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Which Applicants Fit In at the Tuck MBA Program?

21 min. readIn Part 2 of our interview with Luke Anthony Peña, Tuck’s Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, we talk about how you can tell if you would be a good fit for the Tuck MBA program.  (See also Part 1: The Tuck Experience).

This interview includes:

  1. Who should apply
  2. Who SHOULDN’T apply (hint: people who like to compete rather than collaborating)
  3. Why Tuck’s network is an asset that gets even better over time
  4. How focusing exclusively on rankings and brands can lead applicants to make bad decisions
  5. Getting to know Tuck through the open interview process
  6. Tuck’s three core values

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Who Should Apply to Tuck?

David: I’m here today with Luke Anthony Peña, Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at Tuck.

Potential MBA students, they’re clever people. Everyone kind of knows you’re not going to get anywhere at Tuck with some story of, “I’m the greatest guy in the world, I’m a great leader, I have all these accomplishments…” People are smart enough to know that that’s not the magic formula. But how do you find the ones that genuinely have these qualities?

Luke: Sure, and that’s a great question. That’s one we got asked a lot this last summer as we were introducing new language around the criteria that we were looking for.

David: Because I wasn’t that surprised by the language. It’s kind of old wine in new bottles or whatever you want to call it.

Luke: Well, I agree, and I’ve been making that same point myself that the language that we’re using, yes, the words are new – the values underneath have not changed. And they’re very much a continuation of what has made Tuck special for 118 years. And so that is a continuation of those very core elements to the school.

And yet, one of the big questions that we got asked was very similar to yours: “how are you going to actually tell? How can you distinguish between somebody who actually practices these habits of niceness and kindness? And how will you separate that person from somebody who knows how to say the right things?” And so it was an open question. And you don’t really know until you get into the applications.

Well, now we’re getting into these Round 1 applications. And I have been really struck and moved by the fact that you really can tell the difference when there are patterns of behavior. And I think that’s what it comes down to.

So, when we think about evaluating for something like “nice,” we have an entire essay that’s dedicated to “nice.” We ask about how the applicant has invested in the success of someone else. We also ask the recommenders in our recommender questions about when the applicant has worked with somebody, how they interact with others, especially when that interaction is difficult or challenging.

And then we also have our interviewers. When students interview, we have our interviewers trained to be looking for examples and anecdotes that would capture this behavioral pattern. And so as I’ve gotten through a little more than half of the applications for this Round 1 already, I’m struck by how meaningfully differences do emerge between people who are straining to produce an example of something that may frankly not be a habit versus people who this comes very naturally. And you see very robust examples, multiple examples that are coming from all of these different portions of the application.

I fundamentally believe that this is a hard thing to fake. And if it is something that you are faking for the purpose of an application, over the course of these sustained efforts and probes to try to understand do we see these things, the reality of whether or not this is actually fundamental to your character does come out. And we are seeing really strong differences between people for whom this is natural and authentic and others for whom this is put upon and forced.

David: I think a lot of times that they will kind of give it away. Or they will put in some pretty big clues that I have seen some number of people write essays about maybe, “tell me about a time when you led a team or a project.” And I always feel like you know that maybe they’re not that kind of focused on helping other people when the story begins: “Yes on the team, there were five team members…” The names are magically omitted. “And we did this and we did that…” And you don’t even know who of these people are. You haven’t heard them remark anything about any other person in the story besides themselves. And then you had the other kinds of people where you’ll see them tell a story of, “well, it was me and Steven and Karen. And we talked together about the problem. And here’s how we split things up…” And they may be telling a notionally similar story, but people who genuinely care about other people, not only did they have more examples, they just talked about other people in a different way.

Luke: I think you’re right. And what I hear in what you’re saying, there’s a difference between transactional interactions and genuine emotional interactions. And so, with the examples that we see where there is very clearly a transactional nature to it, that doesn’t reflect the same level of depth and engagement as the ones where there was a genuine desire to invest in that person. And that really does come out in essays and examples. You really can see that difference. The depth is another piece, right? There are some stories that very much scratch the surface about looking out for somebody else, caring for somebody else, investing in somebody else. And then there are others that are really powerful and compelling that convey a real sense of depth and desire and passion to be able to elevate somebody else’s outcome. So you see some element of that as well.

I also think it’s really powerful in these examples when the person strikes a balance between caring about the other person’s growth, while also realizing that they too are growing from that experience and that example. And so it’s not just about a quid pro quo, so to speak, where you know “I’ll help you now, you’ll help me later.” But it’s a belief that this really is a mutual investment. And everybody engaged in this interaction is stronger when there’s genuine habits of kindness, a genuine investment, and a real sense of commitment to wanting to make sure that that outcome is improved for everybody involved.

Who SHOULDN’T Apply to Tuck?

David: Now, Tuck of course, is probably not the school for everybody. Who is not a good fit at Tuck besides, of course, the negation of some of these qualities that if you’re not nice you know you’re probably not a good fit? OK. Who else is Tuck maybe not for?

Luke: Yeah, and you led me right down right where my mind was going. I do think about the inverse of the criteria that we look for. And yet, there are some clear examples that would highlight that: So you think about the way we talk about “smart,” it has to do, yes, with some academic aptitude and some performance metrics. But it also has to do with the attitude and the orientation towards confident humility and acknowledging what you know and what you don’t know.

So, if we have a candidate who’s out there who considers himself or herself a know-it-all and somebody who thinks, “well, I have all the answers and so I’m the smartest person in this room. And I’m going to make sure that I let my knowledge be known.” That’s going to be a really hard fit for Tuck. It is a place where you are expected to be, yes, confident in what you know, but also humble about the things that you don’t.

And so it’s tough for somebody who has that extreme sense of confidence– and you might even say cockiness– to come here and to fit into the community and align with the community in a good way. Nice we discussed, but I do think that somebody who is prioritizing their own success over the success of others, that’s a really difficult and challenging profile for the Tuck School.

Again, because of the camaraderie and the closeness in the community, that person is going to have a difficult time engaging with classmates if they’re in it just for themselves. I think about “accomplished,” and we talked about accomplished being, yes, it has to do with performance on the job and progression and the kinds of things that you might see in a resume. And yet, there’s more to it than that. It’s about acting with good judgment. It’s about acting with courage in difficult situations. It’s about not wilting. It’s about acting the right way.

And so I think about candidates for whom the ends always justify the means, that’s going to be a tough profile for the Tuck School as well. And so there are some people for whom the results are the end all, be all goal. And we care about how you get those results. We care that you’re using wisdom and judgment along the way.

And then finally, I think about awareness. And that has much to do here with understanding how you’ve gotten to the place of business school and what you want to do going forward. And yet, it also has to do with understanding how you contribute here.

And this is another really distinguishing element between whether Tuck will be a good place for you or not. Do you want to come, and do you want to give back just as much as you’re taking away? It’s not an experience where you’re the transactional customer, and you come and you pay your tuition, and you get some skills and some knowledge, and you kind of take that back and apply that to whatever else you were doing in the world. We want you– in fact, we expect you — when you come to the Tuck School to be contributing, to be engaged, to be actively involved, to be helping shape what the community looks like. And so the student who wants the MBA but isn’t prepared to contribute in a very consistent and deep and sustained way, it’s going to be a very tough experience at the Tuck School. And so you see some examples there of profiles and behaviors and practices that just don’t quite align with the way we think about this place.

David: I really admire in a sense the way that you guys select people, because I know that– even though I don’t know this factually, or I’m not saying all of you application files — you guys could have a higher GMAT average, if you wanted it. You have plenty of candidates in the pool. You could absolutely drive up the metric as high as any other school, if you really wanted to. And I take it as a sign of the fact that you guys prioritize finding some of these personal qualities that is where it is, not that you know you couldn’t lift it if you didn’t want to.

Now some of these kinds of factors, I think partly it takes maturity for someone to appreciate these factors, that their classmates are going to have these good personal qualities and, like you said earlier, the kind of asset of the network will appreciate with time.

MBA Rankings: How Tuck Is Different

David: If I had to kind of stereotype, how does the kind of average applicant think of things?

It is a bit of an exaggeration, but they never get over to Poets & Quants. They look at the rankings, or they look at one of the other rankings and they say, “well, I just want to apply to the top ranked school because the return on my investment is going to be better.” And I have a hard time sometimes to convince people that it’s not just this unipolar decision– go for the highest ranking, period.

What do you say to those people? What’s going to be the thing that convinces someone that rankings are not the start and end selecting your schools?

Luke: Sure. Well, rankings are a metric that has some value in helping make sense of a lot of disparate information in the market. And so I don’t deny that. And I completely understand that they can be helpful, especially for people who are just beginning their search, to understand, OK, what does the market recognize as a strong school versus a school that may not have historically been as strong? And so I acknowledge that they’re not completely devoid of value. They have some value in helping to sort through that information.

And yet, I fundamentally believe that a ranking and a brand does not help you succeed in life. And so the ranking of the school that goes on your resume or the brand of the school that goes on your resume, they don’t help you perform on the job. They don’t help you be impactful. They don’t help you succeed. They don’t help you advance to higher and higher levels of responsibility and impact on leadership.

There are two things that help you do that: One thing that helps you do that is the leadership ability and the skills that you have. And so when you think about stepping away from a career on the rise and investing some time into this MBA experience, investing in the place that’s going to cultivate the leadership that you want to practice, that is an investment in the skills and the orientation towards wisdom and leadership that will help you succeed, help you continue to advance. And so with the resume and the brand, they might attract the attention of recruiters initially. But ultimately, when it comes time to get the job and when it comes time to succeed at the job, it’s about are you qualified? Are you able to lead? Are you able to drive results? And no line on the resume can do that. It’s about what you yourself can actually deliver and perform. So that’s the first thing that you need.

The second is a community that supports you. And so many of the schools out there that have a strong ranking and a strong brand have very large, very robust communities. And I believe that they’re wonderful communities. However, I believe there’s no community out there that is as accessible and responsive and helpful as the Tuck community.

So again, as I come back to the very initial point I made about the community appreciating over time, you will need those relationships, those alumni to call upon as you’re rising to higher and higher levels of leadership to help you think through very difficult and challenging situations. You will need them to help open doors that might not have been available to you otherwise. And it’s a fundamentally different experience to reach out to a community where people may not be accessible, they may not be responsive, they may not be inclined to respond and help versus a community like Tuck’s where people are going out of their way to make sure that they are helpful and responsive and accessible in helping elevate the outcomes that you have.

So, I understand why brands and rankings very much are part of people’s sorting mechanism in the early stages. I do think that if that is the decision point for which community you’re joining, it’s a short term play. It’s short term because you may be able to open the door immediately in your internship or open a door immediately on that first job search afterwards, but it’s not going to get you the job after that and the job after that and the job after that. And any good hiring manager will tell you they hire based on the ability to perform, the ability to lead, the ability to drive results and impact versus just a line on a resume. So I say think very fundamentally about what’s your orientation. Is for the immediate short term? Or is it for the long term impact you want?

David: I think those are great points, because then the network is something that people have in mind when they’re thinking about rankings and how many powerful people are the alumni of a school. And sometimes we bring back the people who have worked with us who have graduated already from the program to talk to the people who are just coming to the point of applying and get a little bit of knowledge sharing from people who are further on their path. And one of our HBS graduates was making exactly the point that– it is a bit of a straw man example, maybe not the best one– but Steve Schwarzman may be an HBS alum. Good luck getting him on the phone.

There’s going to be a lot of people that even if you both went to the same school, they may or may not be available to you personally in the network. And it’s not a kind of magic pill that you can just call anyone and use that as a conversation starter. There’s 45,000 living alumni of Harvard Business School. And you’re not going to be able to speak to each one of them when you want.

Luke: It’s the quantity and quality consideration, I will certainly say that. I think about the fact last year in order to get my own job done, I need alumni, and I need to depend on the alumni network.

There was a woman I was working with who has admitted to Tuck, and she was in the final stages of her decision. And she said, “I really need to talk to alumni in my geographical area and a specific industry.” And I said, “great.” I reached out. I looked into our own directory, reached out to four alumni who I personally had not met yet, I hadn’t interacted with, I hadn’t engaged with yet. And yet, I said as a Tuck staff member and a member of the Tuck admissions team, “I need your help to help bring this great candidate to Tuck.” I wrote all four of them separately. 15 minutes later, each of them had written back to me and said, “what’s her number? What’s her email address? We’re reaching out right now. Tell us what you need.”

These are people that, just based on this shared connection through Tuck, they were willing to drop what they were doing– very busy alums, some of them very senior positions– and said, “we are ready to do what it takes.”

And that to me is emblematic and reflective of the fact that there is a very strong sense of commitment to paying it forward. And it’s not the network that you’re going to see hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of alumni, because that’s not what you need. What you need is a core dedicated group of alums that are going to stop at nothing to help you succeed. That’s fundamentally emblematic of the Tuck experience.

David: And there’s a bit of a point kind of buried in there somewhere that the schools where if the admissions criteria to be admitted to the school is based on mainly your prestige and who do you know, then don’t be surprised when you come out the other end and the people treat you the same way– that they will pick up the phone for you, if you know the right other people, if you work at the right employer at the time you make the call. But maybe they won’t stick with you in the same way as someone that has a kind of ongoing loyalty like the network you’re describing at Tuck.

Luke: That’s right. It also has to do with the fact that we want to give you a very powerful, transformative experience here. That doesn’t mean it’s always going to be easy. That doesn’t mean it’s always going to be smooth. And I don’t think you come to business school if you’re looking to coast and if you don’t want to grow. And yet, because people are so moved by the experience that they had and feel such a sense of transformation, there is a desire to say, well, “I need to help others make sure that they’re getting this sense as well.” And that’s another great point in this discussion about rankings and brand: which is the place that’s actually going to help you grow and transform and become a stronger, better wiser leader? That’s what you really need to continue to advance and to achieve the dreams and the goals that you have. Again, it’s not the lines on the resume. It’s not a number on a ranking. It’s the place that fundamentally makes you the kind of leader that you want to be. And we believe in that.

Who’s Missing Out on Tuck?

David: What kinds of applicants do you wish that you saw more of in the pool? Who should be applying to Tuck who’s not already applying?

Luke: I’m thinking about this one here because I really like the applicants that we do get into the pool. I think there are applicants in the pool– this comes back to your question about rankings and brand. I think there are applicants looking at an MBA who automatically opt into some subset of schools that perhaps people in their firm have a history of going to, that is understood within their country to be a place that is especially desirable. I do think about it some on these industry and country lines. And I think there is some sense in some of these corners that there are only certain schools that you should really consider.

And I think that’s limiting yourself to communities that may be particularly transformative, particularly powerful for you on a personal level. So in some ways, this echoes your question about how do you not let brand and rankings drive the decision entirely. I think there are candidates who would be excellently aligned with this place, I think would flourish, who would succeed, who would thrive here that are not even stopping to take a good look at what the community has to offer. And that gives me pause. That makes me sad. That’s the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. So I would want those candidates to take a close look at this place, and come see us right or interact with members of our community. And try us on for size. Ask about what makes us special, and see if that feels like it aligns with what you want to get out of this experience. So that would certainly be one group.

I think that there are people who– the second answer I’d give, people who apply to schools only that they’ve had the opportunity to visit or to see, and because Tuck may not have been on a route, a geographic route that maybe their business trip took them to or they didn‘t have family here, they say, well, “I haven’t seen the school. And I’m choosing not to apply, because I just haven’t seen it and haven’t had the opportunity to engage with the school.”

And that makes me sad too. I would love for all of you who are interested in business school and who are seriously considering a place like Tuck to take the opportunity to come and see us. And we put on lots of programming throughout the year so that you can engage with us. But one of my goals and one of the things that I’m committed to in this role at Tuck is to create more opportunities to bring Tuck to you. So of course, we still want you to come see Tuck. We’re never going to turn you away from that, and that’s fundamental to us. And yet, I see an opportunity to animate and engage more of our alumni and our students in markets where our applicants tend to be concentrated and bring the special Tuck community to you. And that means creating opportunities for small group discussions– coffees, breakfasts, lunches, things like this– where you can sit down and interact with one or two or three of the members of our community and hear the way that they describe their experience, get a sense of what makes this place distinct and special, and let that open your eyes to what the Tuck experience can do for you. So that’s a big commitment of mine, because I don’t want you to have to opt out from this experience just because you haven’t had the opportunity to engage with us.

Tuck’s Open Interview Policy

David: We had one applicant who hadn’t been able to make the trip but applied anyway. And one thing that she had found is she wanted to make the trip, she really wanted to, but then there was a visa issue that she couldn’t arrange the trip with the right visa in time, or there were reasons why that was impractical. She really wished that she could have done the open interview on Skype or some other kind of a format. Do you guys anticipate that you would ever allow that kind of thing?

Luke: Well, we do have our on campus interview, our open interview policy. And this is one where you can initiate interviews for yourself at the date of your choosing. But you have to come to campus. And that’s the catch. And so that’s what you’re referring to.

And so I will confess that we like the open interview policy being here on campus. It’s both for us and for you. So for you as the applicant, it allows you to have control over the schedule. And it allows you to see the campus. But there is an element of it that’s for us as well.

And it is an incentive to get you to come to campus. So there was a time many years back where we didn’t have that requirement attached. And the number of people who would have otherwise visited campus but chose to use the Skype or the video conference to be able to conduct the interview was much, much higher. And we missed out on the opportunity to show our great campus to you.

I had a student who was here two weeks ago, he was visiting from the Caribbean. And he was skeptical about having to travel all the way from the Caribbean to Hanover to come and do the interview, but he chose to do it. And he told me afterwards, “I now totally understand why Tuck requires us to come to campus. I would not have thought as highly of Tuck if I had not come to campus. The community is amazing and wonderful.” And so these are things that even as I acknowledge just a moment ago I want to create more of this sense off campus, nothing will ever replicate being able to come to campus and seeing it and feeling it for yourself.

And so at this time, we still feel strongly about creating that incentive to be able to come to campus and see it with your own eyes and feel it and engage with it in a visceral sense. But I should note that if you cannot visit campus, you may still apply. And you may give us the opportunity to decide if we invite you to interview or not. And from a statistical standpoint, the admission rate for people who interview on campus and people who we ask to interview off campus, it is identical, absolutely identical, I checked this morning just to be sure. So you are not at a disadvantage in the admissions process in any way by waiting for us to invite you to interview and then conducting your interview in that way.

That matters to me because of fairness and equity. And I don’t want there to be built in advantages just based on people who have the proximity or the resources or the flexibility in their schedule to be able to come to campus. And those three factors are not our admissions criteria.

David: Frankly, I would have assumed that would be the opposite way, that the people who you explicitly selected would not because they were better interviewers or the resources, but because you would screen carefully their written application already by that stage whereas the open interview can be anyone, that would have even a higher chance of admission from the invitational interview.

Luke: Well, we’re pretty generous with our interview invitations. And so whenever we

come across somebody who we find may have the potential to succeed here, we are liberal and generous in inviting that person to interview. So we actually invite quite a lot of people to interview. I wish we could admit them all. I wish we could have met everybody who applies. There’s incredible, incredible, incredible and inspiring stories that we see in the applicant pool.

David: Let’s be honest, most of the people who apply, there still are a few people who you probably would not want to admit.

Luke: We wish we could have met way more people than we do, way more people than we do. And yet, part of what makes Tuck so special is the class size– 285 students in each class — And so we have a fundamental commitment to upholding that and maintaining that. And it causes us to make hard decisions. And yet, we are really excited. We interview, we evaluate with lots of positivity. We interview with humanity. We are always looking for reasons to admit rather than the reverse.

And so to your question, when we do come across somebody who we think there might even be the slightest possibility that we could get excited and consider this person, we’re pretty generous about sending that invitation out. That contributes to the numbers being what they are.

The Three Values of Tuck

David: Well, is there any other question that I should have asked you?

Luke: I think the questions are insightful and great. It’s clear that you have gotten a chance to internalize a lot of what makes Tuck special from when you yourself got a chance to come and see this place, but I appreciate the opportunity to be able to share a lot about what makes this place really special.

I do think that we fundamentally come back to this belief that there are three values here that we want you to practice at the Tuck School. And they’re confident humility and empathy and judgment.

Confident humility is about acknowledging what you know and what you don’t know. Empathy is about appreciation for the diverse experiences of others. And judgment is acknowledging that there are right risks to take, and so you need to know how and when to take those right risks. And everything that we’ve done with the criteria has been rooted in those values. Everything that we’ve done with the application has been connected to surfacing the criteria and those values. And these are things that, without coming here and seeing the campus, sometimes sound like marketing speak that the school puts out. But when you come here, you see these things on display.

And so it is my invitation, my encouragement, if you are interested in being a wise leader, connect with us in any way that you can. For some of you that means visiting campus. For some of you, that means engaging with alumni and students from where you are. But we are open and transparent about this.

So to your question, the one question that we didn’t get to cover is about the philosophy behind admissions and evaluation: This is a place where I am really proud of how open and transparent we strive to be. And my pledge in this role is to continue to take strides and steps towards being available, open, transparent, accessible, and being forthcoming about how this process works. This is a really complicated process, as you well know as somebody who advises applicants on how to navigate it. And so I want to in the same spirit that you and your colleagues in your work do, I want to have that same spirit of saying, “let us help reduce anxiety rather than raise it. Let us help explain how this process works. And let us just be forthcoming about the realities of this process.”

So I’m active on social media. I hope that you as applicants will engage me there. I blog on our Tuck 360 blog. I hope you’ll read them. I hope you’ll respond. I am continually trying to push out more and more information that explains not just what we’re looking for, but how we find it. So I’m expecting that within the next week or two, we’ll have a new piece out that describes our evaluation process in far more detail than we’ve ever done before. It is another entry in our commitment to making sure that this is what I hope is the most understandable, most accessible, most transparent. And I hope we continue to take strides towards it being a– dare I say– fun application process, because this is too important to have this be a mystery to be confusing. We want to be open and available and accessible in that way.

David: I think it’s very nice. Applicants appreciate that. And a lot of times I say to the applicants that there’s no reason to think of this stuff as a huge mystery, that if you boil it down, many schools are looking for people who are going to be successful leaders, people who have certain positive interpersonal qualities– that you’ll help your classmates, you’re someone who cares about more than just yourself. And it’ll be a success. And the school wants to have you as part of the alumni community, that they’re not looking for something esoteric or particular. It’s not going to hang on your word choice in the essay. But showing that you have these positive personal qualities.

Luke: I think that’s right. And yet, you know as well as anybody and I hope all our applicants come to appreciate that the closer you look at schools, the more you can see the meaningful differences.

Doing that is really important to identify the places where you will succeed and the places where you might be fine, but you wouldn’t have the same success as you would in the places that are really valuable and relevant. And so, like you, I want to give applicants the opportunity to look underneath the hood as much as possible and to see, “OK, I really understand this place. I really know how this place works. And I can make a great decision on if this is the right place for me.”

David: Luke, thank you for your time today.

Luke: Of course, David thank you. It’s been a pleasure. I appreciate the conversation.