Interview with Duke Fuqua Admissions Director Russell Davis
Viv Pundir of Admissions.SG caught up with Duke Fuqua‘ Assoc. Director of the MBA Admissions, Russell Davis. The transcript of the interview follows.
Viv Pundir: What would you like candidates to know about the Duke MBA?
Russell Davis: At the Duke MBA we are looking for a very special type of student. When prospective students attend my information sessions, they hear me use the words ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ quite frequently. They also hear me refer to the ‘MBA experience.’ We are looking for students who want to be fully engaged at the Duke MBA, who want to give as much as they get. We are looking for students who want to share their unique perspective and their passions with their classmates. We want students who know how to fully leverage the experience and truly value diversity. When I refer to diversity, I’m not just talking about citizenship or professional background, I am talking about diversity of perspective which is shaped by many things. The two years will go by fast! When students engage both inside and outside the classroom, bring their passions and have an impact on our community, they help us attain our goal of creating the richest learning environment, and they set themselves up for success by reaching their potential and ultimately achieving their personal and professional dreams.
Viv Pundir: Who is the fulltime program at the Duke MBA for? What makes it different from other MBA programs?
Russell Davis: We have a general management curriculum in the Duke MBA, so we attract students from a great variety of professional backgrounds. Many of the students are looking to make some sort of transition in their career. This can include an industry, functional, and/or geography change. Other students will confirm during their 2-year experience that they liked what they were doing pre-MBA, and rather than looking to change careers, they want to take a significant step in their current career.
When I am conducting information sessions, I hear alumni and current students get this question a lot: What do students or alumni value most about their experience at Fuqua? By far the most frequent answer is – the people. When they elaborate, alumni talk about the amazing and supportive culture, something we call “Team Fuqua,” which is this idea that our students know they are stronger because of the people around them. Their classmates, faculty and staff – everyone contributes to a student’s success.
As I mentioned above, we are looking for students who want to be fully engaged. When a student goes to a top MBA program, recruiters are going to know they are smart, that the students know the rules of finance, of marketing or of operations. But what really sets the best students apart are soft skills: their ability to make people around them better and to be high impact at work. When our students take full advantage of the experience, they develop these skills.
You don’t grow without taking risks. During the Duke MBA program, our students are more willing to take risks, to try something new, because they know if they fail they have people around them who will support them and pick them up again. A friend of mine who graduated recently summed it up well when he said, “What made Duke special was that the people around me didn’t put as much value on when someone was good at something, as they did when someone was brave enough to try something new.”
Viv Pundir: What’s your hypothesis for Fuqua MBA’s ascent to #1 in BusinessWeek rankings this year? Was it expected or was everyone in Durham, and you in particular, surprised?
Russell Davis: We have long felt were doing something very special at Duke. We were very excited about the ranking because it’s always nice to have third party validation. What is most important about the ranking is that it recognizes the type of leader we are developing at Fuqua. As I’ve said previously, one of our primary goals is to produce future leaders who are high impact in their work. And this ranking told us we are doing it right, because of the value employers place on hiring our graduates, in particular because they are so good at collaboration and working in teams.
I have met many recruiters in my work, including across Asia. And for those companies who value a collaborative culture similar to Duke, they tell us our students fit their companies very well. In fact, companies often say how likable our students are, and how seamlessly they fit into their organizations.
Viv Pundir: Candidates often ask whether an MBA is a worthwhile investment. What would you say with respect to the ROI of a Fuqua MBA?
Russell Davis: When you talk to a candidate about return on investment, they are typically only thinking about what their salary will be when they graduate, and how big the jump will be compared to their pre-MBA work. However, in the Duke MBA a significant part of the ROI is also the network and the community they will be a part of for the rest of their careers and lives. When you talk to members of the Duke community you always sense a great passion for their experience, their classmates, their time in Durham and their school. As an alumnus of the Fuqua School of Business you are also an alumnus of Duke University, a network of more than 160,000 strong passionate, connected, and engaged alumni around the world. The lifetime value of the Duke community is a significant part of the ROI.
Viv Pundir: You offer multiple rounds of applications. Are there any advantages to applying in particular rounds compared to others? You are one of the few MBA programs offering an “Early Action” round. How did this come about and how does this round differ from others?
Russell Davis: Yes, we have four rounds at the Duke MBA. We have our early action round followed by rounds one, two, and three.
Let me describe to you who should apply in early action. Let’s say you are a candidate, and you have done your thorough research, you created your short list of schools and investigated them all. You have determined that Duke is the best school for you. You know it is your top choice and where you want to be. You understand what we are looking for in candidates, and you understand our culture and how to leverage it. You believe you are a good fit for the school and the school is the right fit for you. If you can put together your strongest application and this describes you, then early action is the right round. We wanted to give candidates a chance to get their decision early if they knew Duke was the right place for them, which means they are done with their MBA applications and can begin to focus on preparation and setting themselves up for success.
Rounds one and two are our biggest rounds. We do encourage applicants to apply as early in these rounds as possible without sacrificing the quality of the application. But we know applicants are looking at and applying to multiple schools, and they have their application strategy. When a candidate asks me if there is anything significantly different between rounds one and two, I tell them that in the event they are waitlisted, it is better to be waitlisted in round one than in round two because it gives them more time and opportunity to add additional insight into their candidacy.
Viv Pundir: What happens to an application once the applicant hits the Submit button? Walk us through your evaluation process. How many people read each application?
Russell Davis: Once a candidate has hit the ‘submit’ button and the application deadline has passed, we review every application to ensure we have all of the pieces. We call this ‘check for completion.’ If we are missing something in the application, we will email the candidate and give them an opportunity to get us the missing pieces. Most often this is a recommendation, or maybe we haven’t received their official GMAT or GRE score. If we are not able to get all of the pieces in time to begin reading the file that round, the application will be automatically moved to the next round to provide more time to be completed. We notify the candidate if this happens. Once an application has been signed off as complete, we begin reading the files. Each file gets two complete reads by two different application readers.
At Duke we have an open interview period from Sept 8th to Oct 12th. This means if a candidate comes to Durham and takes part in our campus visit program, as part of their campus activities, such as a class visit, lunch with students, tour, etc., they can also elect to have an interview during their visit. That interview can be attached to their application which can be submitted at any point in the same year. The application does not need to have been submitted to interview during the open Interview period.
For those candidates unable to visit during this time and have their interview, a candidate must now be invited to interview. This means we will review their file and make the decision on whether or not to invite the candidate to interview. For those we interview, once the interview evaluation has been submitted, both readers will review the evaluation and make their recommendations.
I would like to point out that if a candidate is not initially invited to interview, it does not mean they are automatically going to be denied. Since we do require an interview for a candidate to be admitted, we cannot admit someone without an interview. However, a candidate who was not initially invited to interview can still receive a waitlist decision and it is not uncommon for us to go back and interview waitlisted candidates in a later round. Finally, as we approach the decision release date, our committee comes together and discusses all of the applicants in that round. If we have candidates from previous rounds who have been waitlisted, we will also look at them again, as well. The committee makes their decisions, and then we share the news.
Viv Pundir: What are you really looking for in an ideal candidate? How can candidates stand out?
Russell Davis: For the Duke MBA, at minimum we need to verify the following in candidates:
Are they at the right point in their career?
Are they going to be academically successful?
If candidates meet that criteria we start assessing cultural fit like the following:
Do they understand the opportunity presented by the Duke MBA?
Do they value our unique culture and will they fully leverage the experience?
Do they appreciate what diversity means at Duke? As I mentioned above, diversity is about different perspectives. Does the candidate appreciate the fact that working on diverse teams will provide them with different perspectives that are going to enable them to come up with better solutions?
Again, we are looking for students who want to have an impact at school and in our community. We are a student-driven community, and we need students to bring their ideas, energy and passion and to enhance our community. When we are looking at candidates, we also want to see that they have a history of impact, both in their jobs and outside of their regular work responsibilities or in their community, because this is the best predictor that they’ll be engaged in our community.
Viv Pundir: How important is the GMAT in your decisions? Do you look at an applicant’s entire GMAT history, or do you only consider their highest overall score? What, if any, roles do the AWA and IR sections play in your decisions?
Russell Davis: Of course, GMAT, or GRE since we also accept that test, is a part of the application. And for many we know it is the most stressful part of the process. We do look at the entire test and we only consider their highest overall score. However, the test is only a part of a candidate’s profile. We look at the total application package and weigh equally each application component. We do not have minimum score requirements at Duke, but we need to be confident a candidate can do the work. Gaining a spot in a top MBA program is very competitive, and sometimes a test score can be a differentiator when we are looking at so many great candidates. My advice to candidates is to take the test until they believe they have done the best they can.
Viv Pundir: What does your interview process look like?
Russell Davis: I talked a bit about our interview policy already. I can add that if an applicant comes to Durham for their interview, whether during the open interview period, or they select Durham as their interview location if invited, they will be interviewed by one of our second year students called admissions fellows. If the candidate is invited to interview and is unable to come to campus, we do have select cities around the world where they can be interviewed by members of our alumni interview team. In both cases, the interviewer will only have the candidate’s resume.
Viv Pundir: Do you have a pet peeve? What is the one mistake candidates make that gets them rejected outright?
Russell Davis: I wouldn’t call it a pet peeve, but I think the most common downfall for candidates is they haven’t done their research and/or they cannot convince the admissions committee they understand the opportunity at Duke. We are very transparent about what we are looking for in candidates. In my presentations, I spend about 20-30 minutes reviewing the application and providing guidance for each section. And throughout the session I am talking about the different features of the Duke MBA and the benefits to them. I give candidates insight into what is distinctive about Duke, and what the ideal candidate and student looks like. It is then the candidate’s responsibility to do the work. They need to do their research, connect with our community and be able to demonstrate that they understand who we are and how we can help them achieve their dreams by fully leveraging their two years at Duke. When a candidate reaches out respectfully to members of our community, sends a short email with a brief introduction and a request for a few minutes of their time, this is the best way to get a response. Our alumni and students are so willing to help, even when they are super busy. I often hear how a student will spend an hour on the phone at midnight US time, talking with a prospective applicant, or an alumnus sends a two page answer to a candidate’s question. There are so many applicants who do their homework. If an applicant has not done their homework, that is a mistake.
Viv Pundir: How have your application numbers, acceptance rates, and yield changed over the past few years?
Russell Davis: I’ve been recruiting in Asia since 2008. During that time, I have seen the Duke brand grow tremendously. We have a significant global footprint which includes our East Asia regional office in Shanghai, in addition to offices and teams focused in other areas of the world including the Middle East, India, Russia, Europe, and Latin America. We have seen steady application numbers. More importantly, we’ve seen the quality of our applicants grow steadily. In Asia in particular, where I’ve dedicated myself to understanding the different markets, the candidates and their backgrounds, we’ve seen an increase in applications as well as offers accepted. It’s been very exciting to watch.
Viv Pundir: What percentage of last year’s incoming class found jobs within 3 months of graduation? What jobs did they find? In which industries? With which companies? In which locations?
Russell Davis: Our students secure jobs across industries, functions and around the world. We have a high percentage of students who go into consulting. This is a challenging work environment that requires people to be able to move regularly from team to team, client to client, sometimes across industries, and work with different personalities, all on a regular basis. They need to be a great team player. It is no surprise our students do so well in this type of environment. We’ve also seen a big jump in the number of students going into high tech. In particular, I’ve seen some of our students from Asia end up on the West Coast of the United States working for companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Cisco, Apple, Google, among others. I always encourage applicants to be sure to review a school’s recruiting reports which are readily available on school web sites, for a complete picture. Our reports are available here.
Viv Pundir: Growing up, you spent some time in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. What’re your lasting impressions of these places?
Russell Davis: Ah, you’ve been doing your homework! First and foremost, the biggest takeaway was how each of these places and cultures are quite different. Singapore was the first place I lived internationally, and I was amazed at the diversity of cultures even within this relatively small geographical area. Then I moved to Japan, where there was such a distinct culture. I learned all the different ways I can be told ‘no’ even when many of the times it sounded like a yes! I really appreciate and admire the respect people show each other in Japan. And in Hong Kong, it was such an international city. Actually, the very first time I stepped on Chinese soil was in 1984, when I was able to take a bus tour into China. My dad did a lot of business in Asia, which is what brought our family to these places. There is no doubt in my mind that it was those experiences that have made me so passionate about working in this region. More recently, I’ve had an opportunity to get to know countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, and understand their role in the region and the broader world economy. I am very pleased to say we have robust groups of students from these two countries currently at Duke, with 6 students from Indonesia and 5 from Vietnam. It is very satisfying to see the Duke community continue to grow around the world, knowing that I get to play a small part in it.