Are You Interested in NYU Stern? [Episode 431]

Are You Interested in NYU Stern? [Episode 431]

Interview with the assistant dean of MBA admissions at NYU Stern, Lisa Rios

Interview with the assistant dean of MBA admissions at NYU Stern, Lisa Rios

Get to know NYU Stern’s top-notch MBA programs, and find out what Stern adcom looks for in applicants [Show summary]

Lisa Rios, NYU Stern’s newly appointed Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions, describes NYU’s innovative MBA program and the COVID adaptations that have been made to elements of the program and its application process. 

Interview with Lisa Rios, Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions at NYU Stern [Show notes]

Are you interested in NYU Stern? Well, today we’re interviewing the brand new assistant dean of MBA admissions at NYU Stern so tune in.

Welcome to the 431st episode of Admissions Straight Talk, Accepted’s podcast. Thanks for joining us. 

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It gives me great pleasure to have on Admissions Straight Talk for the first time Lisa Rios, Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions at NYU Stern. Lisa has been a member of the admissions team since 2008 and leads admissions for the full-time MBA programs. She has evaluated nearly 50,000 MBA applications and seen nearly 5,000 new full-time MBA students start their MBA journey during her time at Stern.

According to Lisa, the best part of her role is that it does not feel like a job; she loves what she does. The biggest reason for this is the Sternies she works with every day. The second is the fast pace at which Stern innovates and challenges its people, including the admissions team, to ideate, try new things and continue to learn. Lisa also enjoys the travel that is part of her job, at least before COVID, and the chance to explore other cultures that comes along with it. Bombay, London, Istanbul, Tokyo, Toronto, and Beijing, are just a few of her recruiting stops, and the places that she doesn’t get to visit in person, especially during the last year, she experiences through applicants’ vivid images and descriptions in their “Pick Six” visual personal expression admissions essays. Lisa, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk and congratulations on your recent promotion to Assistant Dean.

Stern has a pretty impressive menu of MBA options. I think that’s part of its innovative nature, can you give an overview of the different options? [2:43]

Absolutely. Thank you for asking. So you’re right, Stern does have a large portfolio of MBA program options available to prospective students. It runs the gamut from executive MBA, including a TRIUM program that partners with two schools on the other side of the globe to give a global experience to our students, as well as a part-time MBA program. And the areas that fall under my purview are the full-time MBA programs, which include the two year full-time MBA as well as two focused MBA programs, one in tech and one in fashion and luxury.

Can you give an overview of the full-time program focusing on the more distinctive elements? [3:49]

So the two-year, full-time MBA program is really geared towards helping folks make a transition in their career and helping elevate them to that next phase of their professional life. For some folks it’s a career pivot, and then for others, it’s folks that are looking to build out a skill set so that they can continue to move up the proverbial ladder, as I’m sure you’ve seen as you’re connecting with prospective students. 

The thing that I love about Stern is the experiential components of the program: the fact that the students have the opportunity to put into action what they’re learning in the classroom with real problems and providing solutions for real organizations. You’ll see this through our experiential learning suite of options. I know you spoke with us last year when we launched our Change:Studio which has a number of opportunities for students to put some solutions into practice for real organizations.

This comes across through projects such as our Endless Frontier Labs where students will partner with organizations that are trying to fund tech and science startups so that they can grow and go from small startups to much larger organizations. We met with the faculty member who’s leading that project a couple of months ago to hear what was going on. We heard three examples, and of those three examples I was jumping out of my seat for two of them because they spoke to me personally, I was like, “I could use those in my everyday life!”

May I ask what they were? I’m curious. [5:40]

One was geared toward testing related to the EKG process to make it simpler. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to do one of those but when my children were younger they had to have that test done for other reasons, and it was intense. Connecting all those tubes onto your head, it was a very intense process so they were simplifying it. They were simplifying it so that it wasn’t so tedious which spoke to me as a mother. And then the other test was related to diabetes which I think many people unfortunately in the United States can relate to.

You mentioned Change:Studio which was inaugurated a couple of years ago. Can you tell us a bit about what it is? You mentioned that it provides experiential learning opportunities. How has it evolved? NYU Stern is all about change; I’m sure it’s not the same as it was and originally conceived. [6:20]

Absolutely. So let me take a step back for those that aren’t familiar with Change:Studio yet. We launched a new brand call to action in fall 2019 around the idea of change, and I promise that we had no premonitions of what was to come in 2020 but already we had seen for years at this point how quickly things were evolving and changing and not only how quickly Stern had to change but how quickly our students needed to be able to change as well. So part of that was to launch a co-curricular offering for our students called Change:Studio which helped guide their experiences at Stern to be able to enhance and further develop these skills that many of them frankly had, already coming into the program.

But now they’re moving up to that next level so that when they graduate and continue on their professional journey, they have these skill sets that are going to help them navigate, deal with, create, engage with, whatever verb you want, with Change. And it’s broken up across three different areas: we have one that’s called Dare it, one Dream it and one Drive it, and they have different focus within each of those areas. 

The new element that I’m excited to talk about today within Change:Studio is our Leadership Accelerator. This is our suite of leadership development offerings at Stern, some of them are more one-on-one options and then others are more broader scale that have a number of students involved. I would say one of the overarching ethos behind this program is that practice, practice, practice makes us better and talking about leadership theories and reading about it in a book is not as valuable as experiencing it. So they were super-excited this year to launch their inaugural live case where they had students come together in a group without much advanced information about what they were going to embark on and participate in this simulation of a business case. They hired actors from NYU Steinhardt to be the board of trustees, the CEO, and all these different members of this case who had to change the way they reacted or responded to certain situations based on what the students were doing so they really were experiencing things in a live real time way to get a sense of what it’s like to be in the real world as a leader.

Stern in the past has offered a lot of global study opportunities and obviously you as an admissions officer were traveling the world as well. COVID probably has hampered those opportunities. What’s come in its place? Any plans to reinstate some of the global treks and opportunities or is it just virtual at this point? [10:03]

You’re right. Like the rest of the world and the rest of the institutions, NYU did have a travel ban, and we’re still holding the travel ban at this point in time. We are hopeful that soon we’ll be able to lift it, and our offices are planning to put together a Doing Business In program for our graduating class of 2021. It’s in the works, they’re still figuring out the details of timing and all of that but they are hoping to still be able to offer that for our alumni who didn’t have that chance when they were here at Stern.

Our Doing Business In is typically about 10 days to two weeks long. In addition to getting to explore a new place, it also has four credit courses. Depending on where you go the focus of the course will vary. We have one typically that goes to Costa Rica, it focuses on sustainability, we have one that typically goes to Milan, focuses on luxury, and then there are others that are more general strategy-based courses. Hopefully we’ll be able to offer that to those alumni and they also get to experience that really cool, rich opportunity. Because we weren’t able to travel this year, we were able to create a new program called Tech Solutions, which took place in the winter break which is typically when our DBIs run. It was similar to the Google sprint approach to developing solutions. Our students teamed up with a faculty member as well as with Rocket Mortgage and Dow Jones to work on problems that they had and they had to very quickly come up with solutions and test them. It was a short intensive course and it was a great way to get them involved in a new opportunity, get them in front of new companies, work on real problems and flex their muscles while they were on winter break and couldn’t travel to Costa Rica or Australia.

Is there some misconception about NYU Stern that you’d like to dispel? Or is there something that people don’t usually think of or know about NYU Stern that you think they should know? [12:42]

It’s surprising to me Linda, time and time again the current students will say to me, “I know you told us when we were applying how awesome this community was but I didn’t really believe it or I couldn’t feel it until I was here and it is incredible.” I think New York City and NYU in particular because we don’t have a traditional campus, can be perceived as perhaps not having this type of community. But our students are so tight and so engaged in the experience of Stern and so connected with one another and with the school, with the administrators, with the faculty. It’s kind of incredible and frankly, it’s one of the reasons that I’ve been here for as long as I have been. It’s because of the people at Stern. There’s countless stories of the students during this past year and a half reaching out and trying to be helpful. I had students email me directly saying, “I know you have young kids and I’m not at high risk, can I help you? I can babysit.” Isn’t that so sweet?

I encourage anyone who’s interested in an MBA, if they’re already into Stern, great, if they know they want to apply, wonderful. But reach out, get to know the students, get to know the alumni, because I think that will just help them understand if this is the place that they want to spend the next few years of their life.

You know what I thought you were going to say? I think what you said is great, don’t misunderstand me. I thought you were going to say that people think NYU Stern is just for those who want to work on Wall Street. [15:04]

I think I could also have said that. I mean, we’re what? 25 blocks away so that certainly can come up. And look, we have a great reputation in finance. We have incredible faculty in this space; we have students who want to work there, but there are so many other offerings at Stern as well that we see students going into all different spaces, whether it’s consulting or tech or entertainment and media. We just have so much to offer. And with a school like NYU behind us and the opportunity to take electives at any of the other graduate schools, our students can really end up anywhere after they graduate, every industry needs a manager, right?

Let’s turn to the application. Stern requires a test score – almost any grad test score, but it is required. Is there any thought to offer test waivers going forward or going test optional? [16:07]

We actually have an exciting update this year. So we just launched our application at the end of June, and we have continued our test waiver option from last year. We understand that last year many folks couldn’t even access a test because of the ongoing pandemic, and this year we know that many folks didn’t feel like they could prepare for whatever reason because of the pandemic. Because of that, we want people to feel like they could still apply and they could still put their best foot forward. So anyone who’s in this camp has the opportunity to request a test waiver and they can do so by submitting a form online and then also presenting their case and tell us why they think that they’re able to perform well in the classroom and that they’re ready for the academic rigors of the program.

There are a couple of things they have to submit like their undergraduate transcripts or their resume but then if there’s anything else that could support their case, they’re welcome to upload that and share that with us as well. We don’t suspect that a lot of people will take us up on this offer, last year with the option the majority of folks still applied with a test and those that are in the class many of them still have a test. But we wanted to be able to continue the flexibility that we had with the other testing options that we had offered through the years. We were one of the first schools to offer the GRE many years ago, we started taking the Executive Assessment and so now this is a continuation of it and we’ll see where it goes.

Stern has two required essay questions, an optional question and a short goals question. Can you touch on the purpose behind these different questions? [18:13]

Yes. So the first question is our short-term goals question and that is essentially asking, “What are you hoping to do post MBA? Once you graduate, what’s that first step you’re going to take in your career?” And then there’s space to elaborate a little bit beyond that if the candidate feels like they would like to use that space to do so. 

The optional essay, it really is optional. I feel like some people get stressed about the fact that there is an option and should I submit something because it’s there, I don’t really have anything to say. It’s absolutely optional, and candidates should use that to elaborate or clarify something in their application that they feel like we might have a question about. Some common things might be, a gap in their employment and they didn’t have a space to do it so they can do that there. Or if they didn’t do as well in undergrad for a semester or in a particular course, they can add some context there. It doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to be a formal written piece of art, it can be bullet points if they want. But not everyone needs to submit it, not everyone does, but it’s certainly there if people need some extra space.

[Click here to read our NYU Stern application essay tips]

In terms of the Personal Expression essay, that’s kind of Stern’s signature unique question, do you have a favorite example? Can you think of one? [19:59]

That’s a tough one. Our Pick Six is so fun because, one, folks can use images, which is the trend these days, less words, more pictures for everything, right? And so I think our candidates feel that they can express themselves better through images, it could be a photo, it could be an emoji, it could be charts, drawings. I don’t know if there’s one in particular that stands out, but I love any of them that feel genuine, like I’m getting to see the real them; it’s fun. Candidates also often open up to us in a way that I don’t know they really do with other people. So I have to remind myself when I meet them in the elevator for the first time or in class not to jump out and start talking about their Pick Six.

What’s the most common mistake that you see applicants making in their application? [21:10]

I think the most common mistake would be to try and be something they’re not, to try and put something on paper that they think the admissions committee wants to see but they don’t actually mean or it isn’t actually true for them. Because the MBA has become a degree that can be used across so many industries and functions, candidates should really feel comfortable being themselves and putting their true selves on paper because it comes across so much stronger than trying to be something that they’re not.

Some applicants have specific elements of their background that give them grave concern, and there are different kinds of areas of concern. The first one is, somebody who had a dip in grades or perhaps a gap in unemployment due to mental health issue: a depressive episode or some other emotional issue. How do you view that candidate? [22:06]

I would say for any candidate who feels like they have one piece of their application that isn’t as strong as something else, to take a step back and remember that our process is holistic, that we use a wide variety of components in the application to determine someone’s candidacy for the program. So we look at three different areas. The first is academic potential – are they going to be able to handle the academic rigors of the program? We’ll look at undergrad but that’s not the only piece. You also have the standardized tests and oftentimes you can look at someone’s work experience to see how they handle certain elements of their job responsibilities which could translate to the classroom as well. If there’s one piece in that puzzle that doesn’t feel 100% or they wish it could have been better, then they can focus on those other elements to make their application strong.

I also think that in those scenarios, time helps heal and can add context. Even if in that moment the candidate doesn’t feel like they were able to move above or move through their challenges, two, three, four years later they might be able to look back at it and say, “I recognize what was going on, this is how I’ve changed or this is how I’ve built my skill sets to be able to navigate this when I’m experiencing stress or difficulties or challenges.” It might be in the moment that they develop these skill sets, or it could be a couple of years later.

A different type of area of grave concern from applicants would be an academic infraction or a misdemeanor on their record; a criminal record, basically. How do you view that? [24:44]

Similarly, it’s one piece of the application and that optional essay could be a great place to add context, whether that context is what happened in that circumstance or that context is: “Here’s what happened, I recognize what happened, here’s how I moved through it or here’s where I am today as it relates to that.” I think how they speak to it and how they’re able to have perspective today versus whenever this challenge or infraction happened is valuable for the committee to see.

What candidates do you not see enough of or would you like to see more of in the applicant pool? [25:34]

I would love candidates to know – and we touched upon this a little bit earlier, Linda – the MBA has become a degree that is useful in so many different spaces. You talked about Wall Street earlier, and yes, historically the MBA was for many a degree for folks on Wall Street, but it’s so much more than that now. So for anyone out there who is wondering if they should consider this degree, then they should explore it because it can take you into so many different spaces. We see folks going into the public sector, whether it’s working in higher education or working for the city of New York or the federal government or in education. We also see folks that are going into marketing or into tech. I mean, you yourself have probably seen so many evolutions of where students are taking their degrees, it’s pretty incredible.

Do you have any specific advice for applicants who want to join the class of 2024? [27:21]

So I’ll give three and even though it might sound like a lot, I could give a 100 tips but I won’t share all those with you.

So first I would just reiterate to be genuine, be yourself, and like you said, that’ll make the process much simpler for them. It’ll make it easier for us to see their strengths and what they’re capable of. 

The second thing I would share is, apply when they’re ready. So Stern has four application deadlines, the first being September 15th and the last being March 15th. I know candidates worry about which one they should apply for to have the best chance of getting into the program. I always joke, it would be really mean of us to have four deadlines and to not have spaces available at all of them. But in all seriousness, they should apply when they’re ready, when they feel like they have the best application to put forth and go ahead and submit them. For Stern if that is between deadlines, if it’s on September 16th, go ahead and submit, we’ll review applications as they come in, we won’t set them aside and ignore them until the next deadline, so that’s sometimes something that I think surprises candidates.

My third piece of advice would be, get to know us. We have tons of events that are happening, whether it’s with the admissions committee or alumni or current students. Definitely get to know us, come to our events, ask questions, we’re here, we’re happy to chat. The students and the alumni love sharing their stories and experiences, and they want to be helpful in bringing in the next class at Stern. So definitely take a moment to say hello and ask them questions.

What advice would you have for someone thinking ahead to a Fall 2022 application or later and considering Stern? [29:39]

I would say that I’m impressed by them – they’re thinking in advance, which is wonderful. They have more time to get to know the different programs and to really figure out what they want to do. They could start studying early for the standardized tests; for folks that have been out of school for a while that can be a bit of a hurdle getting used to testing again so take the time to start preparing now. Also think about what they really want to get out of the MBA experience and start building their networks because they don’t have to wait until the program starts to start exploring their future career possibilities.

What would you have liked me to ask you? What would you like to answer? [30:28]

I realized that I left out one of our essays, and this actually goes along nicely with what I would also share. Our newest essay this year is in line with our brand call to action that we talked about and our brand call to action is called Change, Dare it. Dream it. Drive it. So our essay question is asking candidates to tell us what their verb is, so it’s Change, _____ it. Mine is Change, Do it, and it may sound a little bit cheesy but I really do think that actions speak louder than words and so in my opinion, just try it, explore it, do it, if it’s a mistake you can change course and try something else but you’ll never know unless you do it.

Where can listeners and potential applicants learn more about NYU Stern’s MBA programs? [32:40]

They can check us out at, and you can find all of our programs there as well as anything you could want to know about how to apply, when to apply and how to get in.

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Are You Interested in NYU Stern? [Episode 431]

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