, then they may want to think if they really want to do their MBA in the US.

Is the willingness to look at alternatives something that you check during admissions?

We do try to get a sense of the candidate’s flexibility and their preparation but you must know that we can’t always gauge that. What a student says may not necessarily be what he does after two years. Applicants should be concerned about this themselves rather that I checking them for it. I want to signal to applicants that it’s not automatic. That you cannot absolutely be guaranteed a job in the US. So applicants should be thinking on the lines of how hard they can work, what are the odds of something happening and if it doesn’t happen then if there is something else that will be acceptable to them. That’s what we want to see. Many international students do get jobs in the US and they do great and I hope that happens for everyone who wants it. But I cannot make that guarantee and it’s important that students understand this when they make the decision to join a school.

What other expectations should international students get a reality check on before they decide to study an MBA in the US?

The number one thing is that nobody can guarantee them a job. But what we can guarantee is that they will get excellent career support, advice and counselling in everything from helping them tell their story to building their resume, interviewing, etc. They should absolutely expect their school to give them those types of services. They should expect us to help them connect with their alumni network and other relationships that the school has. The thing is that no matter how great the community is, nobody can do the job interview for them. We can prepare them, build relationships with the companies and help them come on campus. More and more firms are doing more of their recruiting outside of the campus. With all the new digital ways to interact, students are contacting firms on their own. So students should expect that the job search is going to be a combination of what’s available on campus and also what they are doing beyond that on their own. A lot of students for example focus their entire energies on looking for consulting, which is very competitive whether in our school or elsewhere, and they completely ignore other options. They often have to then start later in building contacts and relationships with other firms that they had better chances with while they were continuing to go after consulting.

How can a student finance their MBA at Kenan-Flagler?

There are two ways. The way that most people love is to get a scholarship or a fellowship. A fellowship requires nothing else but staying in good standing academically. It would be given to you at the end of the first year and it would continue to your second year as long as you continue to demonstrate the same academic ability. A scholarship may range from a full tuition waiver to one that might be a partial tuition award. There are $10,000 awards or $25,000 awards to, for example. Each year, a little more than 25% of the students are awarded scholarships.

Apart from the scholarships, we have a loan that the school underwrites for international students. The cap on this loan is $50,000 per year. So in the second year the cap is going to be slightly below the tuition. I do not encourage anyone to do an MBA if they must fund 100% of their education using loans. That creates quite a high hurdle. Sometimes how a student finances their MBA drives their career outcome. We have heard of cases where a student could have taken a job they liked but it didn’t fit because they had to make a certain amount of money in order to pay back the loan. Students need to understand what kind of predicament they are going to put themselves in if they choose to finance the education using a loan. We continue to offer the loan, even though it is risky for the university. Thankfully the university hasn’t incurred any substantial losses because of the loan programme but it is something we evaluate every year from our risk management perspective. So far we are planning on having the loan for the coming year.

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