Every year we receive a deluge of queries from potential Executive MBA candidates on how to make the most of the application process. In this issue we take the most frequently asked questions straight to the people 'in the know' - the admissions officers and academic directors of EMBA programs at a selection of some of the world's top business schools - HEC and EM Lyon in France, ESADE in Spain, Vlerick in Belgium, Nyenrode in the Netherlands, Warwick in the UK and Melbourne in Australia. 

Why are application essays important and what are the main qualities you are looking for in them?

Because our program is targeted at very senior managers, we've usually been in dialogue with a candidate for several months before we receive any form of written application,says Jennifer George of Melbourne Business School. We do ask applicants to write essays but they are by no means the primary criteria for assessing suitability. Instead they are more of a start point for a conversation about what the individual wants to get out of the program and how study will integrate with their career.Rick Llewellyn at Warwick takes a somewhat different approach. We really get to know and understand an applicant through their essays,he says. They are more revealing about an individual, their motivations and thinking than any resume or CV. They allow us to assess the ways in which they will complement the rest of the class and determine whether they are a good fit for the school and the EMBA.

On a more prosaic level, essays can also allow a school to determine whether a candidate has the right basic skills to benefit fully from the experience. A good essay should show you can deliver a concise, commanding argument,says HEC's Sean Kilbride. It should also show that you are not just able to analyse your past experience but that you can draw the right conclusions from it and understand where you want to go next.And his advice is echoed by one of HEC's EMBA alumni, Charles-Henri Guilhaume. Ask people that know you very well to challenge your essays, not to 'optimise' them but to keep them true and honest. Your essays must not only show your success but also your maturity, leveraged by experience.

How important is the GMAT? 

Reaction to the GMAT is very mixed. Yolanda Habets at Vlerick acknowledges its value but states that, For an Executive MBA, the focus is much more on professional achievements.Melbourne's George says that, We do not require applicants to take GMAT although some sit it as a way of demonstrating their academic capability,while Kilbride at HEC takes a similar line. For an EMBA the GMAT can be an indicator but experience is the key factor,he says. Most of our candidates elect to take our own management test which involves the digestion and presentation of a case study to a panel of academics and alumni and which is consequently much more practical in approach.Chantal Poty at EM Lyon, however, takes a slightly different line. It gives an indication of the way candidates are thinking, the way they cope with complexity, and therefore how they will perform on the academic side of the program. We look for a 600 score but candidates with lower scores may be admitted if their professional project is well defined and if the program looks like the right platform to implement this project.

Many candidates find the hardest questions in interview are Why do you want to do an EMBA?, Why our program?and What will you bring to the EMBA?Can you offer any advice?
 

'Why do I want to do an EMBA?' is a vital question you should have asked yourself well before you start making applications,says Vlerick's Habets. It's a key part of a sequence of questions which includes analysing where you want to go with your career, what skills and qualifications you will need to get through and how an EMBA will fit in with that.Patricia Marcaida at ESADE is also clear that candidates should have clear answers to these questions before they attend an interview. The program is a big investment both in terms of time and money so an applicant should have a clear idea of what differentiates our program from others in the market such as the involvement of Georgetown in the USA and modules taught across four continents.At Warwick, Nick Llewellyn says that, whilst we don't expect applicants to necessarily have very clear and defined career goals - after all, we hope that the EMBA will help to shape and identify these - we do expect them to have the self-awareness to be able to describe the reasons why they want to join our program. These may be either personal or professional, relate to the logistical challenges of juggling a career, family and MBA studies, might be solely because they believe they lack certain skills or need to have command of a wider range of management tools to be effective at work. It may even be because Warwick just 'feels right'. Any reason at all is valid - but if a candidate can't even express this, then we'd have doubts that they would gain much value from the MBA.

EMBAWhat is the minimum number of years' experience required and why?

One of the defining factors of Executive MBAs around the world is the fact that they are specifically targeted at highly experienced managers and professionals. As a result the level of experience required by our sample group of schools ranges from four years to more than ten - the average participant at HEC, for example, has had around fifteen years in the workplace. The reason for this specification is relatively simple according to Pablo Collazzo, program director of the Executive MBA at Nyenrode. Our participants feel that they learn as much, if not more, from the intensive interaction with their fellow students as they do from the official lectures and presentations,he says. This interaction is greatly enriched by our participants bringing this valuable experience with them into the program.EM Lyon's Poty makes a similar point. Candidates should already have experienced some managerial responsibilities because the EMBA is designed help them to enhance their managerial abilities and to think in a more strategic way. The teaching process focuses largely on the experiences of the participants and every participant should therefore have something to bring to the exchanges, to the discussion. It is also essential that everyone has the opportunity to transfer directly what they learn during the classes to their daily life, which means they need to be positioned at a certain level of responsibility within their organisation.

What is your 'ideal' candidate?

We have no ideal in terms of industry or background, says Melbourne's George, largely speaking for all of our panel of experts. We have had students from the public sector, the arts, health, private sector, military and professional services,she continues. However in all cases our students have had careers where they were identified as high potential and promoted early. They have experience of managing people in large organisations and are either already at the top or expect to take on C-suite roles within a few years of finishing the program. And because our program is so intensive we also look for people with a lot of maturity who are able to get along well with others.

Who should candidates get to write their letter of recommendation and what guidelines should they follow?

The letter of recommendation should be written by someone who knows the candidate
well and who has seen them perform in the workplace, a direct colleague or team leader for example,says Vlerick's Habets. Often, candidates go for the highest level possible within a company - perhaps the CEO whom they only meet once a year at the Christmas party - but in fact, these letters are useless because they are so general they don't add anything to the application and are therefore a missed opportunity.

Is company sponsorship necessary and how would you advise converting a reluctant employer?

Nyenrode's Collazzo perhaps best sums up the general situation when he says, that whilst company sponsorship is not essential, support from one's employer does help a great deal!and Patricia Marcaida at ESADE points out the simple practicalities of taking some EMBA programs when she points out that, whilst financial support is not necessary for our GEMBA, companies must be prepared to let employees attend modules that are held all over the world. Several of the schools we talked to have instituted specific measures to help prospective participants get employer buy-in. Experience has taught us that hesitant employers are usually so because of a lack of understanding or knowledge about the EMBA and the impact it can have on the business, says Warwick's Llewellyn, which is why we started producing a formal guide for corporate sponsors last year.ESADE uses the LEAD element of the GEMBA which provides a 360 degree assessment of the student and their company to help win employers over. And at Nyenrode Colazzo says, We arrange events for applicants to attend with their managers - 'bring your boss' lectures, for example to introduce them to the EMBA and underline how the experience will benefit both the student and the business.

What are the first things you notice at an interview?

The candidate's project and the way they communicate their ambition to learn, to develop and to be more efficient in their professional life,says Poty at EM Lyon, whilst Vlerick's Habets opts for, Whether a candidate is genuine or whether they are just reciting a rehearsed piece.At HEC, Kilbride is focused in on whether the individual is going to be able to hold their own within and contribute effectively to their peer group. We're very group-work oriented so we look for individuals who have the courage to question themselves, the experience, and the presence that's necessary to thrive in such an environment.

What advice would you give to candidates who don't have the standard 'big company' background or who don't have international experience?

We don't really view application from entrepreneurs or SME employees differently from any other,says Vlerick's Habets. If anything, they often have more 'comprehensive' professional experience because they are not just performing within a single unit within one defined role, but are exposed to every aspect of the business and have gained a more generalist picture, albeit on a smaller scale.At EM Lyon, Chantal Poty takes a similar view of a lack of international experience. It's certainly not compulsory, but it is important that they can demonstrate open-mindedness towards international issues and be ready to learn and grow from the experiences of their fellow participants. 

How many programs should I apply to and when should I begin the application process?

All of our panel of experts stress the fact that getting the right fit between individual, school and program is vital, but as HEC's Sean Kilbride succinctly puts it, Most of our applicants put in a lot of time and effort to research programs but then opt for just us or one other because they simply don't have the time for a multitude of applications.