Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Real World

"We're going to start things off with a little ice breaker," the section leader said to us.  I sat in a classroom with 69 other newly admitted MBA applicants and prepared myself for the ritual I now knew by heart.  We would state our name, where we went to school, our current line of work, and one fun fact that could hopefully elicit a chuckle from the crowd.  We started on the opposite side of the room and I listened as one by one my potential classmates gave the condensed version of the last 7-10 years of their lives.

"Hi, I'm Steve. Graduated from Dartmouth in 2008. Right now I'm working in the investment banking division at Goldman."

"Hey everyone! I'm Svetlana and I'm from Russia.  I'm a consultant at McKinsey."

"Hi, I'm Matt. I went to Stanford and now I work in PE."

As more people gave their personal rundown I noticed a familiar pattern. Although there were was diversity in terms of national background and job function, we came from a very homogeneous group of undergraduate institutions and companies.  Whether the school was Cornell, Yale, or MIT or the industry was CPG, government, consulting, or finance almost everyone was connected to one of the most prestigious names in academia and/or the public/private sectors.  In many ways even though we were preparing to take 2 years to help advance our careers, we had already made it.

As the Fall 2012 application season comes to a close (except for those who are in the purgatory of summer waitlist land) a new crop of MBA hopefuls is about to begin their journey toward a Fall 2013 admit.  Many are asking, "Is my work experience good enough to get into a top school?" or "Can I get into a top 5 school without work experience?" And there are people who step up to answer these questions.  They say, "It doesn't matter where you work. What matters is what you did while you were there. As long as you can show leadership you'll have a shot." I often read these responses and say, "Not a chance."

Why am I so negative?  About a year ago I wrote this blog post, complaining about the people who shot down people's hopes of getting into a top school.  I had said, "Why bother evaluating anyone's chances? While MBA admissions isn't a total black box, there's enough uncertainty that no one can say for sure who will get in to a particular school and who won't." After going through this process myself I now see that my views back then were very naive.  It's still not that easy to say who will definitely get in, but it's not too difficult at all to predict who probably will not.  The reason I haven't been too enthusiastic about some people's chances is because I know that no matter how high their GMAT score is or how many leadership positions they've held at work, they aren't getting into a top 10 school from their current industry and/or employer.

A large part of MBA admissions is driven by a person's resume.  The name of your school and employer can often matter more than your GPA or GMAT score.  While business schools like to admit people with diverse career backgrounds, that doesn't mean they are picking from ANY career background.  Not every line of work is valued or considered relevant to business education, especially at top schools.  Even with a 3.5+ GPA and a 750+ GMAT score a local DMV manager is not getting into CBS/Wharton/Stanford/Kellogg/Tuck/etc.  Business schools like to let your employer do the vetting for them.  The more selective the employer/job function the more your experience is valued.  If your job is seen as open to everyone then it doesn't matter how successful you are at it.  You likely don't stand a chance at top schools. 

Is this fair?  Probably not.  The liberal egalitarian in me would say that pedigree isn't everything.  She screams, "Who are you to say that someone's experience isn't valuable?" However, the elitist in me (which I hate to admit exists) completely gets it.  The top 10-15 business schools aren't at the top of the pile simply because they teach finance really well.  A large factor in their quality is the student body.  These schools like to admit people who don't need them in order to be successful.  They choose the applicants who are already successful so their name can be attached to these people when they become even more successful.  Every year a new crop of successful people wants to go to the schools where the others are.  They want to be surrounded by people whose educational background and work experience makes them say, "Wow!" or at least, "I fit right in."  Right or wrong, not every college or career field elicits that reaction.  Adcoms know this.  To maintain their position and continue to attract "Wow! people," schools need to be exclusive.

There are some schools in the top 15 that want to be a springboard for some candidates who have loads of potential but lack "blue chip" experience.  They want to give that guy who keeps the books at a small business the chance to achieve his dream of being a brand manager.  However, these admits are few and far between and you won't find them everywhere.  By and large, the student bodies at top schools look just like Steve, Svetlana, Matt, and the 67 other admitted applicants in my section.  Having seen who gets admitted I don't really feel bad when I tell someone that their career background doesn't make them competitive for a top 10 program. I remember reading a forum post by an HBS applicant who had just been rejected without interview.  He was upset because he saw that the only people who had been invited to interview were those from top undergraduate programs and certain industries/employers.  He lamented that he didn't know why HBS said they wanted diverse career backgrounds if they were just going to pick the people from the same companies they always do.  Someone responded to him and said that HBS (and other top schools) takes the same type of candidates every year and that if a person doesn't match that profile then they shouldn't be surprised when they don't get in.  The answer may not have been polite, but it was definitely real.


Anonymous said...

Whew. Longtime reader here. I agree with you, but I definitely have a crazy different background than anyone I've met and Kellog, Tuck and Duke all admitted me this year (headed to Kellogg in the fall). I actually think you're generalizing everyone into one of two camps - blue chip and other - instead of the three camps that really exist. Sure "blue chip" is the largest group, but for aspiring applicants, "other" should be divided as "boring" and "exciting". Seriously! I have a little bit of a blue chip background (2 out of 6 years) but the other 4 years have been crazy exciting with startups that no one's heard of and enough stories to write a tell-all about the tech/entertainment industry. If someone's applying without blue chip experience, I say go for it as long as it's exciting/different/scandalous... and to be honest, it's us different ones who make bschool fun for the rest of ya'll squares.

Alison said...

Not going to lie, this stung a little. The truth hurts, I know.

I keep wishing to be able to finally narrow down my school list but I'm sure I will probably be mulling it over all summer. I was an excellent student at a fine state school and I have had very solid career in the nonprofit world, but there is a decided lack of sparkle to my package. I wish it didn't matter, but it does.

Still, it is hard...particularly when I look at friends who are Wharton and Stanford grads and I KNOW that I am just as smart and talented. I guess I may just have to live with the fact that I can get a degree from a fine (but not extra sparkly) business school and just go on knowing in my own head that I am better than my friends ;)