Helena Pozniak
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The MBA Gatekeeper At Cambridge Judge

Poets and Quants


As far as business school admissions officers go, Conrad Chua is unusually outspoken—especially for someone who has an influential perch at tony Cambridge University. For the past five years, he has headed up MBA admissions for the Judge Business School at what is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world.

His candid and thoughtful observations on the admissions process, the value of the MBA degree and those omniscient rankings of business schools often hold great insights. When Chua does presentations on rankings, he starts by showing a cartoon which in its first panel portrays two senior B-school deans agreeing that rankings fail to accurately measure the quality of their schools. In the second panel, the deans are seen poring over the list and muttering, “So how did we do?”

As Chua put it in a recent blog post, “Rankings are important but imperfect. They should be just one data-point that a candidate uses in determining which school to apply to. It is more important to apply some of the analytical skills that MBAs are supposed to have and examine the data with a critical eye, understand what the data is telling you, understand what the data is not telling you, and make your own decisions.”


For the record, Judge is ranked 12th best among non-U.S. schools on Poets&Quants 2013 composite list. Earlier this year, The Financial Times, the most consulted global ranking, put Judge 16th best in the world, ahead of British rival Oxford as well as such U.S. schools as Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and New York University’s Stern School.

Chua is as self-deprecating as he is opinionated. After sitting down for a brief video interview with Della Bradshaw of The Financial Times last month, he confessed that “I don’t do this often and I find it terribly uncomfortable watching myself on video. I keep asking myself why didn’t someone tell me that my glasses look like they were about to slip off my nose?”

Like most people who find their way into admissions, Chua came to Cambridge from an unusual route. He joined Judge in June of 2009 from the Global Career Co. where he was in charge of business development and relationships in Asia. Chua’s resume reflects extensive experience working for various government agencies involved in aviation, maritime, human resources and national marketing. He earned his master’s degree from the Sloan program at the London Business School in 2003 and his bachelor’s in both economics and electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1994.


In a typical year, Chua accepts roughly a third of the school’s applicants to enroll a relatively small class of just under 150 students into Judge’s 12-month MBA program which starts in September. In 2012, applications fell 22% to 778, the result of then new U.K. student visa regulations that ultimately discouraged prospective applicants from British MBA programs. Chua now says the market has a better understanding of the new regs and their impact and that applications are now trending upward.

The Class of 2013 numbered 141, with average work experience of 7.2 years and an average GMAT score of 681. It was an exceptionally diverse and global group, reflecting 44 nationalities, including 18% from North America. On average, a Judge MBA speaks three languages. But the MBA program’s relative newness (it was launched in 1996) and the small size of the class makes for a slender alumni base of about 2,000 MBA grads, only twice the size of INSEAD’s annual output of MBAs.

Chua recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants in Cambridge.

How is the value of the MBA degree holding up in Europe among would-be applicants and potential employers?

By and large, the MBA is more established in the U.S. Within Europe, the MBA is most established in the U.K. There are traditional links with the financial services sector where many of the top companies have MBAs in the ranks and there’s a general upward trend. But in large parts of (continental Europe) such as Germany, the MBA is quite a new program. I think it’s a challenge for employers to understand the value of an MBA. In Germany, typically the top ranks of companies have been drawn from PhDs. Now more German business schools are emerging. Many of them have links with corporates so quite soon, in the largest economy in Europe (Germany), people will begin to accept the value of an MBA and that will have a snowball effect in demand.

How does the admissions process in Europe differ from the process used by many of the U.S. schools?

We tend to have a different interview culture. We don’t use alum or current students, as do many U.S. schools. At Cambridge, we use members of faculty and this gives them a direct interest in admissions. These are the students they’ll be teaching and mentoring. Asking faculty members to give up their time, either face-to-face or by phone, is an expensive process but over time we feel the benefits outweigh the costs. And staff continue to interact with students even after they graduate; that’s a powerful point.

How does the MBA experience at Judge differ from what a student might find in the U.S.?

Obviously, the MBA itself is quite similar but at Judge there’s a big difference in the student experience. Students are very much embedded within the larger university. They are attached to colleges. They socialize and play sport with the wider student population. At a typical U.S. stand-alone business school, you will only see other business students. At Cambridge, they’re meeting scientists, economists – it’s enriching. The philosophy faculty have begun teaching philosophy of business, but we could probably do more here to build on links with the university. We could probably also collaborate more with the wider entrepreneurial landscape.

What about the differences between U.S. and European business schools?

I think at most European students tend to have more years of work experience than their U.S. counterparts. On average, our students have worked for seven years (the U.K. average is five years’ experience in AMBA accredited schools), so there’s more emphasis on students reflecting upon their experience and applying it to what’s being taught. We teach the fundamentals but ask students to reflect upon them. In the U.S. teaching styles might be more didactic. Even undergraduates at Cambridge have one-to-one supervisions so they learn to think on their feet.

What are the strengths of the program at Cambridge?

Our main strength is our collegiate feel which allows business school students to interact with people from across the university. But we also have a very collegiate feel within the MBA itself. We look for candidates who like to collaborate. That’s what we try to assess through questions we put to their peer and supervisor references. Collaboration gives the best learning experiences, but students also learn to work with people from other countries. We have 90 per cent non-U.K. nationals and no one nationality dominates. No matter which country you come from, it’s really hard to stick to your own clique. We’ve embedded this in the program. Our first project of the year sees students working together on a consulting project. While the outcome’s valuable, the most important learning outcome is how students collaborate with one another. We hope that carries through their working lives.

What are the weaknesses?

We have a tremendous pressure on space. We are right in the center of Cambridge but after 800 years, most of the area has been developed. But we’re going to take over a new building adjacent to ours, which will provide more lecture theaters and break out areas. We’ve applied for planning permission and should be up and running by mid-2017. On a wider level, we could probably do even more to link to the wider Cambridge community.

What changes do you anticipate in the Cambridge MBA program over the next five years?

We are just starting to review our MBA program. Any changes will affect the MBA class beginning in September 2015. Our major themes would be an emphasis on closer, more personalized mentorship and guidance of students – both on the career front but also on their learning beyond just getting a job. At a low level this could mean advising them about electives or activities within the wider university, or what internships they could consider to further their interests. Or if a student is interested in a certain area, we’d challenge them to think big – why not organize a conference? The word coaching implies something at executive level and part time, though I’m not saying we won’t use that word. But we are pushing our students to think more broadly about their study, career and life ambitions.

Will the program stay the same size?

Until we have our new space, we won’t make any decision about changing our cohort size. We currently have 148 MBAs (141 in 2013).

Is there an attempt to build faculty expertise in any new areas?

We are developing more capability around entrepreneurship. It’s a natural area for us. The Cambridge area attracts 25 to 30 percent of all venture capitalist funding in Europe. Many companies in the area are spin-offs from the university. Within Europe, this is a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity and the business school wants to be part of that. Over the last year and a half we’ve set up accelerator programs within the business school. There will be more faculty coming to teach enterprise.

How have the restrictions on visas had an impact on the applicant pool at the school? (Previously, non-European Union graduates could stay on to work in the U.K. for another two years. But in 2012 the U.K. government removed this option. However, as long as a non-EU student accepts a job offer from a U.K. company during the period of their 16-month student visa, they can stay on to work in the country.)

It’s taken nearly two years for the market to understand the implications of the visa change. Initially it was the rhetoric of the change that shaped people’s perceptions, rather than the situation on the ground – but it wasn’t the case that overseas students couldn’t work here after graduating. Two years ago, applications dropped slightly but this year we are actually seeing an increase in the number of applications.

You’ve said that people pay way too much attention to rankings. But isn’t that true because applicants don’t entirely trust the marketing messages from the business schools?

Rankings are important for both students and schools, which are doing a better job now of explaining what they mean. From a school’s point of view, they are a great motivator. But many students assume rankings will measure the quality of their MBA experience. Poets&Quants are doing a great job at unbundling what individual rankings measure, and students need to understand which metric is important to them. Schools sometimes make strategic decisions which may run counter to rankings.

For instance, Judge a few years ago decided to reduce the PhD cohort so supervisors could give fewer research students more individual attention. But we’ve taken a hit on our doctoral rank, even though we feel it was the right thing to do. Students sometimes fixate on salaries and believe they’re worth it, but they need to understand employers don’t pay a salary based on business school averages; they pay based on what candidates bring to the table. Of course, an MBA will help, but if students are making a huge leap from a different background into a job they like, they may have to compromise.

So which ranking would you consider to be reputable?

I think reputable rankings which gather enough statistics on factors such as salary, employability and which use a robust methodology are a great one-stop-shop for students. It’s important to recognize that no one ranking is perfect – and to take into account international cohort and currency fluctuations for example. What observers don’t appreciate is the amount of work required to gather different data in order to take part in any one ranking. We don’t want our students and alumni to get ranking fatigue so we chose only three to take part in – the FT, The Economist and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

You’ve talked about the “paradigm” of the typical MBA student and the need to recruit more widely. How are you going about that?

In reality the majority of MBAs will be mainstream – from large companies such as financial services, consulting or large industrial companies where they’ve seen their counterparts take an MBA and they know what it is. But we want to find people who have diversity in background and thinking. It isn’t easy to reach out to them as we have few established channels. If you look at our social media, we’ve been reaching out to people within sports, culture and the arts in order to understand what the issues in those sectors are and see how a business school can help solve some of those problems.

In culture and the arts, one of the big problems is how to monetize content, and how do they reach wider audiences. The sector may be distrustful of an MBA. We’ve already been providing a base for television executive master classes since January this year. Over time we will get students from those non-traditional backgrounds who can both benefit from an MBA and contribute to the overall learning of students from more traditional backgrounds.

What happens on your interview days? (Students are invited to Judge for a full program including Q&A sessions, a tour of facilities, an interview, and possibly a dinner the previous evening). Are students penalized if they can’t attend in person?

These are purely a platform for people to get to know one another, get a flavor of college life and ask questions. We’ve been organizing these for the last four years and candidates did worry that they’d be competing against each other. But there’s a relaxed atmosphere – we just want them to understand the environment they are entering. They have to be open with one another and share. There’ll be some really good students on paper for whom that just doesn’t work. Applications peak during January so you might get 40 candidates at a time on those days.

Is there a downside to being surrounded by so much tradition and history?

The reason why leading universities are at the top is that they focus on the future – Cambridge isn’t only about its historical past. If you go further out of town you see the new engineering campus which is on a par with anything you’d see in the U.S. We challenge our students to get out of the business school, become embedded in university life and understand what’s going on in science and the humanities. There’s a lot of cutting-edge research taking place. If our students want to go into certain sectors that broad intellectual stimulation is very important.

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