A Chat with IMD's Admissions Director

Katty Ooms Suter, director of MBA admissions, and current student Jennifer Mowat on what it takes to make the grade at the Swiss B-school

Katty Ooms Suter is the director of MBA admissions at IMD -- International Institute of Management Development -- in Lausanne, Switzerland (No. 4 on BusinessWeek's 2000 Top 7 Global B-School list). Ooms Suter has been working in IMD admissions since April, 1999, and has directed the admissions committee for the past year or so. Before joining IMD, she was a marketing professor at Webster University Geneva, on the faculty of Ecole Hotelier Lausanne, and a brand manager at Procter & Gamble in Switzerland. Jennifer Mowat is a current IMD student, who is sponsored by her employer eBay. She ran eBay's British office before attending IMD.

Ooms and Mowat offered the following comments during a live BusinessWeek Online chat on Mar. 5. They were responding to questions from the audience and from BW Online's Mica Schneider. Following is an edited transcript of the discussion:

Q: Katty, IMD just closed its first round of admissions for next year's January class. Would you describe the competition you see among these early applicants?


Our first deadline was really strong. We were up about 40% vs. last year. And we just had the first admission meeting, discussing those applications. Overall we found the quality of those applications to be really good.

Q: How many applications came in during the first round?


I don't think this is relevant. It's only the first deadline and I don't want to give out any numbers per deadline. At the end of the year, we will tell what the number of applications is.

Q: Jennifer, you've been in classes for about two months. What's your initial read of your classmates, and professors?


The class is nice and small, so we've gotten to know each other quite quickly. That's very helpful considering the teamwork needed! The lecturers and professors are also pretty good. It makes a difference that they all consult to "real businesses," so the stories [they tell] and classes [they teach] are very relevant.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about your background, Jennifer? Why did you join IMD?


I am sponsored by eBay. I was running the U.K. business there from its start up, two-and-a-half years ago. I joined IMD for a few reasons. The age profile was important, and the smaller class size was a real draw. I want to know 90 people really well, not 400 people vaguely. Their experience is important to me. So far, I am really enjoying it.

Q: How much time do you spend studying?


Well, sleep so far is a scare commodity. I'm in classes from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., then I study until midnight.

Q: How would a business slowdown in Europe affect the IMD MBA graduates? Does the number of offers from recruiting companies considerably decrease?


No, not really. We had 80% of our graduates get job offers by graduation in the 2001 class. In the 2000 class, it was 90%. Given the economic downturn, especially in the U.S., where we place a lot of [graduates], we feel the results are really good. Of 82 students who graduated in December, by March there are only eight who haven't gotten a final job.

Q: With the significant increase in applications and the increased quality of the applicants, are there any plans to increase IMD's class size?


No. Our smaller class size is a strategic choice. We keep the IMD MBA selective. We limit the class size to 90 people each year, because we believe that world-class business leaders can't be mass-produced. We follow each participant through the program, and provide each with personalized leadership training, which obviously we couldn't do with 300 or 400 people.

Q: Katty, IMD altered its MBA program this year. Can you tell us about some of the changes?


Basically, we have refocused the program on leadership. We talked to thousands of alumni and recruiters, and we looked at other top MBA programs -- primarily in the U.S.A. -- and decided that the position of leadership wasn't strongly taken in the [MBA] market, so we repositioned our program on leadership. We did that by adding new elements in entrepreneurship and the Dynamic Learning Network in order to build skills in those important [areas] of leadership.

There are three really exciting elements in the leadership program. The first is Dynamic Learning Networks. These are networks of people from firms around the world who collaborate virtually to create knowledge about a topic of importance for which there is not yet any best practice. These are topics that are too new to find any existing research and documentation. Our MBAs will be leading the creation and development of these forums, which will be made up of IMD MBAs, alumni from the MBA and the executive MBA programs, and executives from the 140 companies which belong to the IMD Learning Network. We expect that in total there will be about 2,500 people participating in these forums.

The second new element is the venture projects, which have been created to give the MBAs a sense of the special challenges that an entrepreneur faces. It will help them answer questions like, how do you grow a business? Not just acquire it, but take on an idea and generate a sustainable business behind it. Even leaders in established large companies must be able to understand, identify, and nurture an idea to help grow a business from within a company.

In the third new element, we added a number of off-campus leadership exercises, the most important of which is a one-week discovery expedition to a country such as Bosnia, which is where we are taking the class this year. In Bosnia, they'll interact with business, society, and government leaders, who are struggling daily to rebuild their country and its economy. The experience is designed to force participants to re-evaluate the kind of leader they want to be, and what this might entail.

Q: The IMD student age profile is early 30s. Are you receptive to candidates older than 33? What do you look for in these candidates? Perhaps an above-average GMAT?


Basically, 80% of our 2002 class is between 28 and 32, and the people that we select that fall on either side of this range have something exceptional in their profile that further strengthens the diversity and learning experience of the class. For example, we have accepted somebody in the past who was about 37, but who had founded and sold two companies by that time. The person had been really successful as an entrepreneur, and then wanted to get an MBA in order to rethink the next company and launch it on a global scale.

Q: Jennifer, I wonder if you've got any complaints this early into your IMD program. What common gripes can admits expect to hear among their classmates when they get to campus?


Well, in Switzerland the supermarkets aren't open on Sunday. Thats about it. We also are spending a lot of time learning to balance our schedules, so that's just a learning curve. Unlike work, every day counts here and you can't miss anything.

Ooms: When people come on campus to interview and we talk about the IMD MBA, we promise them a stimulating and challenging 10 months. I think that's part of what they're experiencing right now. Especially the challenging part!

Q: Katty, will IMD consider a person who already has an MBA degree, if such person has a compelling reason to pursue an IMD MBA?


It's very unusual. Normally you would expect a person with an MBA not to need another one. But I'm willing to listen to any compelling reason. I am interested to hear it.

Q: In the U.S., many B-schools expand the learning experience by collaborating and competing with other B-schools, for instance through business case competitions. Does IMD suffer from its (relative) isolation?


Our participants are busy as it is and have a lot of learning experience right here. In our class, we have more than 600 years of work experience accumulated. The students have very tight schedules, and they are learning from each other. Also, we have 37 nationalities in the class, so they learn a lot about cultural diversity from each other, so I don't feel like we're isolated. On top of that, we have 5,500 executives visiting IMD for executive programs each year. Our MBAs have access to them.

Mowat: Speaking of the 37 nationalities, the business experience and practice [among my classmates] from across the world is not only varied, but really interesting! I've learned all sorts of things about what it's really like to do business in different places. For those of us looking to work in a global arena, that knowledge is invaluable and would take a long time to get out in the field.

Q: What is lowest GMAT score that IMD will accept?


We don't have a minimum or a maximum. Our range for the middle 80% of the class falls between 620 and 740. The GMAT really is only one aspect of the application -- it's only one criterion -- so it's never taken by itself. That means you need a decent GMAT to get in, but even if you have a superb GMAT that doesn't guarantee you a seat.

Q: Katty, perhaps you could give us a quick overview of IMD's application requirements. Which piece of an application carries the most weight?


Our participants are our No. 1 asset, so we really try to select only the best. IMD uses several criteria to evaluate an applicant. We look for young, successful managers with a burning desire to lead. No single criterion is more or less important than the others.

We base our decision on the essays, the GMAT, academic performance, work experience, the person's career progress, career goals, international experience, and leadership potential. We look for candidates who are outstanding across these criteria.

Q: Katty, how is IMD rated as a corporate finance school, especially by the investment-banking, financial-services, and consulting sectors?


We are a general management program and we are focusing on leadership.

Q: What percentage of the next class will you fill from this first deadline?


We use rolling admissions, meaning that we fill seats as we go through the deadlines. We don't have specific quotas for how many seats we fill by the first deadline, so if we find 90 really excellent candidates in February, we have no problem filling the program. Practically, from experience, we tend to fill the program more gradually with the seats more or less evenly distributed across the five deadlines.

Q: Do you suggest that IMD hopefuls submit applications earlier in the admissions cycle, rather than later?


Definitely! The reason is that we build our class to maximize diversity and to maximize learning within the class. So what happens is, toward the end of the deadline, with certain popular profiles such as investment bankers, we will have no more place for them because we will have enough in the class already. So for those popular profiles, it might be difficult to get in at the later deadlines.

Q: There is no note regarding the suggested length of some of the answers to questions you ask on the application. What's the purpose of these questions, especially the ones about career goals? How long should the responses be?


I think there is a limit. My guess would be it's about 15 lines. The essays pretty much state how long they can be. The career goal is important because, given the fact that our participants are a little bit more mature, we want them to have a really good idea of where they want to go after the IMD MBA. Ten months is not enough time to make up your mind on what you want to do next. They need to know that before they enter the program, because they aren't going into entry-level jobs after graduation.

Q: When are campus visits scheduled? Is it possible to just show up?


You can go on the Web site and register for a visitor's day. Every Monday of the month we have one. You can also drop by, but it's less recommended. If you come on the visitor's days, we have everything organized, including sitting in on classes, meeting with the MBAs, and a full Q&A session.

Q: Is it absolutely imperative to have a campus visit, even for applicants from far-flung countries?


A campus visit is recommended. It isn't a requirement. But an MBA is a serious investment, and you should get a feel for the school where you're going to spend the next year, and a lot of money. We interview each candidate who comes into our program, and we strongly encourage them to do those interviews on campus. The interview day is more than just an interview. It's a combination of a personal interview, an impromptu presentation, and a case discussion run by one of our professors.

Q: Is a letter of recommendation from a previous IMD student weighted differently?


Not really. If a previous IMD student knows you very well and can comment on your performance, the work you delivered, and has possibly evaluated you in a job, then by all means use the IMD recommender. But in the end, it's more important that the recommender knows you well, believes in your leadership potential, and is therefore willing to spend time talking about your strengths and weaknesses and giving specific examples.

Q: Jen, what might another B-school be able to offer its MBAs that IMD doesn't?


Possibly a better night life. We are in Lausanne, which is lovely, but doesn't provide a lot of distraction. Personally, though, I think the fact [that the program lasts] one year is a big thing -- I wasn't prepared to do two years.

Q: What do you feel are the biggest strengths of IMD over INSEAD?


First, our admissions process. It's incredibly demanding, thorough, and uncompromising. We target experienced executives who believe that they will be short-listed for the leadership role at approximately 38 years of age, and who will become leaders in their mid-40s. Competition to get in is tough, but once you are in, the competition goes away. We want each of our 90, handpicked candidates to succeed in the long term, and we believe that the chances are greatest through our personalized Leadership Development Program.

Second, unlike other programs, the IMD MBA works side-by-side with the executive development programs that are the heritage of IMD. For example, the IMD MBA is the only program in the world that runs joint programs with several IMD executive programs.

Third, the IMD MBA faculty and the IMD executive program faculty are one and the same. They interact with senior executives on an ongoing basis and bring this experience into the MBA classroom. They are actively involved in real-world research with top international corporations. These include many of the 140 firms belonging to IMD's learning network, with whom the school maintains a very active relationship.

Q: Will the school increase the number and variety of scholarships and financial opportunities available to the class that enters in January, 2003?


Yes. There are a number of loans and scholarships available to MBA participants. With a total of about 500,000 Swiss francs [about $300,000] in scholarship funding, IMD offers up to five times as much scholarship funding on a per-participant basis as any other leading business school in Europe. [Editor's note: In practice there will be about 20 scholarships ranging from 20,000 Swiss francs to 30,000 Swiss francs distributed to the 2003 class on a need and/or merit basis.]

Q: Would IMD consider participating in student exchanges with other leading MBA programs?


No, we feel we don't need exchange programs since participants come to our campus from some 70 countries. We are recognized and appreciated as a highly stimulating and enriching global meeting place. We bring to Lausanne a cultural diversity that cannot be matched by a short-duration exchange program or multiple campuses that serve the local market. Because no nationality is dominant, integration is inherent and everyone's voice is heard.

Q: To wrap it up, Katty, would you tell us what shows you in an application that someone is not a fit for IMD?


Two most common items are a lack of work experience, career progression -- our average is seven years [of work experience] -- and a lack of international experience or outlook. And to give you some perspective, 89% of the 2002 class has worked or lived more than six months outside their home country.

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