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MBA Admissions Tips from UND's Mendoza College of Business

Many graduate school applicants obsess over whether they're making the right decision by selecting one program over another. Admissions directors feel the same way. Choosing the right candidates can elevate a school's MBA rankings and build an even stronger alumni base for the institution. For 16 years, Brian Lohr wrestled with those issues while he served as Director of MBA admissions for the University of Notre Dame. Having recently moved into a new role as Director of Admissions Operations and Management for the entire university, Lohr took some time to share some of his insights with MBAPrograms.org from his time as the chief gatekeeper for graduate programs at the Mendoza College of Business.


According to Lohr, professional networking demonstrates both an applicant's business savvy and their genuine interest in an MBA program.

"If I have a student that has an interest in finance, and they acknowledge to me that they have actually reached out to one of our professors that teaches in the applied investment management class and had a conversation with them, that sounds good to me."

The outreach not only illustrates a candidate's interest, Lohr said, it mirrors the behavior of business professionals who actively build networks that can help them achieve their goals. In his series of columns published by U.S. News and World Report, former Columbia University admissions dean Dr. Don Martin noted that some schools now require prospective students to make faculty connections during the application process.

Lohr and Martin both observed situations where faculty members championed applicants who they felt could enhance their programs. Although professors on the admissions committee do this as part of their routine duties, professors with no formal recruiting role can earn long-term kudos for discovering a prospective student with the ability to become a high-performing graduate. Likewise, admissions officers prefer to partner with faculty members who take the time to vet prospective candidates, reducing a program's risk.

Strong Essay

If writing the perfect MBA application essay didn't cause you enough stress, Lohr says that the right words really make a difference when you're trying to stand out from a competitive pack.

"I had a young man that we recruited out of Jackson, MS, named Cord," Lohr said. "Cord ended up coming to Notre Dame, and he's worked for Ford Motor Company and GE. But I'll never forget his essay. His essay talked about the fact that he was a first-generation college-bound person from his family. He talked about his grandfather being a sharecropper in Mississippi, and how he was so tired of looking [at] the south end of a mule going north that he pushed his family to become educated. That imagery and that commitment to education was something that really stood out for me."

Lohr also counseled applicants to express themselves the way they eventually will in their post-MBA careers.

"I remember a woman, she had an interest in getting into brand management, and she wanted to go to work for Kellogg's up in Battle Creek," Lohr said. "I remember that the first part of her essay started out, 'Snap, crackle, pop. Snap, crackle, pop,' which is Rice Krispies. That was the brand that she ultimately wanted to take over when she was finished with her MBA program." The candidate's snappy introduction supported her stated goal of building brands, making her an ideal applicant to welcome into the MBA program.

Life and leadership Experience

Unlike applicants to undergraduate degree programs, prospective MBA candidates can draw upon a longer history of personal and professional experiences during interviews and essays. That does not mean that admissions officers such as Lohr and his peers always want to see documentation of unbridled success. The capacity to recover from failure indicates an applicant's ability to get the most from MBA programs.

Lohr recounted a conversation with an admissions director at the United States Military Academy at West Point. After asking the Colonel about what keeps her up at night, "she said, 'You know, it's not finding good students, we can do that all day long. It's the fact that in some point during this experience they're going to fail, we make that happen. And their ability to bounce back even higher is what we're looking for. Not somebody who's going to fold up their tent and go home.'"

Veterans have also seized a larger share of MBA program openings over the past few years. According to statistics published by Bloomberg Businessweek, nearly twice as many of today's active duty armed forces personnel entered military service with bachelor's degrees in 2010 as they did in 1990.

"Thirteen percent of my incoming class is prior military," Lohr said. "There's a reason for that. They have great leadership skills, they don't complain, and they are excited about being at a top-tier graduate business school and having a roof over their head and nobody shooting at them. They perform so well, they just have great leadership experiences, and that's one of the things that we look for in candidates."

Overcoming weak standardized test scores

Otherwise talented MBA applicants often get discouraged when they don't pull high GMAT scores. Failing to make the first round of the admission process shouldn't deter you from demonstrating your value, Lohr commented. In fact, many admissions officers love the challenge of uncovering potential leaders who just don't happen to test well.

"When you give people like that an opportunity and they come here and they're successful - and they become great husbands or wives or parents, and they perform well in the workforce, and they give back to the community - that's what brings joy to my heart," Lohr said.

Lohr recalled one applicant who landed on Notre Dame's wait list while working in a marketing job.

"She came in to visit, and she sent a present to the office in general, she did not send this to me. It was a jar of red and white M&Ms, and there was one green M&M predominantly placed on the side. She said that, 'I'll be that M&M that sticks out.' So we all shared M&Ms, and there you have it. She ultimately came to the program. I think she had about 15 job offers by the time she left."

"B-Schools Recruit More Veterans," Bloomberg Businessweek, Erin Zlomek, January 25, 2012, http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/bschools-go-after-more-veterans-01262012.html
"How to Contact Professors as a Grad School Applicant," U.S. News & World Report, Dr. Don Martin, September 28, 2012, http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/graduate-school-road-map/2012/09/28/how-to-contact-professors-as-a-grad-school-applicant
Interview with Brian Lohr, Director of Admissions and Operations Management for the University of Notre Dame's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, conducted by Jamar Ramos, MBAPrograms.org, August 20, 2013