The admissions director of one of Canada's top-ranked MBA programs talks about what it takes to get in
Jean Talbot has been director of the MBA program at HEC Montreal for five years. He earned an MBA at HEC Montreal in 1976 and afterward completed a PhD in management sciences at the University of Montpellier in France. Before taking on his current role, he worked in the administration of the information technology department at HEC Montreal for five years.
HEC Montreal offers a one-year accelerated full-time MBA in either English or French. The full-time program received 400 applicants for the current year, and of the 220 spots that were offered, 154 chose to enroll in the program. Applicants can also choose a part-time MBA that runs for three years, given in French. Of 163 applicants to the program during the last admissions cycle, 103 received offers, and 70 chose to enroll in the program.
Talbot spoke with BusinessWeek's Andrea Castillo about MBA admissions to HEC Montreal and what he looks for in an ideal applicant. An edited transcript of their interview follows:
Are there any major changes to the application process this year?
No, not really. Basically the GMAT, TOEFL, essays, interviews with some of the students.
Are you seeing more applications now than in the recent past?
A little bit more. Not much, but about 10% more.
What's the most unusual or difficult essay question on your application? What's your advice to students on how to answer it?
Do your own essay, basically. Put your soul into it. Just tell me what you think about the MBA or the questions. Most students have a tendency to, not necessarily copy, but get inspired by typical essays that you find on the Web. I think it's important that they do their own essays. There's no right answers, but they have to tell us what they feel.
I have four questions that they need to describe themselves and who influenced them, so that's fairly easy, but again, often the students do not think in terms of business. It's very often the parents. It's obvious, but we're interested in a more business perspective on things.
Probably the hardest is when they talk about the why doing an MBA would fit with a career, and sometimes the answers are not as structured or as defined as they should be. They're not too sure of the role of the MBA in their future. They know it's interesting, but how it fits is not always obvious, so they probably have to work a little bit on this one. The other one is the project that they're proud of, so that's fairly easy to answer. We're asking them what they're passionate about, so that gives me a good feeling if they're motivated people and if there are things that are really interesting for them. Passion is important in an MBA, but they have to take it really seriously to do a really good job on the structure of the essay. Try to put it in business terms. That's what I think is important.
What do students tell you is the hardest part of the admissions process at your school? How do you help students deal with it?
They don't like the GMAT. There's a lower limit or bound on the GMAT, but the GMAT is not all.
The hardest thing, actually, at our school, because we require experience is, at the minimum, three years [of work experience]. The average is six, so work experience is very important for our admission process. What I'm looking for in the work experience is that they realize things. They need to be in charge, they need to have some kind of project to their name. Quite often younger students with work experience that, well, they work, but it's not really relevant work experience. Work a little bit more and come back.
Do students apply in rounds? Are there any benefits to being in an earlier round?
It's open year-round. I have an official deadline, but they can start at any moment. Obviously there's the top students. They're fairly easy, I can tell them anytime if they're admitted or not. If they're average or middle students, I just tell them they're going to get an answer a little bit later.
How important is an applicant's quantitative GMAT score?
It has a certain importance. The GMAT is telling me: "Does that person have the capacity to do graduate studies?" so obviously it has a certain importance. When the GMAT is too low, we won't even consider the file, but it's not all. It's a mix of GMAT, experience, and quality of essays and interviews. If somebody has a 700 GMAT and the experience is not up to par, he will not be admitted. It plays an important role, but it's not only the GMAT. There are other criteria, and experience is one of them.
What are good reasons for wanting to get an MBA at HEC Montreal?
First of all, we're fairly well-ranked outside the U.S., so that's an important reason. The quality of the teaching—we have faculty that cannot get their promotion if they're not good teachers, so teaching quality is really very important at this school. The one year program—this is an interesting feature. You leave your job only for a year, so the opportunity cost is not too high, and it's a one-year with the same number of hours as a two-year program, so if you want intensive and if you want quick, you can come to HEC.
We're close to the business world in Montreal. Obviously there's theory, but it's a fairly practical program. There's a supervised consulting project in the program. It plays an important role to integrate the knowledge in the program.
We offer campuses abroad so students can go outside to other countries for credit. For instance, last year we went to China, Brazil, the U.S.—New York, Washington. That's an interesting experience to expose them to international business. We really believe that international is extremely important.
Other reasons—the class size is very small, between 25 and 40, so lots of interaction between students and faculty. The facilities are outstanding. It's a brand-new building, so it's great atmosphere in the building.
What do you want to see in applicants' recommendation letters?
Most of them are favorable to the candidate, so they play a role, but they're not that important. I'd like to see a truthful evaluation of a candidate's application. Sometimes the respondents do not take it seriously enough. A good recommendation letter, a really well-written, thoughtful letter will help the candidate. A recommendation letter where the person just checked the boxes and said, "Oh, this person is a great candidate," will not help. They should probably check with their respondent or referee so that they really do the work seriously. We get too many letters that are not done seriously.
How do interviews work? What are some of key mistakes that applicants to HEC Montreal make?
I interview some of the students in order to understand the application and where they come from. The biggest mistake from my perspective is being too generic. They're not really answering in a way that we can find their real personalities. Some students prepare a lot for their interviews. They seem to prepare out of a book, and they seem to repeat some kind of book to me, and that doesn't help me really. They really have to be themselves, and answer in a really simple manner to questions.
What financial aid opportunities are available to students?
We offer scholarships to the best students. They don't have to apply. I just offer them the scholarships, so it's basically students with fairly high GMAT. At that point the GMAT is important. My scholarships are based on the GMAT. It's the only real objective measures that I have. I have about $300,000 (Canadian) to offer in scholarships. They vary from $2,500 to $10,000. I also have fee exemptions. I have about 10 tuition exemptions, for about 10 international students.
How do you attract women and underrepresented minorities? Do you have any special programs to attract these students?
We don't have any special programs. We get the average number, about a third women. My program is very international. Two-thirds of the students are non-Canadian, so they come from all over the place.
What are some countries the students come from?
I have 46 different birth countries, so Germany, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Cameroon, and so on, so it really covers most of the world. Quite a bit from South America and part of it from the Middle East also. I have three from Lebanon, one from Libya, one from Morocco, one from Pakistan, seven from France, so we cover quite a bit. Obviously the biggest country is Canada, and then it is China and France.
Do you have any special initiatives or procedures for these international applicants?
No, it's the same application process.
Can you take me through the life cycle of an application at HEC Montreal?
From the reception of the application that they can do online, we have somebody to read the essays, we have the career center looking at the experience and we rank these with the GMAT. From there everything comes back to the director's office, where the final decision is made. The applications are ranked, the top students are given an answer right away. The more middle students are put, not on a waiting list, but they're basically put where we get more applications and then we give an answer.
What are some common mistakes that candidates make in their applications?
Sometimes it's not done really well, so they have to be very careful. The CVs are sometimes really not well-written. They're too short or too long or hard to understand, so working on the CV would make a lot of sense. It seems that in some international countries, the CV is not as important, or it's hard to follow their career path, so a well-written CV will help. That's one mistake that's being made. The other one is the essays. Some students just don't work hard enough at the essays, so they're not high-quality enough. The other mistake with the essays is being too inspired by what's available on the Web.
In a nutshell, what kind of person would be a good fit at HEC Montreal?
We want outstanding students, so at that point the GMAT will give me this, but I also want people that are really business-oriented. Somewhere between 25 and 35. International experience helps. Since we offer the program in French and English, languages are important, so people have to be—they do not necessarily have to know French, but being at ease in multiple languages is something that we look for in our students. For instance, I have 50% of the students who speak three languages. We seem to attract students who speak foreign languages. So we're looking for academically strong students with a real good business perspective.