Behind UCLA’s Surprising 22% Surge In MBA Apps

by on October 7th, 2012

Rob Weiler, associate dean of the full-time MBA program at Anderson

For four straight years, MBA applications have gone in one direction: down. Some of the world’s most prominent business schools have not been immune from the downward spiral, especially in this past year. MBA applications plunged by double-digits at the business schools of Columbia, Michigan, and New York universities.

So how in the world did UCLA’s Anderson School of Business manage to report a whopping 22.3% increase in applications to its full-time MBA program? The rise helped Anderson lower its acceptance rate for this year’s entering class of 359 students by six full percentage points to 22.6% from 28.6% a year earlier and, with other changes, virtually assures a significant rankings pop when U.S. News comes out with its new list next year.

What’s more, UCLA achieved the gain in a year in which it took an aggressive public stand against plagiarism by applicants. In the first and second application rounds, Anderson rejected 52 applicants who the school believed were plagiarizing the answers to the required MBA application essay questions. By going public with the issue, the school in all probability scared off hundreds of other potential applicants.

UCLA bested higher-ranked California rivals Stanford & Berkeley

The school also referred another 50 full-time applicants to its executive MBA and part-time MBA programs. If you added another 100 or so applications to the 3,335 Anderson counted, it would have boosted its applicant pool by 26% in a year when two thirds of all the business schools in the U.S. reported declines. California, generally considered a highly desirable place to study, played little role in the upswing. UC-Berkeley’s MBA applications fell by nearly 3%, while Stanford’s Graduate School of Business saw a slight 1.5% increase.

Anderson’s result: a significantly more sizable applicant pool with no decline in quality. The average GMAT score and undergraduate grade point average for the entire pool was exactly the same as the previous year. Among the newly enrolled class, those numbers also stayed the same: a 704 average GMAT and a 3.5 GPA, while UCLA boosted the percentage of women in its incoming class to 34% from 28% a year ago.

Yet, the most important benefit of the accomplishment is yet to be seen. Anderson believes it has entered a class that is likely to post higher placement rates and better starting salaries because the school more closely aligned its admissions policies with its career development goals. That change should also help Anderson in the rankings game where starting salaries and placement statistics weigh heavily.

Much of this is the handiwork of Rob Weiler, a tall and wiry 1991 Anderson alum who returned to the school five years ago as an executive-in-residence after a 16-year stint in finance with Goldman Sachs, Union Bank of Switzerland, and Trust Company of the West.

“He joined us after a successful career in private wealth management, out of a strong sense of mission,” says Andrew Ainslie, Anderson’s senior associate dean. “Believe me, we can’t afford to pay him anything near what he used to earn. And it shows in everything that he touches.”

Soon after joining Anderson in 2007, Weiler became assistant dean of the school’s career management center, and when Mae Jennifer Shores left Anderson in 2009, he took on the additional job of student recruitment as interim director of MBA admissions and financial aid. In one of those rare cases of serendipity, both the inputs of a business school—who to admit–became tightly aligned with the outputs—how to get them jobs.

Targeting 45,000 potential applicants from Anderson’s database

Weiler’s first move was to use the 45,000 contacts—ranging from people who previously inquired about the MBA program or actually applied but were turned down—in an Anderson database to do a targeted mail campaign. The outreach emphasized new and novel changes in the school’s MBA curriculum that became effective last September. The changes resulted from what the school called “intense research and discussions” with employers to better insure that Anderson grads enter the job market with deep expertise in their chosen fields.

The school’s targeted emails didn’t merely invite people to apply. It explained in detail why an applicant should consider Anderson, directly tying the school’s curriculum changes to what it expects will be better career outcomes for its graduates.

Emphasizing fit and employability in admissions

“We were conscious of not chasing GMAT or GPA,” explains Weiler. “We wanted the right people here to have the best career outcomes. We wanted to make sure we were emphasizing fit and employability. That was the goal.”

It helped that Weiler is an enthusiastic ambassador for the school. “His passion,” adds Ainslie, “shows in every talk he gives to prospective students.”  It also helped that of four key staff members under Ainslie, Weiler and three assistant deans in charge of student affairs, admissions and careers, three are alums of the program and the fourth has been at Anderson for more than 30 years. “You cannot buy the sort of commitment that they give to this institution,” says Ainslie.

Anderson was able to execute its turnaround while in the midst of a potentially distracting effort to attain self-supporting status for its full-time MBA program. That highly publicized and controversial initiative was wending its way through the university’s bureaucratic channels. Anderson Dean July Olian has led that effort to end state support of the MBA program, leaving the day-to-day operations of running the school’s flagship program to Ainslie and his team.

Weiler personally read every one of the 3,335 MBA applications that came in

Weiler says he personally read every one of the 3,335 applications received by Anderson to insure that each admit had both the “culture fit” with the school and the “career fit” that would enable Anderson to give them a positive outcome. “We wanted people who would come in and have the skills to achieve their goals,” he says.

To more effectively screen for those applicants, Weiler put greater emphasis on admissions interviews. He reduced the number of interviews done by alumni, particularly in remote locations, in favor of Skype sessions with admissions staffers or second-year MBA students. “The interviews are where the rubber meets the road,” he says. “If an interview didn’t match up with the essays, suddenly the truth comes out. We used those data points to connect the dots.”

Weiler thinks that even the strong position Anderson took on plagiarism was a plus. “What it did was alert people to the fact that we were really being cognizant of ethics and morals,” he says. “For most people, that was something they wanted to be part of. There were a significant number of people we threw out of the pool. Some of them could have had 750 GMATs and 3.9 GPAs.” The school says that 74 applications, roughly 2% of its applicant pool, set off its TurnItIn software alert for having 10% or more of any essay copied from other sources.

This year’s enrolled class is 4% smaller than last year’s class

Ultimately, the school enrolled a class that was 4% smaller than a year earlier, largely because it had miscalculated the year before and enrolled more than its annual intake target of between 355 and 360 students. “We want to be exactly one or two people on either side of those numbers,” says Weiler.

Weiler, meantime, has received yet another promotion to associate dean of the full-time MBA program. “As associate dean, his footprint will be extended,” says Ainslie. “Not only has he now had a very palpable impact on our career center and our admissions process, but he will now help oversee the integration of all these aspects.”


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