The Gatekeeper to Michigan’s Ross

by on December 18th, 2011

Soojin Kwon Koh, director of admissions at Michigan’s Ross School of Business

When Soojin Kwon Koh applied to the University of Michigan’s business school in 1997, MBA applicants were given their admission verdicts by snail mail.

If you were accepted, you got a thick envelope. If you were dinged, it was the thin one.

For months, Koh lived in limbo until she received an invitation to interview, and then still more time before receiving her thick envelope. As director of admissions for Michigan’s Ross School of Business, she now tries to minimize the anxiety of applicants who want to get into the school’s prestigious MBA program.

But sometimes even complete candor and straightforward advice in her blog fails to put applicants at ease. Only a few weeks ago, one unhappy round one applicant decried the school’s three-week wait between the first batch of interview invites on Oct. 24th and the second on Nov. 14th. The complainer groused that the wait “takes a toll not only on our psyche, but also on our work and to some extent our family.”

Empathetic but firm, Koh replied that she “completely” understood the pressure the applicant was under and then recalled what it was like when was, too, was an applicant. “It was tough,” Koh wrote on her blog, “But I did my best to focus on the present and try to manage my anxiety. It’s a useful skill to develop as you’ll need to leverage it for so many other things in life.”

For Koh, who became director in 2006, it’s all in a day’s work. At a time when most business schools have been reporting declines in MBA applicants, Ross saw a 7.6% increase last year to 2,929 applications for 501 seats. Explains Koh: “Our dean gave me the direction of no fewer than 500, and the faculty said, ‘Please, no more than 500.’ So I said, ‘Well, would you like me to err on the 499 or 501 side?’ Because there’s a little bit of give, 501 was the better number.”

Whether the upward trend in applications holds is uncertain. In this year’s first round, when typically 35% of the total applicant pool flows in, applications were slightly down. With an upcoming deadline of Jan. 5th, she’s now well into the second round, when 55% of the MBA applications arrive.

Why she wouldn’t hire an admissions consultant

In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants, Koh explains why Ross is putting more weight on interviews this year, why high GMAT scores don’t correlate with success at business school, and why she wouldn’t hire an admissions consultant if she was applying to Ross now. She also describes in detail what happens to an application once it makes an appearance in Ross’ computer systems.

Born in Korea, Koh emigrated to Michigan at the age of three when her father got a job as an engineer at Ford Motor Co. She earned her undergraduate degree in economics and political science at Yale University and then went on for a master’s in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Koh ventured to Washington, D.C. in 1992 for a stint as a presidential Management Fellow in first the Department of Commerce and then the House Appropriations Committee. Koh ended up as a policy analyst for the Senate Budget Committee.

But after four and one-half years, she decided to make a career switch. Koh moved back to Michigan, spent nine months working at Wayne State University on federal relations and applied to Michigan’s MBA program. After graduating in 1999, she went to work for Deloitte Consulting for five years until coming back to the school in the fall of 2004 as senior associate director of admissions.

In her five years as head of admissions, she has seen it all. A few years ago, one applicant turned in a digital disc that contained a mock interview with David Letterman that was dated 20 years from the time of his application.

“What do you attribute your success to?” asked Letterman.

“It was my education at Ross,” the applicant replied.

“I thought this was odd,” laughs Koh. “So I shared the story with a colleague at another school and was told she got the same disc with her school as the answer. It didn’t help this person’s case.”

Our interview with Koh:

When you applied to business school 14 years ago, do you remember what it was like?

It was paper-based. It was a lot easier. You didn’t have to scour the web for every bit of tips and tricks and everybody’s different viewpoints on programs. There weren’t as many rankings at that time. There was a little anxiety, but it wasn’t as stressful. It was still competitive, but there wasn’t this sense of hyper competitiveness. Now people think it is a make-or-break-my-life decision and it’s not. It’s an opportunity maker, certainly, but a lot of applicants these days think that ‘If I don’t get into this one school, my future is doomed!’ And it’s just not the case. There are so many great options out there. As long as you are realistic about the schools you apply to and you give a great effort, you have a good shot.

Michigan is a public institution, yet the business school is quasi-private in terms of the cost of tuition and resources devoted to the school. So my question is how elitist is the admissions process at Ross? If an applicant went to an Ivy League undergraduate institution, would he or she have an advantage over an applicant who went to a state school?

No, it’s not an extra point in our mind. It’s another potentially differentiating factor. We don’t say, ‘There’s this group of applicants who came from Ivy League schools, and there’s this group of applicants who didn’t,’ and look at them differently. That doesn’t happen.

Okay, let’s go at it this way. You have one applicant with a 3.8 GPA from Wayne State University and you have another applicant with a 3.8 GPA from Harvard. Which one would you perceive to be the more desirable applicant?

I would have to see the transcripts. I would want to know how they got that 3.8. What else did they do when they were in undergrad. At Wayne State, they could have been working 20 to 30 hours a week, taking all of the upper-level classes, and president of so many things. So we can’t take a GPA and a school in isolation.

But Soojin, you know that a lot of companies hire MBAs from great schools largely because the institutions are great screens of talent. Aren’t many schools, including Michigan, using undergraduate schools and companies where applicants work the same way, as a screen to avoid risk and admissions mistakes?

At least for us, I can tell you definitively that just the fact that someone went to a certain school is not an influencer for us because of those other factors I mentioned. I feel that the screen for admission to undergraduate is more focused on academics, which is only part of what an MBA program values. So the full-time work experience is probably more valuable to us because they are demonstrating their potential performance after they get the MBA. So the undergrad is a factor. To your point that there are firms and organizations that have a very rigorous screening process, it depends on how they do their screening and what they value in that process.

I will acknowledge that there are definitely some industries have a much more rigorous screening process than others and that does help give us a little more confidence that they have made it though a process that will be similar to one when they graduate the MBA program. Consulting firms do rigorous screening. Teach for America does a lot of heavy screening. Google does intensive screening. Organizations like that give me a little more confidence that these are individuals who have made it through a process similar to what they’re going to confront as MBA graduates.

So tell me what happens when an applicant hits the enter button on his or her computer and sends an application into your office.

We have our back office processors who download all of our information. It goes into a spreadsheet where everyone’s information on the application, beside the essays and recommendations, are input.

Like what exactly?

Their name, where they are from, date of birth, where they went to undergrad or grad school, their GPA, their GMAT or GRE scores. All the breakouts and percentiles. Where they worked, what their title is, where their citizen is and where they currently reside. All that stuff that is on a form.

All this goes onto one massive spreadsheet? You had TK applicants last year. That must me one helluva mind-boggling spreadsheet.

I get the exported Excel version, but it’s in a university database. So we take a look at what the pool looks like, how many people do we have, what’s the distribution of different people, and then we send it all out for review. First, we look through the applications to decide if we’re interested in interviewing an applicant or not.

Who does the first read of an application?

That would be this team, the admissions team.

How many people do you have on your team?

Four people, not including myself. I don’t read applications during the first stage.

I know applicants can spend a week or more applying to a single school. How long does it take one of your staff members to read an application? Two hours?

No.

Three hours?

No.

Less?

Much less. Because we require the interview, the first evaluation is designed to quickly assess ‘is this someone that we might want to know more about?’ So it could be up to half an hour because really we’re making a first pass. Some people will float to the top and we know there’s a lot there and we can quickly assess that this is someone we’re interested in. And then others may go on to a second evaluation before we decide whether to invite them for an interview.

Pretend I’m one of your employees and I just evaluated an application. And I spent 45 minutes on this first read, not half an hour or less. You then get my evaluation, right?

No. It’s entered into our system. All of your comments would be online. They review it online. They comment online.

So then who sees that first evaluation? You?

I can see it and the Senior Associate Director Jon Fuller can see it. But the rest of the team doesn’t see it. Subsequent evaluators don’t see it because we want them to be independent reviews.

And the senior associate director is also a reader as well?

Yes, he is.

And so are their alphabet or numerical grades a first reader puts on an application during the first read?

In the first evaluation, they are looking at the full picture and saying ‘I want to know more’ or ‘I don’t want to know more.’ Basically, the evaluative rating is would like to know more, need additional review, or ready for my review. Those (latter) folks were the ones who were not as competitive in the process. So after someone on the team reviews it and decides we don’t think this person is competitive, then I review it.

Can the first person say, ‘We need to interview this applicant?’

Absolutely. That’s would like to know more. But all applications will get a second review. There are two reviews for everyone who will eventually be admitted, and everyone will be interviewed as well.

But it you’re rejected in the first review, you’re rejected, right?

Possibly. I will read all of them and decide ‘Well, you guys missed someone, or ‘There is a gem in this pile,’ or ‘Yes, I agree with you.’ So there are two paths but not differentiated in terms of admissibility. Some people will be yes, go ahead and invite them to interview because we don’t want two batches. Just to make sure that the process is flowing. What we found is that if we waited until everyone had a second review before interviewing, the window of time to interview hundreds of candidates was just so narrow that it was almost impossible to get them done. So in order to try to keep the throughput going, we decided to go in batches. Some folks will get invited to interview in the first batch after the first evaluation as they continue on to a second reader. We have a team of ten contract readers. Several of them have returned over the years.

Who do they tend to be?

Former admission staff or folks with MBAs or they are also readers for other graduate programs here. But each year we train them anew because there are different questions and ways that we are weighting components of the application. For example, this year I told the reader team to absolutely read the essays but keep in mind that this year you’re weighting the interviews a little bit more heavily. It doesn’t change how they are reading it, but I wanted to orient them to how we will use their assessments in our overall evaluation.

Soojin, you’re putting more emphasis on the interview largely because you’ve become more suspicious that too many applicants are hiring people to write their essays?

Yes. We want the real you. Another thought is that the interview may be a better indication of how successful someone might be in the MBA program and in the on-campus recruiting process. How they present themselves and how they talk about their experiences is important. While it’s very important for someone to have good writing skills and good thought processes, it’s a much different skill set than what you are going to have to use on the job or in an interview process. So we feel the interview will be a more helpful indicator of what will be useful for a business school experience.

What’s the hardest part of evaluating an application?

It’s hard when someone has a really strong academic profile and then their essays miss the mark. You wonder if it is an effort issue or is it an indication of how important our application is to the applicant compared to other schools where they applied. And then in some applications there is the obvious, ‘Wow, this doesn’t look like it could be the writing of this person whose GMAT score or Toefl suggests a different kind of essay.’ And that is what promoted part of my move to focus more on the interviews, the authenticity question.

Do your readers have quotas or guidelines on minimum GMATs or a specific age range, if only to help them deal with the volume of applications?

No. It’s holistic.

So of all the people you accepted last year, what was the lowest GMAT?

I think it was a 600 or a 580. I’m surprised when I hear peer schools admit that they have admitted applicants with GMATs of less than 500.

Of course, as you know there are a lot of people who won’t even apply to a school like Michigan unless they can score a 680 or 700 on the GMAT. They just think the odds are so heavily against them that they don’t have a chance.

That would be unfortunate.

Yes, it would. But what kind of person can submit a 580 to you and still get in?

It’s a whole variety of things: very strong work experience, strong in demonstrated success in an industry that may be underrepresented here or could add value to the learning of classmates, demonstrated leadership potential, and a good fit with us in terms of being collaborative, having emotional intelligence, taking a lot of initiative and being engaged–not just in the substance of their work but things outside their work. It’s an interest in engaging in everything they do. We want them to do things with gusto. They ideally have this real striving mentality, an ‘I-want-to-make-a- difference’ mentality. And it’s not just about social impact. It could be, ‘I want to make a difference in my firm,’ or ‘I am going to lead something,’ or ‘I could see an opportunity.’ Those kinds of people really stand out.

I would imagine you are looking for that in general. But if you have a 580 GMAT then you are really looking for those things in an extreme way and you want to confirm it during an interview. So the other parts of the application assume far more importance, right?

Yes. What we found is students with less than 700 GMAT scores are often leaders in our community. They lead the clubs and organize conferences. They do very well in recruiting, and there’s very little correlation to the GMAT. Every year, at the end of the school year, what we look at is the quality of our incoming class. We look at their GPAs. I ask my director of career development to identify the students who were very successful in the recruiting process and the students who really struggled. I get input from the director of student life on who where the leaders of our school community and who struggled there. I ask our core faculty who were the students who stood out, who were the superstars and who struggled in class. I do the lists of superstars and strugglers and we go back and review their applications to see if there were things we missed or whether there were commonalities among the superstars and strugglers that we should look for going forward.

Interestingly, GMAT has no correlation to who the superstars in the class are. I think there are some applicants who probably put all of their energy into studying for the GMAT at the expense of other things or that is just their predisposition. And they have not emphasized as much of the emotional intelligence or teamwork so they don’t tend to be leaders. That is not to say that everyone who submits a GMAT of 700 or over is not a leader, but it’s interesting to see that there is no correlation. Now the GMAT is supposed to be an indicator of success in academics and even that isn’t always true. The correlation is not that strong because once students get to business school, they re-prioritize. They say, ‘I’m going to put all of my energy into this or that.’ It could be a set of classes or it could be developing their leadership skills. So they have different ways of approaching their experience.

So let’s get back to that application. It comes it and is put into a database. A spreadsheet is spat out of the computer for tracking purposes and then who assigns each application to a reader?

My senior associate director will randomly assign the applications in the first review. After the first screen, the second readers do the full evaluation and theirs is much more thorough. They might spend an hour commenting on everything. No grades. More commentary.

The ones where the first evaluations say they are not competitive in this pool, they come to Senior Associate Director Jon (Fuller) and me and we review them all. And even at that point it’s not final. Valerie Suslow, the associate dean for graduate programs, reviews all the decisions as well. She has a signoff on everyone. Everyone who is turned down or accepted. She is looking at it on a macro level. She’ll get the big spreadsheet and she might say, ‘This looks funny,’ or ‘I want to know more about this one,’ so she may get the file. She’s not reading every single application. Jon Fuller (senior associate director of admissions) and I review all of them.

For the folks who are going onto a second review, there’s the comprehensive evaluation. There’s not a letter grade or number grade, it’s more of a where we think they fall along the spectrum of admits, waitlist, or deny. So the second evaluators do comment on that. WE take that as a recommendation. That is not a final. Then it goes to our region experts. We’ve got three international region experts—one for Asia, one for India, and one for Latin America, Europe and Africa– plus Jon who does domestic. And then they review the file with the interview reports from second-year MBA students and alumni who are trained for this purpose.

How long is a typical interview?

Thirty minutes. An applicant can request to do it in their country with an alum or with a student on campus or via Skype.

What percentage of the applicants do you interview in any given year?

I’d say about 40% to 50%. We try to manage that number. Part of the reason we went to interviews by invitation only is that the number of interviews we were conducting started ballooning. People weren’t taken it as seriously and it didn’t make for a quality interview experience for the interviewers, especially our alumni. Time is valuable, and we want to know that the people who are applying are very serious about Ross and very interested in the school. So when I became the director six years ago, we moved to an interview-by-invitation-only process and it has made for a much more positive experience for the interviewers as well as for the interviewees because they then put their head in the game.

Are there standardized questions asked of every applicant in the interview?

There are suggested questions but what I really provide guidance around are the dimensions that I want us to evaluate applicants on. I encourage interviewers to develop their own questions that would support their ability to answer our questions about teamwork or leadership or interest in Ross or the rationale for an MBA. Some of those questions are pretty obvious and there may be only one way to ask them, but others where we are trying to gauge teamwork experiences or emotional intelligence I provide suggestions.

We want to see, 1) a sense of professional direction; 2) a sound rationale for getting an MBA; 3) the ability to navigate complex group dynamics; 4) the potential to be engaged in the community, and 5) fit with Ross generally. And then we want our interviewers to assess their personal characteristics: How do they present themselves, how well do they communicate, and could you imagine this person as someone in your network?

Their ability to communicate in English is important, too. One of the things we found is that we are so intensively team-based and discussion heavy that it is critical our students are able to communicate in English successfully. Recruiters said the same thing.

How do you get this feedback? In letter grades, numbers, commentary, or all of the above?

There is a final rating of, ‘Yes, I think this person will be a great fit.’ Or, ‘I’m not sure this person will be a great fit, but maybe their application has more information on areas I wasn’t clear on.’ Or, ‘I don’t think this person will be a good fit.’ It’s one of those three categories.

This is an online form so they provide comments on each with examples of why they think this person has a good rationale for an MBA. We request the evaluation within 24 hours of the interview, and last year we didn’t have to hunt anybody down. We tell interviewers that ‘you could be the reason we delay a decision on a candidate and they’re pushed to the next round. Please don’t be that reason.’

After the regional experts look at it in concert with the interview, they make a recommendation. Then, the senior AD gets it and looks at the overall pool. He might say, ‘We have too many people who are consultants.’ He takes first pass and then I take the second pass. There’s a lot of shifting about. We’ll waitlist some, un-waitlist other people, until we get to a number based on our historical admission rates. After I look at it, I send it on to Valerie (Suslow) who looks at the whole thing and once she blesses it we start communicating with the candidates.

How do people find out if you’ve accepted or rejected them?

This is something I blogged about because I see on the forums that there is a lot of anxiety waiting for the Jan. 15th notification rate. Some of them would say, if they can start making the calls two days prior, why don’t they post the decisions two days prior?’ So I put it out there: Hey guys, you want to know two days prior. Just go check your decision online or if you are going to get a good decision, do you want to hear from us?’ Overwhelming, it was ‘stick with the calls. We love getting the calls.’ Applicants, prospective students and our current students weighed in on my blog, on Facebook and by emails. They said we love having that personal connection with the students who would potentially be a part of our student body.

The initial you’re admitted call comes from myself and the senior associate director.

And when you turn someone down does he or she get a phone call?

No. We email everybody the Friday before decisions will be released to say your decisions will be posted on Jan. 15. Don’t forget to use your email ID to check your decision online.

What percentage of interviewed applicants are accepted?

A high percentage, maybe 70%. I don’t know off the top of my head. Well, we try to interview people who are going to be wait listed as well so we get those assessments in advance. Those in round one who get waitlisted may stack up higher against those applicants in round two. So it’s nice to have already completed the interview.

How do you feel about applicants going on a forum and posting the questions they were asked by one of your interviewers?

I know that it happens and I can’t prevent it. I understand the desire to get the questions. If you are a smart person you’re going to figure out what an admissions committee might ask and you can prepare on your own anyway. If you want to short circuit the process and find the questions online, fine. At the end of the day, you are still going to have to tell your stories in your way. No one can do that for you.

I know that there are interview consultants and coaches out there, too. There is a consultant for everything. It’s hard to know who you’re getting anymore. At least the interview is probably the most accurate picture that you’ll get of how someone will be when they are in class or sitting in an interview for a job.

How personally invested do you get in the applicants? Do they become real people to you from the piece of paper that represents their application?

Not so much. It’s hard. After the interview, a little bit more. The people become most real when we are able to meet them in person. So many times they don’t become real to me until I meet them at our admitted student weekend, or if I met them when we were doing information sessions or other recruiting events. Then at least I got a mental picture of what is this person’s presence like and can match it with the application.

For the staff, too, they become personally invested. It’s only natural that once you meet someone and then you read their application, it’s easier to become an advocate for them. Or the converse can be true: You meet someone and you say, ‘Oh, not such a good fit. They look so good on paper, but oh my gosh, in person I had such a different experience.’ So it can work either way.

Many people believe an applicant’s chances in the first round are best because none of the seats in the class have been filled. So you probably aren’t weeding many people out to balance a full class. Is that true?

No. We know that we can waitlist if we are not sure about somebody. We review that with each subsequent round.

Being waitlisted can be a real drag for an applicant. Last year you put 472 people on the waitlist and admitted 131 of them. Do you have guidelines on how big your waitlist should be?

It’s more natural. It happens when we review an application and we’re just not sure that we have a place yet. It’s not a matter of we want to have only 100 people on the waitlist and that’s the only number we allow. We let it be as big or small as the evaluators see fit. But we try to minimize the stress of being on the waitlist. If an applicant is waitlisted in round one, we communicate with them again in round two to say if there is a positive decision, we will let you know with the round two folks, if not sooner. If you don’t hear from us that means you will remain on the waitlist, but know that we are still reviewing you. When we get to the summer, we try to release as many folks as we can. If we know that we only got ten spots in the class that we are flexing, we are not going to keep 300 people on the waitlist. So we try to winnow it down as much as we can as we go.

For the second evaluators, we highly encourage them not to waitlist people. So I ask them, ‘If you had to tip the scales one way or the other, which way would you go?’

If you’re on the waitlist at Ross, are the odds against you?

Not necessarily. It means you were admissible. We’re interested in you, but we need to wait and see. It’s a matter of do we have room in the class, and we won’t know that until we see how many people have accepted the offers of admission.

Do you think you’re looking for anything different than the peer schools you compete with for applicants?

We are all looking for leaders who are team players who have accomplished a lot and are really smart and fun to be around. In that way, I would be surprised if any school said it was looking for something other than those very generic qualities. Part of the differences may come in the kind of people who apply to a particular business school. There is probably a bit of self-selection in advance. People who don’t enjoy collaborative study will not apply to a Ross or Kellogg. If they are more quantitatively, independently focused, they would not choose to apply here. Our selection process is facilitated in some part by having a clear identity of who we are and what we offer. Candidates know some of those subtle differences.

I’m sure you get candidates who try to pull strings. Does that help?

It’s another piece of information. We say thank you for it. But if someone is just not qualified, they’re not going to get in. Let’s say they do know somebody. I don’t let the readers know that. That’s just something I know in the back of my head so that the dean or the associate dean are not blindsided by someone who calls and says, ‘What do you mean?’

What if the children or grandchildren of Stephen Ross apply and are rejected? His name is on the school. That can’t be good.

Here’s what I tell our development officers: ‘Don’t bring people with connections to me after they have applied. There’s nothing I can do with them. But encourage them to be as competitive as they can by taking a GMAT class or getting work experience or anyone of us can do a counseling session in advance.’ Once the application is submitted, there’s nothing I can do with that. And if they are not qualified, I can’t do it.

If you were applying to Michigan’s MBA program today instead of in 1997 would you do anything differently?

I would be completely stressed. Gosh, I would be out there reading all of those things. I would be reading books and would probably think about getting a consultant. I really would. But in the end, I wouldn’t.

Why wouldn’t you get a consultant?

I want to get in on my own merits. If I don’t get in on the basis of what I can do, than how do I know I can do what I said I could in the application once I get to business school. I’m not serving myself by not doing my own work.

What do you dislike about your job?

No one says when I grow up I want to be an admissions director. That’s not what I said when I went off to college. But now that I’m here, this is the most fun job I’ve ever had. It allows me to pick up a lot of things I learned in business school. I do a lot of marketing and work hand in hand with the marketing team to come up with our messaging, our website, and the materials. I love understanding the voice of the customer and having an MBA helps me connect with that mindset better than someone who might not have had that experience. It’s really fun thinking about how we talk to candidates now. When I first started, it was so print heavy and email after email. And now there is so much social media and informal guerilla marketing that we try to do. When I came in I viewed this as a consulting project. There were so many process things that could be improved upon. So a lot of my first couple years were spent developing and documenting processes. So that when somebody leaves, we don’t get left in a hole. We established very clear processes so we can do this very efficiently.

What’s the best advice you can give an applicant?

I don’t think candidates believe us when we say it but we really mean ‘be yourself.’ They think they should be this business school candidate prototype. The packaging is a concern. I don’t know if it is them or a consultant wrapping a bow on them. If someone is trying to coach you on the inside track or process, it becomes obsolete quickly. We change our process literally every year. A lot of the purported value that some admission consultants provide is given to you by the source. Just go to the source. Ask us. You don’t even have to ask for that information. We give it freely. So why would anyone say they are giving you the inside scoop. You don’t have the inside scoop because that was last year’s scoop or the year before that. And even then, that was only part of the picture so how can they say they know what the process is.

Would you ever become an admissions consultant?

You know I thought would I ever do that and I don’t think that I could because I don’t think it’s fair to admission offices that I know what will get you in. Because you don’t. If you are saying I can help you write better or think about yourself in a different way, sure. I can see the value in someone doing that. Would I want that for myself? Right now I can’t picture that.

DON’T MISS: THE GATEKEEPER TO HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL or THE GATEKEEPER TO STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS or THE GATEKEEPER TO THE WHARTON SCHOOL OF BUSINESS

1 comment

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