HEC Paris: Admissions Q&A

HEC is located in France, but about four-fifths of the students hail from elsewhere. The school's admissions director discusses the application process

Students at the HEC School of Management in France are likely to experience "Visions of Leadership" conferences, where CEOs discuss their perspective on leadership, says Isabelle Cota, admissions and development director. The school also recently created a Center of Leadership that has companies coming to campus to work on specific cases during a week-long seminar. And, says Cota, the administration is hoping to have people from other fields, including culture, arts, and politics, share their thoughts on leadership.

All of this, she says, is an attempt to make the school a driving force in business education. One of the school's strengths, says Cota, who says she is German by nationality but French and American by heart, is its diversity. This, she adds, will make the school ever more relevant in the global market.

Recently, Cota discussed the school and its admissions process with BusinessWeek reporter Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

How would you describe the culture at your school?

It's an international setting. About 80% of the class is not French. Although we're based in France, we'd like to position ourselves as a leading international MBA program with an intake of a diverse group of students.

We do, however, require students whose mother language isn't French to take on the language. We want them to learn the basics, so they can work in France if they'd like after graduation. A third language [one other than English and French] is required for all participants.

What are the basic requirements for the application?

Letters of recommendation, essays, transcripts, GMAT scores, and results of English tests for those who come from countries where that is not the mother tongue. Candidates also must go through two interviews. If pre-selected in the beginning, you must interview with two alumni. We believe it's important to test, face-to-face, the competencies of a candidate. On rare occasions, we conduct phone interviews.

We only enroll 200 participants per year, so we're keen on a personalized approach in regard to treatment of the candidates. This is much appreciated by candidates. They feel they're not a number but a person.

What can an applicant do to stand out?

Someone who has a wonderful story to add to an application or who has participated in an association or club might stand out. We've seen more and more students having a broader array of extra-curricular involvement. We have students put on a talent show, where they perform, for example, poetry or music. They create great presentations in a short period of time. More and more of our students have a better balance between work and their personal life.

What tips do you have for writing the application essays?

Be natural. Be yourself. Spare officers by not writing too traditional of a response. Every two years, we change questions, so we get new answers from participants.

How many students apply? How many do you accept?

About 1,500 apply, and we offer about 400 spots. In turn, we enroll about 200.

What is the work load like?

It's a pretty heavy load. Obviously, it's a change from their last situation. [We tell] them they're going to be back in their student outfits. They're going to have to get used to being back in a classroom. Many of them have been working for five years. Besides having to sit in a classroom again, they will have to integrate with other students who come from all different backgrounds. It's challenging but rewarding. They're quickly put in study groups. It's challenging but collaborative, and arms them well for work. They can then deal with different kinds of people, behaviors, and approaches when it comes to making business decisions.

Students also organize a big sports tournament (for credit). We invite a little under 2,000 students and interact in 40 different sports disciplines.

[HEC Students oversee everything from inviting people to organizing sponsorship and marketing of the event.] It's a hands-on experience for them.

They also must do a professional project. This can be a way for a student to get a pre-hire or test a new sector or function that they wish to [enter after graduation]. They probably work as hard here as they did back home at work.

What tips do you have about the letters of recommendation?

It's not always easy for candidates to get the letters of recommendation from their superiors because they might be in a phase of work where they have to keep their decision confidential. In those cases, ask someone who knows you in a professional capacity.

Choose someone who knows you well. Tell [recommenders] that it's important to the success of getting into business school. Encourage them to take their time. Different cultures have different standards for recommendation letters. Americans have the culture of writing recommendation letters, and therefore those from America are very detailed and explicit with examples and adjectives. They seem very positive for the candidate. Europeans use fewer adjectives and examples and are more humble about achievements. Since we have an internationally staffed office, we can understand, and sometimes we can dig further either by calling the recommender or asking for a third letter of recommendation.

Are you doing anything differently or telling students anything new about job prospects in light of the current financial crisis (BusinessWeek.com, 9/18/2008)?

It might be too early to pass judgment. We have more applications from American students. Our competitors are saying the same. It seems Americans are more interested in going abroad than ever before. We haven't addressed jobs directly with students yet. We're waiting to see what happens. Our career office might have a different answer for this. But it seems too early to decide what to do yet. I think it's right to wait and see how things unfold before we make decisions on how to address things.

What is the average GMAT score?

The average GMAT (BusinessWeek.com, 5/8/2007) was 677 for the last enrolled class. For the class of 2009, it was 665.

What do you do to encourage diversity in your program?

We're covering the world in terms of our presence at fairs and forums. There's no leading nationality here. We're based in France, but 18% of our class is French. We have a partnership with the Forté Foundation. We offer scholarships to women with distinctions who would make strong candidates in our program.

What general tips do you have for completing the application?

Really do your research well. Come to campus. A good 60% have been on campus before making their decision. Talk to current participants. We put them in touch because they're our best ambassadors for the program. I put them in touch with alumni, so they can get perspective and find out what the school has brought them. The path we're on—offering hard and soft skills—is right for the future.

Who would fit in best at your school?

Anyone with an open mind, who has had some experience abroad, and is humble and looking to grow professionally and personally. Someone who is curious and ambitious and has had the opportunity to live abroad, has traveled extensively, and portrayed leadership skills before joining business school, would fit in well here.

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