Harvard | Mr. Cricket From Kashmir
GMAT 730, GPA 8.5/10
Wharton | Mr. Data Dude
GMAT 750, GPA 4.0
Tepper | Mr. Insurance Dude
GMAT 660, GPA 3.6
Kellogg | Ms. Indian Marketer
GMAT 680, GPA 8.9/10
NYU Stern | Mr. Middle Eastern Warrior
GMAT 720 (Estimated), GPA 3.0
Chicago Booth | Mr. Chile Real Estate
GMAT 740, GPA 3.02
Yale | Mr. Sustainability Manager
GRE 319, GPA 3.52
NYU Stern | Mr. Beer Guy
GRE 306, GPA 4.0
Wharton | Mr. Finance to MBB
GMAT 760, GPA 4.0
NYU Stern | Ms. Legal Officer
GMAT 700, GPA 4
Stanford GSB | Ms. Education Non-profit
GRE 330, GPA 3.0
Harvard | Mr. Tech Start-Up
GMAT 720, GPA 3.52
Cornell Johnson | Mr. Social To Tech
GMAT 700, GPA 2.7
Wharton | Mr. Mobility Entrepreneur
GMAT 760, GPA 1st Division
HEC Paris | Mr. Business Man
GMAT 720, GPA 3.89
Harvard | Mr. Football Author
GMAT 760, GPA 3.4
Harvard | Mr. Deferred Admission
GRE 329, GPA 3.99
Chicago Booth | Mr. Plantain & Salami
GMAT 580, GPA 4.0
Tuck | Mr. Running To The Future
GMAT 720, GPA 3.5
Kellogg | Mr. Digital Finance
GRE 327, GPA 3.47
Stanford GSB | Mr. Filling In The Gaps
GRE 330, GPA 3.21
Tuck | Mr. Tech PM
GMAT 710, GPA 3.3
Harvard | Ms. Tech Impact
GMAT 730, GPA 3.8
Columbia | Mr. MD/MBA
GMAT 670, GPA 3.77
Chicago Booth | Mr. Community Uplift
GMAT 780, GPA 2.6
Rice Jones | Mr. Simple Manufacturer
GRE 320, GPA 3.95
London Business School | Ms. Social Impact Consulting
GRE 330, GPA 3.28

For These Jittery MBA Applicants, It’s The Ultimate Game Of Thrones

An MBA student on the IMD campus in Lausanne, Switzerland

An MBA student on the IMD campus in Lausanne, Switzerland

“What’s the most interesting thing about yourself?”

The deceptively simple question lands on the young professional like a punch to the gut.

Though it is asked with a warm smile, the 27-year-old man who receives it is visibly shaken, as nervous as someone about to undergo surgery. 

An engineer, he works in industrial sales for a company in Denmark, and he is here, in Lausanne, Switzerland, in his dark blue suit and tie because he wants to be in the next MBA class at IMD, the International Institute for Management Development.

A discomforting pause fills the conference room as the man fiddles with a pen in his hands. He is twisting the pen this way and that, clicking the ballpoint in and out of its white plastic case as his questioner waits patiently for an answer.


The five seconds of silence feels like an eternity. Finally, the answer comes but not before he stares at the ceiling, then out the window and finally faces Anna Farrus, the head of MBA admissions at the school.

“I would say my personality,” he says haltingly. “I am a happy person. I am good with people, and I like to make people laugh.”

The question may well be the easiest he will face that day from Farrus, who has the instincts of a prosecutor drilling a courtroom witness yet the appearance of a welcoming grammar school teacher. Her questions are unpredictable and often relentless, particularly when there’s an opening to dart down with a series of penetrating follow-ups that leave the jittery candidate down a path of highly revealing remarks. 


Anna Farrus heads up MBA admissions at IMD

Anna Farrus heads up MBA admissions at IMD

He is here with five other candidates for what IMD calls Assessment Day that some might regard as the quintessential Game of Thrones for an MBA aspirant. It’s an entire day in which the school tests candidates who have made the first cut and received an invitation to interview. The Q&A is just one part of a challenging series of exercises the include a case study presentation before IMD Dean Sean Meehan, an evaluative lunch with alumni, an individual test in which each applicant draws a question that must be answered on the spot in two minutes or less, and finally a stressful blind-folded exercise in team dynamics.

Throughout the day, the applicants will be closely observed by a trio of admission officials as well as the school’s dean. They will watch and interpret body language as much as they will listen to every spoken word, judge how the candidates interact with each other, and ultimately draw conclusions about each person’s drive, intelligence, confidence, assertiveness, leadership potential, and their ability to work successfully with others.

Last year, 430 candidates applied for one of 90 seats in IMD’s MBA program, recently named the best one-year MBA in the world in the latest return-on-investment ranking by Forbes which also found that MBA graduates from IMD also rack up five-year compensation gains of nearly $170,000 after the expense of getting the degree. That total exceeds every other business school, including Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton.


Of the 430 candidates, only 164, or 38%, were invited to Assessment Day last year. Some 129 were ultimately given an offer of admission. Once you’re invited to the day’s grueling, anxiety-ridden challenges, the chances of getting into IMD are high (roughly eight of ten applicants are admitted) but rejection is bruising for those who have made it this far. And this year, the hurdle rate is higher because MBA applications are up 11% with one more deadline left on Oct.1 before the January start of the new class.

Most business schools, of course, interview applicants before admitting them. Some enlist alumni or second-year MBA students to do those sit-down sessions, such as Stanford, while other schools, including Harvard, have their own admission officials do the interviews.

But bringing applicants in for a full day of tests as IMD as done for more than 20 years is certainly unique and nerve-wracking for candidates. It’s a major investment for the school which puts on a dozen of these challenges off-campus in locales as varied as Cape Town and Singapore and New York and New Delhi as well as 16 to 17 on IMD’s pastoral campus nestled close to Lake Geneva.


With only 90 students, a few admission mistakes could alter the entire MBA experience. The small group breeds deep loyalty to each other and the school. So IMD wants to make sure that it is admitting people who will fit into its highly collaborative, supportive culture and its full embrace of cultural diversity. Some 39 nationalities make up the current crop of MBA students at IMD who tend to be slightly older at 31 with an average of seven years of work experience than many other top schools. IMD seeks students who also will contribute to the experience in ways that demand students be completely open, even vulnerable to each other. Among other things, it is the only MBA experience in the world in which students receive 20 hours of Jungian therapy sessions.

“It’s important for us to see how they react to each other,” says Dean Meehan. “It’s interesting to see when one struggles, do they try to rescue the candidate or do they think it’s one less to compete against. We are bringing them in on the basis that they can do the work. We’re trying to select the best group of 90 we can find. If we get the selection right, the rest of the year will be easy.”

At its heart, adds Meehan, IMD’s MBA experience is “a personalized leadership development program. It’s not a how-smart-are-you program. A company wouldn’t hire someone without a series of long interviews so why should we accept anyone without a more thorough assessment? After all, we are triaging on behalf of our recruiters.”

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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.