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Admissions Director Q&A: IESE’s Pascal Michels

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This installment of our ongoing series, Admissions Director Q&A, takes us to the beautiful city of Barcelona, Spain, and the business school, IESE.  An IESE full-time MBA graduate of 2010, Pascal Michels joined IESE as an associate director on the career services team in 2013 and took over the role of full-time MBA admissions director in 2017.  A recovering finance professional, Pascal finds true meaning in working with people and is passionate about business education. Currently he is in the last steps of getting certified as an Executive Coach by Columbia University in New York.  In his free time, he claims to go swimming a lot, but generally just hangs around the gym’s spa. Unverifiable injuries and a hectic travel schedule are his preferred excuses for not having completed a marathon since 2015.

Clear Admit had the opportunity to chat with Pascal Michels about IESE’s MBA program and the importance of not being boring in your application (or in real life).

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

Pascal Michels, IESE’s Full-Time MBA Admissions Director

Pascal Michels: IESE is growing and evolving at a fast pace, with many exciting developments ongoing. We are the global leader in Executive Education, with a fifth top spot in the Financial Time’s ranking and the school is also doing groundbreaking work in the field of innovative learning.

Having said that, there are two significant and very exciting developments falling within my remit this year. I am of course talking about our brand new Master in Management (MiM), the first cohort of which started classes in Madrid this month, and the equally brand new option for our MBA students to choose the length of their program between the traditional 19 months and an accelerated 15 months track. Our MBA class of 2021, the biggest ever, has just hit campus and will be the first to benefit from this new option. I am thrilled!

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

PM: Given the current political landscape, one would be forgiven for forgetting that there is a European regional labor market and that as of now the UK is still part of it. A number of applicants, mostly from outside Europe, think that studying at IESE means focusing on Spain as a labor market, which is an absurd notion.

IESE attracts recruiters from all over the world with a global recruitment scope and, while opportunities in the Americas or Asia can be more challenging to secure (geographical distance, visa requirements), companies, with of course some exceptions, treat the European Union as a single labor market. Of course, language considerations can come into play with certain firms, but overall applicants should see us as a stepping stone for careers in Europe. There are only a handful of schools on the continent with a recruiter portfolio on par with ours.

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: Our process is relatively standard in terms of the flow of each application. It will be read after submission and before going into “pre-committee”, where the decision to interview or not will be made. Successful applicants will be invited to the interview stage and, in most cases, the assessment day. We also carry out second (or even third!) interviews where needed.

Our rating process for interviews and assessment days is rather thorough but not invasive. We really go to great lengths to get to know our applicants. Once interview and assessment day scores are gathered, we go into admissions committee, where each candidacy is discussed in detail. These committees are generally regional (Americas, EMEA, Asia) and in presence of a career services representative to specifically look at career risk.

So much for the process. The reality, however, is that we very often know our candidates quite well even before they apply. No part of the admissions process is outsourced to anyone outside my team. This means that my associate directors (there are 11 of them) generally know their candidates from earlier interactions such as coffee chats, fairs, case presentations, open days, etc…

Of course we make sure to always have the formal process interview carried out by an associate director who has not interacted with the applicant yet, but during the committee discussions often go into a great deal of depths when it comes to soft factors, attitude and ultimately fit with the school.

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? What is one key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write?

I will be somewhat blunt here. I do not want candidates to overthink their essays. Essays should be written in the same way one would write an email to a very senior figure in their company, or your most important client. What I mean by that is: be typo free, get to the point, don’t be boring but please don’t try to produce world-class literature!

Dwelling a bit on the boring aspect, my advice to candidates would be to put themselves in our shoes. We literally see hundreds of essays every year. Many of them are boring. Be sincere; show us that you know yourself! If you have it, use humor. Sometimes an associate director or I will get up from our desks and read out essays to the rest of the team because we read something cool, funny, or impressive.

Overall, we use essays as conversation-starters and to gauge an applicant’s motivation. My hunch is that many candidates overestimate the amount of attention they receive. Now just to be clear: this is not an invitation to botch them. Rather, I make the assumption here that I am dealing with a self-selected group of people who have the linguistic abilities to write in proper English and to structure content for a senior audience.

CA: How many essays would you wager you’ve read in your tenure at IESE? Thinking about the essays that have been the most memorable, is there something they have in common?

PM: I have not been around for that long (this is only my third season), but I would say that my number is probably around 1000, considering that our application contains 3 essays and an optional one.

There was one essay which was so brilliant, so witty, so courageous and outright hilarious that I literally went to each and every member on my team reading it out loud. It was so unbelievably well written that we even considered for a moment launching a “best essay of the year” scholarship.

Generally, honesty and a bit of self-deprecation can go a long way. Some essays are very moving, especially when gratitude is expressed, as I have seen in a number of memorable cases.

CA: Could you tell us about your interview process?  Approximately how many applicants do you interview? Who conducts the interview (students, admissions officers, alumni) and what is the nature of the interview (blind, non-blind)?

As I outlined above, everything will be done by one or more associate directors from my team or career services (when we see fit). All our associate directors, with only one exception, hold the IESE MBA on top of working for the school. This means that you will always deal with admissions officers who are also alumni. This specificity makes our process particularly robust.

On the other hand, I want my team to have a lot of leeway in how they interview. There is no script – each one of us has their secret sauce and that is what I want it to be: fun for the candidate and for the interviewer.

The three questions we ultimately ask ourselves are outlined in this piece I published on Linkedin. Yes, the process is subjective, but we are after fit above all and I like to think that we are rather good at figuring fit out.

CA: Anything else you would like to add?

The biggest two risks are (1) being boring and (2) not understanding what not being boring means. Not being boring doesn’t mean being clownish. It means having explored one’s inner depths and come out from it with a story to tell. Tell us yours!

Jonathan Pfeffer
Jonathan Pfeffer joined the Clear Admit and MetroMBA teams in 2015 after spending several years as an arts/culture writer, editor, and radio producer. In addition to his role as Contributing Writer at MetroMBA and Contributing Editor at Clear Admit, he was also a co-founder of the Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast. He holds a BA in Film/Video, Ethnomusicology, and Media Studies from Oberlin College.