A Q&A With Notre Dame’s Gatekeeper

Don Bishop is the Associate Vice President for Enrollment at the University of Notre Dame. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame.

It’s a tale of two applications shared by Don Bishop, the associate vice president for Undergraduate Enrollment at the University of Notre Dame. One high school student seeking to gain admission into the university and the Mendoza College of Business has a lengthy record of distinguished accomplishments. Their 1540 SAT score is supported by a colorful array of leadership positions in various extracurricular activities. They’ve been appointed class president, captain of their sports team, and president of the school’s entrepreneurship association. Letters of recommendation from teachers and counselors back up the student’s claims.

The student’s written essay gets straight to the point; in so many words declaring they want to be a business major at Mendoza because the school had been ranked first for undergraduate business programs and they, too, are often highly ranked in various areas. It’s a perfect match. Their long-term life goals include getting into a top MBA program so they can join a reputable company and become wealthy.

A second candidate is head of the stage crew in their high school’s theater department. They’re ranked in the top of their class at a school that’s good, but overall not as academically high-achieving as the one attended by the previous student. They have a 1480 SAT score, they’ve organized community service programs, and their letters of recommendations from teachers and counselors read as such, “We’re really going to miss *insert student’s first name here*. They’re a unique person and whenever we needed something done at this school, we turned to them and they got it done. They never sought the limelight, wasn’t interested in the accolades, they just wanted to get things done.”

In the student’s essay, they express wanting to attend Mendoza because the school was top-ranked in business and they want to someday run a company where employees will be well-treated and thrilled to work with a product that can have a positive impact on society. Their ultimate goal? “With the wealth that I get, I want to use it to benefit others.”


That’s the student you admit,” Bishop emphatically states. “The other, you add to the waiting list.” Bishop is a long-timer in the admissions space. A Notre Dame economics grad himself, after completing college he was convinced to stick around campus and work in the university’s admissions department. This invitation turned into an eight-year stay which he says he loved. From there, he became dean of admissions at a small college in Ohio before heading into the corporate world where he was head of employment for a large organization and spent time recruiting students from heavyweight MBA programs such as Wharton and Harvard. This served as a springboard to Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration where he was in charge of undergrad and MBA admissions for seven years before landing right back where he started — at his beloved alma mater.

Bishop has been head of undergrad enrollment at Notre Dame for the past eight years. In a wide-ranging interview, he explains the often unknown and seemingly fickle minds of the admissions staff serving as gatekeepers into the university’s highly ranked Mendoza College of Business. In 2017, Poets&Quants named Mendoza 4th on its list of Best Undergraduate Business Programs.

The first pieces of advice applicants should take heed to: class performance outweighs test scores and Notre Dame’s admissions approach is holistic. This means a student at a high-achieving school with high SAT scores who wants to go to B-school to obtain wealth may not be the obvious pick over a student with a lower test score who comes from an environment not marked by college prep support, yet wants to attend business school as a means to make a difference. Another tip: overbearing parents who do all the speaking for their “self-starter” college-applying children? Not helpful.

P&Q: Students indicate their desire to study at Mendoza with their application to the University of Notre Dame. Explain how acceptance into the business school works.

Bishop: When students apply for first year admission, we review them first to see if they are admissible to Notre Dame regardless of whether they want to study at Mendoza. You have two ways to apply. First is early action. If you apply by November 1, we’ll notify you of a final decision by December 20. That decision will either be a yes, a no, or a deferred.

If it’s a no for us during early action, that’s a no. We won’t review you again, although we’ve done our best in reviewing your application materials. If the decision is to defer, that means we’re not sure. It’s close and we’re going to look at you again when we read the rest of the applications that come in.

The second way to apply is through regular action. We have a January 1 application deadline. By March 20, they’re contacted with a yes, no, or wait list. Students who receive a yes will have until May 1 to decide. If you’ve been waitlisted, we’ll let you know by May 15.

Once you’ve applied and we’ve judged that you’re admissible to Notre Dame, then we look at business openings. We do have a limitation on the number of students that can study business because of the high demand for the business school. We try to keep it around 550 each year.

This year, out of 20,400 applicants to the university, 4,500 were for the College of Business, or 22% of our total applicants. We admitted a little over 800 so our admit rate is around 18% for the business school. From the pool of admitted students, the number of students who actually enroll is generally about 500-550, giving us a 65% yield rate for the business school.

Are there any strategic advantages to applying to Notre Dame and the business school during early action?

It’s important to note that early action is not the same as early decision. If you take the top 15 schools, half of them have early decision which means once you’re in, you’re locked in. That is not the case here. And while they could apply anywhere else and they have the freedom to do so, most students don’t.

Because early action does not force a commitment by us to the applicant, nor by the applicant to us, we do not give added (easier) consideration to early action applicants. There is no strategic advantage to get a different admit/deny decision by applying early or later. The reason students apply early is for those with stronger records who feel nothing they do in their senior year will make their application stronger than submitting it in November of their senior year before we see their senior grades.

What if I’m admitted to Notre Dame, but not into the business school?

Each year, we have about 30 students admissible to Notre Dame, yet are not pre-approved to go directly into business. Since Mendoza is a three-year program and students don’t actually start in the business school until their sophomore year, these 30 students are invited to enroll at the university and apply to Mendoza for sophomore year as an internal transfer. Still, there is no guarantee since you’ll be competing with another 100 or so students who didn’t identify business coming in, but also wish to apply. The net of it is we’ll have about 150 freshmen applicants to the business school heading into sophomore year. About half of those will be accepted to enroll.

And what about the other half?

The College of Business is the only college that requires application for acceptance. For students who are not admitted, there are all sorts of majors that are highly sought after by top corporations. Regardless of whether they’re a business major or not, students can get very involved in recruiting and internships from sophomore year on. They can also take classes that are available in the business school for non-business majors.

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