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Duke-Fuqua Math Conversations Help Applicants Overcome Math Anxiety

Applicants who show potential but are weak at Math are invited to take part in Math Conversations to assess their true quantitative ability

By  Ifeatu Nnaobi

Wed Dec 26 2012

The quantitative skills tested in the GMAT make many applicants anxious, so Duke University's Fuqua School of Business has developed a programme to help applicants weak in Math show that they can still succeed on the MBA.
The Duke Math Conversations assess the quantitative competencies of MBA candidates who the admissions team think have a lot of potential, but are weak on the quantitative side. It's offered to people who apply to Fuqua’s EMBA and Cross Continent MBA and can be accessed at any point during the application process. 
An MBA programme is not a Math degree but a lot of quantitative knowledge is required, and the mathematical tools used in one module may build on concepts learned in a previous module. You need to be comfortable enough with the subject to keep up the pace. 
We spoke to Professor Paula Sloan, who designed the programme, to learn more about it. Paula told us that the admissions committee typically gets concerned about a candidate’s quantitative abilities in three instances: when they took very few or no quantitative courses during their undergraduate study, got a low score on the quantitative section of the GMAT, or have careers that don’t employ many or any quantitative skills. 
GMAT scores below the 50th percentile would be of concern to the admissions team at Duke Fuqua since they like to see people in the middle 80 per cent in the total GMAT score.
Paula said this is because total GMAT scores are a better predictor of success on the MBAs programme than quantitative scores alone. She knows this because she’s run her own regresssions on GMAT scores and final MBA grades. 
Paula created the concept of the Math Conversations while she was at Vanderbilt University but enlarged it and added more structure to when she joined Duke. She explained the various stages involved. 
It begins when prep material is sent to the individual. They work on the set of problems for about an hour and then scan or fax them back to Paula. The problems are open-ended so Paula can use them as a jump-off point for the conversation. Candidates can take up any issues with Paula. During the conversation, Paula talks with the candidates about their undergraduate experience, how they use quantitative skills in their jobs, and how they prepared for the GMAT if they've taken it. 
When discussing quantitative abilities used on the job, Paula tailors her questions to each individual’s role. So she might ask, “Why does your team include that variable when trying to forecast sales?” She tries to get as specific as possible because she wants to see how comfortable candidates are in articulating quantitative elements - something they'll have to do in the MBA classroom. 
Paula is careful to keep her tone neutral when asking people how they studied for the GMAT because, “People usually tell you what they think you want to hear”, she said. 
After the conversation, Paula writes up her thoughts to send to the admissions committee if the person decides to apply. Recommendations range from asking the candidate to re-take the GMAT using a different study technique; acknowledging that the work done during the Math Conversations is a better refelection of the candidate's abilities than the GMAT score; suggesting some pre-MBA course work; or telling the individual that Duke may not be the best school for him or her. 
Paula might also recommend that a student gets a conditional offer depending on getting a certain grade on the pre-MBA course. “These particular courses exercise the students' Math muscles enough”, she said. She usually recommends courses in statistics, accounting, and finance. 
Paula says students are typically anxious about Math exercises because there is only one right answer which needs to be delivered under time pressure. However, she is interested in people who are willing to persevere, and who recognize their weak points.
She believes that Math anxiety can be traced back to an event. For instance, “When I learned long division, I had the flu and then when I came back I was totally lost”. This can be corrected by going back to the point where you felt lost and working your way forward again. 
“I don’t believe that there is a math gene that can be turned on, but you can go back and then build up from there. What I always say is that you should go back to what you’re comfortable with and then go forward. This always seems to work”, she said. 
Paula has had a few drop-outs, mostly very senior executives who had bad experiences in college or high school and felt that it had been too long since they learned Math.
However, she’s also had some remarkable success stories and she shared two of them with us. The first one was a gentleman with an English major who worked as a reporter and then went into marketing. He had no Math in his undergraduate and very little quantitative skills were used in his job role. Paula recommended that he take some pre-MBA courses in Math, Finance and Statistics. He got As in everything and a special 4.0 GPA on the Duke-Fuqua MBA programme. 
Paula’s second poster child is a young woman who didn’t do very well on the GMAT but owned her own construction company. There was plenty of Math involved in her role but it was mostly done by other staff members. She was fearful of Math and so Paula recommended some courses to her and now she’s doing very well on the course. 
She's also seen GMAT scores go up by as much as 100 points, so if you're preparing for the test right now, take hope!
More about Duke-Fuqua's Cross Continent MBA and Global Executive MBA here
Read more stories about students, programmes, and alumni at Duke University, Fuqua School of Business, here