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Admissions Director Q&A: Pascal Michels of IESE Business School

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We got to know Pascal Michels, who started in his new role as head of admissions at IESE Business School this summer, as part of our Real Humans of MBA Admissions series earlier this month. Now we’re excited to feature a more in-depth interview that delves into the admissions process and team he oversees.

Michels is new to admissions, but far from new at IESE. A 2010 graduate of the MBA program himself, he headed from business school to Citigroup in London, where he worked in financial management for three years. But he was ultimately enticed back to IESE to serve as a career services associate director for financial services. After almost four years in that role, IESE asked him to head MBA admissions this past July.

We asked him what he’s most excited about in terms of the transition from career services to admissions, as well as what he’ll miss most. He will miss the ability to work closely with current students that his career services role afforded him. “At IESE we have our career services offices above the classrooms, so you are literally at the pulse of the student experience,” he says.

“On the other hand, it is thrilling to be a gatekeeper of an institution like IESE,” he continues. “Sometimes there is a fit and sometimes there is not. And then there are times where the fit is so obvious that it is an absolute pleasure partnering with candidates through the application process,” he says. “Of course, it can be heartbreaking when some such candidates decide to go somewhere else or put their MBA on hold.”

“Ultimately you build the class that is going to shape the culture of the full-time MBA. In turn, because of its size the full-time MBA program infuses the whole school with that culture,” he says. “Having that impact on the institution is really exciting.”

Michels also points out that with his change in roles he has shifted from b2b to b2c. “As a career services director, if things don’t go as expected I can still jump on a plane, visit companies, and work on a turnaround relatively quickly,” he says. “When you work with students you see results in a matter of weeks or months. In admissions, it’s a much longer cycle. Am I now doing the right thing for what I want my environment or results to be like 18 months from now? What can I do now so that in a year and half the MBA will have improved? This lack of immediate feedback is going to be a real change for me.”

For as much of a shift as it may be, IESE believes that Michels’ unique background is an asset that will serve him well as he steps into his new gatekeeper role. Clear from the interview that follows is his enthusiasm for the school and its current momentum. He also shares that he will be on the lookout for ways to bring fresh thinking to how scholarships are allocated, as well as ways in which the admissions process can be made less anxiety-filled and more transparent— easier even, if possible.

Read on to learn more about what sets IESE apart and what happens to your application after you hit “submit.”

Clear Admit: What’s the single most exciting development, change or event happening at IESE in the coming year?

Pascal Michels: In a staff meeting last week in which each division was updating the rest of IESE on what they are up to, I found myself thinking, “Wow. Isn’t it cool to be part of an organization that is growing?!” Last year we added a fifth section to our MBA —growing the class size by 25 percent—and many more thrilling things are going on. The institution as a whole is really flexing its muscles.

We have a really exciting set of marketing campaigns unfolding—a new line of visuals that are very elegant, truly premium stuff. We are getting around to knowing how to sell ourselves and how to do it at the premier position we want to occupy. Somewhat along the same lines, the alumni association has come up with an app where you can find every single alum on your smartphone, out of 40,000+. All of this is rolling out right now. Not only that, our campuses are being expanded and renovated. We’ve expanded our space in Barcelona and used it as an opportunity to modernize the infrastructure and add new team rooms, a virtual classroom and a new auditorium. Everything is new and high quality. We are also growing our Madrid and Munich campuses. The institution as a whole is going through an expansion phase. That makes IESE a very energetic place to be at the moment.

Related directly to admissions, we are revisiting the way the scholarship committee works. One of the priorities I had when I took this job was to look at how scholarships are awarded and how that might change. This year we will offer extra scholarship money and hopefully that will allow us to be more imaginative when it comes to allocating these funds. Right now our scholarships—as I think is the case with most of our competitors—are given based on merit and essentially function as retention tools. There is a need-based angle to scholarship decisions as well, but it is very difficult to formally implement and therefore has been largely ad hoc. If you ask people to tell you whether they need a scholarship everyone will tell you that they do. So what I want to look at is how we can get better at allocating some of our scholarships to those who need them most.

I could also envisage admissions events, case competitions, or some other form of gamification of the process. Now, I should point out that we do work closely with organizations like the Forté Foundation for example to grant scholarships. But why not create specific situations where a scholarship can be a pre-admission outcome? We do have something that we call the Young Talent Path, in which we bring university students on campus for a boot camp. We give them a taste of the IESE experience, get them to work in teams on case studies, simulate what the MBA is like. Those who we admit at the end of the week are pre-admitted to the MBA program contingent on completion of approved work experience. We also commit scholarship money that can be unlocked by meeting certain GMAT requirements. Just looking to increase our scholarship pool is not enough—we should be creative and strategic about how we allocate funds.

CA: What is the one area of your program that you wish applicants knew more about?

PM: There are a number of things. I think the analogy that we often hear is that of being a hidden jewel. Maybe this is now less true than it was 20 years ago, but people tend to make assumptions based on our location. When you close your eyes and think of Barcelona you see palm trees, blue skies, the beach and perhaps a nice mojito. And don’t get me wrong: these things are part of the landscape. But they are really just that. Academically ours is an extremely demanding program designed to push people to their limits. In fact, many students would argue that they really don’t get to see the beach that much. Our MBA is a high work load program, especially in the first year.

And it is for good reason. You need to make sure there is friction between people to get the most out of diversity. Diversity for the sake of diversity does not lead very far. At IESE you cannot escape diversity because we use the case study method and apply a high degree of work-pressure to maximize student interaction and collaboration.

I also don’t know how many people are aware that we are a target school for top consultancies, banks, and tech firms. In certain markets awareness still needs to be raised about that fact.

CA: Walk us through the life of an application in your office from an operational standpoint. What happens between the time an applicant clicks “submit” and the time the committee offers a final decision (e.g. how many “reads” does it get, how long is each “read,” who reads it, does the committee convene to discuss it as a group, etc.).

PM: At the deadline our coordinators will pull all the applications from the system and organize them by geography. Each associate director will then review their markets and come up with a proposal of who to interview. One of our operations bottlenecks is that every application gets read in its entirety by one at least one of our associate directors, sometimes more. We have no filter—no minimum threshold—no formulaic way of going about determining who gets called for an interview. After the associate directors make their recommendations, a pre-committee convenes made up of the associate director and coordinator of each of the regions and myself. Together we go through the applications and establish the interview lists. Where candidates interview depends on where they apply from, although we prefer on-campus interviews if possible. But we also do a fair amount of WebEx-based interviews, and because we have people on the ground in mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Sao Paolo, Mexico and New York, we are also leveraging that presence.

Following the interview there are three options—it can be a straight admit, a rejection, or, for a large portion, we will invite them to an assessment day. We hold these assessment days in Barcelona, Singapore, Sao Paolo and New York. They are team-based exercises. The idea is not to have candidates compete against each other but to observe them in a natural environment. It really is more relaxed than it sounds, and it’s a chance for us to look at their soft skills. Following the assessment day, we will either admit, reject, or waitlist candidates.

In parallel to that we have the scholarship process, handled through a separate committee. There is a dedicated scholarship essay in the application which gets reviewed by the committee together with interview and assessment day reports.

I am not against streamlining the process per se but although resource-intensive, our approach has proven to be quite solid over the years. The interviews that we hold are all conducted—with very few exceptions—by IESE staff who are also graduates of the IESE full-time MBA program. We do not outsource interviewing to people outside the organization and most executive staff at IESE are MBA holders. I know that we are not the only ones to make that claim, and these things may evolve in the long term, but we spend a lot of time interacting with our applicants. When we have doubts about an application we will generally do a second interview. We look for reasons to admit rather than reject and the process is conducted in a positive spirit.

CA: How does your team approach the essay portion of the application specifically? What are you looking for as you read the essays? Are there common mistakes that applicants should try to avoid? One key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write them?

PM: Having read a fair share of essays as an interviewer, I will say that candidates need to be aware that it is fairly obvious when something gets copy pasted and tweaked from one school to another. To the trained eyes this is really quite easy to spot! Call me a prima donna but when I read an application essay, I want to feel unique. The worst mistake is when someone rolls out a standard speech. We like to see that people have understood our culture, our values and are able to formulate a personalized response to that.

If you take a step back and put yourself in the shoes of someone who has done the IESE MBA themselves, which as I said is the case of 90 percent of our interviewers, we do want to see that candidates have thought about their professional development. But this goes beyond showing us that they know where they want to take their careers—we know this changes all the time. We want them to give us a writing sample around how they think about their professional development and what they will do with the IESE MBA. But the more subtle question that is at the back of everybody’s mind is whether this person is someone they would have learned from in the classroom. Is this person someone who comes with the spirit of sharing their experience, sharing their knowledge? There is very little point of having absolutely brilliant people in the class if they choose not to participate, not to add to the team, not to help other students when they go through difficulties. We have rejected candidates who were very strong in many regards but who lacked that kind of generosity.

CA: How many essays would you wager you’ve read in your tenure at IESE? What percentage of those essays do you remember now? What about those most memorable essays made them so?

PM: To be clear, as an admissions director I haven’t read a single one yet. But I have read roughly 100 applications while at Career Services. I remember one essay which I think must have slipped through the cracks. It was absolutely awful. It must have been done really quickly at the last moment. It was full of grammar mistakes, it didn’t read well, it was really lame. I was very busy that day and read this essay just before the interview. I was very upset. I think I started the interview by setting the person straight. I was with my banker mindset—in that very competitive, high expectations space. I gave that person a really hard time, telling him very frankly that I didn’t understand why he even got interviewed.

Well, guess what? I ended up recommending to the committee we admit him – and so we did. This episode showed me the limitations of the paper-based component of the application process. The decision to admit that person was the right one. He was a great contributor to the school experience—a definite homerun from that standpoint. I still don’t know how he went through pre-committee, but he is definitely someone I am happy we got and ultimately this was a win-win. The message to applicants here is also that if you have a tough interview, as in the job market, you may still be successful. If things turn south, stay calm and humble but stand your ground.

What makes this job very pleasant for someone who likes reading is that many essays are very strong. Some are real works of art. Maybe I should point out the example of some ex-military candidates I have seen over the years. In the United States the military is a very established pipeline for business schools, but less so in Europe. As a region we are less militarized, and as a European you are not used to interacting with veterans. The leadership component that comes across from most candidates with this background can be very impressive. The tone, the crispness of it, it oozes leadership. These tend to be fascinating essays to read.

CA: What keeps you up at night in your new role as head of admissions?

PM: I don’t know if this is easily addressed in an interview, but what can be frustrating in the MBA world is a certain lack of transparency. I do wonder what might be the right approach to make everything more transparent, easier, less anxiety ridden. Schools and candidates carry out a very elaborate and complex dance. I remember how intimidating it was when I was a candidate—that absence of feedback, never knowing where you stand with an application until schools communicate their decision. On the flipside candidates often hold their cards very closely, making each school feel like they are the top choice while maneuvering the maze of deadlines and decisions. Call me naïve but I do wonder what can be done to make the whole thing a little bit less complicated for all parties concerned.

I have seen some extremely strong candidates over the years. Short of telling them, “Don’t worry, we are going to admit you,” I wish there were some way to alleviate some of their anxiety. You look at someone who is so brilliant, so polished, who has worked so hard—you sometimes can’t believe that they don’t know how good they are. There is this sense of insecurity that you see with people who are rock stars, and that strikes me as a bit crazy. On the other hand, few things are more of a turn-off than overconfident or arrogant candidates. Luckily most of the interviews we conduct are friendly conversations. I see admissions interviews as a privileged time and an opportunity to learn something from applicants. Interviewing is definitely one of my favorite parts of working at IESE and I am sure most of my colleagues would say the same.

Learn more about IESE Business School at the school website.