Speaking with Derrick Bolton, Stanford GSB Admissions Director

I have reprinted below an interview that appeared in the Stanford Business Reporter last week. Second year Stanford GSB student, Marisol Vidal Palma, interviewed Derrick Bolton, MBA Admissions Director at the GSB.
Read on for some interesting insights into the Stanford GSB admissions, straight from the source.

MVP: What matters most to you and why? (You knew this was coming!)
DB: [If I answer] the problem is that whatever I say then it will be repeated in five thousand essays next year. (smiles)
MVP: Fair enough.MVP: What is your opinion of the effectiveness of “the” Stanford GSB essay in identifying top candidates?
Students think that we put more emphasis to the essays than we actually do. This Stanford GSB essay is only one small piece of information, and people always forget that there is another essay about your career development and learning objectives, which is more important, but you never hear anybody talked about it. Then there is a whole set of recommendations. If you asked me ‘could I make a decision on an application without essays?’ I would say ‘absolutely’, but ‘could I make a decision without recommendations?’ ‘No way.’ To me the recommendations are more important than the essays, but the essays get more attention.
The [the application process] codes global and micro things: the global things are values and aspirations that affect change of the world around you; while micro things are leadership, effectiveness and management, oriented to what the candidate has done. So the “what matters most to you” essay is really good at [assessing] the global aspect; and gives you a chance to look back to the decisions that you have made and the things that you have done, the situations, people and events that have influenced you. The micro code is covered in the rest of the application. When you put those two together, it is a very good picture, and we are comfortable with that.

MVP: If you could replace it, which essay question would you use?
Before asking ourselves about changing the essay question, we will ask ourselves to even ask for essays anymore. You [the candidate] could give us a work history and we will give you fifteen interviews, which would be more effective than having essays. You could get out the global and micro factors through the interviews. So If I had to replace an essay question, I would replace it with a process that is fundamentally different than what we use now. But, in the near term I do not think the essays questions will change. We will probably supplement it with more questions focused on what people have done.

MVP: How does it feel after forming 4 Stanford GSB classes?
DB: I do not have kids, but I have to imagine that this is an accelerated version of parenthood: you give birth to them, you watch them struggling and achieving and then graduate and move out into the world. That has actually been the most satisfying thing: watching students from the Class of 04, which was my first class, and now the Class of 05, when I am traveling around the world in the Fall, participating on panels as alumni. As every child has a personality every class has a personality too and they all build on each other. I think even classes and odd classes tend to be more similar (04, 06, 08 will be more similar, and then 05, 07, 09 will be more similar), because they always are complementing each other, making sure that the school is balanced as a whole.

MVP: Talking about balance, what do you think about diversity in the Stanford GSB classes? Are you doing something in order to increase the representation of minorities and of some regions of the world?
DB: We do what the market does and we travel to different places to do more outreach. But then if applications do not come in we are not going to take candidates who are not as strong as candidates from somewhere else, just to have that diversity. We do very well in diversity, but people forget that we are a smaller program and that this is a zero sum game. We as a school have been very clear about not making value judgments that we want more internationals or fewer US, but that we would like to see a broader representation in the class that will help students to be successful. It is more about the mindset that the students have versus what their passports say or what their gender is. When I think about diversity, I think the biggest hurdle is socioeconomic diversity, which is the area where we have most work to do. It happens in the US where we skewed towards higher socioeconomic levels, and it happens even more so internationally.

MVP: What about admission mistakes?
DB: What does that mean? Who are you thinking of? (Laughs)
I think we consciously take risks with some candidates and I do not think that is a bad thing. As I spent more time here, is that is very rare to find a person who is universally perceived as a very good student, academically, socially, in community, and career. The really cool thing about Stanford GSB students is that if you give someone a chance, and you peel back layers of that person, you find that there is more than you expected, and it gives you a different way of approaching people and situations.

But, I do not think we make mistakes; the people I worry about are the candidates we can not admit. I remember very well your class, and your essays and what people have done, but I remember even better the ones that we deliberated in for hours and hours and then could not admit. You wonder where they end up and where did they go to school, and I do not worry because I know that they are going to do well, but I wonder. So, for me those are the people that keep me up at night.

MVP: What is the most impressive thing some candidate has written and that you did not accept?
DB: Everybody tends to write compelling stories. But to see people who seed every opportunity in life and have done the very best that she/he could, especially coming from a poor family with no history of private education, and not being able to take her/him just breaks your heart. It’s never that we reject candidates; it’s that we accept candidates. We never look for reasons not to take someone; we look for reasons to take someone. We do not have so many spots and there are people who we can not take, although we like them. So, for me having a class that was a little bigger would actually make my job easier.

I wish people [not accepted] could understand this process. A lot of times people think that they were not strong candidates and it is not the case at all, but there are stronger candidates in the pool and there is not enough room. This is tough especially for applicants that have been very successful in life by being very aggressive and taking every opportunity and it is hard for them to accept that there are things that are beyond their control. You can not control the applicant pool and there is some element of luck in the process and you have to be frank about that.

MVP: I can see that this is the toughest part of your job.
DB: Yes, I hate it; it is the worst stage. I love making the phone calls but I hate sending letters to people who can not come here, especially when you can tell that they genuinely want to be here; it is very hard.

MVP: How often do we lose applicants to other schools, and what are the top reasons for that?
DB: The business school market is much more concentrated than people think. So it is not that we loose to four or five schools that we lose to one school [editor’s note: this is Harvard Business School but Derek did not mention it]. If you count anybody else over the last years, I can count on two hands the number of people that we have lost in total to anybody else. We compete not only with business schools, but also with the Law School [at Stanford], the Kennedy School at Harvard and with people staying at their jobs and deciding not to do an MBA. People always talk about rankings but at the end of the day is a two horse raise when people get offers and 9 times out of ten it is a personal factor.

MVP: What are the top objectives for the admissions office in the next 5 years?
DB: Admission’s objectives remain over time: to attract, select and enroll 360 highest potential leaders from all around the world to bring them here for two years to form their personal, professional and intellectual development. It is amazing the amount of talent that we have in this school and how lucky we are to be surrounded by this excellence; you are not going to find this anywhere else in your life.

Thinking ahead for the next five years I hope the admission process looks dramatically different than what it looks today. I would like to have more face to face interactions, more interviews per person, and a more streamline application, that makes sure we are giving the right information for the applicants and recommenders. We are doing this job well now, but there is always room for improvement.

MVP: What do you like to do in your free time?
DB: Sleep. (Laughs) We have [at Admissions] 3 months of travel, 7 months of reading [applications] and 2 months in the summer to do planning for the next year, so there is not much time for that. I also am a bit of a “foody” and I like tennis, I don’t play it as much as I wanted, but I watch the games.


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