I’m not one for writing in series. Save for a few exceptions each entry in this blog is self-contained. Last week an email from a friend tipped me off that I may have unintentionally created a “Pedigree” series about business school admissions and MBA programs. I never intended to do this, but I guess the many facets of this topic have been on my mind. If you count Money Over Everything as Part1, The Real World as Part 2, and False Alarm as Part 3, then I guess this one is Part 4.
The other day I was chatting with a friend who plans to apply to business school in the next two years. He wants to wait a little longer so he can get a new job and knock out the GMAT. I suggested that he could apply to school sooner than he thinks because his work experience, while non traditional, is definitely relevant and he’s had some really good achievements at work. Will a new job at a more recognized firm help his candidacy? Sure, but he’s still in the ballpark for getting into a top 15 school from his current employer. When I suggested he apply to Johnson he replied, “I work at a no name employer and have a lower GPA from a no name school. I have to go to a top school to get the job I want.” I paused for a second, surprised by what he’d said. “But Johnson is a top school,” I replied. In that moment it suddenly dawned on me that we had gotten caught in the MBA matrix.
Business school forums can be a great resource during the application process. Fellow applicants, incoming students, admissions consultants, current students, and even some alums share advice on everything from GMAT prep to interviewing tips. However, these forums can also create an alternate universe where the only schools that exist are the Sweet 16 (Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Booth, Kellogg, Sloan, CBS, Tuck, Haas, Stern, Yale, Fuqua, Ross, Darden, Johnson, Anderson). This makes sense since the majority of content on sites like GMATClub, Poets & Quants, Beat the GMAT, etc. is dedicated to these schools and the applicant threads for these schools are the most active. The laser focus on this handful of schools often leads to the mentality that there’s no point in pursuing a full-time MBA if it’s not at one of these places. When the MBA universe is reduced to such a small subset some programs are elevated while others are undervalued.
I have found myself falling into this trap. When I visited Cornell last October for Johnson Means Business diversity weekend I asked a current student, “Do you ever worry that your job prospects coming out of Johnson are limited since it’s not on the level of a Harvard or Wharton?” He looked at me and without hesitation said, “No.” Then he pulled out a piece of paper and a pen, sketched a crude mountain, and shaded in the top 1/8th of it. He explained to me that the MBA landscape was like that mountain. It’s easy to fixate on the shaded top and forget that there are all of these other MBA programs too. “Johnson may not be at the peak of the mountain, but it’s still at the top of the heap. Do I get the same opportunities presented to me that someone at a top 5 school does? Not directly. But the door to those opportunities isn’t shut to me coming from Johnson.” I saw the evidence of this firsthand with my company. Last January I met a Johnson student who had recently accepted an offer for an associate marketing manager position upon graduation. Although my former employer doesn’t actively recruit at Johnson, this person was still able to secure an interview just like the students from target schools like HBS, Kellogg, and Ross.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the hype that surrounds business school admissions. While there is a definite advantage to attending a top 5 school, most alums wind up working side by side as peers with alums from schools across the top 20. Fixating on 10-15 schools as if they are the only ones that exist distorts the entire picture. The perceived difference in quality between school #5 and school #6 becomes monumentally more important when the playing field is unnaturally narrowed. Rankings devolve into nothing more than a dick measuring contest for applicants who can’t or won’t see the big picture. Getting into H/S/W is absolutely awesome, but it isn’t the be all and end all. Other schools can sprinkle sparkle dust on your resume and impress employers too.
On the flip side, there are applicants whose career paths won’t land them in the Sweet 16 or even the top 20. Here’s how it usually happens. Joe Schmoe, insurance claims rep/customer service rep/bank teller/etc, decides that he wants a better job. He comes to the conclusion that an MBA will help him get a better title and salary so he checks out what he needs to apply to a local school’s PT program. Joe learns he needs to take the GMAT and should have a good chance of getting in with a 600. He studies for a few weeks, takes the GMAT, and instead of getting a 600 he winds up with a 740. All of a sudden Joe starts to think, Wow! That’s a really good score. And hey, I’ve got a really good GPA from Podunk State University. Hmmm…maybe I can get into some really good schools. Heck, I might could get into Harvard! So Joe aims higher than local PT program and shoots for the stars only to get dinged without interview. He’s left wondering what happened or even worse feeling bitter toward the application process, when the reality of the situation was that he never really had a shot anyways. When the Joe Schmoe’s of the world come onto MBA forums and ask if there work experience is good enough for a top program, I tell them, “Probably not.” No, I do not think of myself as the b-school version of the Soup Nazi (“No MBA for you”). I have simply seen who gets into these schools and Joe Schmoes aren’t it. However, just because a top program isn’t in the cards doesn’t mean an MBA is completely off the table.
As the Johnson student reminded me there are a plethora of MBA programs to choose from. While I still believe that anyone who claims that a Katz alum has the same opportunities as a Kellogg alum if they just work hard enough is smoking some serious crack, that doesn’t mean that a school outside of the top 10-20 cannot have a really good ROI. It’s a matter of setting realistic expectations for how far these schools will take you. Is someone getting to Goldman from SMU Cox? I’d wager that the answer is no. Can they get a corporate finance gig at a major energy company in Texas? You bet your ass they can. That’s what I’ve been getting at all along. Outside of the Sweet 16 most schools tend to be more regional. They place well at large firms within their region (think Ohio State and P&G or Limited Brands), local companies, and in support functions. Are these options always as sexy as being a product manager for Apple? Probably not, but they're still good gigs.
Ultimately it comes down to understanding the MBA application game and where you and your target schools play within it. Top schools like their traditional applicants from a familiar subset of undergrad institutions, industries, and companies and their nontraditional applicants to be interesting (think military, non-profit, pro sports, startups, etc.). I have no qualms telling a college senior that his campus jobs alone (no matter how many people’s he’s managed) aren’t going to get him into Wharton or Kellogg or Fuqua or Tepper or McCombs. These schools require more from their applicants. And the further up the rankings you climb the more special sauce an applicant needs. It’s not enough to just be a consultant. You need to work for a noteworthy firm. It’s not enough to be a fund development manager for a non-profit. You need to have micro-finance experience with the Peace Corps. As admissions consultant Sandy Kreisberg often says in his weekly series on Poets and Quant, getting into certain schools requires more gold plating on a resume.
Upon graduation the pattern continues. Just like how where you work affects where you go to school, where you go to school affects where you're going to work. The overwhelming majority of the prestige jobs go to the students from the prestigious schools. It’s not a level playing field by any means. In fact it’s all one big revolving door that gets more difficult to catch the further down the line you are. Some people get in on it in college. Others find their spot after undergrad, in the job market. Once it comes time for business school there aren’t that many spaces left and those usually go to the interesting oddballs. By the time those revolving doors spit people out on the other side into the Goldman’s, McKinsey’s, P&G’s, Googles, Paramount Studios, Gates Foundations, and Nikes of the world there just isn’t room for the people who never caught an opening. It’s probably unfair, but I doubt it will change any time soon. It’s best to be realistic about your chances of hopping into an opening at each phase and if you never can then adjusting your expectations accordingly.