MBA Admissions Q&A: Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management |

MBA Admissions Q&A: Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management

By Mike Grill

Updated February 21, 2021 Updated February 21, 2021

The Owen Graduate School of Management is the graduate business school of Vanderbilt University, located in Nashville, Tennessee. The school’s full-time MBA program welcomed an entering class of 175 students this year, of which 20% are international students, 26% are female and 11% come from military backgrounds.  

In this interview Q&A, The Owen School’s admissions director, Christie St. John, takes an earnest, and at times light-hearted, approach in spelling out some of her MBA admissions dos and don’ts. For example: Don’t assume the admissions committee can read your mind and make links between your essay response and the realities of your past experiences if they aren’t clearly laid out; Don’t turn up to sit the GMAT without preparing properly; Do remember that admissions staff are looking for reasons to admit you rather than reasons to rule you out.

Read on to learn more:    

The Owen School's Christie St. John
What is the typical acceptance rate to the Owen GSM MBA program?

Depending on the number of applications, our acceptance rate ranges from 35 to 40 percent.

What are the most important aspects of the Owen MBA application process besides GMAT score, prior GPA, and current job position?

Fit. That is not something easily explained in concrete terms, but we try to assess whether someone will be an active member of our community, whether our values align with those of the candidate, and how effective the person will be in the classroom. In other words, what will the person contribute to other students’ learning during their time in the program? Owen is a small business school so every individual here matters.

What is a common mistake you see applicants make?

Assuming that we can read their minds! By that I mean the essays are often very general and the applicant may not connect the dots in a clear manner for the admissions committee in relating their response to past experience, knowledge needed and future career path. We ask the question, “What are your career goals and why do you need an MBA?” for a very specific reason. We want to know that they have reflected on the commitment that they are about to undertake, and that our program has what they hope to gain.

What is something you would like to see applicants do more often?

Two things: First, connect with our current students either during a campus visit or if that is not possible, via our website. We have a webpage that lists the emails for our current student ambassadors, and all the club officers’ emails. Our students are eager to talk about their experience and it seems to me that this is the best source of information for a prospective student. The second thing is that applicants need to consider the cost of the program and how they plan on financing their studies, wherever they happen to be applying. Start by looking at external scholarships that are not tied to an individual school. There are thousands of them out there so candidates need to do their due diligence and not depend on all financing coming from their university of choice.

What does the Vanderbilt Owen application process look like?

We do a thorough evaluation, carried out by admissions staff, of every completed application. That consists of having a first read, often prior to the interview, followed by a second read from someone other than the interviewer. Finally, I read all the applications before we go to committee. It is a lot of work but it gives me an overall view of the entire applicant pool. By having more than one reader, we ensure that if one person misses something, then another person will catch it. After all applications have been read for the round, each applicant is presented by the interviewer to the entire admissions committee, which includes the director of the school’s career management center. We have lively discussions and the final decision is based on the consensus of all present. Scholarships are also decided at that time. If we cannot make a decision, we will often contact the candidate to ask for more information or we might talk to students who have interacted with the candidate.

How can a candidate overcome a lower GMAT score?

That is a very common question. All schools will tell you that the GMAT is only one part of the application, and that is true. We look at work experience, what the candidate will bring to the class in terms of diversity (of experience, education, geography, race, gender, nationality and even hobbies), and whether we think the candidate can actually get through our coursework requirements. That is where the GMAT comes in. The GMAT doesn’t tell us whether a candidate will be a successful businessperson, but it does tell is whether they will be able to get through the first year of the program. And that is very important to us.

That being said, we work closely with candidates, and if an applicant has a very low quant score on the GMAT, for example, we might ask them to take some pre-enrollment classes to be sure they are set up to succeed. We often offer the services of one of our mathematics professors to help with GMAT prep. We might also ask them how they prepared for the GMAT. Sometimes people just walk in and take it with no preparation; or they study the book but never try a mock test. That’s not recommended! 

MBA admissions tips

Essay(s): Read the question and answer it briefly, clearly and thoughtfully. Write your answer, let it sit for a few days, then go back and look at it again. Don’t let someone else write it for you — you are the person hoping to be admitted, not an MBA advisor, your brother, your parents or your friend. We want to know who you are. Don’t copy and paste the answer to another school’s question — and be sure to proofread.

Interview: Prepare for a business school interview just as you would for a job interview. Understand what the school has to offer you, understand what you have to offer the school, and don’t ask questions to which you could easily find answers on the school’s official website. This is a great occasion to interact with the admissions staff and learn about things you can’t find on the web.

Letter(s) of recommendation: Choose someone who knows you well and who can speak to your strengths, weaknesses and interpersonal skills. The recommender’s title is not important, nor does it matter whether they are an alumnus of the school or not. Remind your recommender of what you’ve accomplished in your job, and why you want to do an MBA.

CV/résumé: This is your marketing document. Make every line count and don’t fill it with empty adjectives. Keep it simple and show results and impact, not just responsibilities. Make sure what is shown on your résumé is relevant to what you want to do in the future.

School visit: Highly recommended. How can you understand what a school is like without a visit? Websites are all very similar but each school has a personality. If you are planning to spend two years somewhere, isn’t it worth spending a little money to check it out? If that isn’t feasible, then certainly reach out to current students and try to meet the school staff or alumni, if they are in your area.

Final thought: Remember, we are looking for reasons to admit you, not to keep you out.

This article was originally published in October 2015 . It was last updated in February 2021

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