Thursday, December 13, 2007

Opening a Dialogue - Considering Business School

As an executive recruiter, I place many leaders who have earned an MBA degree from some of the world's top business schools. As a result, I have learned a great deal about some of the top MBA programs. Consequently, I am often asked for advice by those who are considering applying to one or more of the top schools. I frequently network together graduates and prospective students. I recently brokered a meeting between a recent West Point graduate, who is about to apply to MBA programs, and a more seasoned USMA grad who has earned an MBA and is currently working in the world of finance. The meeting prompted my friend to think deeply about his own experience in considering whether to attend business school, and which programs he should apply to. My friend shared his thoughts with me, and has given me permission to share his thoughts anonymously.

I offer the thoughts of my friend with the hope that they will serve as a catalyst for an ongoing dialogue in the comments section of this Blog. I encourage comments by those who have considered business school, are current MBA students, have graduated from business school or have a visceral reaction to the ideas being shared here.

Here are my friend's final introductory remarks before he launched into the substance of sharing his B-School ideas:

"If you want to use them to start a spirited debate throughout your network, I'm happy to be the fodder."

Overall opinion: thinking too hard about which B-school at the outset (instead of which 5 or so) reflects a dangerous assumption that the process is efficient. When I say "process" I mean the candidate's ability to identify the best school for him/herself, and the ability of B-schools to pick the best candidates. I say this based on the countless conversations I've had with people looking at B-schools, and after reflecting on how I thought about the process. Early on I learned that my efforts were best spent thinking of the criteria the led me to my top 5 choices instead of finding ways to compare A vs. B. That allowed me to use my time (and that of others) much more effectively.
- In my book it is pointless to debate the merits of a single school vs. another until the following:

a. you've been accepted to said schools (even a 700+ GMAT, pre-acceptance, hardly means that debating the two is a good use of time)

b. you've gone to the Admitted Students Weekend and had a chance to see the school up close

c. granted, I believe there is a value in having a "Plan A" or even that ideal outcome in your mind, but too many people waste their time whittling away too early
- You should never apply to just one school (or even 2 for that matter), unless you have your heart set on a particular school and are willing to reapply the following year, for the following reasons:

a. very few people (the top 5% of my peer set, at best) can afford to take that gamble. Also, regardless of how qualified you are, you never know what factors in to the application process.

b. to my first overall point, you've yet the do the proper research to narrow your choices so severely.

c. likely your first and second will be the worst applications you do. Applying as a learning/efficiency curve.
- The best approach is to pick anywhere from 4-6 if you are pessimistic, and 3 if you are more optimistic. Baseball is a good analogy:

a. Even the greatest hitters, on any given day, can go 0 for 3 at the plate, so assuming you'll go 1 for 3 is not unreasonable

b. however even that is relatively optimistic if you plan on ONLY those three at bats for your entire life.
- While I agree there are differences in the opportunity sets as you look at individual schools within the "Top 30" of the world. However, most of these schools can/should be used as a platform to access the 'sweet spot' of the MBA job market.

a. I define the sweet spot, if you were to poll most MBA students, as top 5 consulting firms, bulge bracket investment banks, and strategy/leadership development programs in companies like GE, Google, P&G etc.

b. A good school will also allow you to tap unconventional opportunities like top hedge funds/private equity shops (more mainstream now, but still less conventional from a recruiting standpoint), VC, and cutting edge industries like clean energy and others.

c. The same type of student who wastes their time/money at HBS will do the same at Yale, Anderson/UCLA, Columbia, Wharton, etc. The type of student who makes the most of his experience at any of these places is likely to experience a better opportunity set at some than others (i.e., HBS over Yale).

d. However, just because one school is in fact better, it does not follow that if HBS will accept you, Yale will also. In fact, I've seen HBS be the only school (out of 4) accept people, while lesser institutions passed on the same candidate.

e. The admissions process can be subjective once a candidate satisfies the easy to recognize prerequisites (GMAT, quality undergrad institution, good resume, good GPA, not a train wreck in the interview, decent essays).

f. As a result, you never see a company solely target a particular B-school. They spread their efforts around because they recognize there is a general level of high quality throughout the top 20-30.


I thank my friend for sharing his thoughts, and look forward to the comments, dialogue and debate that will ensue.


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