Interview: Erin Nickelsburg of the Wisconsin School of Business

Erin Nickelsburg

In the first in our series of interviews with MBA admissions directors, we spoke with Erin Nickelsburg of the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s School of Business about how to approach applications if you’re a seeking a specialization, are a career changer, or don’t come from a traditional MBA background.

Wisconsin offers several MBA specializations. Are there any differences in terms of how applicants apply to a specialized versus general program?

The way our program runs is different than most MBA programs. Students apply directly to the specialization they are interested in and there is a set number of students we accept into those specializations each year.

What we’re really looking for – the key to all of this for our applicants – is passion. We want to see the passion the applicant has for their area of specialization. We also want to see that an applicant’s career goals are in line with their area of specialization. If you’re going back to get your MBA, there’s an expectation that you’re going to get a job when your done, and it better be a good one.

So, you’re looking for someone who knows where an MBA fits into their career path; not so much a career changer?

We have plenty of people that use our career specializations to launch a complete career shift. We have people who go from finance to brand management; from marketing to finance; or from consulting to operations. The Wisconsin specialization model is an excellent platform to do that, because the depth of study that you get will make up for your lack of experience in that area. The employers that hire Wisconsin’s MBAs know that. They know, for example, that while you have no direct background in supply chain management, the two years you studied supply chain here at Wisconsin has more than prepared you for what you want to do.

Then it’s not a disadvantage on an application if you are a career changer?

A lot of what you get out of an MBA is your network: the people you are in the class with. So, we want a good balance. We want people who are planning to switch careers, and people who are going to continue on and develop themselves in their current career path. The people who are continuing their current career path bring a depth of knowledge, and the people who are changing careers bring an enthusiasm. This combination brings are really strong dynamic into the classroom.

How important is it for prospective students to speak with alumni and current students before applying?

I think it’s imperative. You’re trying to make a decision that’s an investment in yourself for the rest of your life. If you don’t take the time to speak to current students or alumni, you really aren’t getting the full picture in terms of what you can expect from this MBA program. You don’t necessarily know if you are going to be a fit. You don’t want to spend two years where you are going to be absolutely miserable.

For applicants who don’t fit the typical MBA mold – if they don’t come from consulting or finance, for example – what can they do to make a convincing case for themselves?

We have several students in our program right now who are teachers. That’s not a traditional MBA background. Those students have come in because they have found a love for a niche.

One of our students, whose background is teaching, found through her experience that she really loved the supply chain aspects of school food programs. She tried to figure out how to make school lunches healthier. What are the supply chains that go into that? What are the decisions that go into that? Through her teaching, she was exposed to it, and she fell in love with it.

But when she applied to the program, she knew her stuff. She knew the career paths that lay in front of her in that area of her interest. She clearly articulated that passion in her essays and interviews, and so that is where a non-traditional applicant has a chance to stand out.

So, these applicants need to have a story?

They need to have a story. We want a story.

What makes a good letter of recommendation?

Letters of recommendation need to be able to tell us why you want to get an MBA. They need to tell us why you will be successful – why you have the drive, passion, and ambition. They need to tell us about some areas of challenge and opportunity that you as an individual have.

The recommendation is truly an opportunity for the applicant to manage their admissions process. You sit down with the people who are going to be writing your letter of recommendation. You tell them why you are getting an MBA. You tell them why you are applying to the schools you are applying to. You really manage that process. And when you manage it well, we can see it in the recommendations. And that in and of itself is what speaks volumes.

It’s not about a title. I don’t care if the person is a CEO. If they don’t know you, why you want to get an MBA, and why you will be successful, it doesn’t do us any good. Those generic recommendation letters that are given just because of title don’t work.

At what point does an applicant’s age raise eyebrows? When does one become too old for an MBA?

Programs all over the country have ranges of ages. Some take people straight out of undergrad and people in their 60’s. It basically depends on your transferable skill set. There are statistics out there that say that employers tend to look for MBAs with three to seven years of work experience – that’s the sweet spot. However, just because that’s the sweet spot, doesn’t mean that’s where everyone needs to fall.

Typically, with candidates that have more work experience, companies are leery of how stuck in your ways you have become. Those are just general concerns. But if you’ve got the passion and the drive, and you can articulate that well, I think the sky’s the limit. Really.

When you look at applicants, do you sort of look through the eyes of an employer two years down the road?

Absolutely. You have to. There’s a bunch of different lenses we wear as admissions directors, and that’s certainly one of them.

(Photo: Courtesy Erin Nickelsburg)

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