[PaGaLGuY.com Exclusive Interview] The Darden Admissions Director Interview

The Darden MBA is intellectually intense and we make no apology for that, says Sara Neher, Director of Admissions of the highly rated Darden School of Business, University of Virginia. In an exclusive interview, she reveals statistics about In…

The Darden MBA is intellectually intense and we make no apology for that, says Sara Neher, Director of Admissions of the highly rated Darden School of Business, University of Virginia. In an exclusive interview, she reveals statistics about Indian applicants in the past three years.

Thanks Sara for agreeing to participate in this interview. What is the unique value that the MBA at Darden School of Business offers to its participants?

I would describe the value as High touch, High Tone and High Octane. High touch refers to high engagement. The learning environment at Darden is very active. We are 100 percent case method and class participation represents 40 to 50 percent of each course's grade. Through this collaborative process, faculty and students build strong relationships which is a cornerstone of the Darden experience. High tone refers to highly principled – both due to our connection with the University of Virginia's highly respected honor code and the Darden School's focus on Ethics and Leadership. High octane refers to the depth of commitment both the students and faculty have for the learning process. Darden is intellectually intense and we make no apology for that.

What are some of the latest changes at Darden?

The biggest recent change was to the first-year curriculum. Last spring, electives were introduced into the first year in the final quarter. The goal was to improve flexibility and preparation for summer internships. Thus far, the ability to specialize in a topic related to your internship has been very well-received.

How has the number of Indian students in Darden's MBA classes changed over the past three years? What was the number of Indian applicants to Darden in that period?
Applications Offers Accepts/Defers
2004 227 34 11
2005 213 52 20
2006 335 80 47

(Can't see the table properly on the forums? Click here for a better format)

Is Darden open to accepting students who have followed the 12 plus 3 years system of education that is peculiar to India?

We are definitely open to accepting these students. However, our average student enters with four years of work experience. High quality work experience is a key component of an application to the Darden School.

Could you briefly run us through what an application goes through once it lands on the Darden Admission Office's desk? What kinds of applications usually make it to the interview stage?

When an application is submitted, it is assigned to one of three account managers. That account manager then follows the application through the entire process. Each application is read by a minimum of three members of the Darden Admissions Committee, including the Director of Admissions. We interview candidates with the strongest applications – a combination of leadership in the workplace, leadership in the community, and leadership in the classroom.

This year Darden made major changes to its essays. What was the reason behind this?

This year we have chosen to place word limits on the essays. We believe that strong business school applicants can communicate their messages clearly and concisely in 500 words or less.

Is an applicant who does not write the Optional Essay at any particular disadvantage in the admissions process? How should an applicant decide whether to write the Optional Essay or not?

The optional essay is just that – optional. It should not be used unless the applicant has something to share that does not fit in the regular essays. It should be utilized to explain gaps in work or educational experience and can be very helpful to the committee.

What is the profile of your class of 2008 and do you consciously strive towards structuring your class in a certain way?

The class profile can be found on our website. We are constantly striving to create a balanced class. For the case method to be successful, each section of the class must be diverse – in every definition of the word: work experience, nationality, ethnicity, function, etc. Of interest to the Indian pool is our goal to increase the percentage of international students that make up our class. We are currently around 28 percent, but would like to move to 30 percent for the coming year.

How would you evaluate a typical Indian IT prospective candidate with a 770 GMAT, strong academics and work experience vis--vis a candidate with a 600+ GMAT, uniquely strong and offbeat work experience and average academics? What would your concerns be and how would you like such candidates to assuage them?

The Darden School's mission is to develop leaders in world of practical affairs to better society. I believe that the mission statement is an excellent summary of the type of student who would be a wonderful fit for our classroom. We are also a top business school with high expectations of our applicants' academic abilities, illustrated by both university experience and GMAT. Many candidates are able to balance a lower GMAT with high grades, but average performance in both is difficult to overcome.

What kind of recommendations do you value? Does the recommender have to be somebody senior in the organization?

The most important recommendation comes from the immediate supervisor – someone who can speak to the candidate's performance and potential. Recommenders that can give specific examples of an applicant's work are most helpful.

How much do you value work experience and what kind of work experience is best suited for a Darden admit, especially in the Indian context?

In all applicants not just Indian applicants, we are most concerned with the depth of work experience a candidate offers – both quality and range. Ideally we would see cross-functional experience with opportunities to manage people, budgets, and teams, plus international work experience. The goal is to find leaders and we do that by evaluating the experience and the leadership shown.

Have there been applicants who have gotten into Darden without any work experience? What did they do right? Can you give us an example of such a candidate?

It is rare to arrive at Darden directly from college. Any such candidate would need to have a high GMAT score, very strong academic background, and have significant experience at university in leading extra-curricular activities.

What are the three biggest mistakes people do when they write their essays for the Darden application?

The Darden application consists of three essays. I often see the same topic or experience explored in all three. Please use the space to the fullest. The second mistake is about lists. Do not use the space to list everything you have ever done. A list is neither compelling nor unique. Share an experience and allow us to get to know you through a story. Thirdly, be as specific as possible. Vague goals and generalities do not allow us to evaluate fit or potential.

How much does the brand name of the company where the applicant has worked matter to Darden? Do you value big-name company work experience more?

Top tier work experience and rapid career progression are important, as indicated above. Big-name companies
often offer more opportunities for high quality work experience, especially outside of the home country, but are not the only option. Also, we are very familiar with the type of work done at larger companies. Applicants with non-traditional paths should expect to explain their work experience more thoroughly.

Any essential Must-Do points for the Darden application?

Be honest and allow us to get to know you. We are evaluating both your written communication skills and how well we thing you will fit with the Darden community. Try not to read too much into the questions or the process.

Are women applicants looked at differently in your selection process?

All applicants are viewed in relation to the total applicant pool as well as any distinct pools into which they fall. We have seen very high quality male and female applicants from India so far this year.

How do you look at re-applicants and what do the successful re-applicants do right when they get into Darden?

Successful re-applicants improve their applications in multiple areas – by retaking the GMAT, taking accounting or statistics if they are lacking in their application, restructuring weak or vague essays, and/or visiting Darden in person to better understand how to demonstrate that they are a good fit for the school.

Can you share a rather humorous moment that you had while conducting the admissions process?

I'm not sure about humorous, but we did have an especially nice moment last week regarding a candidate from India. We offered admission to an applicant whose brother is a current second-year student. Our account manager personally called the applicant and was able to also observe as the current second year called his brother to share in the good news. At Darden we believe that business is a human enterprise and positive personal interaction is at the heart of it.

Excellent work Apurv :thumbsup: