What the MBA AdCom really wants – Part I

Summer is here and some of you may be starting to think more deeply about your MBA application journey. IESE’s Director  of MBA Admissions, Pascal Michels (MBA 10) sat down with David White from Menlo Coaching to share some insights about our application process. In this interview, he answers the big questions: “What does the MBA admissions committee really want? How can you impress the AdCom?”

Three Questions the Adcom Asks Itself

David: I’m here today with Pascal Michels, the director of MBA Admissions at the IESE Business School.

I think that Pascal is probably one of the most honest MBA Admissions directors in the world. I’ve admired for a long time, an article he wrote on LinkedIn where he outlined “What do business schools really look for?” in a highly practical way. So many business schools have high-minded marketing only about the future leaders of tomorrow or changing the world, but easy to lose sight that students need to have certain things to succeed. Pascal, tell us a little bit about these kind of key factors you think that students really need in order to succeed in an MBA?

Pascal: Yes, thank you. The article I wrote on LinkedIn, at the time when I published it, I wrote at the very beginning of my tenure as MBA Admissions Director, so I really just took a moment to think about what it is that we do here at MBA Admissions and realized that there’s actually three questions we ask ourselves

One question is whether candidates can handle the academics. Our MBA is very intense, academically speaking. The workload is very high. The subject matter itself is not rocket science, but because these are case studies, people need to be comfortable not only with three case studies a day, but also discussing them in class and expanding their viewpoints, dealing with contrarian opinions. And that requires a certain, I would say, intellectual ability and sort of conversation skills that we look for.

The other big question is around career risk. Career risk and career potential and that risk we evaluate in terms of the person bringing work experience to the classroom that is going to make for relevant contributions in the context of a case discussion. We look at it in terms of what type of post-graduation employment candidates seek and whether these expectations are realistic, and of course their ability to land jobs, such as those that our on-campus recruiters come to campus to recruit for.

And then, the third dimension of that question is in the long-term so do people have the potential to develop successful careers over time. I’d say that within that normal term a question we look at candidates, perhaps also with in mind their ability to be conscious, to be aware of the externalities of those career choices. So this is not to say that we expect you to all want to join NGOs and dedicate themselves body and soul to saving the world, but we would very much like to see those candidates who are looking at high-powered, I would say, “typical” MBA careers being aware of the implications on communities in the broadest sense and to the human beings around them the environment, et cetera.

And then the third question is around fit. Is this person going to fit with our culture? Our culture, just like that of most other top business schools, has certain parameters that we look after. And think of it as an expanded hypothesis, we try to see if the candidate is going to be in agreement with our value system and the overall friendliness and collaborative atmosphere on campus.

And that’s really… That’s really it! I mean if we conclude on those three accounts the candidate is promising, that the candidate ticks those boxes, then we’re looking I mean, with all things being equal, we’re looking at somebody who we would like to admit. So it’s really not all that much more to it.

Our MBA students go through 400+ business cases in our program

Low GMAT or GPA, “Too Young” or “Too Old”

David: And it sounds so basic, but people who are considering to spend two years of their life on this kind of degree, they should make sure that they will handle the course work and then get a job. How many applicants do you see who do not meet these criteria or they have not even thought about the program  in those terms?

Pascal: It’s an interesting question, I mean one category of applicants that we see and there are not that many of them but they exist on campus where the academics are very weak. And then very often, what happens is these candidates who are trying to engage in the conversation around why, the GMAT score is low or why their grades are low, very few of them try to focus on putting themselves in our shoes and helping us assess the academic risk.

I’m not concerned with the low GMAT and I’m not concerned with low GPA for their own sake. I’m concerned with the candidate’s ability to stand the academic workload. So instead of having a, I would say, a defensive conversation explaining why things are the way they are, what I’d like to see more is candidates actually mobilizing arguments and coming forth with a story around why they think they can actually deal with the academics which, of course, implies that they have to understand the academic dimension of the program and perhaps that is where there is a bit of lack.

And then the other type of category where we know we’re going to be running into difficulties are those candidates who think they have a good understanding of what type of professional experience other people bring to the program and that may well be in terms of seniority. You have some people who apply with one and a half, two years of work experience and generally, that’s a showstopper. Our average work experience in the program is five and a half years, but most junior people we bring in tend to be the sponsored strategy consultants and there it is the strategy consultant firms that sponsor after two and a half years and… I’m not going to go against that, but this is really the most junior people that we have.

So anyone who applies with three years or less work experience shows me, unless they have a really strong story to back it up, which also at times happens, but if they don’t, these are the candidates that show me that they have not really understood the type of environment and the type of cohort that they’re aiming to be part of.

And then in terms of fit, what we see is there’s always a population of candidates, we refer to them as “parachuters”. These are people who applied because they spotted us somewhere on the ranking and didn’t really do any research on the school and then are unable to articulate why they are a good fit, whereas in certain cases, this may well have worked out, right?

The interview is also an opportunity for the interviewer and the interviewee to figure the fit out. It’s not a completely neutral observation situation. In many cases you run into roadblocks simply because too many questions remain open and then, I’m not saying this necessarily leads to rejection, but certainly we will opt for a second interview.

David: I think that some of these things even center around how much effort does the candidate put into the process of planning for their MBA because if they have not taken the time to achieve good grades in university, they have not taken the time to study for their GMAT, they have not taken the time to visit the school and to learn anything about it and they still hope that you will give a positive decision… besides the kind of factors you say, it may just be a signal that they want something for nothing or they think very low effort will be enough to get them in, which is not a good sign.

Pascal: Yes, and I mean it’s an interesting question, right? Because the question is, do I select for effort or do I select for potential? And of course, I should select for potential, but then part of the potential, so the potential needs to come hand-in-hand with the motivation, and the motivation needs to be specific to the school, right?

And so when candidates have not made the effort to articulate that motivation, it also tells me something about that motivation itself. I mean somebody who doesn’t have the energy to prepare for a test, I mean somebody who doesn’t have the energy to research schools we talked about that. Or even to think about a robust plan A career plan is probably not very motivated.

Then they might have a high potential, but without the motivation, the potential is not going to be of much use for someone in my position.

Read on to the next post for Part II of this interview or catch the whole video interview here

[This article was originally posted on Menlo Coaching’s website]

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Camille Chow View more

Associate Director, Admissions (MBA '16)

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