How to get into a top business school, from a student who was admitted to Darden without a traditional finance background

Alice Cassin
‘I felt that business principles and skills could help me do more good in the world,’ says Alice Cassin, pictured. Alice Cassin

The student: Alice Cassin, 29

Hometown: Born in Richmond, Virginia; spent childhood in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The school: The University of Virginia Darden School of Business, Class of 2017

Undergraduate: Princeton University 2010; Near East Studies

Work experience: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; The National Democratic Institute; The World Bank

Her best admissions advice: With regard to selling yourself to an admissions team: “I think the biggest mistake people make is that they write about why they’re interested in the degree as opposed to what they’re bringing to the table.”

Alice Cassin had begun to build an impressive early career after graduating from Princeton University in 2010 with a degree in Near East Studies.

She started work at a think tank at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace before moving on to a role at the National Democratic Institute, and then a two-year fellowship at The World Bank. But she felt her options for growth quickly were constricting if she continued along the path she was currently on.

“I didn’t think there was a way to grow quickly in the industry I was in — there were ceilings I was hitting,” Cassin told Business Insider.

So Cassin, now a second-year student at the The University of Virginia Darden School of Business, turned her sights to an MBA, hoping it would set her apart from others.

“I felt that business principles and skills could help me do more good in the world and was something I didn’t see in a lot of the people I was working with,” she said.

Cassin knew she wanted to stay in the Washington, DC area and therefore applied to just two schools: Darden and Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. She got into both.

Darden is a competitive business program located in Charlottesville, Virginia. With about a 26% acceptance rate, and an average
Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) score of 712, the US News & World report ranks it as the 14th best business school in the US.

Alice Headshot Darden2
Alice Cassin. Alice Cassin

Cassin took the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), rather than the GMAT, for business school admissions. Previously, the GMAT was used fairly exclusively for applications to business school, while the GRE was used for other general graduate programs, but a growing number of business programs accept scores from either exam.

While Cassin’s GRE score was competitive enough to secure her admission to two top business programs — just shy of 700 — she said one thing she wished she had known was how much your standardised test scores follow you, even after the admissions process.

“In retrospect I probably would have spent more time preparing for the test,” Cassin said. “I didn’t realise it actually does matter for some careers how high your score is.”

Particularly with banking and consulting jobs, Cassin said there were generally accepted scores for securing an interview or to receive a job offer. “Some companies cut off at 700,” she said, noting that while a company might not officially have a cutoff score policy, in her experience, this was the case.

Once Cassin had her GRE scores, she turned her attention to her admissions essay and interviewing at each school. For Darden, she received the prompt: “Describe the most courageous professional decision you have ever made or the most courageous action you have taken at work and what did you learn from that experience.”

She tackled this question by writing about her experience at the World Bank working with clients in the Middle East, highlighting her confidence in being able to present as a woman even in environments that were dominated by men.

In both her essay and her interview she made sure to explain how the school would benefit from having her as a student. “I think the biggest mistake people make is that they write about why they’re interested in the degree as opposed to what they’re bringing to the table,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just a reframing.”

The admissions committee was impressed, and offered her a spot at Darden, though they made the acceptance contingent upon an agreement that Cassin take a finance or accounting course at a community college before she started in the fall. That was due to the fact that Darden has a very quantitative curriculum and she didn’t have a background in finance, she said.

Now, as her last year business school winds down, Cassin already has an offer from global consulting firm Accenture in their federal government and non-profit division. She credits her education at Darden, learning strategic thinking and how to do market analyses, as pivotal to her success.

“Business school definitely helped a lot,” she said.

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