Inside An Adcom Session: How A Top B-School Decides Who Gets In

How the admissions committee at IESE Business School decides who gets in and who gets rejected

During an intense admissions committee meeting at IESE Business School, MBA gatekeeper Pascal Michels looks over a candidate’s stats with Andrea Hayem, an associate director of admissions. Associate Director Malvika Kumar is calling in from India to present her candidates. Photo by John A. Byrne

The candidate isn’t a no-brainer. After earning her undergraduate degree in the U.S. and landing an internship with a global financial institution, she returned home to Delhi to work in finance for a fairly sizable professional services firm. But her MBA application to IESE Business School in Barcelona, one of Europe’s top business schools, includes a GMAT score that is fueling a fairly vigorous discussion in this admissions committee meeting.

Solidly in the applicant’s corner, however, is Malvika Kumar, an associate director of admissions at IESE, despite the candidate’s 620 GMAT score, roughly 45 points below last year’s 686 average for the incoming class. What’s more, the candidate is being reviewed in the fourth and final round at the school when the vast majority of the seats are already taken.

“She’s a bit of a parachooter,” says Kumar, a term used to describe someone who jumps into the school’s applicant pool out of nowhere. “She comes from a very conservative patriarchal family and she’s fought her way through it. She has a strong financial background, and she wants to grow her management skills.”


Pascal Michels, Kumar’s boss and the admissions director at IESE, is sitting at the end of a long table in a sparse conference room with a highly skeptical look on his face. “So she comes in late with a low GMAT?” asks Michels.

“It is low,” concedes Kumar, who can be seen on the flat screen of a video conferencing call from India.

“No, it’s very low,” shoots back Michels.

“But her academics are strong, and she’s a good candidate,” retorts Kumar, who herself graduated from IESE with an MBA in 2015. “I think we would love her if she comes to our class, and I believe she would be one of the best students in the class.”

Michels’ eyebrows are raised. “Are you telling me you want to fight for her?”


IESE Business School

IESE Business School logo outside the school’s south campus

“Yes,” responds Kumar. “She has already saved enough money for half of the tuition and is in conversations with her company to pay the rest. She has a verbal agreement to go back to her company in India and that is rare.”

“Well, what did she say when you told her the GMAT was so low?’

“She told me she works too hard to study for it,” adds Kumar.

Michels shakes his head. If the candidate had applied in an earlier round, he could have put her on the waitlist and asked her to retake the GMAT.  But at this late date in early June that’s simply not possible “I am not super at ease to pin a candidate to a single number, but it’s not a pretty number,” he says.

Another admissions official, Natalia Antip, is sitting close to Michels and wants to lend her colleague some support. “She had a very good story about becoming an independent woman from a family that was very conservative,” says Antip. “If we wait another year, I think she’ll have too much work experience.”


Kumar and Antip point out that the candidate has an interview rating of four on a five-point scale, with five indicating a “stellar” candidate and four representing a “clear admit.” IESE applicants who are invited to interview are scored on their fit with IESE’s mission and values, their communication skills, their potential to contribute to the class, and assigned a “general impression” score that includes an interviewer’s assessment of such things as attitude, enthusiasm, knowledge of IESE, and professional presence.

There’s another factor in her favor: The applicant also poses no career risk, getting the top score of five on their assessment of her ability to secure a job after graduation.

“She will apply somewhere else if she doesn’t get in,” warns Kumar, finally.

“Okay, let’s admit,” Michels declares. “I’m a bit on the fence with her, but man, you really turned me around.”

The Delhi parashooter gets an admit, and the committee moves onto to yet another applicant.


It’s just another day in the life of an MBA admissions committee, deciding the fate of hopeful candidates who want to come to IESE for their MBA degree. This all-day session to assess a batch of round four candidates is the very last of some two dozen meetings that have taken place over the course of the 2018-2019 admissions season. All of those closed-door sessions have occurred for a singular purpose: To review the more than 2,000 applicants to IESE and decide who will be admitted to the Class of 2021. IESE agreed to allow Poets&Quants to be a fly on the wall and observe the inner workings of the committee as long as we agreed to protect the privacy of the candidates being reviewed. During the meeting, candidates were identified by number, rather than name, to keep them confidential. Some details also were changed.

At this point on June 3, there are few seats left for this fall’s entering class. With a goal to admit between 350 and 370 new MBA students, exactly 335 admits have put down their deposit of 10,000 Euros, making it a pretty sure bet that they will show up and enroll. So that leaves no more than a maximum of 35 seats left for the 67 round four interviewees who the committee will assess today. Yet, there are already 70 applicants piled up on the waiting list from previous rounds. So the committee can be pretty picky at this point about who to admit, waitlist, or deny.

While most U.S. business schools are reporting further declines in applications to full-time MBA programs, applications at IESE Business School this year are up by 4%. Though IESE does not disclose the actual number of applicants, it is believed to be slightly more than 2,000, or about six applicants for every available classroom seat. In this year’s Financial Times ranking of full-time MBA programs, IESE placed third best in Europe, behind only INSEAD and London Business School, and 12th in the world, ahead of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School and Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

What candidates find especially appealing about IESE is its two-year format, with a new 15-month option being introduced this year, its cohort-based, small class sizes of 70 to 75 students in each section, the dominance of the case study approach to teaching, its global and entrepreneurial culture, and its core mission to teach future business leaders to be sensitive to the impact their decisions make on both individuals and the greater community. It is not like some of its European rivals, an MBA factory or a school largely known for just one thing: consulting or finance.  The school’s location in Barcelona, a vibrant and dynamic city for young professionals, makes IESE an enticing place to spend two years as a graduate student.

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