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MBA Admissions Tips & Advice from HEC Paris MBA Director & Star Applicant

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Two women very familiar with what it takes to be successful in MBA admissions, particularly at HEC Paris, offer advice on each stage of the admissions process at the leading program. The HEC Paris MBA Director of Marketing, Sara Vanos, and a star MBA applicant, Kendra Bills, share their experiences in this special feature.

Sara Vanos (left) & Kendra Bills (right)

Sara Vanos joined HEC Paris in 2014, following her roles in MBA recruiting at Toronto Rotman. Sara currently serves as the Director of Marketing, Recruitment and Sales across the MBA programs at HEC Paris and earned an Executive MBA there herself in 2020. Kendra Bills matriculated at HEC Paris in September 2020 and she scored extremely high on both her admissions interviews and her essays. Kendra earned her undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and then joined two smaller tech startups, doing marketing and business development. Just prior to pursuing an MBA at HEC Paris, she wore many hats at Bedrock Sandals, an adventure footwear manufacturer.

The HEC Paris MBA program offers two intakes per year, one in September and the other in January. With rolling deadlines, applicants can apply to the program in any month throughout the year and expect an admissions decision within 5 weeks. No matter which stage of admissions you’re in, Sara and Kendra have excellent advice and tips for you below.

Overall Profile: Standout Qualities & Criteria

Sara Vanos: We look for students with a global mindset, a passion for excellence, and leadership potential that runs the professional and personal gamut.  Our MBAs join HEC Paris not only to learn from others, but also to share their knowledge.

We require a minimum of 2 years’ work experience and a GMAT or GRE test.  A strong applicant has a solid academic past, a track record of career progression, and passions outside of work, like extra-curricular and/or volunteer activities.  We also value international exposure, which can be highlighted through study abroad, travel, or work with international clients.

Applicants stand out when they have a clear idea of why they’re pursing an MBA, and the right motivation for joining the HEC Paris MBA.

Kendra Bills: I thought the HEC Paris MBA application process was extremely professional and complete. The first step of the process is to connect and share your background with the HEC Paris MBA recruitment team via the MBA website. From there, they will give you valuable feedback on your portfolio and provide you with additional resources about the program and information about the upcoming application deadlines. HEC has a 5 week application process and a monthly jury so once you submit an application for a deadline, you can expect the entire process to be over and to know if you got accepted or not 5 weeks later. Once you complete your essays and complete your application, the admissions board will meet and examine your application in detail. They consider all parts of the application–from educational background, to professional experience, your international exposure, your letters of recommendation, your extracurricular activities. There’s no specific, one-off criterion that the school is looking for–just because you got an extremely high score on your GMAT or just because you worked XX position at XX company, doesn’t mean you’ll get into the school. Instead, HEC is looking for “motivation to succeed”, as well as clear reasoning on why HEC will help you achieve your goals.  The result of this is the school and MBA cohort is extremely diverse and full of people from all over the world and all kinds of different backgrounds. This is what makes the experience so valuable–you get a bunch of different perspectives in the cohort that facilitate deep conversations on any given topic.

Essay Writing: “Tell Us about the Real You”

Sara Vanos: Getting to know our applicants is important at HEC Paris, both in-person through your discussions with our Recruitment Team, and through our 5 essay questions.

Take the time to reflect before starting your essays. I recommend reviewing the 5 questions and brainstorming many possible answers, reviewing your potential answers with friends and family, and making the process fun.  That way, when you do your essays, they will flow naturally, and you will have selected topics that you’ve thought through.

An essay that requires more time that others could be #4 – Imagine a life entirely different from the one you now lead — what would it be?  This can be tricky for candidates as they aren’t sure what we are looking for, and it pushes applicants to think outside the box.  This is a great chance to be creative and to share a path not taken, or dreams you might not have followed, and/or how you ended up where you are today.  Any time that you struggle with an essay, feel free to chat with our recruitment team; they can offer tips and strategies to help you find the right topics for you.

Please keep in mind we want you to be genuine in your answers. That way, we can best understand your expectations in order to assess fit, and then ensure that we can help you attain your MBA goals. Please don’t write what you think we want to hear; tell us about the real you. If in doubt, use Essay #6 to provide any additional information that you would like to share.

Mistake to Avoid
As some prospective students are applying to multiple schools, from time to time we get a boilerplate motivational text on why they want to pursue an MBA, not specific to HEC Paris.  I recommend taking the time to learn about HEC Paris in depth, which will help in both the written application and the interviews.

Kendra Bills: When you’re applying to a school you should learn about their core values and see if they’re a good fit for you. HEC values diversity, leadership, ethics, and wants to see a defined goal that they can help you with. It’s important to establish that goal or goals before you write your essays and figure out how HEC specifically can help you achieve it. If you actually believe that HEC has the resources to help you achieve the goals and you define those goals beforehand, the essays should fall into place easily. You’re telling a story with these essays about your personality and motivations– how do you want to present yourself? Keep it consistent. HEC asks unique questions in their essays to get a well-rounded perspective on you as student, professional, and human. It’s important to make sure you answer the entire question, develop your story, and articulate your uniqueness in your answers. There are several essays, but most are relatively short so keep it concise and to the point.  Avoid redundancy in the essays and compose a narrative to show who you are and where you want to go.

I would say the most challenging essay was “What do you consider your most significant life achievement?” This is a very intimidating question– especially in your late 20’s when you maybe feel like you haven’t done anything specifically spectacular yet. It’s a classic tricky interview question that makes you think about your life and maybe doubt yourself.

When answering these questions, it’s important to try to figure out what they are trying to learn about you. A significant achievement for me might not be the same for you–for some people it can be a very personal goal. I think here they’re looking for you to narrate a story–with a goal, clear results, and impact.

See advice about recommenders, the interview process and more on the next page.

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.