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

The MBA Gatekeepers At IESE Business School

Top row, left to right: Luis Go, Andrea Hayem, Malvika Kumar, Deborah McCandless; Mid-row left to right: Karen Crisostomo, Pascal Michels, Paula Amomin, Tomofumi Nishida; Bottom row: Natalia Atip, Dongmei Song & Camille Chow

THE FOURTH AND FINAL APPLICATION ROUND DRAWS JUST 10% OF THE APPLICANT POOL

As is typical at almost all schools, the final application round draws the least number of candidates. At IESE, it’s just 10% of the total, less than a third of the round two candidates who generally make up 35% of the year’s MBA applicant pool (About 5% apply in an early decision round, 25% in round one and round three). The final round normally attracts late movers or people who have simply run out of options.

“What we look for are people with a story to tell,” says Michels. “The last thing we want are boring people. Fit with the mission of the school is very important, and the kind of people who apply to this school in the early rounds are usually rankings driven. In the later rounds, people are more deliberate. I prefer to be the first choice of someone in the last round than the safety school in an earlier round.”

Not surprisingly, then, the yield—the percentage of admitted candidates who enroll as students—in the final round of an admissions cycle is extraordinarily high. At IESE, it hovers around 80%, a solid 20 percentage points above the school’s average. Also typical in a final round, admissions officers are crafting the class, filling in gender, geographic or industry experience gaps. Today, for example, IESE’s admitted class is just a couple of points shy on women, sitting at 28.6%, when Michels wants to get a minimum of 30% in the class.

‘LAST YEAR, I GOT MY HEART BROKEN BY A COUPLE OF CANDIDATES’

Armed with their laptops and folders of evaluation sheets, the adcom members slowly drift into conference room 216 in the main building of the South Campus in Barcelona. The rectangular room they enter is sparsely furnished, with plenty of natural light and a large flat screen attached to the wall at the end of the table. At the other end sits Michels in a dark blue, Ralph Lauren polo shirt.

“What makes the job exhausting,” concedes Michels as his team enters the room, “is you give it all to every candidate. And you get emotionally attached to some of them. Last year, I got my heart broken by a couple of candidates when they chose not to come. So you need a thick skin in this job. When you see a person withdraw from the pool, it’s a bit sad.”

As a truly global school, with 85% of its MBA students from outside Spain, IESE walks the talk in the makeup of its admissions committee. Among the 11 decision makers on the panel, in fact, not a single member is from Spain. Instead, they hail from Brazil, El Salvador, China, India, Japan, the Philippines, Romania, Singapore, and the U.S. (see table above). At 55 years of age, Luis Go is the oldest associate director whose purview is Taiwan & Hong Kong. At 29, former a former L’Oréal product manager Karen Crisostomo is the youngest, having graduated with her MBA from IESE two years ago. Once you add in area admission coordinators and other support staff, the admissions group swells to 20 professionals and 17 nationalities. The culturally diverse team is led by the 39-year-old Michels, who is half German and half French.

A CULTURALLY DIVERSE TEAM RECRUITS & EVALUATES TALENT

Those staffers are in charge of both recruiting and evaluating talent. They travel all over the world to MBA fairs, host coffee chats and class visits, do one-on-one sessions with applicants invited to interview, carefully observe candidates in team-based assessments in Barcelona, New York, Sao Paulo, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and ultimately decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Of the more than 2,000 applicants they review in a year, up to 70% will be interviewed.

What they share in common is a deep passion for the school they represent, partly because every single one of them has a graduate degree from IESE on their CVs. All told, they’ve earned 10 MBAs and a Ph.D. in human resource management. “It means the applicant is always talking to someone who is intrinsically motivated and asking, ‘Is this a person I would want in my class and my alumni family?’ says Michels.

Michels, who sports a playfully provocative personality, is in a good place to answer that question himself. He was a bored civil servant for the European Union in Brussels when he applied to IESE’s MBA program with a plan to transition into a career in finance. After graduating in 2010, he landed a spot in Citibank’s highly selective rotational program in London which gave him exposure to the controllers, treasury and strategy groups before becoming a vice president for Citi’s Private Bank. Little more than three years at Citi, Michels returned to IESE, first in career services, helping to cultivate relationships with first-tier financial employers. He took over the demanding job of director of MBA admissions two years ago, a position that requires him to travel all over the world on behalf of IESE. In the past 12 months, Michels estimates he has taken about 100 flights.

For someone relatively new to admissions, Michels is extraordinarily thoughtful about the selection process. He seems to delight in challenging his team members on just about everything, openly disagreeing with one staffer who says she tends to aim for candidates with higher GPAs or with another who says she favors applicants with no gaps in their CVs.

To organize the day, the team has ranked all the remaining candidates by region, all pulled up on an Excel spreadsheet that can be seen on the video screen. The spreadsheet tracks all the basics: years of work experience, employers, standardized test scores. Michels starts the morning off with the ten final applicants from Asia, listed in order of their rankings from the admissions team on everything from the admissions interview to the team assessment. In this group, two have been rated “stellar” and are pretty much shoe-ins; four are “clear admits,” and then there is a trio of candidates rated three, which translates to average, while two get just a one rating, which foretells rejection.

‘I WAS A GMAT EXTREMIST’

An associate director will introduce each applicant to the panel with the basics: work background, GMAT or GRE scores, GPA, career goals, and ratings on both the interview and the team assessment. While standardized test scores are more often than not among the most cited attributes of a candidate’s profile–and obviously dominated the conversation over the Bombay parashooter–they don’t seem nearly as important as an applicant’s admissions interview or assessment in a group setting that requires a team presentation.

Michels concedes that standardized test scores loomed larger in his early thinking but that he has considerable doubts about their importance. “I was a GMAT extremist,” admits Michels who got into IESE with a 740 GMAT. After consistently seeing students and alumni with below 600 GMATs become highly accomplished stars in their classes and later careers, he has become jaded about the test’s importance. “People are more than numbers,” he says, “and the GMAT has been misconstrued as a sign of intelligence. We’ll sometimes ask people to retake the GMAT, but I’ve tried to cure myself of the GMAT obsession. Instead, we try, to the extent it is possible, to use it in a binary way, checking if the candidate has the academic bandwidth to deal with the program.”

Unlike U.S. admission officers, of course, Michels faces little pressure to boost GMAT or GRE scores because U.S. News, which uses standardized test scores in its formula to rank MBA programs, does not list business schools outside the U.S. And though The Economist’s annual global ranking includes a GMAT metric, it only counts for just 3.5% of its methodology. The upshot: Standardized test scores, while still important, are not over-indexed as they often are in U.S. admission decisions.

During today’s marathon nine-hour meeting, with just a brief lunch break, the committee will reject several candidates with 700-plus scores. A 28-year-old American applicant with a 730 GMAT was turned away because committee members felt he had a “spotty” entrepreneurial background, with a “confusing” CV and “lacked self-awareness.” A Spanish consultant with a 740 GMAT at one of the top three global firms was rejected because he failed to show up for the school’s team-based assessment without explanation. “He presumed he would be admitted,” explains Karen Crisostomo, the associate director who vets candidates in Spain and Portugal.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.