Inside MBA admissions: How a top school decides

January 28, 2013: 9:02 AM ET

A look at what happens behind closed doors as the University of Toronto's Rotman School's separates the B-school applicant wheat from the chaff.

Niki da Silva

Rotman's director of MBA admissions Niki da Silva

By John A. Byrne

(Poets&Quants) -- Niki da Silva sits at the head of a long, rectangular table in an ultra-modern, glass-walled conference room on the sixth floor of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. As director of MBA admissions and recruitment, da Silva is the school's top gatekeeper, the sentry who decides which candidates get in and which get rejected.

Huddled in the room are six other admission officers on her team, each with a red folder placed in front of them on a gleaming white table. Tucked inside each folder is the complete file of an applicant who sorely wants one of the 330 to 350 seats in the next entering class of Rotman's full-time MBA program.

Now that the second round deadlines for submitting applications has passed, this ritual is playing out at business schools all over the world: Admission committees are meeting to make hard and often painful choices whether to admit, deny, or waitlist tens of thousands of jittery candidates.

For those who desire an elite MBA, the odds are daunting. At Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, the most selective B-school in the U.S., 94 of every 100 applicants will be turned down. Harvard Business School will rebuff nine out of every 10 applicants. Though Rotman's acceptance rate is much higher, roughly half of the more than 1,200 MBA candidates expected to apply this year will be spurned.

What makes da Silva's job tougher than most is that she is expected to increase the size of the entering class at Rotman while also increasing the quality of the admits. Last year, she managed to increase the students in the entering class to 313, up from 265 a year earlier, while increasing the class' median GMAT score 20 points to 680. The school expects to welcome 400 MBA students by 2016 so that its total enrollment is similar to Stanford, MIT, New York University's Stern School, and London Business School.

How the admissions sausage is made

On this brisk, snowy day in January, da Silva's admission committee will render decisions on seven applicants from all over the world: a pair of software engineers employed by one of India's most successful global companies, an out-of-work Brit who lost his job in asset trading after his firm was acquired, an ambitious Chinese woman who is employed by a global investment banking firm, a Russian woman with entrepreneurial ambitions who lives in New York City, and two young female Canadians who work in consulting and communications.

Their GMAT scores range from a low of 620 to a high of 780. They range in age from 24 to 30. And they've been educated at a wide variety of undergraduate universities from the London School of Economics to the University of Auckland in New Zealand. They are among the first 300 applicants who have gone through the review process for Rotman's class of 2015.

It will be a productive day for the committee: six of the seven applicants will receive good news and three of their files will move forward to a broader committee for a shot at an award from a $2.4 million pool of scholarship money. A 28-year-old software engineer from India with a 710 GMAT will be thrown into the reject pile.

Da Silva would be the first to concede that MBA admissions is more art than science. Decisions are based on a mix of quick judgments, gut instincts, and raw numbers. She and her colleagues consider an applicant's undergraduate grades, GMAT or GRE scores, work history, and recommendations. They also judge candidates by their responses to two essay questions.

Each admissions officer will spend between 15 to 30 minutes reviewing an application before deciding whether to invite a candidate to interview in person or via Skype. Last year, Rotman interviewed 70% of its applicant pool. Once an interview is complete, an admissions officer will assign the applicant a grade (50 is the highest possible score) and recommend that the candidate be admitted, rejected, or placed on a waitlist.

An applicant's profile then goes to the full admissions committee, which will meet at least four times for each of the five application deadlines at Rotman -- a minimum of 20 times in all during the admissions season, with each session lasting as long as three hours -- to decide the fate of an applicant.

No MBA admissions novices here

Da Silva, 34, could easily be mistaken for an MBA student. Yet, over the past eight years, she has evaluated more than 10,000 MBA applicants at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario and at Rotman, which she joined in January 2012.

During the mid-afternoon of this brisk January day, da Silva will gather her admissions staffers in room 6024 and recommend a young Canadian woman she interviewed only five hours earlier.

"Let me give you the background on the young woman I met this morning," she begins. "She is a consultant who started as a business analyst. She has an undergraduate degree from a top Canadian school and graduated with distinction on the dean's honor list."

"Nice," says one of the other admission officers at the table.

"She has an interesting story," continues da Silva. "What else can I tell you about her in terms of data? The weak point of her application is a GMAT score of 630. Interestingly, her breakdown is fairly even between verbal and quant, 73rd and 61st percentile. I will tell you why I don't think it's an issue or a deal breaker by any stretch of the imagination.

"So the reason she wants to do the MBA is because at her consulting firm she has actually built this really interesting career as an industry specialist, which is very atypical for a young consultant. She was promoted after two years onto the consulting side. She is co-authoring white papers and thought leadership on strategy. As I read through her reference letters early this morning, her referees say that 'she is exceptional.' A partner lists her in the top 2% of consultants at the firm. And he is very explicit in saying that 'we would love to have her back anytime and she has had more of an impact on me than any of her peers.' You really couldn't see a stronger reference."

Most of the heads in the room nod in agreement.

Da Silva continues. "Her recommenders point out the same things that were fairly apparent in her interview. I gave her a 17 out of a 20 on her interview."

At Rotman, admission officials grade candidate interviews on five dimensions, ranging from self-awareness to leadership ability and intellectual curiosity. Some attributes can be graded as high as a five (on a scale of zero to five), while others might be graded no higher than a three.

"She is very impressive," adds da Silva. "She has some room for growth and development but seems quite coachable. She is aware of some of her areas of weakness. She's young. She turns 25 this year."

"She has done well," affirms Lynda Paterson, an assistant director of admissions, who once was a Montessori teacher before joining Rotman in 2004.

"For me, she is a very strong admit recommendation," adds da Silva. "I don't actually see any red flags apart from the GMAT score, which is below our average. She is a definite admit."

"Alright," says da Silva finally, "who's up next?"

The entire discussion lasted slightly under six minutes. There was no disagreement and, surprisingly, no debate over the candidate's GMAT score, which is 50 points below last year's median for the class. But typically in rounds one and two, da Silva believes, a school sees its best applicants and Rotman tends to over-admit in these early rounds.

Not everyone can be a winner

The outcome for another candidate at the meeting, however, wasn't nearly as good. The applicant is from India, where Rotman gets most of its MBA students after only Canada. That's why two of the school's assistant admissions directors are assigned to recruit and evaluate candidates from India alone. In the class that arrived last fall, 54% hail from North America, 36% from India and China, 3% from Latin America, and 2% from Europe. Chinese and Indian students find Canada especially welcome these days because the country grants three-year work visas to graduates, giving Rotman a distinct advantage over U.S. and U.K. business schools.

"I think I'm up next," says Marie-Eve Roy, who with Sheldon Dookeran mainly reviews applications from India. "Unfortunately, I have a no. His resume is decent. He has four years in a pretty big company in India as a test engineer. He is 28. He scored 710 on the GMAT. He wants to get into IT consulting.

"At first glance, he seems pretty good," says Roy. "Then, I discovered that his GPA falls below our minimum requirement, so he actually has second class standing."

At Rotman, any applicant with an undergraduate grade point average below 3.0 cannot be admitted to the school without approval from the University of Toronto's School of Graduate Studies. In any given year, Rotman will ask for approval to admit "non-standard" candidates for about 3% of its admits. But this applicant isn't going to be one of them.

"I decided this person would not be a good fit for Rotman when I interviewed him," Roy revealed. "He came across as immature. When I asked him to talk about a negative, he mentioned that he was a procrastinator. I thought it was probably not a good idea to tell me that, especially for an intensive program like ours."

Most of the admission officials in the room nod in approval.

"Everyone is going to want to get out of his group," jokes Bailey Daniels, who reviews applicants from Eastern Europe and the U.S.

"And then upon further examination," continued Roy, "both of his referees mentioned that he waits until the last minute to get things done. And another said he needs to work a little on his time management skills."

"At least he's self-aware," chimes in Claire Gumus, who reviews the files from China.

"Based on the grades, my interaction with him, and the interview and his career goals in consulting, I don't think he would be a good fit for Rotman," concludes Roy.

"I think you're right," agrees da Silva. "His GMAT is not enough. Alright, who's next?"

Within the next few days, the applicant will receive an email from the school that will inform him of the decision.

By the time the meeting ends, the group will have approved six of the seven applicants. But there are already another 260 more folders in the house to be read and evaluated, hundreds of interview sessions to schedule, and three more application deadlines to go until final decisions are handed to this year's hopefuls by the end of June.

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About This Author
John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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