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

The IMD campus in Lausanne, Switzerland

The IMD campus in Lausanne, Switzerland


As the minutes tick away, Farrus gets to the final inevitable questions that just about every MBA applicant can expect at any business school in the world:

“Why is right now the time for you to do an MBA?”

“Why IMD?”

“Have you talked to alumni?”

“What did they tell you?”

“Are you applying anywhere else?”

When the candidate says he has no plans to complete an application elsewhere, he is asked why not.

“Tell me why we should offer you a place at IMD?’

To finish off the session, Farrus asks if there a question that he anticipated but did not get.

“You didn’t ask me what I was bad at,” he says. “This is a hard question. I get impatient. My thoughts wander and I am competitive. I have a tendency to think that a lot of things are competitive. I judge people on first impressions and I want to stop that.”


When all the one-on-one interviews are complete, the candidates are back in the room and handed blue folders with a three-page case study in each. They’re asked to read the case about a construction equipment company that is trying to develop a new global strategy that would increase profitable growth. The task: to prioritize the firm’s three existing market segments and plan how to reach and serve each one.

Dean Meehan, a marketing professor who has spent 22 years at IMD, opens the session. “On paper, all of you could get through this program,” he says. “Whether this program makes sense for you is something else. With this case study, we want to see how you work together to solve a problem.”

The six candidates are divided into two teams and given 25 minutes to prepare for the discussion and presentation. First up at the whiteboard is the American from New York who was chosen to represent his team. Instead of focusing on the company’s upper and middle markets that cater to large construction companies and building subcontractors through direct sales, the team recommends going into the do-it-yourself market to sell its products to plumbers, electricians, and carpenters. The American explains that the company could piggyback on a decision by another building materials company, TE Habitat, to open eight retail stores over the next two years.

“It requires no capital investment,” says the applicant. “It gives us better reach for our products.”


Meehan quickly interrupts the presentation, peppering the candidate with questions about market share and profitability in each market segment. The interruptions are unexpected and disconcerting. Then, Meehan begins to openly disagree with the presenter, partly to see how confident the applicant is in his team’s recommendation.

“I would ignore this segment and not invest in it,” he says, “because the profitability is elsewhere. We have optimized the upper and the middle segments, and the rest we’re getting without even trying. Do you still think the rest is the number one priority?”

The ensuing discussion does not make the presenter change his mind. Undaunted by the barrage of questions, the candidate retains his cool and his reserve.

When the next team is up, represented by the woman from India, it reaches the exact same conclusion.

Meehan cuts her off. “Can you explain, given our strategy, how we ended up in these market segments? How do you explain our market share?”


Instead of answering the questions directly, she simply recites the market share numbers in the case study.

“I know the numbers!” insists Meehan. “What does their strategy seem to be?”

The presenter is struggling with the answer and, tellingly perhaps, no one on her team is coming to her rescue.

“If we go into the rest sector, we can improve our sales,” she says. “We don’t have to invest in infrastructure to do it. We can take advantage of their (the retailer’s) brand value if we get associated with them.”

Asks Meehan, “Do they exist as a brand?”

“They’re a major manufacturer of building materials,” she responds.

“So it’s a manufacturer,” retorts Meehan. “What is the brand value? Why are we piggybacking on a manufacturer’s brand?”

“That is a plus if we use their resources,” she says.

“Did you make an estimate of the market size?” asks Meehan. “They are going to open eight stores in the next two years. What kind of revenue would you expect from eight stores?”

The young woman doesn’t have an answer. “We don’t have a way to validate that point,” she says flatly.

“Okay,” says Meehan. “Thank you very much.”

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