The Gatekeeper To Chicago Booth

by on January 11th, 2013

Earlier this year, the University of Chicago awarded an M.D. to its youngest student ever—a 21-year-old who had become a college freshman at the age of nine.

When Kurt Ahlm, the 38-year-old associate dean of student recruitment and admissions for Chicago’s Booth School of Business, is asked if he would ever admit a teenager to the school’s MBA program, he laughs.

“I’d have to see the application,” he says. “Who knows? It’s hard to say. I never say never, because you never know what can happen.”

Indeed, you never do, especially when as many as eight out of ten applicants to a school are typically qualified to attend and succeed in the MBA program. Since becoming the sole gatekeeper of admissions in April of 2011, Ahlm has seen applications to Booth’s full-time MBA program fall by 3% to 4,021 for the Class of 2014 from 4,169 and has made a peculiarly unique part of applying to Booth—a four-slide PowerPoint requirement–optional for this year’s crop of applicants. Booth’s MBA candidates can either submit the presentation or an additional essay to help Ahlm and his team “broaden our perspective about who you are.”

At 38 years, he’s an old hand at the MBA admissions game

Though Ahlm has only been in charge of who gets into Booth and who doesn’t for the past 18 months, he is no stranger to the admissions game. After his 1996 graduation from Northwestern University with a bachelor of science degree, he signed up to work as an undergraduate admissions officer for Northwestern University—a job he kept while earning his master’s from Northwestern in higher education administration. With that new degree in hand in 2000, he joined PricewaterhouseCoopers as a recruiting manager.

But the university life beckoned. Little more than two years later, in the fall of 2002, he left the corporate world for the MBA admissions office at the University of Chicago. Over those years, Ahlm has climbed the ladder from senior associate director of operations to director of full-time admissions operations to senior director to associate dean—while also earning a Booth MBA part-time in 2009. It was Ahlm who dreamt up the infamous PowerPoint presentation part of the MBA application, a requirement that befuddled many an MBA applicant to Booth over the years.

A lifelong Chicagoan and a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan, he and his wife had lived a home run’s distance from Wrigley Field for ten years before moving to the western suburbs with their three young children aged six, four and one about two years ago. “We’re now surrounded by (Chicago White) Sox fans so we have to wave the flag a little bit higher these days,” he says.

Chances of a Booth acceptance are tougher than a ballplayer’s odds of getting a hit at Wrigley

The odds of getting into Booth’s MBA program are slightly less than the chance of a major league ballplayer in a Cubs’ uniform getting a hit at Wrigley. Booth accepts about 22% of its applicants, while the Cubs’ team batting average is hovering around .239.

Ahlm’s admissions team deploys 45 to 50 second-year MBA students dubbed “admissions fellows” to read applications and do campus interviews of applicants. Booth’s sprawling alumni conduct applicant interviews off campus, while a separate group of students also volunteer to help MBA candidates with any questions they might have about the program.

The Admissions Fellows do a first read of every MBA application and then turn it over to an admissions director who also reviews the file independently and makes the call on whether or not to interview an applicant. Slightly less than half of the applicants get pass the first screen for an interview. Second-year MBA students or Booth alumni who only have the benefit of the candidate’s resume—not the full application file—conduct all the interviews. The reason, says Ahlm, is to allow “for great conversation to flow organically as the candidate and the interviewer get to know one another.”

The reports of those sessions are then sent along with the entire file to a different admissions director for review. That person then recommends whether to admit, deny or send the file onto the admissions committee for review. At this point, every applicant gains a final review from Ahlm who says he rarely overturns a recommendation that comes from this process. About 44% of the interviewed applicants gain acceptance to a class with some 575 seats (for a detailed breakdown of Chicago’s application process, see “What Happens When You Apply To Booth).

In a lengthy interview with Poets&Quants, Ahlm explains why relatives should never be among an applicants recommenders, what he dislikes about his job, and how he feels about the increasing use of admissions consultants in the application process. He attempts to describe the often elusive quality of a candidate’s ‘fit’ with the school’s culture and why Chicago Booth remains one of the few top business schools that refuses to accept the Graduate Record Exam as an alternative to the GMAT—a decision that harks back to the days in the 1990s when Chicago MBAs jokingly referred to themselves as ‘digit heads’ due to the heavily quantitative nature of the program.

What have you learned as the director of admissions?

In my old job, a lot of what I thought about was positioning and marketing and how we think about the school. It is something I have always been passionate about. In my old role I kind of had this impression, maybe naively so, that if I had this role I could figure out what lever I could pull to make the difference. It’s a much more complicated and complex beast than I thought it was.

How so?

The students are a big part of the decision process. They have a lot of things that go on in their lives that can influence the decisions they make. It’s a very complex puzzle. It’s one thing to think about it from the perspective of Booth. It’s another thing to put yourself in the shoes of prospective students. You can’t possibly guess all the scenarios. You can only present the best possible case for Booth and allow them to make the best decisions with the information they have. That has been a very valuable thing for me because I do sometimes think that everyone is looking for the magic bullet. It applies to both ends. That was a big revelation that there wasn’t a magic bullet on either side of the process.

There is no formula, right?

No, there is not.

Has anything changed in the year and one-half that you have been head of admissions?

The biggest change was introduced in the year I took this on. We had always been paper-based. I won’t say we are the last to convert to an online system but we were certainly at the tail end of it. We found a great solution that the university had been using that we implemented last year right before we hit the road. There was the anxiety of pulling this whole thing together right as we got going. Part of this was being relatively new to the role and understanding how I wanted it to work. It created some challenges. This past year has been readjusting the way we do things. The way we evaluate candidates has not changed. It’s the process.  It’s been hugely helpful. It provides a tool that allows us to get greater access to information and to be able to work more collaboratively and remotely. It makes us much more efficient.

So you no longer have to deliver crates of documents to application readers?

The most liberating moment for me last year was when I took my iPad and sat down in the coffee shop and was able to do my work and have a cup of coffee without having to schlep bins of materials everywhere or be chained to my desk at home. To be honest, it was enjoyable. Because you’re not staring at this big pile of applications, you’re thinking the file in front of you.

What is the general consideration set for applicants to Booth?

Let me take a step back and explain what I think is important and is not really touched on so often. From my perspective, I am not going to say that I am not concerned about what other schools are in our set. I don’t spend time thinking about those things. I spend a lot more time thinking about what is the right fit for Booth and what is it we’re looking for. It was an affirmation this year that focusing on being transparent and getting the messages out that are distinctively us is what is absolutely critical.

At the end of the day, I know applicants apply to a variety of different schools and there mix is based on a bunch of things that I can’t control nor foretell. So I think about who in our pool do we really want because we think they are the best and the most ideal fit for us. How do I insure they are getting the right information so they can see that as well?

My time is less spent on what other schools are they considering because then you bogged down again in what levers am I trying to pull which confuses the situation. It’s best to stay focused on let’s get the right and most pertinent information to these people and let them make the best decision for them.

Everything we do at Booth is predicated on the notion that fit is critical. At times, we take an uncommon approach or the road less traveled. But it’s always to get to the purpose that we want to get the people who really want to be here and have the potential to thrive in this culture and in this environment. We feel this place is truly distinctive from our peers and that if we are good at communicating that then people should be able to self-identify.

So what are the key attributes you look for in determining fit?

How much time do you have?

There has to be three or four things that are really core, no?

I’ll be honest. If you really want to get to the root of what we’re looking for, I have to take a step back. There is no magic bullet. There is no magic formula. I can state attributes that seemingly are going to look the same as other schools without the context. I’ll try to be brief but it’s something to think about: everything we do here is based on this fundamental notion that the University of Chicago and certainly Booth was founded on a belief that ideas change the world. You can look at the legacy of this institution and the contributions it has made over time and there is this lasting commitment to creating an environment where ideas are at the forefront of what we do.

It’s not just hyperbole or stuff we say. It’s a commitment we have as an institution. If you take that, the issue really becomes how do you translate that in a way that that can be lived out every day.

In order to get an environment where ideas flourish, there are four underpinnings that we really focus on here:

The first is this discipline-based approach. Students who look at Booth are going to see a lot of things related to fundamentals. We don’t have a lot of industry-focused concentrations. The belief is that markets and organizations are connected by these fundamentals: understanding economics, statistics, accounting, and behavioral sciences. They connect everything. If you understand and can break down problems that are unfamiliar into the familiar and build them back up, you will get more lasting and significant idea generation. You can begin to take what is unfamiliar and make if familiar and ask better questions and get the better solutions.

So we look for people who are thoughtful, who are intellectually curious, who like to dig deep and who push for a more profound understanding of material than just the superficial. Again, it’s this routine of questioning and digging deeper and debating issues.

The second thing is this notion of choice and flexibility. For a lot of people, it has become a buzz term: flexibility. This place is built on the notion that the individual matters. Everybody comes in with different skills and aspirations. Everybody has a different purpose for being here.  And so we want students to be able and equipped to fully engage in that process, to dive deeper. But they have to really understand that it is their choice. And the reason for that is that ideas flow in an environment where students have very opportunity to be engaged, not to go through familiar information or relive what they already know, but to take a step beyond. What does that mean? We look for people who are encouraged by that. They love the chase. They are risk takers. They are people who really want to explore issues at a deeper level and subsequently want to get more out of an MBA experience. They are concerned with the experience as much as the outcome. So there is equal weight on the credential as well as the path to get there.

And flexibility means that at Booth there is no lockstep program, right?

Absolutely. You can start taking electives at the beginning or the end. You can totally customize a curriculum. Flexibilty also comes into your decision about what clubs do you participate in? What do your networks look like? What format do you take classes in? It’s everything. People sometimes think of flexibility only in the context of the curriculum, but it is so much more than that. People really design every element of an MBA experience that is completely right for them. That is something that no other school can touch us on. It is a model that has served us well.

The other thing is this notion of diversity. What it means for us is that great ideas are born in an environment where there are many different perspectives and many different fingerprints that touch it. We subscribe to an interdisciplinary approach. We attract students and faculty from all over the world, from all different backgrounds, socio-economic, gender, industry, whatever. The point is we want to have this place that really digs in, debates the issues and thinks more profoundly about stuff. It also presents from a community perspective this respect for a collective diversity and bringing multiple people to the table to solve these problems.

The attributes associated with that is that you want people to have a global perspective, an open mind, who are self-aware, who appreciate the different perspectives and want to bring that in to help solve problems. That is why those things are meaningful to us.

And finally, there is this notion of support. Our dean has this great phrase. He urges people ‘to swing for the fences. We have your back.’ That is what support is for us. We want people to take some risks. We want them to stretch their minds. We want them to get the best possible experience out of their two years here. We want you to get every ounce of positive experience out of this place.

So we’re looking for people who want to take some risks, who are encouraged to step aside themselves and stretch and are open to ask people for guidance and help. It’s this pay-it-forward type of thing: I’ll help you and you’ll help me and we’ll both get to where we need to go together.

How does an applicant make his or her application express those things?

That’s the million-dollar question. Our job is to get that message across, to help people understand that fit is not some random term we toss out there to throw people off. There is meaning behind this.

Is it frustrating to you that most applicants don’t care all that much about fit. They are applying to schools based on rankings, their perception of the brand and their test scores?

Not necessarily. More and more people are becoming sensitive to the fact of where am I investing my time and resources where I think I am going to get the greatest return out of that. Chicago has an unbelievable brand, but the problem is it’s a younger brand. It hasn’t been that long that we have invested the time to let people know about us. All too often, the more frustrating thing is to hear people say Chicago is one of the best-kept secrets. That’s what frustrates me.

When you look back at this past year’s applicant pool, can you recall a specific candidate who would be a quintessential example of this ‘fit’ you describe?

I’d love to give you an example. But there isn’t a magic example I can provide. What is more important to recognize is that we try to create an application and a process that gets at authenticity. There are all these things from the PowerPoint question to the essays and the interview that cut through the superficial and get us to the authentic person. It’s hard to fake all these elements. I’d love to be able to give your readers that classic example but I don’t think it exists.

Do you think the GMAT correlates to success in an MBA program?

Absolutely. I think that has been proven.

Do you think the GMAT is more valuable than the GRE for admissions?

I think it was designed principally for business schools. Right now, we don’t take the GRE.

Why not?

I’ll be honest. Every year, it’s a constant debate about what we’re going to do with that, and every year we revisit it. I think that’s something we’re talking about right now. We wrestle with it because our Ph.d. program does take the GRE or the GMAT. I don’t represent the Ph.d. program so I can’t tell you why. It’s something we think about all the time.

Ok. So you think Booth admissions is different because of ‘fit’ and also because you are the only top ten school, besides UC-Berkeley, that still refuses to accept the GRE. Anything else?

I can’t claim first mover advantage on this but in the last several years we used to really focus on professional recommendations. We moved to making it one professional and one optional to give people more real estate to see which people want to speak on their behalf. Within our peer set, that is something that is important to us.

So how does that play out in the actual pool? Do candidates typically do one professional and one friend or relative?

It stretches the entire spectrum. Not surprisingly, the decisions they make on who to pick for recommenders you immediately begin to see what they value—without reading a word.

So it’s okay to choose your dad, right?

I hope they’re not choosing their dad.

Really. What’s wrong with that?

Being a father of three, I think I would err on saying nothing but great things about my kids.

And what about mothers?

The same deal. Probably more so than fathers.

Who would be the most common non-professional recommender a Booth applicant would chose then if it makes no sense to have your father or your mother in the mix?

Again, I’m going to go back to it’s all context. I’m not going to get the most discerning recommendation letter from immediate family members.

So who’s the most common non-professional reference?

Most people default to professional recs. I see a lot of double professional recs.

Alright then. There is so much process and bureaucracy involved in admissions, I wonder if it’s possible to be an entrepreneurial admissions director. Do you feel you’re an entrepreneur at Booth or a bureaucrat?

It depends on the day. Chicago Booth is a very entrepreneurial place. Everything here is about the choices you make and the substance by which you back those choices up. I’m fortunate that my boss, Stacey Kole, and Dean Kumar really push us to think differently and not accept things as they are but to ask why are we doing this and does it make sense and could we do this differently. There are obviously certain aspects of this job that are fixed and you’re going to have some bureaucracy to it.

Kurt, what’s the biggest mistake candidates make when applying to Booth?

The most common mistake applicants make is to look at an application as a series of tick marks. They don’t really take the time to step back and ask the deeper question: ‘What is it that I am fundamentally trying to communicate and how have I utilized all the components of the application to convey my story or message in the most holistic way?’

The applicants who are most successful are those who think about the question in a strategic way. They see all aspects of the application as chapters in a story, each element revealing a different aspect of who they are.

The simple beauty of this process, more often than not, is that if you are authentic and honest and you think, you’ll be okay. At Booth, we want to teach you how to think, not what to think. So part of this process is helping people think about this. We want to hear why Booth is the best place for an application, not why an MBA program in general is the best place. That is really important to us.

How do you feel about admission consultants and the increasing role they are playing?

I would say I am neutral. The fact is I know a lot of them and many perform a great service. We are living in a world where there is tons of information and a lot of noise. So if you can get people to help you cut through the noise that can be helpful. Consultants who try to get applicants to use them because they have some secret ingredient to get you in, that’s a problem.

I do feel that people need to trust us a little more. I’m not here telling you something that is disingenuous. I’m not trying to confuse people in the marketplace. All too often, people say, ‘the admissions representative said X so that means Y. They are hiding something.’ Look, I’m telling you what you need to know. There is no magic bullet. You have to think for yourself. That’s part of what an MBA program is all about.

If you’re not willing to think in an application process and you want someone to do it for you, that’s going to be problematic.

I’m told that the University of Chicago’s Medical School accepted someone who was only 9 years old and apparently is the youngest university student here ever. Would you have ever accepted a 9-year-old into the MBA program?

I’d have to see the application. If it ‘fits,’ I don’t know. Let’s go back to the core tenets of what we’re trying to do: diversity of perspective, intellectual curiosity. Who knows? It’s hard to say. I never say never. You never know what happens.

Kurt, you remember what it was like to be 9, right? Would you have been prepared to come to Booth and succeed?

Absolutely not, but there may be someone out there who is.

So Kurt, what do you dislike about your job?

It’s funny because I don’t want to sound trite or not honest but I really do like my job. The things I dislike are what everyone has to deal with. It’s like being stuck in an airport in Brazil for nine hours because my flight got cancelled. I wouldn’t have been here for as long as I have been if I didn’t truly love this place. And I wouldn’t have gone back and did the MBA if I didn’t love and believe in this place.

We have been on such a great ride, I’m curious to see where we’re headed. It’s been great.

And with a wife and three young children you probably don’t travel as much as some other admissions directors.

Actually, I do travel enough. I’m a big believer that as a manager, I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do.

THE GATEKEEPER SERIES:

THE GATEKEEPER TO THE KELLOGG SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT
THE GATEKEEPER TO CORNELL’S JOHNSON GRADUATE SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT

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