NAVIGATING THE INS AND OUTS OF A BUSINESS APPLICATION
If a student is interested in a potential business major, or in applying directly to a business school, it helps to have a consultant to understand the different methods of applying to undergraduate business schools. Unlike the MBA, which has a much more streamlined and common application process across schools, acceptance into undergraduate business schools is much more convoluted. Some schools, for example, such as the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business is a two-year program and requires a second application directly to the B-school after being admitted to the university.
“Non-Berkeley students, including those in the University of California system, need be admitted first to UC-Berkeley and then to Haas. California community college students are given preference as transfer students,” says Mennette Larkin, who was previously on the Berkeley-Haas admissions committee. Now based in Austin, Larkin can offer insight into, among other schools, the University of Texas, which admits students into the B-school as freshmen. “McCombs students apply to UT-Austin as freshmen, specify business as a major, but only have to make a second application if they want to join the business honors program,” Larkin explains. “Wharton students apply to both Penn and Wharton to enter as freshmen also.”
This is where deep knowledge of undergraduate business schools comes in handy. Davis, California-based Sharon Schladow works almost exclusively with students interested in STEM or business degrees and knows the landscape well. A former petroleum economist, she has been in the educational consulting field for nearly two decades. Like many consultants, she takes time to visit schools — visiting up to 50 different universities a year — and digging into the business curriculum. Schladow pays attention to which schools are investing resources in their business programs and is especially interested in the quality of the business school’s career resources department.
DIAGNOSING THE FIT OF A PROGRAM
Knowing which schools students should consider is one step, but figuring out where a student will fit best is another. Marlena Corcoran, of Athena Mentor, with offices in New York City and Munich, serves an international population of students, many of whom are interested in U.S. business programs. She advises that students “get past the name.”
“To many students, ‘Wharton’ is shorthand for ‘money and prestige,’” Corcoran explains. She advises that students have a realistic sense of why they want to go to a school like Wharton, and what they will be studying when they are there.
“Too often, people choose a prospective school based on the requirements to get admitted and forget what they’ll have to do to graduate,” Corcoran continues. “An admissions consultant can help you put together the actual set of classes you might take in each program. Will you be happy waking up to those classes every day? If you are a first- or second-year student in high school, now is the time to find out whether you can — and want to — do the math. The best undergraduate business programs require solid achievement in mathematics. This reflects the reality of business today.“
Beyond the required courses, Top Tier consultants work to understand the specifics of a student’s interest in business.
“If a student comes to me seeking an undergraduate business degree, I work with her to help concentrate — in high school — on one to two subfields within business,” Willmott says. “I help students explore which aspect of business they are most passionate about — whether that’s corporate sustainability, entrepreneurship, finance, marketing and social media, supply chain management, etcetera.” Based on those interests, the consultant and the student “build out the scholarly foundation from there with coursework, careful school break and summer planning, campus visits and informational meetings with department faculty, subject test and AP scores, academic conferences and publication opportunities open to high schoolers, and more,” Willmott explains.
BUILDING A SOLID FOUNDATION
Business school admissions officers agree that much of the scholarly foundation lies in math courses. Michael Gaynor, head of admissions at Villanova University told Poets & Quants that “the business school particularly seeks students who are taking the most challenging mathematics options placed before them.”
Schools like Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management encourage starting early in math, taking STEM courses and even foreign languages. Heidi Meyer, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Office of Admissions said in a recent P&Q interview, “If they’re thinking about business, as early as their ninth grade and tenth grade year it’s about figuring out, ‘What are the courses I need to take in order to be competitive for admission? We require three years of science one year of biology, chemistry, and physics. Also, get started on that second language.’”
On the other hand, much of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School’s application is career-focused, including essays and video prompts that ask applicants about their short and long-term career goals. But “we also look at academic strength,” says Lisa Beisser, director of Admissions and Strategic Initiatives for the Kenan-Flagler undergraduate business program. “We look at their academic performance in their first year at UNC, and pay particular attention to their performance in business prerequisites, such as calculus, statistics, accounting, and economics.” Beisser moreover encourages prospective students to think about why they want a bachelor’s in business administration. “When we look at an application, we really want to understand why the student is applying to our school and why the business degree is essential to their plans,” she says.
New York University’s Stern School of Business differs from Kenan-Flagler in that it requires applying directly, as a student would for any of the 10 schools and colleges within NYU, such as the Tisch School for the Arts, the Tandon School of Engineering, or the College of Arts and Sciences.
According to Billy Sichel, director of admissions at NYU, “There are two small differences for Stern: First, as with any of our more specialized or professional programs, we are looking that the applicant has a fit and understanding of Stern and/or what it means to study business at the undergraduate level. The other difference is that we are looking a bit more closely at a student’s math preparation than we are for other programs. At a minimum, students admitted to Stern must be calculus ready — typically that means taking at least pre-calc — but the most successful applicants have taken the highest, or close to the highest, level of math coursework available at their high school.”
Some consultants suggest that for the very elite schools, if the student shows interest, students might go beyond what is available at their school. Says Kristen Willmott, “There is a clear section of the Common App that asks for the number of college credits completed — in high school and not including APs — and that is something that too many students don’t learn about until they are completing the Common App senior year. That box is yet another data point in college admissions.”
To keep costs down, Willmott suggests that the student look into online options for college credits via SUNY (State University of New York). “Rising juniors or seniors might consider Georgetown University’s Summer 2019 Program where they could take Fundamentals of Finance for four weeks on campus, walking out with three college credits and exposure to key concepts in corporate finance and business analytics,” she adds.
BEYOND THE QUANT COURSES
Like all top undergraduate programs, business schools are looking for strong academics, and particularly, strong interest and performance in quantitative classes. Along with extra-curriculars, business schools are looking for something beyond the numbers. “A real business major is born, not made,” says consultant Sharon Schladow. “Typically a strong undergraduate business major is reading the Wall Street Journal, or has already gotten involved in entrepreneurship.”
An important X-factor is leadership.
“Demonstrated leadership and evidence of ongoing initiative that holds up a student’s pursuits in high school matter,” says Top Tier’s Willmott. “All of the top undergraduate business programs expect to see demonstrated leadership in a submitted application — but not just the top business programs, the top colleges and universities period. It’s one thing to state you love finance, it’s another to take college-level summer courses that examine Social Entrepreneurship and Financial Literacy and then launch a financial literacy training program at a local underprivileged middle school where you teach middle school girls how to manage money, and then write a research paper on the history of taxation that wins a national essay contest, for example.”
Students should be wary, though, of spreading themselves too thin, warned consultant Mennette Larkin.
“Rather than participating in a wide range of activities, it is better to stick with just a couple of activities where a student can shine and make a real contribution. Choose something that he or she is sincerely interested in, not just something that ‘looks good’ on a resume,” she says. “Do not choose something that mom or dad picks out — or pays for. Be genuine. Make a difference in your school or in the community, even a small one.”
Betsy Massar is a professional admissions consultant specializing in MBA admissions. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and owns and operates Masters Admissions. Betsy is based in Oakland, California.