My life, my blog, and B-school somewhere inbetween

A catalog of one reapplicant's journey towards an MBA in 2008

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

What do I need to get in?

For some strange reason, I find myself visiting the message boards here and there when I'm bored at work. I have no idea why since I never find anything of interest there. Clearly, I've reached "the end of the internet." Anyway, one phenomenon I became increasingly aware of is that there always seems to be someone saying, "Here is my profile, is it good enough to get in?" It is often from an International applicant, which is understandable because they are not surrounded by products of the American education system and probably do not have friends from college/work or siblings who have gone through the MBA application process. And considering most other graduate programs (ex. law school) are heavily dependent upon a scoring system using factors like GPA, standardized test scores, etc., it is quite understandable that someone would assume the same for b-school. But, that is not the case. B-school applications are an art, not a science. While it is excusable not to know this going in to the process, it is incredibly tiresome to find people asking the same questions over and over instead of spending some time researching the whole thing in the first place. Answers to all application questions can probably be found with a little searching effort. It amazes me that someone who is considering an MBA has done so little effort in his/her research to figure out if it's even worth considering that he/she wouldn't know there is no set "scoring system". I think the schools have been fairly open on that one thus far.

In light of this, I've decided to post Redwolf's Very Rough Approximation of a Guide to Getting into B-school. It covers what I think are the basics, not to determine if one will get in, but if one is "competitive" amongst applicants for a top MBA program. As you'll see, certain topics are very vague. This post would probably be more valuable had it come out in the fall when most people are thinking about b-school, but I'm doing it now because I feel like it and I'm feeling inclined to help those who have gotten their shit together early and are considering an MBA now. Besides, what else are archives for?


The Guide

B-schools "grade" you on four major categories- Academics, Goals, Experience/Leadership, and something I'll call "Worldliness".


Academics

GPA: There is no "minimum score". If you'll notice, the average GPA for the top MBA programs is around 3.5 while the average GPA for the top Law schools is around a 3.8. Clearly, GPA does not matter as much (I think it's unlikely that MBA applicants are less intelligent than Law School applicants and so their GPAs are lower). But, that doesn't mean if you have a 2.0 you stand a good shot if you're average in every other category. The GPA and the GMAT are used to reflect your ability to handle the academic rigour of the program. If you meet the minimum requirements, you're pretty much all the same as far as the b-school is concerned. I'd speculate if you have a 3.0 or above you're in contention, provided your GMAT is sufficient. GMAT seems to be the more important Academic factor.

GMAT: Again, no "minimum score". But, schools have been more explicit about this one. Some believe that as long as you break 700 you're ok. I'd beg to differ. I think the composite score isn't as important as the individual scores. Wharton has explicitly stated they want an 80%/80% split between quant and verbal (that's percentile, not raw score), and other schools seem to follow this as well. That's not to say if you get less you won't get in, but if you do it is a cause for concern. Contrary to popular belief, I don't think a GMAT of 750+ means anything more than a GMAT of 710 in the adcoms' eyes.


Goals

This section is the simplest part. You've got to be able to clearly articulate why you want, actually I should say "need", an MBA. First priority- long term career objective. Shoot for the stars with this one (ex. CEO, run your own Private Equity shop, etc.), but make sure it makes sense (don't say Chairman of the Fed if you were an Art History major and work at a non-profit). The nice thing about b-school is that it is what I call a "start over card". One of the most common uses of the MBA is to change one's career path, and this is a totally acceptable answer as far as the adcoms are concerned. They just want to make sure you've thought about it thoroughly and the MBA is the best path towards achieving your goals. You have to be able to say "I know currently know X, but I need to learn Y to become [long term goal] and b-school is the best place to learn that." Finally, you need to paint the picture of how you intend to go from b-school to the long term goal. Talk about the job you want straight out of b-school and how it makes sense as a stepping stone to the long-term goal. Adcoms can't always figure this part out.


Experience/Leadership

This and Goals section are the most important categories. This basically comes down to two things- your work experience section of the app and your essays. On the numbers end, you probably need at least four years of work experience (three if you've worked in a slave-type job like I-Banking). But that number is nowhere near set in stone. What really matters is how you've developed as a professional. Experiences themselves seem to count for very little. All the adcom cares about is what you've learned from the experience. They want to know about you the person, not you the short bio. That is how you make use of the essays. List your work experience in the work experience section, but in the essays tell the adcom how these experiences have shaped what kind of professional you are. And, of course, the most important trait they're looking for is Leadership. They want to see that you have experience leading from your work experience or extra-curricular activities and that you've learned something from these experiences. They seem to understand that some professions are not conducive towards leadership experiences (ex. research analyst), so then they look for it in the extra-curriculars and maybe try to infer it from the essays. The real challenge in this section is trying to explain everything you've learned sufficiently in 1,000 words or less.


Worldliness

This is a slightly less important category, but still something that can keep you out. Basically, b-schools don't want corporate flunkies for their students. Nor do they just want professionals. They want people. If all you've done is work at your job and haven't been a part of something other than your company and family, you need to do something else. They love volunteering. It shows you have interest in things outside of work but also that you actually want to give back to the community. B-schools like their alumni to be philanthropists. Also, they want their students to be open to other people's ideas. That's part of the whole learning process at b-school- learning from each other. If you can show that you have a "worldly" perspective, it implies that you're willing to hear other points of view and potentially change your own. It also means that you'll be able to add a melange of viewpoints to any discussion. Oh, and if you're international and thinking "I'm from another country so I can add a different perspective to all the Americans at b-school", guess what- so are all the other applicants from your country. Just being from another country doesn't make one more "worldly" or "open-minded".



That's about it for this "guide". I'm sure I've missed things and I'm probably a little off on a thing or two, but I think this pretty much covers the basics. Any comments/additions would be welcome. Remember, it's easy for a school to reject an applicant, but harder to reject a person. Use the application to show them who you are. You may be great and all, but if you don't tell them how in your essays how are they going to know?

Friday, May 20, 2005

Answers Sought

Next week I get some of the answers I've been seeking. I will finally know what the Wharton adcom thought of my application and hopefully get some guidance on ways to improve. I'm not going to ask questions like "uhhh, well what should I do to get in?" because, frankly, that's kind of pathetic. If you're going to be a future leader of the world and all that crap you should have some idea of what you can do with your life in the next 5 months to make your app more appealing. Instead, what I've done is identified all the areas I think the adcom would feel I was weak in and come up with a few ideas about how I can address these issues, and then I'm going to ask my feedback interviewer what he/she thinks of them. IMO, a good leader will come up with solutions to problems, but a good leader will also seek the wisdom of his/her advisors before deciding on any mildly time sensitive issues. I doubt I'll get an straight answer like "yeah, that's a really good idea. I think you should do it" because the adcom is full of crap like "there are many paths one can take to get in". I know there are many paths, but I'm already on one right now and I need to pick the next step that will work best given my path to date. There are clearly going to be better options than others because some experiences, by their very nature, are condusive towards learning certain lessons. If you're weak in leadership and management, taking a position running an extra-curricular you're involved in is probably a better choice than just continuing doing whatever it is you've done so far. Since I'll never get a straight answer, I'm just going to have to look for emotion. Yes, emotion. If I can detect some slight hesitancy or it's clear they're enthusiastic about the "it sounds like it could be a good experience for you but..." half of their PC response, I'll have my answer. Even though they don't want to make any sort of career directional advice, it is rare for someone to hide their emotions in a response. If only I could do it in person, then I'd really be able to tell...

It should be noted "areas I think the adcom would feel I was weak in" is different than what "I" think I am weak in. The adcom only knows me in the context of my app whereas I know myself in many more ways. It's not easy to convey a completely accurate portrait of oneself in an app and many things do not always show up. Sometimes we'll take some of our biggest strengths and not describe them as such in the app because we've just come to take them for granted. This makes it key to try to step outside of yourself when reviewing your app for weaknesses.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The CFA Exam

Studying for the CFA exam just plain sucks. I think I will forever have a negative connotation associated with the month of May. The test may be the first Saturday in June, but May is when you really have your life torn away from you. Or at least from those of us who stand a shot at passing and aren't some kind of crazy supergenius. Last year the CFA board decided to make the passing rate really low (Level 1: 34%, Level 2: 32%, Level 3: 64%). I say "decided to" because technically there is no cutoff score that decides a pass or fail on the exam. They do some kind of bizarre psychological test to determine something like "what is the lowest score a passing person would get". Of course, they don't say what defines a "passing person". I don't remember exactly how it works, just remember it seemed like a lot of BS. Basically the passing grade ranges from between 60-70%. There has been a recent surge in candidates trying to get the CFA charter so I think what's really going on is they're trying to make the test more exclusive. If the finance community thinks anyone can get it, why would anyone attach value to it? Also, even though the CFA Institute is a non-profit org, it would seem $$ are on the minds of the board members as well. In a letter to all the candidates which accompanied test results, the board claimed they could think of no reason why the pass rates were so low except that candidates were not doing the assigned readings (ie. buying the books). Did I mention the assigned readings are now all written, published, and sold by the CFA Institute? They said candidates were relying on "study notes" sold by outside test prep companies too much. Now, if that were really true, how is it that I was able to pass using only the study notes? Perhaps it's because I also bought the "assigned readings"- I just didn't use them. In fact, of the six people I know who took the exam last year, the ones who bought the assigned readings passed whether they read them or not, and those who only bought the study notes did not. Probably just coincidence because I doubt the CFA Institute could be so unethical.
Ethics is 10% of the test after all ;-).

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Reviving what I thought was a dead post

Saturday night and writing a post. Yes, it's May, I'm studying for the CFA, and my life is on hold for the next month. Gotta love it.

Axechick wrote a post in response to something I wrote a while back, and after I finished typing up a comment for her blog I thought it was too long to post as a comment so I thought I'd house it here.

I should first off note I wrote my post back in the wake of a rejection so it was partly just a lashing out at the b-school process.

Anyway, to Axechick's points-

You say an MBA is for people who have made an impact somewhere and desire to continue making an impact throughout their careers. If a person was successfully making an impact before the MBA, and their goal is to continue doing so, why even bother getting the MBA? That sounds quite a lot like "getting a stamp". Practically speaking, if an MBA trains future world changers it should be accepting the people who have NOT already been making an impact to educate them how to do so. What an MBA really teaches you is how to run a business, with small portion aimed towards making you humane and want to give back to society.

You can be a stud analyst at some IB or Hedge fund to make your millions but do something outside of work to make an impact.

Very true. But do you need leadership to make a difference outside of work? You need leadership skills if you want to run some sort of organization or a team within one whose goal is to "make an impact", but couldn't you just volunteer to do charitable work and "make a impact"? I don't think one needs to be a leader to do that. It is more a question of character. Hell, just donating a million dollars to a charity will "make an impact", but that doesn't require leadership, just character (and money :-)).

If you want to stay in your current job and just be better at it, you don't need to go to a top MBA program.

Again, (most times) very true. But what if you don't want to stay in the same job? I think a huge percentage of people getting an MBA are not really doing it for skills as much as an opportunity to change their career. People may have ideas of what they'd like to do in the long term, but not necessarily what they'd like to do along the way. An MBA can educate about the variety of opportunities available in business and, most importantly, provide them an excellent method of getting the job they want through recuiting. If b-schools didn't have great recruiting, do you really think so many people would want to go?

Full-time MBA programs need leaders in school.

I am in no way saying schools should not have leaders for students. In fact, I believe I did say leadership was the best proxy for future success as a CEO and some other careers. I just said it wasn't right for everybody. I, too, would like to be around people who want to change the world. But that wouldn't be my main focus in choosing b-school classmates. I also want to be around people from a variety of professions who are the best at what they do so I can learn from them. You could be totally incompetant and "want to change the world." I'm all for making the world a better place and doing my part to make that happen, but if I wanted to devote my life to it I would have tried to hold a political office because (idealy) that's what it's there for (serving the people). First loyalty of a CEO is to the shareholders. Now, if you want to work for a non-profit that's a whole 'nother ballgame... I thought about the ways to change the world a while back and realized that the person who has a large impact on a few people's lives has done something as valuable as the person who has had a smaller impact on a large number of people's lives. I, personally, think I'm better at the former and have chosen that path, but that doesn't really come off on the application as demonstrating "leadership" as well as the latter. And what kind of leadership would it be? Leadership by example? Why do I get the impression this argument will all boil down to the definition of "leadership"...?

There are also several ways outside climbing the corporate ladder and starting your own business to show that you have leadership skills.

Again, very true. That's why I said I was exaggerating. I picked those because I think they stand out in the minds of the b-schools in the "professional" part of the application.

I think it is completely fair for any school who claims to educate LEADERS, to use that criteria to judge ALL applicants.

Of course. My point was that maybe they shouldn't only be looking to train leaders. And your point about HBS is well taken. And that's probably why HBS is not really a "finance" school the way Wharton is (I know I'm going to hear something about that comment). If you want to do finance at HBS or Stanford, you're probably looking to do private equity or venture, not something in "markets". And in PE/Venture, you probably want to have some managerial skills. Anyway, I think the finance students at HBS and Stanford are in the minority. As a corporate CEO, yes I think you have an opportunity to change the world in your profession. A top hedge fund manager... not so much. Outside of the profession, obviously either can. HBS can say it only wants students who will change the world because they can pick and choose whomever they want (for the most part). People who change the world are more visible and famous, etc., which looks great for the school. And by deciding to pick students who'll change the world (and work in business), they've effectively narrowed down the potential career goals of the students to those professions which allow for such kind of change. Guess that's why HBS is a top school for general management but not certain other fields.

But we shouldn't fault certain business schools for wanting and requiring that their students display [leadership and the desire to make an impact].

What do you mean "certain schools"? Don't you mean "every top school"? Every b-school app I read had some leadership related essay. If only "certain" (top) schools did it, I wouldn't have written the post!

Well, even if I'm completely wrong or completely missed the point, at least now there's an argument between bloggers to fill the void since the last one. Just kidding :-). There'll be no mud slinging from this blog.