2011 UVA Darden MBA Admissions Q&A with Sara Neher

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2011 UVA Darden MBA Admissions Q&A with Sara Neher

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Linda Abraham: Hello. My name is Linda Abraham. I am the founder of Accepted.com and the moderator of today’s chat. First I want to welcome all applicants to the Q&A today, and I want to congratulate you for taking the time to learn more about UVA’s Darden School of Business. It is critical to your decision making process and your admission chances that you know as much as you can about the schools you are applying to. Being here today allows you to ask Sara Neher, the expert, about this top business school. I also want to give a special welcome to Sara Neher, Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions at UVA Darden. Thanks to everyone for joining. Sara, what's new at Darden?

Sara Neher: I just want to say thank you Linda, and thank you Accepted.com for putting on these chats. I think they are really great venues for people to get to know more about us, so thank you. We have a lot of things going on here at Darden, and I'm really excited to be able to talk about them today. The biggest thing is that this year we started some changes to the first year schedule, and these changes really came from feedback that we got from our students over the last couple of years. It involved separating a little bit of time for the career search out of the curriculum.

We used to have the curriculum very integrated with the career search process, and that caused students a lot of anxiety during the last few years when they'd spend a lot of time on their job search. We don't think that time spent on job searching is going away, so we switched from quarters to month-long terms. And this gave students a week off in October, and a week off in November to work on their career process; to attend briefings, meet with companies, and practice their interviewing. So they are even more ready to begin the interview process in January. We are really excited about how that went, and we think that the fact that we listened to students last year really helped the students feel appreciated and helped get us that #1 student satisfaction ranking in the recent Business Week survey.

Linda Abraham: Congratulations! I just want to make sure I understand it. The first year students come and they have their first term, say for the month of September. And then, do the courses change for the second term or is it just a continuation? They have a week off, and then they have a second term, right?

Sara Neher: Yes. They essentially have four week modules of courses, three courses at a time. And some of those courses, the more analytical courses like Decision Analysis or Finance, might meet in two of the six quarters during the year, but there are only three courses at a time.

Linda Abraham: So they are more intense probably than the old semesters?

Sara Neher: They used to not meet every week twice a week or three times a week, and now they meet a little more frequently each week, but the sessions are still an hour and fifteen minutes long. And with only three subjects to master at one time, I really feel that it gives those people from backgrounds that aren't business undergrad or heavy business jobs, a chance to get up to speed because they only have three subjects to worry about at once.

Linda Abraham: Let's get to the applicants' questions. "Chuck asks, "Can you please tell us about the life-cycle of an MBA application once the applicant submits his/her application? Please throw some light on how the interview process works."

Sara Neher: Yes, I'd be happy to. I know that it seems like your application goes into a giant black hole. The first thing that happens after you hit that "submit" button is that one of our Account Managers, either Pat or Maggie, checks your application. They are divided up by alphabet so depending on whether you are at the beginning or the end of the alphabet, you'll get to know Pat or Maggie, and you can talk to them on the phone or email them. They'll check to make sure that everything is complete. And if it's not, they'll reach out to you to see what might be missing. Then the next part of the process is that it gets assigned to a first reader. Each application is going to be reviewed a minimum of three times. If the first reader says they think we should interview this person, it will go onto another person. And then if that person agrees, it will go to the interview. For the last two years, that has been a virtual process, so we read all of your applications online through software that we have. So we can actually look at them at the same time, or it automatically goes to the next person when the person before finishes. It is a very efficient process and it allowed us to survive in bad weather last year which hopefully is not going to happen this year. If the person does not think it should go to interview, it still goes onto another person who gets to review it and decide that. All of these people reading are members of our Admissions Committee, and there are seven of us. Eventually, it will get to me, so I'm either the third reader or the fifth or sixth reader, depending on how much agreement or disagreement there is about your application. And for those people that we really can't decide about, maybe you have a lower score but a really great GPA, or you have lots of things going for you but we are not sure, we will sit around a room and all talk about you together, and then we make the decision. So it's pretty comprehensive. We do spend a lot of time with your application, and nothing is decided based on any one element. Before any possible decisions are entered, everything is reviewed by multiple people. Once the reader says yes, this person should be interviewed, we make a determination based on where you live as to what kind of interview we offer you. So if you live in the Continental US, we invite you to interview here at Darden, to come to Charlottesville. We are very lucky to have a beautiful campus, and we want you to be able to see it.

Linda Abraham: It is one of the most stunning campuses I've ever seen.

Sara Neher: We are really lucky; it's beautiful. And then if you live outside the Continental US, we will invite you to interview either with an alum or via Skype. The reason we would do a Skype interview is either if we need to do it in a hurry for some reason, or if there is no alum that lives in your area, or if the alum is unavailable at that time when we need it done. In any of those cases we'll invite you to do it via Skype. And I'll give some advice because the first people we did Skype interviews with, sometimes they had really funny things behind them in the picture. So just practice that before you do any Skype interviews with any schools; just make sure that what is behind you in the background looks normal and pretty drab so that our focus could be on you. And then we just get the interview right up. It becomes part of your file, and then again goes onto another reader. And then again, eventually to me. I review every single file and I am the final decision maker on all the applications. But usually that is easy for me because many people have read it before and agreed.

Linda Abraham: And then the second part of the question was about how the interview process works. Well actually, you did discuss that.

Sara Neher: A little bit. We have 28 people here interviewing today. We do have specific days; you sign up on our website for whichever type of interview you are going to do. And it works really well because we like to bring people in as a group. That way you get to meet each other. You also get to have lunch with both faculty and students, and you get to have a tour with some students. There are students always in our lobby to talk with so it's a really enjoyable experience, and you really get to make an assessment of the school. When classes are in session, we also offer you class visits, but the classes are done for now.

Linda Abraham: What are the different roles of the essays, interview, and letters of recommendation in the evaluative process?

Sara Neher: It's hard to say. It really depends on the context of the individual. I always say that I am look for quantitative ability. So if your GMAT is very high, then I can see it there. If not, then I go to the GPA and the transcript. If it's not there, then I go to the work experience, and maybe even the recommendations. If a recommender says that this person does tremendous analytical work working with complex data sets, that tells me something that maybe isn't somewhere else in the application. The same is true about the essays. We get a sense for who you are and how you write. And the essays are really your opportunity to tell us what you've done at work, but more importantly who you are as a person and if you are someone we want to talk with. And then we will invite you to interview if the answer is "yes". But the most important thing is that the entire application be consistent. So if your recommendation says something about you and your essays say something similar and we get the same feel from the activities you've been involved in, and we see that you understand that there is a world outside of yourself, those are all things that we are looking for. But it will depend on each individual. Also if you have more work experience, your grades in undergrad might matter a little less, but if you have not much work experience, we don't have a lot else to go on so we are going to be putting more emphasis on the scores and undergrad. So it really depends on the individual.

Linda Abraham: Niladri asks, "For Essay 1, what kind of examples are you looking for; professional, community experience, or one of each?"

Sara Neher: There is no expectation there really; I know that is hard to believe.

Linda Abraham: I believe it.

Sara Neher: I want you to use your best example that you think illustrates your strengths and what you think might be something that you want to contribute to a business school.

Linda Abraham: Are you suggesting that they shouldn't write what they think you want to read?!

Sara Neher: Yes please! Because then we would read many thousands of the same essay. That is part of why we change the question every year; because we've just read a whole bunch answering the previous year's question. And too many of them are too similar, not so much in that they've had similar experiences. We expect many of you to have similar experiences; some of you have gone to the same undergrad, some of you work at the same company, or even in the same department. But we do expect each person to be different. You have different parents, you have had different youth experiences, you've had different clubs you've been involved in, and you've had different projects that you've been assigned to. So it doesn't matter what you pick, it matters what you say about it and how you translate it into an experience. And for us, because Darden is the case method and half of your grade is going to be based on class participation, I really try to imagine what you might say in class. So a work experience is good because it might be most relevant to what you might say in class. But a community experience could be equally relevant if you've been able to take on a higher level leadership role in a community activity than you have at work, which is very common for young people. So wherever you think you can shine, whatever example you are most proud of, whatever accomplishment you think is most significant, just tell us about it and we'll get to know you through that.

Linda Abraham: We have a couple of questions here from international applicants about scholarships. Nguyen asks, "Is there any chance for international students to win a scholarship round 2?" And Lalit asks, "What type of financial aid will be provided to international students without a US cosigner?"

Sara Neher: We do have an International Student Loan Program. I'll start with that; that is easy. That will be available for you without a US cosigner. We don't release the terms of those loans until the last possible timeline, so that's early in 2011, because we want to try to get you the best terms and we still are hopeful that the credit market will give us better terms than previous years. So know that we are not giving you the information because we are trying to get a better rate for you, and not because we are hiding anything. So stay on the lookout early in the new year for details on our International Student Loan Program. That applies also to private loans for domestic students; we are working hard on those. The piece about scholarships. Anyone that applies is eligible for scholarships, and anyone that is admitted is considered for scholarships. That is a parallel process to the admissions process. So once we decide that we are going to offer you admission, you are then reviewed for scholarships. Some scholarships are restricted to certain areas like entrepreneurship or media, but no scholarships are restricted to all international students. So international students are eligible for all of those, and international students have won all of those types of scholarships in the past. There are fewer scholarships available in round 2. Or there are about the same number but more people apply in round 2 so there are better chances in round 1. But there are just as many scholarships available, and we are not going to admit that many more people than round 1, so the odds aren't that much different.

Linda Abraham: Jamie asks, "To what do you attribute the rise in most recent rankings for Darden?" That should be a fun question to answer!

Sara Neher: It's especially fun for me because this time last year, the leadership of the school asked our office to take over the filling out of the surveys so I've learned a lot about the rankings. And while I don't agree with everything they choose to rank, I think they are a good place for students to start when they are trying to learn about schools.

Linda Abraham: But they are a terrible place for them to finish!

Sara Neher: Exactly. It's a good place to start and to start to learn about schools that you may not have heard about previously, but then you have to do your research. And part of the research should be to find out what this school is actually rating you on. Part of what I think we've done really well is we've got amazing students, and as I said, our administration has made really great strides over the last few years in really engaging the students in conversations about what can do to make the school better. Part of that is because the students are changing. As generations change, what students expect and want out of their education changes, and we want to be receptive to that. The core things that really are what Darden is about have not changed; the case method, the highly participatory environment, those are the same. And the things that make Darden special are actually being emphasized more. One of those things is extracurricular activities. We now are really calling them co-curricular because with the new structure they are more embedded in the curriculum. Basically the Finance Conference happens when Finance is actually being taught so that it can be coordinated, but the students still run the conference. So those are some examples.

Linda Abraham: Debmalya asks, "Hi Sara. Can you please shed some light on opportunities of collaboration between the Darden curriculum, research, and emerging markets, especially in India? What I would like to understand is how much exposure I will have to say, Indian business issues, etc. I intend to work with public bodies at some point in the future creating social value in Indian rural and urban settings."

Sara Neher: Great. That sounds exciting. Well, we actually have many opportunities to work with emerging finance. We do a conference on that in our finance area. In addition to that, we have three Indian nationals on our faculty which is a high percentage for an American business school. They lead trips back to India. One of them was an entrepreneur in India before she came and began teaching at Darden. She teaches entrepreneurship. At any rate, there are lots of opportunities. We also just hired a new faculty member in our Global Economies and Markets area, and he is one of three experts in the world in microfinance and in doing research in microfinance. He is from Bangladesh originally, and we are really excited about the work he is doing for the students. They teach in the core, so you'll have them in your first year as faculty. And then in your second year, you can do Darden Business Projects which is basically independent study. You just seek out the faculty member you are interested in working with, and you can work on research with them. Or if you have an idea for a case, you can write a case with them.

Linda Abraham: Eddie asks, "Hi Sara. I would like to hear more about the connections that alumni have to the school and the way these connections enhance the student experience at Darden."

Sara Neher: Our alumni are really tremendous. I am an alum of the University of Virginia, but not Darden, not yet anyway-- I'm a part-time PhD student at Darden, so eventually I'll be a Darden alum.

Linda Abraham: You have time to pursue a PhD?

Sara Neher: Yes, very slowly. It will take me many years, but it's been a lot of fun. For our alumni, I think it is the shared experience of being in Charlottesville; it's a university town with a great spirit. The combination of that, plus the small size of Darden, that class participation through the case method, and how connected the students get to our faculty really keeps them invested in the school over time. Part of what we do in our Information Sessions is we invite all alums that live in the area. So I'll actually be in New York for an event we are having at Credit Suisse. There will be upwards of 350 people there, sort of half alumni and half prospective students, plus some current students who are meeting with the banks for our Week on Wall Street. So it's a really great opportunity to meet the alumni yourself. We don't sensor them or restrict who is invited; we invite everyone, and I think that shows a lot about what we think about the alums. And the fact that they come, shows a lot about them.

Linda Abraham: Yes, obviously there is a lot of synergy there. Ashutosh asks, "Has Darden accepted any candidates with zero work experience? And can you please tell us what percentage of admitted applicants fall in the 0-3 years of work experience range?" Before you respond to that, I want to do a quick poll of the applicants asking them about their work experience. So first of all, are you concerned that you have too little work experience? We have 24 attendees here. 18% are concerned that they have too little work experience. 82% are not. My next poll question is-- are you concerned that you have too much work experience? Okay, 100% voted. 26% are concerned that they have too much work experience. 78% are not concerned. So most people are pretty satisfied with the amount of work experience that they have. Let's get back to Ashutosh's question.

Sara Neher: Sure. Last year, we did not admit anyone directly from college, but that doesn't mean that we didn't have people apply. And sometimes we do differed admission; we say we really like you, but we want you to go work for a little while and then you can come in two years. And we offer you admission that way. We have had people come directly from college, and they've done extraordinarily well, but we don't get that many applications. The 0-3 years of work experience is probably about 10% of the class now. A lot of those people are people pursuing joint degrees with our Law School, our School of Public Policy, our School of Public Health, or our Medical School, so they tend to have less work experience than the average applicant. I would not be concerned about having too little, but as I said earlier, if you have less work experience, then your grades and your scores are going to matter a little more because we have less to go on. So just know that when you are applying, but we are happy to talk with you. We have someone on our team who part of her job is to work directly with early career applicants. She helps us go to Undergraduate Career Fairs and things like that, so you can email us and Whitney would be happy to talk with you. In terms of too much work experience, this is a tough thing because it is hard to have a wide span of years of experience in our classroom when we are trying to have productive class discussions for the case method. But we do offer two additional degrees; our MBA for executives which meets one week out of the month here at Charlottesville, and our new Global MBA for executives which will meet in two week increments in Charlottesville, China, Brazil, Europe, and again in Charlottesville at the end. We do offer those opportunities for people with more like six or seven or ten or fifteen years of work experience because we think those formats work better for people with more experience, and we also want to make sure we have programs available for all. All three programs are the same degree as our full-time program; there is one Darden diploma, and they have the same core courses taught by the same exact faculty. So those are opportunities if you are worried about the fact that you have too much work experience. And don't worry about doing one of those programs; you can still switch jobs, we do have career support. It's not the norm, it's not what everyone is trying to do in those programs, but it is a possibility.

Linda Abraham: Is your openness to early career applicants, evident by the fact that you have somebody devoted to recruiting early career applicants, somewhat of a change to Darden?

Sara Neher: It probably was a change a couple of years ago, but it started to come up with people more interested in dual degrees than they were in the past. So we started to see more people coming without work experience, and we really had to decide how we felt about that. I got advice from faculty. When I advise undergrads which I used to do in my previous life working for the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, I tell them that I think three years of experience is the best because you've had a chance to progress in your job. Usually if you've had to change jobs because you didn't like your first job, you've had time to be in that second job and build relationships to get recommendations and to have mentors. But you'll get the same return on your investment as somebody with 4-7 years of work experience because you are going to be interviewing for the same jobs. Now sometimes when someone has more like 8-9 years of work experience, they are interviewing for a slightly different job. But there is no reason to wait at three years if you are going to be interviewing for the same job as someone with seven.

Linda Abraham: Your opportunity cost is lower, that's for sure.

Sara Neher: Right. And you'll have half the experience for the classroom, which will help you to get the most out of the program, so I think three years is optimal.

Linda Abraham: For the person with seven or eight years of full-time work experience, and obviously there are other factors that would go into play, would you tend to recommend the E-MBA programs for them?

Sara Neher: Not necessarily. It depends on what career path they have been involved in. So for example, we see people on our full-time program with ten years of work experience when they've been a pilot in the military because that is a ten year commitment. So it really depends on career change, what kind of experiences they've had, and whether we can help them make the change they want to make. So it's really about them making the case to us that we are the right full-time program for them. But for those people on the borderline, we might have a conversation and tell them that we think they might feel better and get more out of the executive programs because they'll be with a set of peers, as opposed to a wide range of people with different experience than themselves. But ultimately it is up to the applicant as to which program they want to apply to. Linda Abraham; Fred asks, "How do re-applicants from the wait-list fare?" I will add, how do re-applicants in general fare? And then he adds, "Any particular advice for this group?"

Sara Neher: Re-applicants do well every year. A decent number get admitted. We offer feedback in June of every year. For example we might say that they should work on their GMAT score or that they should take an accounting course or that they should think about getting more leadership experience inside or outside of work. If a re-applicant requests feedback and is given feedback and then we see nothing in the application to indicate that they've attempted to do any of those things suggested, they will be unsuccessful. But if they have taken a shot at doing better, even if they've retaken the GMAT and didn't do better the next time, at least they've showed that willingness to work hard to try to improve their application. Also for those who were on the wait-list previously, we obviously liked a lot of things about the applicant, so they tend to be more successful than the average applicant. They may not have even had have anything they needed to change. Last year if they applied in round 3, it was very full, and we had amazing yield from our first two rounds, so we had very few spots for the third round applicants. So sometimes it's just timing, and reapplying can be very successful. But if you don't get in this year, take that opportunity to go in June. Sign up for a slot on our website. They are fifteen minute phone appointments, so you just sign up and get that feedback. Sometimes it's not easy. But students did really well this year, and we are one of the few schools that still does this. It's part of our ethos to be as open as we can.

Linda Abraham: I couldn't agree more. If any school offers feedback and you want to re-apply, by all means go and get it. It will be fifteen minutes very well spent. Margarita asks, "Hello. Thank you for joining us. In light of the financial crisis, have you had the need to revamp your Career Management office to better assist those students seeking career opportunities within the investment management field?"

Sara Neher: Yes, this has been an interesting couple of years. Luckily because we are a general management school, we had a lot of opportunities for people if banking was their first choice and they decided later that it wasn't. Part of the way that we are structured we didn't change because it worked really well for us. We have career consultants assigned to each area. Ed Yu is our Banking and Investing Career Consultant. So for years now, he has been building relationships with these firms so they really have stayed with us through this crisis, and are still recruiting from Darden. Maybe they recruited slightly fewer people over the last few years, but they really seem to be back up to numbers pre-crisis, and we are really excited about that.

Linda Abraham: So your recruiting numbers in investment and financial services are pretty much where they were in 2008, before everything collapsed?

Sara Neher: I think they will be this year based on the number of visits we've had from companies and the number of second year interviews and briefings. And this year we are in New York with about 100 students for three days. I'll be there tomorrow. The appointments and meetings at those sessions are back up to pre-2008 levels for sure. They were actually really good last year. When banks disappeared, we just added some new banks. Luckily because of the structure and because of how relationship focused our career consultants are, we've been able to maintain that. I do think that some of it has changed, maybe from straight investment banking to private wealth. So an applicant interested in this area needs to be more open to different parts of the business than maybe they needed to be a few years ago.

Linda Abraham: Mayanka asks, "How busy is life at Darden? What would a typical week consist of in terms of class work, career preparation and extracurricular activities?"

Sara Neher: It's busy; we definitely have a reputation for that. I think what sometimes gets misplaced is that the reputation gets placed too much on the academic. I think it's busy because of what we expect from you outside of the classroom, and the kind of people that we want to admit are people who want to be involved outside of the classroom. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819, on a principle of self governments. So students run every single club and activity that we have. You are responsible for your budget, your membership, and your conferences. That is really practical work experience that you can use in your interviews and everything when you are doing that. But that takes time. So classes are from 8 AM-1:15 PM almost every day, not always on Fridays or Wednesdays, depending on the conferences that are going on. So you are done with class at 1:15. You get a break, and then you've got some activity meetings. So you might have your Consultancy Club meeting, your Student Admissions Committee meeting, or your Outreach or Outdoors Club meeting because you're planning a ski trip or a hiking trip. All of these things will take place in the afternoon. Then most students spend the rest of the afternoon reading their cases for the next day. And most students meet with their learning teams in the evening to go over the cases before they have class the next day. That gives them the extra preparation, and they can also get help from learning teammates who might be an accountant and maybe you haven't had any accounting experience and you are preparing an accounting case. So you meet with that learning team the night before. And then it all starts again the next morning. But I really don't think there is any more coursework than anywhere else; it's just that you have to be prepared every day because you might be called on in the case method. So you are going to do that work every day; you are not going to cram before an exam. It's just a different lifestyle. You are busy every day. But it's not all classes, it's not all work; a lot of it is fun activities. And social activities certainly happen, of course. I try not to hear too much about the parties, but they're out there.

Linda Abraham: Deepak asks, "Can you tell us something about the Batten Venture Internship program?"

Sara Neher: Yes. The Batten Institute is our Research Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. They recently built our I-Lab, our Innovation Lab which is a classroom with prototype design buildings, equipment, and all sorts of other creative activities. They also put on our entrepreneurship programs. We have an endowment and they manage the endowment basically. So the Batten Venture Internships are opportunities for students in the summer who are thinking about the fact that maybe they want to start a business someday, but they are not ready to do it yet. If you are ready to do it already, you apply to be in our Incubator which we have. But internships place you with a start-up somewhere in the world for the summer and pay half your summer salary. So a start-up gets a really good deal on an MBA intern, and the school gets to support entrepreneurship broadly. One of our students last summer did one at a start-up in San Francisco; she learned very quickly that the start-up environment was not for her, but it was a really good lesson.

Linda Abraham: That's very valuable. To know what you don't like is equally valuable.

Sara Neher: That's right. And another student the year before had a great one at a biotech start-up in Charlottesville. He ended up sort of making cultures and pitching in wherever they needed his help because they were a four person operation. So it really varies in terms of the summer experience depending on how big of a start-up you join, but you learn so much during that experience. It's great for your resume and it's great if you do want to be an entrepreneur.

Linda Abraham: We now have a couple of questions on different strengths that Darden has in terms of professional direction. But first, I'm going to ask our attendees to answer a question. How many of you are interested in financial services? You can vote more than once so you can be considering more than one. 40% are interested in financial services. How many of you are interested in strategy consulting? 45% are interested in strategy consulting. How many of you are interested in marketing or brand management? 31%. It's actually pretty evenly split. Naren asks, "Can you shed some light on the marketing program at Darden and what kind of marketing clubs are available?"

Sara Neher: Sure. We have an extensive marketing opportunity for you. Many classes in the core are related to marketing. And then there are a lot of electives, and you can even concentrate in a couple of different areas of marketing if you have a real specialty; brand or more of a metrics concentration.

Linda Abraham: Like a quantitative marketing kind of focus?

Sara Neher: Right. We have some real experts that collaborate between our decision analysis area and our marketing area so there are a lot of exciting things going on there. I also worked at Proctor & Gamble in Sales and Marketing, so the more data we could have the better sell we could always make, and we try to work really hard on that here. Then there are marketing clubs and there is a Career Club, but then there are also other ways to get involved in marketing. One student who is going to work at Fido Lay next year is taking the Product Design class that I talked about being offered in our Innovation Lab, and she is working with a group of students to create a product and figure out how to market it. This is a second year elective and she is really enjoying it, but it's sort of a combination of operations and marketing. So you have to figure out how to create a new product and then take it to the market which involves a lot of parts of the firm, but is really practical for those interested in going into brand. Also a couple of weeks ago we had our Marketing Brand Challenge which is sponsored by Pillsbury and General Mills. That is where groups of students "compete", and it's judged by faculty on how they promote a new product at a fair environment with interactive displays, activities, surveys, and taste tests. It's a lot of fun and most of the students come as guests if they are not participating.

Linda Abraham: Igor asks, "Is Darden strong at strategy? Do top-notch strategy consulting companies like McKinsey, Bain, and BCG recruit on campus?" Hit this ball out of the park!

Sara Neher: They do! McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Deloitte, Accenture, etc. all come to Darden. They all hire from Darden each year, and they all seem pretty pleased with whom they've got over the last few years because we have a lot of alumni that are still there and are at senior positions at all those top firms as well. So we have really great relationships there. I think a lot of that has to do with the case method and the general management curriculum. To be a really top-notch strategy consultant, you really need to understand all parts of the business. You also need to understand how to persuade others that the idea you have is the best one for that company. That's really what the case method is about; having an idea, understanding the decision that needs to be made in the case, and then persuading everyone else that it is the right decision.

Linda Abraham: Nguyen asks, "Is it advantageous in any way to have a recommendation from a higher title, a VIP person, supposing that they all know me inside out?" I'm going to make two questions out of this question. One is, all things being equal, in other words you have a choice of two recommenders and they both know the candidate equally well, but one has a higher title and one has a lower title, is there an advantage to using the one with the higher title? The other question which I think is actually more common is: If I can get a recommendation from a VIP who doesn't know me so well or I can get it from a middle manager who is my immediate supervisor who works with me day in and day out, which one should I go for?

Sara Neher: The title doesn't matter. Linda, I'm sure you are not surprised to hear that.

Linda Abraham: No.

Sara Neher: I don't necessarily even look at the title too closely. So all things being equal, in either scenario, the person who knows you best and can comment on the things you want highlighted in your application is most important. The other thing I would say is that people don't spend enough time with their recommenders when the recommenders are actually working on their recommendations. Take the recommender to coffee. Print out our mission statement. Tell them about Darden and why you are interested. Give them your resume. And then highlight for them maybe in bullet points, if they could hit upon your quantitative skills, how well you work with others in teams, or whatever you think you are not able to highlight as much on your part of the application.

Linda Abraham: Or whatever you want confirmed.

Sara Neher: Yes, both. They can do a great job for you. They'll still choose what they want to write. (We hope they will because that's what we want!) But please do spend time with them. I think too often students think, "Okay, I've picked my recommenders, and now I have to stay hands-off." That would be a very artificial environment. But do not choose someone because of their title or because they were President Obama or the king of your country, because we've gotten those kinds of recommendations and they are very rarely helpful.

Linda Abraham: I'm going to ask another question of the audience. How many of you are concerned about a low GMAT? 95% have voted. 67% have some concerns about the GMAT. 30% do not. Congratulations if you don't! That's great; you can sleep well at night. The question from Nguyen which prompted my poll is, "About the GMAT, how do you weigh quantitative scores against the verbal score?"

Sara Neher: We don't really. We look at the whole score and all of the elements, and we look at those in the context of the rest of your application. We are looking for both quantitative and verbal ability out of the test. We do have evidence that it does predict success at your first year at Darden. But I think that is because it's an easy thing; it's a number. But again, if you have a really high GPA, the GMAT may not matter as much; if you have a really low GPA, the GMAT is going to matter more because we have to see how well you might perform in a stressful situation. But try not to let the GMAT be that stress. It takes on this extra importance because it is something you can still change; you can't change your grades, you can't change your work experience very much at this stage, and you can't change what activities you've been involved with very much. So it sort of takes on this extra importance. It doesn't have that importance to us when we read your application; it's just one element. And the breakdowns are just additional elements. I've often heard people ask the question-- If my verbal is really far apart from my quant, is that is going to be a problem? Not necessarily. We are not looking for some sort of proportion there. The same is true if you take the GRE. We are just looking for basic abilities in those tests. And if you know your score is lower than our mean, saying that you are willing to take it again in the "additional comments" section in the last section of the application may put you on the wait-list for you to get that opportunity to take it again, verses a "deny", if everything else looks pretty good but we just weren't certain about your "quant" ability. It really tests a willingness to work hard, study, because you do need to prepare, (don't take that test without preparing) and being in an uncomfortable environment. I have taken the GMAT, the LSAT, and the GRE, and I think they were a lot easier. I think the whole computer based test with the short break in the middle is stressful. It was stressful; I really wanted a snack and I had to run to go to the bathroom. I mean, it is very stressful. So the second time you take it, you will do better. We see that over and over again, and hardly anyone applies with only one score anymore. That is why there has been such inflation in test scores over the last five or ten years. So if you have an older friend or parent or alum, you tell them that the scores are inflated now and they shouldn't feel bad about their low score from before!

Linda Abraham: Aritchra asks, "I request some perspective on the question asked in the application form and sometimes asked in interviews-- "What are the other colleges you are applying to and why?" I request the intent behind the question, and what are you looking for in the response?" I think this question comes with a lot of anxiety.

Sara Neher: Yes. We don't actually ask that question on our application but I know it is part of the Consortium application, and we are a member school of the Consortium. So look into it and if you support the mission you should apply through the Consortium because you have a lower application fee, for one reason. They do ask that question, so I know that people applying to Darden are asked that question. Because we don't ask it on our own application, I don't really have any expectation there. We do not ask it in an interview; sometimes people volunteer that information. It does sometimes give us a sense of a person's self awareness. If they really have a good set of schools that are similar to us in some way, then we think the person has probably done some good research and knows that we are a good fit for them because they have selected other schools that are similar to us. Or sometimes maybe the other schools are geographically approximate, and then we sense that the student probably wants to stay in the same area. But I don't put a lot of emphasis on that; I'm certainly not going to make my decision based on that. But I don't know what the schools that put it on their main application are really looking for.

Linda Abraham: Ashutosh asks, "Can you please talk about a good way to approach essay question 2? And can you please elaborate on what you expect from the second essay question about how a global event in the past three years has affected one's thoughts about leadership?"

Sara Neher: There are a couple of things. The key to that question is just reading the question, as this is true with all essay questions. Please read the question carefully, and try to answer the question. So in that question we do ask you about something that has happened in the world, and then how that ties into what you've learned about your own personal leadership style. So talk about how someone was a leader in a global event, and then what that taught you about your own style. The best essays do wrap it back to yourself and what you've learned, and what kind of leader you are. The not so good essays tell us a great thing about bankruptcy in Greece, but nothing about themselves. So it's not a research paper. But I've learned amazing things from these essays about Mr. Tata in India. I've been to India, but I didn't realize what an influencer he was on many of the Indian applicants and how much they learned from him. We've certainly gotten essays on many different things in the world. I actually thought we would get many fewer types of events. Because of the timing, I thought we would get a lot of things about the BP oil crisis or some of the other big events, but we've actually gotten a wide variety. So if you want to write about anything that you think might be too common, don't worry because we've gotten a wide variety. So we love hearing your perspectives about things going on around the world, and it does not have to be something that stretches across multiple countries so obviously. So some people have gotten caught up in the fact that they think it has to be between or among certain countries. It can be just about where you are from, but something that sort of rises to that level of importance.

Linda Abraham: Mayanka asks about the mentoring first-year teams. Could you tell us more about mentoring first-year teams?

Sara Neher: Yes. I talked about the learning teams before. We actually create them before you arrive at school. We are a business school so it starts with an algorithm of many of the things about you that are unique and different, and we create teams that have different people with different experiences on them so that you can be as strong as possible as a group. You don't have graded activities as a team; you have grades as individuals, but how well you use your team and how functional you are will certainly impact your preparedness for class, and as a result, your grade. Then as a second year, you can sign up to be a mentor for that team. Second years can sign up for a lot of these kinds of activities. One is to be a mentor on a learning team. You attend some sessions with a couple of different learning teams, and then you help them work through interpersonal issues, and you study them as a team dynamic for the course. You can also be a second year career coach, so you get assigned seven or eight first years that are trying to pursue the same industry that you got an internship in. You give them more one-on-one interview practice, resume tips, and networking advice. Or you can be a second year Admissions Committee member where you actually interview our candidates. And you get a grade for all of these courses as part of the curriculum. So we take these practical applications things very seriously and know that these coaching opportunities and interviewing opportunities are not very frequent and are really valuable for what you will do at your job.

Linda Abraham: June asks, "In the application process, there is a question that asks if there is further information that the Admissions Committee should know. Would an explanation for a low GPA be an appropriate topic for this question? What do you seek in this question with only a 150 word limit?"

Sara Neher: Yes, that would be an appropriate topic. We seek bullet points. It doesn't have to be an essay; that's why we call it "comments" instead of "optional essay". And really most schools just want bullet points and not an essay; we're already reading a lot of essays. But yes, just a sentence or two: I had a health issue in college, or a family member had one, or I changed my major, or I studied abroad, or whatever your situation is. That is the place to put just a brief explanation. And for any gaps in your resume, the same thing applies. But really just the bullet points; a few sentences is all we need.

Linda Abraham: Any last minute tips for round 2 applicants?

Sara Neher: Apply! We'd love to see your application. We have lots of spots left available, and we are really excited to see what you all have to say in our application and what you might be interested in learning about Darden, and we look forward to reading those and interviewing many of you in February.

Linda Abraham: Thank you all again for participating today. Special thanks to Sara for joining us today. If you have additional questions for Sara, please email them to Darden@virginia.edu.

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