GyanOne Interviews Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, MBA Admissions team. In this interview, Sara Neher, Assistant Dean, MBA Admissions, talks about how Indian applicants can leverage their experience in tech-focussed job profiles, to strengthen their candidature at Darden.
GyanOne: The Darden MBA admissions process looks at experience, insight, a willingness to contribute, and a history of achievement as the minimum common denominators of the distinguished applicants who make it to the school every year. While academic and professional experience are easy to quantify and discuss, personal characteristics, which can often set outstanding candidates apart from others, are more difficult to explain. What are the key personal qualities that are key for applicants in their Darden MBA applications?
Sara Neher: We are looking for people of integrity with excellent communication skills. Communication skills are not just speaking, but also listening. In the case method at Darden, our students must be willing and able to share their ideas and opinions as well as listen to and learn from the ideas of their classmates.
GyanOne: A number of applicants, especially South Asians, work in technology-related areas, and therefore struggle to communicate direct business impact. How can these applicants (especially those from IT services firms) differentiate themselves in their Darden MBA applications?
Sara Neher: Applicants should not actually concern themselves with “differentiating” – that is the wrong way to approach an application. I would much rather they focus on presenting themselves authentically. You are naturally different, even if you are from the same job and work in cubicles next to each other – you had different families, different educational experiences, and different interests outside of work. Make sure that we know about these experiences and outside interests (in the activities sections during college and currently). IT backgrounds are very in demand by American companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google (some of our biggest recruiters). It is a great background for an MBA.
GyanOne: Applicants from the non-profit sector are increasingly looking at Darden as a great option for MBA education, especially given the Sustainability initiative. How does Darden’s MBA admissions committee look at applicants from this sector, given that the nature of their insights and experiences will be very different from those of others from corporate backgrounds?
Sara Neher: Just like those from IT backgrounds, applicants from non-profit backgrounds are also in demand. Students with in non-profit work have often had more responsibility at a younger age, especially in relation to working with people, and that can be strong experience to highlight in an application. Managing people, whether formally or managing volunteers, should provide a great example for the essay or for the interview. Sometimes those with non-profit experience have also worked outside of the home country – that is excellent exposure to share.
GyanOne: How does the Darden MBA Admissions committee look at applicants with work experience ranges that fall significantly below (say, below 3 years) or above (say, more than 7 years) the average work experience range of admitted applicants? What are some of the ways in which these applicants can differentiate themselves in the admissions process?
Sara Neher: Work experience is a very important criteria for Darden. With the case method, it is extremely important that the students have experiences they can draw upon for their contributions to class discussion. However, length of work experience does not necessarily correlate to strong class contribution. We are much more interested in the quality of work experience and the progression the applicant has shown in a career. One problem I do see with applicants who have not been in a job at least two years (whether their first job or just their current job) is that they don’t have strong enough relationships with superiors to have strong recommendation letters. In addition, we expect a clear career goal. If you are at the younger end of the experience spectrum, I have slightly lower expectations of the career goal because the applicant has not had enough exposure to different career paths. For those with more experience, I have higher expectations that they know what they want to do next and why they want the MBA.
GyanOne: Quite a few students come to the Darden MBA with the objective of changing the job, function, or industry that they have previously worked in. Are such applicants in any way at a disadvantage vis-a-vis others, who may have more consistent pre- and post-MBA career goals? What are some of the ways that such applicants can use to strengthen the quality of their Darden MBA applications?
Sara Neher: I expect all applicants to Darden want to change their industry or function or both. We are very attractive to career switchers and so there is absolutely no disadvantage to wanting to change careers. However, it does need to make sense and the applicant does need to have a strong rationale for why they want their short-term goal (for the short answer essay) and how the MBA at Darden can help them get there (for the interview). Researching the intended career and talking to people doing it now is the main thing applicants can do to strengthen their rationale.
GyanOne: What are the upcoming opportunities for Asian applicants to interact directly with the Darden MBA Admissions committee through information sessions and webinars in the region in 2014?
Sara Neher: Once again, we’ll be traveling throughout the region multiple times in the next calendar year. I was in India this past October and multiple people from Darden will be there again in the fall. We will also have a series of webinars. We also do a chat each Wednesday at 12:30pm that has very few participants. We’d love to have more people use that forum for thoughtful questions and introductions. However, please don’t ever ask “I have this GMAT, will I get in” because there is so much more to it than GMAT!
GyanOne: What is the key criterion used for award of scholarships at the Darden MBA? How important a factor is the GMAT score in determining the award?
Sara Neher: Scholarships are awarded by a faculty committee and are based on merit – how well the faculty think the applicant will contribute to the classroom. They consider the entire application holistically, but certainly higher GMAT scores and undergraduate performance are very helpful.