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

IESE Associate Admission Directors Karen Crisostomo and Natalia Antip confer over a candidate’s application file

IESE Associate Admission Directors Karen Crisostomo, 29, from the Philippines, and Natalia Antip, 32, from Romania, confer over a candidate’s application file

‘THIS IS A CAREER BOOST STORY’

At the same time, the group embraced many other applicants who didn’t test well. A 34-year-old North American woman with ten years of work experience at a global tech giant was admitted with a 580 GMAT. Deborah McCandless, another associate director who works out of New York and joined the meeting via videoconference, had interviewed the candidate, giving her a three rating which indicates an applicant is “admittable.” Yet another staffer, Andrea Hayem, reminds the group that she met the person at an MBA admissions fair in February and had a positive impression. “She’s an impressive woman,” says McCandless. “She is very mature and has a good sense of herself. She works in management and has the hard and soft skills in marketing and business development.”

Michels expresses some hesitation. “This is a career boost story which leaves us with one question about that GMAT,” he sighs. “It really looks like her score is the one thing.”

Her goal, however, is to return to the tech industry, possibly with her employer in a different role. Mike Mascarenhas, who is sitting in the meeting as a representative of IESE’s career services group, adds that she poses no career risk. “Except for Google, tech companies don’t look or ask for GMATs,” he says. The candidate is accepted.

‘THERE ARE PEOPLE WITH WAY BETTER TEST SCORES THAT SHE COULD EAT FOR BREAKFAST’

What is often surprising is the thoughtful consideration the committee gives candidates with test scores well below the school’s average. A Southern European woman with sales and corporate strategy experience at a major meida company Germany brought a 550 GMAT to her application. She was interviewed and observed during the school’s recent assessment day in Barcelona by Michels who clearly likes her.

“I think she completely rocked the assessment day,” he tells the group. “There are people with way better test scores that she could eat for breakfast. But there’s a real risk here of her getting crushed by the quant in the program. If it’s a real deficiency, she could fail out.”

Rather than reject her outright, however, Michels was so impressed with her that he wants a second interview by an IESE professor to assess the academic risk of giving the candidate an admit.

‘PEOPLE ON THE TEAM GET EMOTIONALLY ATTACHED TO THE CANDIDATES’

MBA admissions, of course, is more art than science. The candid perspectives shared behind closed doors often reflect “gut” feelings as much as they take into account the “facts” in a completed application. And all of it is subjective, based on earlier observations and personal experience. “People on the team get emotionally attached to the candidates,” says Michels. “You get to know a lot about them and their dreams. You can’t help but get to personally like many of them.”

In this round, the school’s team-based assessment weighs heavily on the committee’s decisions. Only two days earlier–on a Saturday–40 of the 67 round four applicants showed up on campus at 9:30 a.m. For the next four and one-half hours, they were divided up into groups of five or six, assigned projects and then asked to do formal presentations –all of it observed by Michels and his staff who go room to room with notebooks. This year applicants had to choose one of four unsuccessful Kickstarter campaigns, analyze why they had failed and what they could do to turn it around with a new plan.

“We try to throw curveballs during the one-on-one interviews, but at the end of the day they show up ready,” says Michels. “During a half-day assessment, you can’t fake it, and they stop thinking about being observed. Then, they have 15 minutes to present and another ten minutes for questions. We get to really know our candidates.”

THE SCHOOL’S ‘ASSESSMENT DAY’ IS ‘A VERY EFFECTIVE OUTLIER PERCEPTION TOOL’

Even the mid-afternoon cocktail break is an observable, evaluative event. “We want to see them in a social setting,” says Andrea Hayem, the associate director for Europe and Mexico. “It’s a very effective outlier perception tool. You see all kinds of things, whether a person has natural leadership skills, or is a great team player, or could be too aggressive in a group.”

During the day-long meeting, the committee’s views on how people performed during the assessment test comes up again and again. Malvika Kumar presents the day’s first applicant, a woman she met at a coffee chat in Dubai in March. The candidate boasts nine years of work experience in consumer products with major global companies and expects to use the MBA to become an entrepreneur. While her 620 GMAT and 2.9 GPA may not indicate a resounding admit, she received the highest possible assessment rating: a five.

“I thought she was the best presenter in her group,” says Michels. “She nailed it.”

Natalia Antip agreed. “During the presentation, it looked like she had already done our communications class.” Andrea Hayem, who observed the applicant working in her group, noted that she was open to the ideas and suggestions of her team members, providing evidence of her ability to work with others.

‘I WAS ON THE VERGE OF TEARS WHEN I READ HER ESSAY’

Michels pointed out that the candidate dedicated her application to her mother who strongly supported her educational goals. “I was on the verge of tears when I read her essay,” says Michels. “Unless someone fundamentally disagrees, I want her in the class.” He also put her in for a sizable scholarship which will be decided at a later meeting.

A Korean candidate from Seoul who currently works in an East Coast high tech startup is up next. The admissions team gave him solid five ratings for both his interview and assessment. With a GMAT score of 650, he wants to use the MBA to transition into entrepreneurship as well.

“His English is perfect,” notes Michels, who watched him in his assessment group. “To me, he was the clear leader of the team. He’s a star and it was a high energy group so it is even more of a testament to his leadership ability.”

“He led when he needed to and he gave way to others when he needed to,” adds Karen Crisostomo.

SHOWING THE RIGHT STUFF IN THE ‘KILLER GROUP’

But there’s a hitch. Tomo Nishida, who vets candidates from Japan and Korea, doesn’t believe the applicant will accept an admit without some incentive. “Without a scholarship,” says Nishida, “he’s not able to come. He needs at least €20,000.”

Michels quickly tells the group he will shoot for €30,000. “I am happy to sacrifice some GMAT decimals for him,” he says. “He is a stellar candidate.”

A German male strategy consultant with a 710 GMAT equally galvanized support. After spending four years in consulting, he wants to leverage an MBA to get into consumer product marketing. “Natalia and I observed his team in the assessment,” relates Michels. “I labeled them the killer group. I saw him taking notes and appearing quite relaxed about the whole situation. He has a strong personality, but it didn’t look like he was trying to take control. He’s not your typical Alpha male from ranking.”

Michels gave the candidate a four for his assessment, while the applicant was assigned a three for his interview, largely because he seemed to show a lack of knowledge about IESE, its culture, and its MBA curriculum. “I just want to make sure he doesn’t expect to be handed a CPG job on a platter,” says Michels, who admits the person.

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.