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Sage Advice for Darden MBA Applicants

by Stacy Blackman Consulting, Mar 22, 2024

Is the highly ranked UVA Darden School of Business on your MBA shortlist? Then don't sleep on today's post with advice for Darden MBA applicants. As regular readers know, Stacy Blackman Consulting is the only MBA admissions firm with a complete panel of former AdCom officers from all the top programs—including Darden. So, we're tapping SBC consultant Marc Paulo—aka MPG—for insights gleaned during his three-year stint as Darden's Associate Director of Admissions focused on diversity recruitment.

MPG evaluated applications from domestic and international candidates in the full-time MBA and deferred admissions programs. He also conducted interviews and coached waitlisted applicants on maximizing their admission chances or navigating the re-application process.

At Darden, MPG oversaw diversity recruitment efforts of underrepresented racial and ethnic communities, LGBTQ, and applicants based out of Africa. He was Darden's liaison to the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management (CGSM), Reaching Out for MBA (ROMBA) LGBTQ program, and other diversity pipeline programs focused on Black, Hispanic, and Native/Indigenous communities.

Future Darden MBA applicants, read on for this insider perspective MPG originally shared on the B-Schooled podcast!

Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What makes UVA Darden unique?

MPG: It's the amazing combination of several things, particularly the distinct way of learning via the case method from our top-ranked faculty and our ideal location within the beautiful UVA campus in Central Virginia. Then there's our strong career development resources and the impressive placement in starting salary statistics. Combining all these things makes it a great choice to spend two years.

One cool thing that happened in 2017 is that a generous donor established the Batten Worldwide Scholarship. It gives all students the financial ability to take one global course for almost free or fully paid. The courses range from typical immersion courses, which are nine-to-10-day international experiences led by a faculty member around a topic or a set of industries for which the location is known.

Other eligible experiences include exchange programs where you can go to another global business school for two to three months and global consulting and client-based programs.

Are there any misconceptions about Darden that MBA applicants should know about?

MPG: Because Darden is in a smaller-sized city in the heart of Central Virginia, applicants might assume that we don't send our students to bigger cities—or even certain industries or companies. Over 30% of our students are placed in the Northeast in cities like New York and Boston, and many want to stay in the Mid-Atlantic area. About a fifth of our students end up moving just two hours north to the DC metro area. However, more and more students go west each year to the Bay Area, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

Another misconception is that due to our case method learning style, people think our students only do well in consulting. Our case method prepares all the students in any industry. While a majority of our students do place well in consulting firms, a quarter go to top banks and financial service companies, and more than a fifth land in top tech firms.

Additionally, many students take advantage of the resources from our Batten Institute, which focuses on entrepreneurship and innovation, regardless of their career pursuits and specialties. Many of them pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors as either their primary focus or in addition to their other passions.

And then lastly, in terms of salary, Darden is often in the top five for starting salaries and bonuses. The school reported a record-breaking $167,899 starting salary for the class of 2023. And then that's before bonuses, which were over $37,000.

What do Darden students do outside of class?

MPG: Our students are part of a very tight-knit community that revolves around the case method and our student life experiences. The class week goes from Monday through Thursday, so students typically spend Monday through Wednesday nights prepping for their cases within their case teams. In between those classes and case prep, students participate in more than 50 clubs and organizations ranging from cultural organizations, career, volunteer, and social justice work, pro bono consulting, and sports entertainment.

Every Thursday night, student organizations take turns hosting a happy hour. These are colloquially termed "cold calls," which is a play on something we both love and despise—the dreaded cold call—typical in our case discussions.

Also, on any given week, there is a theme or cultural celebration. For example, our Pride at Darden club hosted the annual drag show for our Love is Love pride celebration. The whole Darden community celebrates the LGBTQ community.

One of our most significant customs is the community created within your class section and the competition among them. Each student is placed in a section, much like a house at Hogwarts, of which there are five. You experience all your core classes in this section and get to know your section mates exceptionally well. Many section pride events and competitions, including sports, talent shows, and other festivities, make up what we call the Darden Cup. To this day, alumni will rep their section many years later.

Potential Darden MBA applicants may be unfamiliar with the area. What is there to do in Charlottesville, Virginia?

MPG: The location is a big reason why Darden is a top program. Between events at UVA and Charlottesville, there's much to do for a smaller city. I lived in Charlottesville for ten years, and one of my favorite things to do on Saturdays was going to one of the many farmer's markets. Our downtown has phenomenal restaurants. I'm a huge foodie, and during my ten years in Charlottesville, I still haven't been to all the great places people talk about.

Regarding entertainment, between UVA and our downtown area, there are amazing performance venues where I've seen folks like Ariana Grande, Macklemore, and Vampire Weekend, among many other acts. At UVA, our MBA students can watch our sports teams play for free with a student ID, including our championship basketball team, or at a football game at Scott Stadium in the fall.

And don't let me get started on the hiking brewery scene and the wineries in the area! So, imagine doing case prep with your team at the picturesque Carter Mountain, complete with apple cider donuts and slushies. It's probably hard to get any work done there.

Please give us an overview of what the Darden admissions committee is looking for overall.

MPG: When you hear AdComs say that they're looking for someone extremely well-rounded and looking at a holistic approach to admissions, Darden's admissions is the epitome of this. The case method way of learning is very specific. It requires students to be interactive and engaged in the classroom, drawing from their own work experiences to bring to life the given case and to really make the concepts more real to each of our students.

This requires a unique and specific level of critical thinking and the openness to share one's diverse experiences. So, when admissions is looking for ideal candidates, they aren't looking just for those who have excelled in school and their careers, because that's not enough for the case method to work. They want those who are eager to translate their work experiences toward the cases that frame each of the concepts, much of which integrates many concepts and skill sets.

This means they're looking for diverse backgrounds, experiences, ways of communicating, personalities, and interests. We don't want the classroom to be full of finance bros, or the case method won't work. Although finance bros are more than welcome at Darden!

Besides classroom engagement, we expect our students to be leaders in the Darden community and at UVA. We're looking for those with extracurricular activities or leadership roles from college or in their former jobs.

Lastly, through the interview process, the admissions team is looking for those who are open to learning from diverse backgrounds and identities, those who are willing to challenge their points of view, and who are eager to step into the shoes of their classmates and neighbors to see life from a different vantage point.

What should Darden MBA applicants know about the essay questions and interview experience?

MPG: The AdCom is looking for a few things in the essays. The first is how you work with others, which is crucial in the case method and life. Next is what you add to a team. Who are you with regards to adding to the team dynamic, challenging the status quo, and planning events for community bonding? And then, lastly, what do you like to do for fun, and what do you add to a team regarding your experiences and your background?

Don't Miss SBC's Expert MBA Essay Tips for UVA Darden School of Business

The interviews are done in a very specific manner at Darden. In many cases, they matter more than the application. This is the place for your story to shine and for you to share more about who you truly are. Unlike many other interview processes, which may ask specific questions about work experience or have situational behavioral/what if questions or "tell me about a time" questions, the Darden interview is more open-ended. It requires you to prepare a larger story of your "Why MBA" and "Why Darden."

Interviewers could be AdCom members or second-year MBA students chosen to interview candidates. These interviewers will not have read your application and resume before meeting you to reduce bias and allow you to shine outside your submitted materials. This gives you a blank canvas to paint your story, passions, and interests of the MBA and Darden.

More importantly, the interviewer wants to know that you have a sense of direction for what you want to do with the MBA. Make sure to do your research on the Darden program specifically and how you plan to get involved. And finally, make sure to be yourself and have fun!

Is someone doomed if they had an off day and feel like they bombed their interview?

MPG: This is a tough question because we rely on the interview to bring your personality, goals, and passions to life. The admissions officers and students will do their absolute best to bring the best out of you through the interview, even at what you might think is your worst. They can sense genuine interest in your answers and true potential from what you share and don't share.

Then, separately, the interview is just one of many interactions the team gauges from. Other interactions from which the AdCom and the students may draw observations include when you visit campus, some coffee chats within your hometown, having one-on-one conversations on the phone or Zoom, email communications, and other connection points to paint a larger and more accurate picture of who you are and what you can bring to the community.

How does the Darden admissions committee ultimately pull together its class?

MPG: At Darden, each application gets a human read. Usually, more than one person reads it before it moves to the no pile or interview pile. Then, after the interview, your application gets one to two more reads before it gets to the admissions committee, where they make a group decision and where the admissions executive director oversees a process to make final decisions.

They want to ensure they have read each nook and cranny of the application, interview writeup, and all the notes from all interactions they've had with you. At the admissions committee meetings, the AdCom weighs every piece of information they have and every point of contact. These decisions are hard as they ensure the class is diverse and well-rounded.

While I was at admissions, we said no to perfect test scores and perfect grades but an average interview in favor of someone with slightly below average test scores and grades but a stellar storyteller who we thought would work hard to succeed since we know that we have the support systems and the resources to help them succeed at Darden. We define merit not only by how you perform in school and at work but also by how you perform in the interview and your interactions throughout the process.

Finally, what advice would you give to Darden MBA applicants applying this year?

MPG: Don't have the application submission as your first contact point with Darden! Start joining their coffee chats or virtual and in-person events. The more you engage, the more you learn about the program, and the better you can talk about how you add to it in your interactions and your interview. And simultaneously, the more the admissions community learns about you.

Also, connect with student ambassadors, faculty, and staff, and take stock of how you present your academic and work information. The AdCom is trying to gauge whether you are academically and intellectually prepared for the program from you, your test scores and grades, and your jobs and internships. If you believe you have below-average scores or grades, take steps to provide alternative information points to showcase your strengths.

If you took the GMAT and got a low score, retake it. Consider taking the GRE as well to see how you would do there. If you have minimal quantitative coursework or a lower GPA, consider supplementing it with a quantitative class online or an accounting course from your local community college.

You don't have to have already completed these courses when you apply. It's great to know that you're on your way to completing them as you navigate the application process. So, keep in touch with the AdCom when you complete it, especially to show your progress or even your final grade.

Thank you, MPG, for sharing these tips for Darden MBA applicants and your thoughts on what makes this coveted program so special! For more information on applying, please visit the Darden School of Business.


Stacy Blackman Consulting is the only MBA admissions firm with a complete panel of former Admissions Officers from every M7 program and the elite European MBA programs. We offer multiple services to meet your MBA application needs, from our All-In Partnership to hourly help with essay editing, interview prep, and MBA resume review. Contact us today for a free 15-minute advising session to talk strategy with a Principal SBC consultant.