Admissions Q&A: ESADE

(Corrects reference to GMAT scores for two recently accepted applicants.)

ESADE Business School (ESADE Full-Time MBA Profile) in Barcelona, Spain, accepted 46 percent of the 692 applications it received in 2010.At No.4 on the Bloomberg Businessweek list of top-ranked schools, ESADE prides itself on having the feel of a closely knit family in a welcoming city, says Cristina Sassot, director of Admissions at ESADE.

"Our students feel at home in Barcelona," she says. "Even if they come from a very different place, you can find restaurants, bars, and theaters where you'll be able to experience the local culture but also cultures from other countries."

The school recently made an effort to bring that same level of comfort and familiarity to the admissions process, says Sassot. At the new High-Potential Breakfasts, ESADE invites a maximum of four applicants with outstanding qualifications to come to campus for the chance to get face time with administrators and find out more about the MBA program. In addition, the school has extended its open house from one to two days, so it can get to know applicants better.

Other changes to the admissions process include allowing recommenders to e-mail their letters from professional e-mail addresses and increased use of online tools to interact with applicants, Sassot says. Recently, she discussed all the changes, the school's culture, and its application with Bloomberg reporter Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

What advice do you have for those who want to write effective essays for your school?

Make sure you are answering the questions. Once you have written the essays, let someone else read them without showing them the questions. If he or she can understand what the question was from reading your essay, then you did your job.

Be specific. If you say you are goal-oriented, give us an example to help us really understand that you have this skill, ability, or strength.

Also, we've seen some applications that are copied and pasted from another application. Some of them actually use the name of another school. "I would like to attend INSEAD because I think it's the best school in the world…" And we're like, "O.K., you should pay a little more attention to small details." But it's not only writing the wrong name. Every business school has a specific culture, and we know the differences among us. In the essays, applicants should help us understand that they know who we are, and tell us why they believe ESADE is the right program for them. We have a small program with a class of 180 students. If you have two people who are unhappy in the program, it can be a big deal.

What role does the GMAT play in the application process?

Our average score is 670, and the mid-80 percent range is between 640 and 710. Of course, the GMAT is important, especially for our program director, because she would like students who can not only get into the program but also will graduate. We use the GMAT score to measure intellectual capacity. Of course, we will look at their transcripts, undergraduate degree, and professional life, too. We will call promising candidates with low GMAT scores and ask them to consider retaking the test. Some do it and improve the score, and we accept them, and others choose not to do it.

We recently rejected two candidates with 710 GMAT scores. On paper they were really good, but during the interview we realized they were not the right fit for the program. On the other hand, we accepted two candidates with 580 GMAT scores. One of them had studied at Harvard, had a high GPA, and five years work experience at a top bank in the U.S. He spoke three languages—English, French, and Italian—and he had worked for two years in Europe. He was amazing. When looking at his profile, we didn't have any concerns about his intellectual capacity.

What is the biggest mistake people make in the admissions process?

The rankings are important for them to take into account, and they give a lot of information about the schools. But they are not everything. You can see that some candidates consider your school depending only on how well-ranked you are. If they don't do the research on each program, they can make a big mistake during the interview.

Also, some applicants believe the MBA is the only way to achieve their professional goals. An MBA, of course, is going to help you no matter what you do. But depending on the goals you want to achieve, the impact of the MBA will be different. There are some industries where the MBA is a requirement to gaining access to different positions. In other cases, an MBA will help you but is not the key to what you want to achieve in the future. You can see a lack of research on what impact the MBA will have on their professional life. We try to help all applicants by assessing them from the very beginning.

Is the interview a requirement?

We have six directors in charge of admissions for the full-time program, and they each look closely at the areas that interest them most. For instance, the MBA program director will look at the GMAT score to determine intellectual capacity, whereas the career placement director will look at work experience. Then, if we like the applicant's profile, he or she will go to the next stage of the admissions process, which is the admissions interview. We try to conduct as many interviews as possible on a one-to-one basis, whether we are traveling to the region or they come to our open house on campus. Associate directors of admissions usually conduct the interviews. We don't allow alumni to conduct interviews. If we realize there is no way to meet in person, then we conduct the interview via videoconference, so we still get to see the candidate. Once we conduct the interview, we return to the admissions committee and discuss the application again. Then we will make a final decision about whether this candidate will be accepted.

What is the outlook for jobs for ESADE students?

Last year we saw the numbers drop, but we have not been that badly affected. Our students don't all go into banking and consulting, which protected us. This year looks much better. Already 18 percent have job offers. The first sign of recovery was in the summer, when 75 to 80 percent of those looking for an internship found one. Companies are back on campus, and they have offers to dole out. The reality is that it's still hard to get a job, and it requires more preparation to stand up to the increased competition. But our students are preparing more and doing a great job.

How would you describe the school's culture?

We are a small business school, and we have a close relationship with our business students. In class, students are expected to participate more, and professors know them. Collaboration separates us from other schools. We do not grade our students on the curve, and that makes a big difference in the learning and experience. They are going to be more willing to help other students if they see they are having problems. For example, we had a student who held a bachelor's in business administration and lots of experience in consulting. He realized in the first year that some people in his finance class were not following. He sent an e-mail to his classmates to say where he'd be and when to go over the curriculum and help them. He wasn't concerned about getting the best grade in the class, because he was going to be graded on his own performance. Also, 30 percent of your grade will come from your team assignments.

Diversity of the student body affects who we are and how we define our culture. When we talk about diversity in our program, it's not only about the number of nationalities represented but also what kind of academic background and professional experience you have had. Being able to learn from your peers has a great impact on the learning experience of students.

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