IE Business School Admissions Q&A

Lisa Bevill provides advice on the admissions process at Spain's famous international business school in Madrid

Lisa Bevill took on the role of director of international admissions at IE Business School in Madrid (previously known as Instituto de Empresa) earlier this year. A graduate of the international MBA program at IE, she also has professional experience in the U.S., Germany, and Spain.

Within the past three years, applications to IE have increased more than 20%, Bevill says. During the last application cycle, 30% of the applicants were accepted into the international MBA program. This year, around 300 students—more than 90% of them from outside Spain—will be enrolling in the international MBA program. For the first time, demand to attend is so great that a second group of students will begin classes next April.

Bevill spoke with BusinessWeek's Andrea Castillo about IE's international MBA program and its diverse student body. An edited transcript of their interview follows.

Are there any major changes to the application process this year?

We've had applications in English and in Spanish, depending on the profile of the programs. We've separated out the executive profile to focus on professional experience, to focus more on the strategic vision of the company and incorporate the experience the executive would bring to an executive program. As for the international MBA, we did make some minor changes, to both the application and the essays, to focus a bit more on the professional profile.

Are you seeing more applications now than in the recent past?

Yes. We've actually seen quite an increase in past years, and this year is no exception. We have a roughly 22% increase year over year for the full-time international MBA program. However, in general, across all programs, we have seen an increase in applications.

What's the most unusual or difficult essay question on your application? What's your advice to students on how to answer it?

As I mentioned, we want to give the application process and essays a specific professional aspect. The application is the first step in evaluating a student. Students are putting their thoughts on paper, starting with their self-analysis of why they want to study in the MBA program and why now is the right time in their careers. The entire application will focus on those aspects, to bring out the characteristics of the applicants and really understand their motivations, their expectations, and their aspirations.

The essays are a very personal part of the application process. We leave questions open to allow them to fill in their area of expertise and their interests. I think the most difficult question is really one focusing on what their challenges are, what difficult situation they've faced in the past, and how they can apply that knowledge to future situations.

We recommend that applicants think about the question and answer it in a precise and concise manner. They are not to tell the entire story. These are professional essays, but they should give insight about the individual. So answer the question concisely and truly, to show us who you are. This is a personal part of the application process.

What do students tell you is the hardest part of your admissions process? How do you help students deal with it?

We have a very diverse student body at IE, so I think no one part is particularly difficult. Each person tells a little bit of a different story. For those people who feel comfortable taking tests, the most difficult part is not the GMAT or the admissions test. It might be for others.

For those who struggle with the interview, our recommendation would be to recognize that interviews are going to be a fundamental part of the program. They need to learn to represent themselves and their ideas in speaking and feel comfortable with how they express and develop their ideas.

For others who say the most difficult part is the test, we say it's important to prepare. In fact, it's extremely important to prepare for each part of the application process. Depending on where your weaknesses are, you need to prepare those in even more depth.

It's an excellent lesson for anyone before, during, and after the MBA. Preparation is required—especially where you feel you don't have the strengths you'd like to have.

It is an interesting balance, because people attend the MBA program not just for the academic knowledge but also for their personal knowledge, and often that comes through in the application process. The area they say they'd like to develop further is the weakest part of the application, and we do need to take that into consideration as well.

Do students apply in rounds? Are there any benefits to being in an earlier round?

IE has a rolling admissions process, so you can apply at any time to fit your professional schedule. We do recommend applying in advance; it shows favorably for candidates if they are thinking about the process. Applicants set their own deadlines.

How far in advance do you recommend?

For international students, we recommend a year in advance, and for national and European students, possibly eight months.

What do you look for in applicants' essays?

As I said before, we look for individuals to be straightforward, to write a coherent and well-written essay that shows their writing skills but also an in-depth sense of who they are and their motivation. We look for both sides: how well-developed their essay is structurally, but also how well-developed it is on a personal level and how they answer the question.

How important is an applicant's quantitative GMAT score?

We have a diverse student body and faculty, and that contributes to classroom learning and the classroom atmosphere. We have people with an engineering background who are going to have much higher technical experience. We have those with humanities and law degrees, who have less experience with numbers and the technical side. They might not score as highly on the GMAT's numerical section, but they're going to show other abilities. In IE's application process, we look at the entire application in order to value each individual candidate for what they can give to the program.

Of course, our program has a very strong numerical component, as do all MBA programs. If someone does not do so well on the numerical section of the GMAT, they need to emphasize other areas for us to recognize the value they're going to contribute to the program. We want to ensure that each individual has the ability to succeed in the program. Due to diversity, not everyone is going to be the best at finance or accounting. But they do need to be able to contribute to the class and add to classroom discussions.

What are good reasons for wanting to get an MBA at IE Business School?

IE is a unique business school. As I said, the diversity on campus opens us to many different visions of the world, to different areas of entrepreneurship and innovation. Students often come to IE for this experience—the global vision. Not only will they be looking at cases with international professionals who come from many different sectors and with professors who have international experience coming from different countries; but also, the classmates and the experiences they bring to the classroom give students views of different industries, different academic backgrounds, different cultural approaches and ways of thinking. That's one of the main benefits.

Also, IE's focus on innovation. IE innovates on a daily basis. This is something students see and feel and live in the program. They're exposed to constant change, which is really the only constant, and they're able to adapt to change, so students come knowing they're going to be going through a personal transformation. They're going to be prepared for this transformation, in the program and beyond the program. I think those factors—together with the cosmopolitan atmosphere here in Madrid, which is international and vibrant—have an enormous effect on the learning experience at IE.

What is the breakdown of programs available in English and Spanish? Is there any advantage in programs in one language or another? Bilingual programs?

We have 34 programs at IE. There are Master's programs that focus on a general management program; these would be an MBA or a Master's in international management. There are specialized Master's programs and law programs, all postgraduate programs, that are offered in English and Spanish, depending on the characteristics of the profile of the class. These programs are offered in full-time, part-time, and online formats. IE is very flexible in that way, providing different platforms and opportunities for its students. I'd say the breakdown is maybe 60%-40% between Spanish and English programs. There are actually more Spanish programs offered at IE than English programs. However, the English programs are growing faster than the Spanish programs.

One of our strongest programs in Spanish is the Executive MBA, which is available in three different formats—a weekly, a biweekly, and an online format. It's one of the largest programs we have. At the moment, I believe, there's only one bilingual program. But in the international MBA, for example, students have the opportunity to study the core part of the program in either English or Spanish, and they have an opportunity to study electives in either language.

What's the typical amount of work experience you're looking for in an applicant? How do you regard applicants with less business experience than that?

It depends on the program. Each program is based on a certain student profile. If an applicant applies for a program and has more or less experience than we are looking for in that specific program, we speak to the applicant about other opportunities within IE. For example, in the international MBA, we do require professional experience. We feel it's an important part of the MBA learning process. The MBA—the full-time program—helps students make a career change or move into a management or higher-management position, and it's important that they bring experience and practical working knowledge into the classroom to share with their classmates. If someone comes straight from the university and wants to focus on the MBA, we will speak to them about our Master's program in international management, which is a program that focuses on international business practices for students with less experience—that is, two years or less of professional experience.

What do you want to see in applicants' recommendation letters?

In recommendation letters, it's very important that recommenders have strong knowledge of the applicants—their abilities, their strengths, their weaknesses—and are able to communicate that in their letter. The recommender doesn't have to be the applicant's direct supervisor or boss. But that's desirable, so they can give a proper assessment of the individual.

What about interviews? What are some of key mistakes that applicants make?

The interview is a very important part of the process, especially considering the diversity we bring together on campus. We expect individuals to participate in the program, to develop their ideas verbally in the classroom and also through their group projects, so interviews are important to getting to know the applicant. We prefer to have the interviews in person, of course. We do have a network of 18 different offices around the world, and we coordinate interviews locally. We encourage students to come to Madrid, as well, so they can get to know the campus and the atmosphere here and do the interview in person.

Common mistakes that applicants make are not giving enough importance to the interview and not coming prepared. Another is expressing themselves differently in the interview than in the application. It's important to be consistent and to develop the ideas they've written in their application through their interview.

What financial aid opportunities are available to students?

We have many different kinds of financial aid, whether loans, scholarships, or fellowships. We have a specific loan program developed for IE students with the Spanish bank Caja Madrid. It allows them to get a loan without a local co-signer.

Our scholarships go through the Empresa Foundation, and I believe we give more than €3 million in scholarships each year to support students in the MBA program. We are also developing a fellowship program that rewards talented students with the opportunity to develop a research project at IE and gives them financial support while completing their research project.

How do you attract women and underrepresented minorities? Do you have any special programs to attract these students?

I just was at the GMAT conference in Chicago, and there was quite a lot of discussion about underrepresented minorities. At IE that's not something we talk about often, because the programs are so diverse. Just recently, we had a series of virtual presentations about women in business. We also focused on different programs in innovation in business as well as on diversity in the workplace.

What's the percentage of women in your programs?

In the international MBA, we have 35% women. That's an extremely high number, and we look to improve that each year. We feel that the diversity that women bring to the program is fundamental, and we want to increase that. It's a challenge for women to find the right balance between professional and family life, and we do see a tendency for women in the international MBA program to be slightly younger, really motivated to do their MBA before making the decision to start a family. In the executive program, it is even more challenging to find women professionals in higher positions of management who are focusing on their MBA.

Do you have any special initiatives or procedures for international applicants?

We don't have any specific application assistance for international students, because all of the students are international. Even those from Spain have experience in international companies or multinationals and have studied or worked abroad. We treat all applicants the same. In terms of adjusting to Madrid, yes, our student office provides tremendous support on anything related to a visa, housing, or other difficulties. We have Spanish classes for non-Spanish-speaking students, so they can take advantage of the experience in Madrid and adapt more easily to the culture.

Can you take me through the life cycle of an application at IE Business School?

The application, in its full, is made up of three to four short-answer questions and three essays. The applicant must also provide two letters of recommendation, university transcripts, a one-page CV, and any other documentation that would support the application. Non-native English speakers would also need to provide an English certificate. Once we receive the application, we can interview the candidate. I'd say we interview about 95% of our applicants. We value diversity so highly at IE that we want to interview all applicants and understand their motivations, their expectations, and their career objectives.

Once the interview is complete—we prefer to interview in person—the application is presented to an admissions committee. We also require an admissions test. It could be the GMAT, the GRE, or our own admissions test. All of these documents, including the interview, are presented to an admissions committee for the final decision. We have rolling admissions, a dynamic process, and the student receives a final decision within six weeks of presenting the completed application.

In a nutshell, what kind of person would be a good fit at IE Business School?

IE, as I continue to mention, is a school focused on diversity, so we look for intelligent individuals who are open to our methodology of interaction and debate. We look for individuals who have international experience, who are innovative and open in their way of thinking, who are constantly creating new ideas, listening to others, collaborating—who are idea generators. We look for individuals who have a social conscience and want to promote business in an ethical way— who really are looking to make changes throughout the international MBA program and beyond IE, in their professional careers.

Are there any stereotypes about IE Business School that you'd like to disprove?

Due to its foundation in Spain and its popularity in Latin America, there's a sense we're a business school for the Latin or Spanish-speaking world, and this is something that's absolutely not true. IE is a business school that's international, diverse, innovative, and constantly changing. We have students from all over the world to exchange ideas and cultural experiences.

Anything else you'd like to mention?

I do want to emphasize IE's focus on entrepreneurship. IE was founded by an entrepreneur, and every MBA student will create a business plan during the core part of the program. There's also an excellent opportunity for individuals to follow one of our four entrepreneurship tracks during the elective period. They can follow a personal venture, a family-growth business plan. They can focus on entrepreneurship within a corporate setting. Or they can create a social entrepreneurship business plan. So we have many different avenues for individuals who want to start their own business. For all students, whether or not they're considering starting their own business, the ability to create a business plan, to define a strategic vision, and to incorporate all the different disciplines within a business plan is an excellent learning opportunity from a management perspective.

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