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What the MBA Adcom Really Wants

14 min. read

Pascal Michels, Director of MBA Admissions at IESE, is one of the most honest and straightforward admissions directors out there. In this interview, he answers the big questions: “What does the MBA admissions committee really want? How can you impress the adcom?”

This interview includes:

  1. Three questions the adcom asks itself about each applicant.
  2. What to do about a low GMAT or GPA, or if you’re “too young” or “too old” for the MBA
  3. How he assesses applicants’ career risk and career potential
  4. His pragmatic approach to MBA admissions (which is focused on your potential for success)

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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 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.

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.

Applicants’ Career Risk and Career Potential

David: And what do you see in terms of the careers? Because I know on the front end, we sometimes see people who believe that the MBA is a kind of ‘magic ticket’ that they can pick absolutely any career.

You know, sometimes a popular one is, “I have no field work experience with social impact projects, but I will be an impact investor I will be a VC investor.” And I have to tell these people that “Well, do you think there’s much demand for these jobs?” Actually there’s incredible demand and they can select the people that fit the profile exactly, but then what do you say in terms of the thoroughness that people put into that other thing that you talked about,  the career risk?

Pascal: Yeah. so part of the career risk is the risk of expectations not being aligned with reality. And the unreasonable expectations that some candidates have I think have a lot to do with how admissions professional schools as a whole have been portraying themselves over decades. So this is not something that is happening just right now. This has always been the case. There’s a certain inflation of terminology and there is a certain, I would say, informational symmetry between what candidates get to see of the value proposition of the different schools, and the way the labor market really works. I believe that it’s the admission team’s responsibility to manage these expectations.

One thing that we tell candidates quite regularly, and this is something I’m more than comfortable going public with or even putting in writing, is that while candidates join a top program to differentiate themselves from, I would say, their pre-MBA peer group, once you’re in the MBA, there’s a commoditization that instantly happens.

You are all of a sudden one out of hundreds, and companies will differentiate those MBA candidates by looking at what they have done before the program, and it’s ruthless. There are only a certain number of profiles that will fit,  you know, “sexy” jobs like venture capital or private equity. We could go on, but I think these two are very, very good examples of industries that only recruit certain very specific backgrounds.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have consulting firms that are much more open to all sorts of pre-MBA trajectories, but then geography becomes very important, so consulting firms typically only hire people in their local market. So if you’re German you have to apply to the Germany offices, et cetera, and all these things, unfortunately, because of how the admissions conversation at the moment is structured, tend to be found out by candidates once they are in the program.

Now, in defense of schools, I also have to say that applicants to MBA programs might not be very receptive to this message even when it is given. It’s very easy for candidates to overlook warning signs that are built in to the admissions conversation by different factors, I mean when you are getting prepared to join an MBA, there’s a certain tendency to only hear what you want to hear. It’s part of the MBA journey as a student to figure out how the labor market works. I just think that admissions needs to prep you for that as well.

David: Yeah I think that’s highly realistic and I admire that a lot because there’s all kinds of different types of ways that this plays out that we have students who are enrolled at any number of top MBA programs and then sometimes they will think the attitude will almost be, “Well I’ve just paid you $150,000 of tuition. Where’s my job? Give me my job please.”

And then they fail to realize that they must actually do a lot of work themselves. They must prepare for the interviews, they must network with the employers, they sometimes must do it themselves and the career center’s office will not just give them a kind of “job on a plate”, but they need to do a lot of work too. It’s kind of a partnership that the school will prepare you and you must also put your best effort in if you want to get a good result.

Pascal: Absolutely, and that is I believe because of the process of commoditization that takes a lot of MBA students by surprise. I mean the first thing that happens when you join a prestigious school is that you stop being special because everybody else is special. And this is what for a number of students count as the cold shower. And it happens every year and it happens to all sorts of profiles, so it’s not even like being stellar in your pre-MBA career can really protect you from this.

I think a lot of people think, “Oh yeah that might be true for the class but it’s not going to be true for me.” And I’m right now dealing with some very high-powered individuals who I warned in the admissions conversation about how tough this was going to be and who still came to see me on campus surprised by the labor-market dynamics requiring coaching and help with sorting themselves out.

Now, to be a little bit more positive, I think one thing that I personally find fantastic about top business schools is that all these stories in the end have a positive outcome because the person who comes to approach the career development center, or other people on campus about the struggle, is actually the person who is already doing it right.

They are the people who seek help, they are the people who get activated by adversity instead of just complaining about what is happening to them. And I know, and every time I start these conversations, I have this reassuring feeling that things are going to work out for them, because they’re already taking action, right? The problem is those people who don’t wake up to the smell of the coffee, those people who don’t get into a state of shock when they realize just how complicated it is.

David: It even kind of interacts with the previous topic about how many years of experience will you have when you enroll, because what you say about the commoditization, I’ve told some people that were too early that they should wait because the employer attitude is, “I’m gonna pay the same for any of you MBAs so I’ll take the one that has five years of experience instead of the one that has three years, please. ‘Cause if they all cost the same let me have the one with more experience.”

Pascal: Exactly, so I think this is important for candidates to understand. If you put yourselves in the shoes of a recruiter, MBA recruiting is very difficult very difficult. It’s difficult and it’s expensive. It’s low volumes and it’s high-contact interaction on an individual basis. It’s very, very little you can achieve in terms of economies of scale.

Of course, certain players may, but overall it’s a very expensive, low volume game for companies. So as an employer, as a potential employer, as a recruiter on campus, I’m going to have to strike a balance between candidates who are experienced enough for me to pay the premium, not only in terms of salaries, but also in terms of the time that I invest ritually on campus and people who may still be junior enough for me to mold them to the company culture.

So, someone who pretends to compete with classmates for jobs, where the average is five years of work experience having only two years of work experience, will be filtered out relatively quickly because companies might find them in a master of management or specialized master program and I’m not willing to pay that premium.

On the other hand, people who come with 8, 9, 10, 11 years of work experience sometimes run into  the opposite problem which is that recruiters will consider them overqualified and will be reluctant to onboard somebody who’s going to be more difficult to integrate into their culture.

So the sweet spot tends to be where the average of the program lies, and I think globally in the top MBA programs, the sweet spot, if you ask me, is probably between four and six years of work experience. And there’s work that can be done about six and there’s work that can be done in that space between two and a half and four, but four to six certainly in our case is the sweet spot.

David: That makes sense. Back to what you said earlier, this is a very happy story if you look at your employment report. You’ve placed students at so many of the best companies: Bain, McKinsey, BCG, Amazon were some of your top employers, so the outcome is very good for each of these students.

Pragmatism in MBA Admissions

David: Your message in a certain way is actually a very positive message to the students that “I want to admit you only when you will be a big success out of the program. I want you to be prepared to get a good job. I want you to be ready to succeed in the long-term so that you will be a great star in our alumni network, and I want you to enjoy the program because you picked the right one for you, not because you picked the wrong one one based on just your ranking.”

So, given that this kind of message is ultimately positive or you care so much about the students that you want them to succeed, you were one of the only ones who is talking in such practical terms about what students should do to prepare for the MBA. Why do you think it is not more common for schools to give a marketing message which also includes some of these topics?

Pascal: Look, I’m grateful for how you summed it up and I think this indeed the spirit that I try to bring to work when I get up in the morning. I often tell the candidates that I’m very biased in my admissions work by the four years I spent in career services, so prior to being the Head of Admissions in the MBA, I spent four years covering the financial-services sector on our career services team.

And you know, I wouldn’t say that during those years the admission conversation was handled fundamentally differently, but it is true that you, as a career services professional, you pick students up when they’re extremely enthusiastic.

They start the program, they have everything ahead of them, everything to discover, and then not only with the first wave of on-campus recruiting and those are those fantastic companies, the big investment banks, the big strategy firms, right, something, some big names in the industry who go through the first year summer internship applications and these are all heavy hitters on campus and everybody recruits with significant volume individually speaking.

Each one of these recruiting processes is extremely competitive, so students discover that while, on average over the course of the program, their odds are actually fantastic. The overall odds are made up of individual processes that they need to take part in. And that, statistically speaking for most students will end with failure.

So, as a career services professional, you walk with students through that initial euphoria and then the first coach hour, when rejection hits and then you work with them as they pick themselves up and you prepare them for full-time job search and in the majority of cases you  see it to a happy outcome.

But having done this for four years, you also know enough about  how much easier the career services job would be and the student experience if part of that reality-check conversation was preemptive. And I think this is what I do in my admissions job, but it’s really a career services bias, in a way. I don’t have full view on what other schools do in terms of staffing their admissions teams, but certainly this overlap of career services and initial skill set is not the norm.

David: I think it’s fair to say that the same conversations happen internally at other schools where the admissions officer will ask the career services team “Hey, you know, do you think you can place this person in this job?”

But I don’t think that they say quite as much about it publicly, maybe for fear that part of the school’s reputation is that it’s this magic silver bullet which can get you any job and if you say too much against that I don’t know, it’s one of these things which it sounds kind of negative if you hear it in a short way, but then it is positive and sensible that you should aim for a job which will be happy to hire you and you will be happier that way.

Pascal: Correct, and I think you made a very important point, and it is that the very best players in this industry have a really good connection between their career services and admissions teams when they look at applications. And I think that is extremely important for the top MBA programs to continue defending that price point and the positioning, right?

In terms of what you do in communicating with candidates it’s a different story and we all know in an admissions sense, giving feedback in an application process is something very complicated. So, despite everything that I’m willing to put out there up front, it is also true that in the case of an unsuccessful application, generally we do not provide feedback because once you go down that path, there’s no end to the conversations, so the conversations need to stop, so I hold back on feedback. And I think in that sense we’re in line with the rest of the industry, but again, I try to front load the conversations about careers as much as I can.

David: That makes perfect sense. You don’t want to be debating whether someone will get in or not or they think they can change your mind with a clever argument.