Tuesday, March 18, 2014


This year will be the 10th year (!!) that I've been doing this under my own MBA Apply shingle. Surprising that I never put together something like this, but consider this some best practices I've learned in the 10 years I've been working with tons of applicants from practically all walks of life.


Preparing for the GMAT exam requires focus, and you owe it to yourself to get the strongest score you can. While a high score won't be an asset, a low score can keep you out. For top 16 schools, aim for a 700 at a bare minimum, and ideally a 720+. For top 30 schools, aim for a 660 minimum and ideally a 700+. It's not impossible to prep for the GMAT while working on your applications (and you may have to do both in parallel if you have to retake it), but the more time you have to prepare for the GMAT, the better. In essence, aim to finish your GMAT by May/June in the year in which you intend to apply (either for the October Round 1 deadlines or January Round 2 deadlines).


Regular classes are held from September to April (with August being pre-term for some schools, and May being final exam month for most schools).

School visits can be invaluable. You get first hand experience with what a business school environment "feels like" in a way that no website, brochure, discussion forum, or second hand information can provide.

Aside from the Q&A info sessions that adcoms may organize as well as sitting in on class, perhaps the most invaluable insight you'll get about a specific b-school (or just b-schools as a whole) is to talk to current students one-on-one, where they will be far more likely to open up "off the record". Offer to buy them a quick coffee, beer or even a meal. They are broke (or heavily indebted) students who will appreciate free drinks and food.

Again, visiting schools isn't about currying favor with the adcoms at all (the only people they will remember are those who make complete asses of themselves because of the sheer number of people they come in contact with in any given year), but for your own sake. That first hand experience will make it easier for you to write about what you want from b-school in a more personal, specific way.

Aim to visit a few schools. They don't all have to be your target schools. For example, if you're heading to Chicago to visit Booth, go and visit Kellogg while you're at it even if you don't plan on applying there. Or, if you're heading to Philadelphia to visit Wharton, take a quick day trip to New York and visit Columbia and Stern.

Visiting 2-3 schools will not only de-mystify what b-school is like, but it'll only help you hone in on what it is you want to get out of the b-school experience.


Since there are way more folks of a comparable caliber applying than there are spots available at any one b-school, the admissions process can be a total crapshoot.  As such, it's a numbers game. Apply to too few schools, and you won't maximize your odds. Apply to too many schools, and you'll dilute your efforts across too many schools.

Target around 4-7 schools to maximize your chances, with the expectation that it's unlikely you'll get into every school you apply to. Spread it out across a range of schools: 2-3 stretches, 2-3 sweet spots, and 0-1 safeties. "Stretches" are schools where you have enough of a shot that they're worth applying to, but you'll need a bit of luck to get in. Sweet spots are schools where you have a more reasonable shot of getting into given your profile. Safeties are schools where you are virtually guaranteed to get into.


Although completing the applications does take some time, effort and focus - there isn't so much to do that it is a full-time job. Give yourself at least 5 weeks, and at most 10 weeks to complete all your applications, with the expectation that you'll be working on it a few hours each week.

Anything less than 5 weeks, and chances are you'll be rushing to get them in before the deadlines. Anything more than 10 weeks, and you risk "overworking" and overthinking your essays (polishing them to a point where your second-guessing will actually worsen the quality of your written applications). There is only so much you can do before it ends up being an exercise in rearranging the furniture.

This means if you're applying for Round 1 deadlines, as long as you begin by mid- to late-August, you should be fine. And for Round 2 January deadlines, you should start on your essays no later than mid- to late-November.


Around 80-90% of your time and effort will be spent on the first 2-3 applications (or even the first 1-2 applications, depending on the degree of overlap in the essays for your target schools).

You will find that once you've completed a few schools, each additional school will take very little time. In fact, by the time you get to your 4th school and beyond, it can take a week or even just a day or two to get them done.

Even if the essays or messaging are different from one school to the next, there's a learning curve - once you're "in the zone" after having done a few and you have a more natural feel for writing b-school essays, you'll find that it progressively takes less time to complete each subsequent application.

Focusing on one school at a time will help you focus, while also giving you the best chance of completing your entire list of schools in the most effective manner.

You don't have to be dogmatic about completing them one at a time, but avoid working on them in parallel as much as you can. What this also does is it gives you time away from a particular application, and that time away is invaluable, because it allows you to revisit the applications with a fresh set of eyes before you submit. What you may find is that while working on your 5th school application for example, you discover some new insights that you can incorporate into your 1st school application - insights that you may not have come up with had you tried to juggle a bunch of school applications at once and feeling overwhelmed about it.


For many b-school applicants, they have forgotten how to write in plain English, because most if not all of the writing they have been doing since college has been in a corporate work environment.

Every industry has their own shorthand, jargon, and figures of speech - to the point where in some cases it has morphed into its own dialect that only people in that industry can understand.

Most applicants can write about their personal lives or anything they do outside of work in plain English (no one would ever say "My spouse and I consolidated into a mutually beneficial union due to our aligned interests"). However, a lot of applicants have never had to write, speak or even think in plain English at work, because everything at work is communicated in an industry dialect or "corporate speak." Just bear in mind that if you are talking about your work in a resume, essay, or interview - you will likely have to act as your own English translator.

One effective way to help you write in a clear way is to read your essays out loud. If it sounds stiff, abstract and formal - then it probably is. Your essays should sound like YOU outside of work. The language should sound like how you talk, except without the decorative "ums, ahs, you know's, see what I mean, like, yeahs, " and so forth.


Feedback is essential. That third person perspective is something you do not have when you're knee deep in your essays.

Get your friends, colleagues, family members, or even paid consultants to review your writing for clarity, specificity, economy and tone.

Chances are, you will get conflicting feedback. That's normal. Narrative writing is subjective, and not everyone will have the same opinion about your "story" - what you wrote, or how you wrote it. As the author of your narrative, it is a judgment call (and yours alone) as to what feedback to incorporate and what to ignore. Frankly, the entire application process is a judgment call from both the applicant's and adcom's perspective. However, you can make more informed choices about your essays (in whole or in part) when you get feedback from others who are not in your head.


This may sound counter-intuitive, but you do not want to give your recommenders too much time. The reason is simple: the more time you give someone, the more time they have to procrastinate. And the more they procrastinate, the more likely they'll rush to submit it at the very last minute. Don't project your own stakes onto others: yes, the applications mean a lot to you personally, so you'll be more motivated and uptight about every single little thing, trying to get everything done and to the tee. Your recommenders frankly don't have those stakes, even if they really like you, and as is human nature - they will procrastinate and sit on it if given the chance. You would too if you were in their shoes and being asked to write them for someone else.

Having said that, by all means, talk to potential candidates who you would like to write your recommendation letter a few months before the deadlines so that you can finalize who your recommenders will be.

But give them the materials to submit their recommendation letters around 4-6 weeks from the deadline. That way, they have enough time to write them to the best of their ability, but not so much time that they can completely set it aside and forget about it.


For most schools, they build most of their class from their first two rounds, so by the time the last round comes around, there are few spots left and as such, the decision process is even more subjective and random. This is especially the case if you are a traditional applicant (finance, consulting, engineering, healthcare, corporate) because it's unlikely they will need or want any more traditional applicants by the time they review applications from the final round. If anything, they are hoping to fill the class with more non-traditionals from non-profit, military, arts/entertainment/sports, and so forth. Again, nothing is impossible, but if you can, avoid the final round.

If you are undecided between the 1st and 2nd round, just  know that it makes no difference from an admissions perspective (your chances are the same). However, I have found that applicants who aim for the 1st round tend to be more productive, even if they are busier at work. The reason for this is simple: when you are busy at work, you have no time to navel gaze or to procrastinate. You just execute.

The 2nd round tends to be a more difficult deadline to aim for simply because of the holiday season: from Thanksgiving to the New Year, it's a dead zone. A lot of applicants mistakenly believe that because they have all the time in the world because they will be with their families or on holiday, they can focus on their application. And they are often wrong, because it's much harder to substitute between "personal time with family/friends" and "b-school applications". It's far easier to procrastinate and waste time when you have that time to waste, and there's this mad rush to complete the application nursing a New Year's hangover.

So ideally, aim for the 1st round, but know that the 2nd round is also fine (except that it'll likely be more difficult for you in terms of time management). And avoid the last round if you can.

The only exception to this is Columbia and Sloan - the only schools that have 2 rounds of admission. For both of these schools, treat their 2nd round as the "final round." In other words, for Columbia and Sloan, aim for their Early Decision and R1 deadlines respectively.


In short, don't quit your job to focus on the GMAT or the b-school application. It doesn't signal to the adcom that you're focused. Instead, it tells them that you're not as competent as the other applicants out there who can still put together strong applications even as they are juggling work, family and extracurriculars.

If you happen to be unemployed at the time of application, make sure you're staying productive on something, whether it's volunteering, working freelance gigs, or just something that is allowing you to continue moving your life in a forward direction. The last thing anyone wants to see is someone who is in a holding pattern in their life, as if b-school is some panacea they are waiting for before giving themselves permission to make life choices.

And this goes for those who are also currently employed. Treat the b-school application process as a parallel track. If you get in, it should be an *option* (the option being: "should I go, or should I stay in my current job, or even should I switch to another job?"). It should not be the only door you're waiting for to open.

B-schools want to accept people who don't need them, just like a bank tends to lend money to those who need it the least. B-schools appreciate enthusiasm, but there can be a fine line between enthusiasm and desperation, and there is no worse turn off than a desperate person.

The more you treat b-school as an option (and not a necessity), the more likely it'll come across in how you communicate in your essays as well as in your interviews. You're more likely to come across as confident and enthusiastic, as opposed to desperate and needy.

Friday, June 28, 2013


One of the most common aspirations of many MBA applicants and students is wanting to start a business of their own one day. In prior posts, I have cast doubts on whether an MBA is even worth it for aspiring entrepreneurs (at least those who are looking to start a business in the short-term), but I also recognize that it's just my opinion that others may disagree with. So what I write below assumes that if an MBA was worthwhile for an aspiring entrepreneur, what is one way to navigate the transition from MBA student to entrepreneur?

There are many hurdles in making this a reality. The economic cycle certainly matters, since in good times one is more likely to be optimistic and risk taking compared to bad times when it may be wiser to hunker down. Financial circumstances also matter: with many MBAs taking on significant debt to pay for school, it may be too much to take on that much risk in the shorter-term. Another blindingly obvious hurdle is simply not having a compelling enough idea - that one is in love with the idea of entrepreneurship, without a specific enough business concept in which to channel all that love.

Oftentimes though, as great as all these hurdles may be, the biggest one is simply fear of the unknown. Even those who have started their own side businesses before, there can still be this fear of taking that big leap into becoming a full-time entrepreneur - because the stakes are much bigger if one is looking to make a full-time living from the business.

And in many ways, the psychological shift from working for someone else to being one's own boss is a big leap not unlike any major life transition (becoming a spouse, to becoming a parent, and so forth). It not only changes the way you work, but changes the way you see your work. And that can be a scary thing because it plants a series of self-sabotaging questions in the back of your head that you may be afraid to answer:

If it fails, will I be tough enough to cope with the aftermath? If it's successful, what if I don't like being an entrepreneur?

We are as scared of failure as we are of success, especially when we anticipate that it involves upending our status quo (making a big shift in what we do and who we are in the workplace) to even make that leap. For many aspiring entrepreneurs coming out of business school, it will mark the first time they would be working for themselves on a full-time basis.

Being one's own boss has been romanticized in our culture, and so much emotional energy can be invested in the fantasy of being the next great pioneer, the next self-made billionaire. And I think most people with notions of starting a business recognize on an instinctive level that it's not all roses, because if it were that romantic and glamorous, there would be a lot more entrepreneurs out there.

Regardless of which hurdles are the key drivers in preventing you from making that leap, one alternative is this:

Work for a startup.

You don't have to start your own business right away. While work cultures can vary from one startup to the next, at many startups the chaotic and fluid nature of your workweek and responsibilities requires a different mentality than working for an established company.

Working at a startup (or a more established VC-backed company) can give you a taste for what's to come. Not only will you get broader responsibilities that have a more direct impact on the company, you will also have more leeway to define what your responsibilities are, as well as initiate and execute ideas without running into a clusterf*ck of committee meetings and approvals. Even if you officially have a "boss" (usually the founders), it can feel more like you're working WITH them and not FOR them.

While it's not the same as actually running your own company as a founder/CEO, working at a startup can give you experience in the trenches - allowing you to experience what it truly feels like, while giving you a bird's eye view of what the founders are going through. And experiencing that startup environment will either scare you away from it, or embolden you in the future to start your own. Or you can walk away from it still unsure, but with that experience, there's less "fear of the unknown" should an opportunity to start your own business comes up years (if not decades) down the road.

Again, if you have a business idea and you're ready to go full steam ahead, go for it! But if you don't have one, you're unsure, or there's hurdles you can't overcome at this point in your life, don't fret -- you can always work for a startup for now, make the most of that experience and take it from there.

Monday, April 22, 2013


One of the most basic but important question I get from folks is whether an MBA is worth it (and in particular, a full-time program).
The debate seems to have been going on ad infinitum, with sentiment ebbing and flowing with the state of the economy.
From a practical standpoint for many folks who are deciding on whether to apply or not (or whether to attend or not * after * they have gotten admission!), the answer may be clearer than you’d expect.
Regardless of your prior professional background, if you’re looking to work as a management consultant at firms like McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Monitor, LEK, Accenture, Deloitte, etc. then an MBA is worth it, because you don’t really have much choice: you’re highly unlikely to get hired without one.
Even if you are a consultant looking to upgrade your brand (i.e. you work at a small no-name consulting firm and hoping to work at McKinsey), your chances are slim unless you get an MBA. And even if you are looking to stay at your current firm, you will likely be highly encouraged to go back to do an MBA (read: your chances of getting promoted to a post-MBA position are slim unless you have one).
Moreover, for many of these firms, you essentially have to shoot for the top 16 US programs (and LBS and INSEAD in Europe), since these consulting hire the majority of their incoming associates from these programs. You will get some MBA hires who did not go to these schools, but they are a minority. They will also hire some folks from law schools or direct industry hires, but for the most part, consulting firms have a highly structured (and highly stratified) recruiting process that focuses on a select number of schools.
Regardless of what aspect of financial services you’re looking to work in – investment banking, equity research, sales/trading, asset management, private equity, hedge funds, venture capital, commercial lending/underwriting, insurance, etc. – if you don’t have a finance background and looking to make a career switch into it (even if you have corporate/business experience), then you’ll have a very hard time getting these jobs without an MBA.
The culture of financial services doesn’t value the MBA to the same degree as consulting, but it is often seen as a passport to getting in the door for those with no prior relevant experience. And areas such as investment banking focus their recruiting efforts almost exclusively on top 16 MBA programs.
Also, if you’re in a “back office” or “middle office” role at a financial institution (or you’re in any support function such as IT at a bank), and you’re looking to make that switch into revenue generating functions as listed above, then an MBA is worth it to re-brand yourself because it’s hard to make that switch without one.
While some schools have introduced specialized Masters’ programs in finance, these programs are still relatively new compared to the established MBA programs. Basically, if you had the choice, the MBA is the better bet and will give you more access to recruiters than a specialized masters program.
If you are coming from a non-business profession (engineer, science researcher, lawyer, doctor, military officer, teacher, athlete, artist, etc) and looking to transition into business job function, then an MBA can be extremely valuable. Although not a must like it is for consulting or financial services, getting an MBA is certainly worthwhile enough since making that transition into a business career will be easier and faster.
“Corporate life” basically includes the two industries above (consulting and financial services), but also any job function on the business side in any industry: marketing, operations, financial planning/corporate finance, business development, corporate development, human resources, investor relations, etc. In many of these jobs beyond the college entry level, they require either relevant prior experience or an MBA (and most of these firms will not hire you to start alongside fresh college grads at the entry level).
Basically, an MBA makes it much easier if you’re looking for a fresh start (without having to fully start over) in a new industry. For example, you’re a brand manager at a consumer products company who is looking to switch into business development at a green technology firm. Or, you’re an investment banker looking to work in sports marketing.
This also applies to social enterprise and non-profit, since the kinds of jobs you would be aiming for on the admin/managerial side tend to be staffed by “corporate refugees” who previously worked in the private sector, and tend to hire people in their own image (i.e. those with business backgrounds and/or with MBAs).
Of course, it’s certainly more possible to make this switch without an MBA (unlike the other three situations above), but an MBA will make it a lot easier for you to make that switch without having to take a huge step back in pay and responsibility.
So if any of these four things applies to you, then the answer is easy: an MBA is worth it (assuming you believe these careers to be worth pursuing), even without considering any of the intangibles or personal factors, such as the network, taking two years off for personal “me” time, discovering new interests, learning more about other careers, and so forth.
Simply put, an MBA won’t have much benefit from a career standpoint if you are already working in a business job function AND you’re not interested in switching to consulting or financial services.
For example, if you’re a banker or PE guy who wants to stay in finance (in any capacity), an MBA won’t be worth it from a career standpoint, because an MBA isn’t going to make it any easier for you to change from one firm to the next, or from a PE to a HF and back again. It ultimately comes down to your transaction experience, network, and the job market in the industry - when it’s hot, you will have firms coming to you; when it’s cold, an MBA won’t help you land jobs that don’t exist.
Or if you’re simply looking to move up the ladder in your industry in a similar job function, then you don’t need to go back full-time: consider doing a part-time MBA or an executive MBA down the road.
Finally, if you’re looking to start your own business in the short-term, you are better off investing that money in wise counsel and getting that business off the ground right away while the idea is still hot in your mind, rather than spending two years in business school where you will learn mostly “book knowledge.” The biggest problem with business schools and entrepreneurship is that business schools unwittingly teach students to conceptualize their way through problems as a substitute for rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty. In plain English, they confuse analysis for execution, and running your own small business often lives and dies more on the latter than the former.
Forget about the long-term value or even the medium-term value of an MBA. The reason why is simple: it’s debatable, it’s a matter of opinion, and it’s ambiguous. You will get more conflicting and differing opinions on this than you would on what it will do for you in the immediate term (i.e. right after graduation). Furthermore, if the value of the MBA in the short-term is limited at best in your situation, then it’s not going to be any more valuable in the medium- or long-term.
When deciding whether an MBA is worth it to you or not, focus on the short-term benefit: what it will do for you in terms of recruiting while you’re an MBA student? Will it give you access to the kinds of jobs you want immediately after graduation? While it may seem cynical to disregard the academics – the reality is, the MBA is a professional degree whose main purpose is to turn students into employable business professionals after graduation, so the academics aren’t an end in itself, but a means to that end. While business schools would like to say that they want to teach you knowledge that you can use for your entire career long-term, the reality is, the kind of knowledge and decision-making you do in the long-term will have little to do with what you learned ten years prior in b-school, and more to do with your recent experiences and lessons learned in the past three to five years.  Again, the value of what you learn in business school is most relevant (if not exclusively relevant) to your first few years after business school.
In plain English, the MBA is ultimately about helping you secure the kinds of jobs in the short-term you want that you couldn’t have gotten without the degree (or would at least make it a lot easier for you to secure those kinds of jobs). That, more than anything else, dictates whether the MBA will be worthwhile to you.



As an admissions consultant, what I do in a nutshell is to coach people on their applications – the essays, resume, recommendation letters, application forms, interviews, and just about any issue under the sun that pertains to business school: career goals, business school life, and whether even to bother applying to school at all.

In many respects, what I do for business school applicants is analogous to what a personal trainer does for fitness clients.

One of the most common queries I get from prospective clients is this:

“I have a GMAT that is much lower than the averages for my target schools. Can you help me overcome that?”

The quick answer is, no. Is there a chance you can get in DESPITE a lower GMAT? Absolutely. But that doesn’t involve “essay magic.” It’s luck and highly unusual circumstances (you’re sleeping with the adcom, you have the President of the United States backing you, your parents have a building in the school named after them, and so forth).

Believing that somehow a low GMAT can be easily mitigated by an exceptionally executed application assumes that there are enough of your fellow applicants who will have crappy applications. The thing is, regardless of GMAT score, just about all applicants will be putting in their best effort. A lot of applicants with GMAT scores that are average or above average are going to be putting in great applications. Gone are the days where the majority of applicants were submitting in crappy essays. With all the resources and knowledge out there that are just a few Google searches away, most applicants have the savvy and know how to put together specific, clear, organized and polished essays. And yes, quite a number of these folks who have average to above average GMATs are also getting help – from consultants, MBA alums, colleagues, and other people who are giving them feedback on their applications.

So any consultant who claims that they can somehow pull the wool over an adcom’s eyes and get them to admit you in spite of a low GMAT is akin to those TV infomercials selling abdominal machines with the promise of six-pack abs.

To claim that using their abdominal exercise contraptions can give you six-pack abs isn’t outright lying, but it’s misrepresentation. Yes, you can get six-pack abs with exercise (crunches, sit ups and any form or combination of abdominal exercises). But all the exercise in the world won’t give you those six-pack abs if your diet and genetics aren’t already putting you in a position to make those exercises effective.

And that’s what the GMAT is – it’s like diet and genetics. All the “essay magic” in the world won’t really help to fundamentally change your chances if your GMAT is out of range.

So this may seem like I am working against my own interests – I mean, as an admissions consultant, I should be telling you that “hey, if you sign with me, I can help you overcome your GMAT score!”

But that would again be akin to a personal trainer telling you that your diet and genes are not important – so long as you follow his/her patented “transcendental metaphysical crunch!” method, you will get ripped in just 45 days or less. Would you trust someone who is more focused on sales than on giving you honest advice that serves your best interest? In other words, are you looking for a sales person, or an advisor? There’s that old saying that if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is (or they are giving you a sales pitch).

In other words, I can certainly help make sure you’re doing the best you can on the applications so as to maximize your chances – but you’ll still be a stretch if your GMAT isn’t competitive, plain and simple.

I know that the GMAT is a pain in the ass. I hated it myself. I have a greater aversion to sitting still figuring out multiple choice questions than the average person. But it’s one of those necessary evils. And if you have tried all you can, taken it multiple times and still cannot hit the ranges of your target schools, then it’s something you have to simply man up and live with. This doesn’t mean you should just give up and not apply at all – but that if you do apply with a significantly lower than average GMAT score, just have some realistic expectations of where you stand. That may be hard to hear, but it is the truth.

Before embarking on the actual applications, you need to do whatever it takes to score within range for the schools you’re targeting.

The irony is, those who care least about the GMAT are those who probably need to boost their score, and those who obsess over their GMAT probably need to relax and focus on the applications.

In short, here’s the rule of thumb:

You need to be within 20 points of your target school’s incoming GMAT average, and ideally at the average or more. That’s it. A much higher than average score will not help, but a score that is 20 points or more below the average will be a significant handicap.

In sum, the GMAT isn’t the ONLY factor for admission, but it is an important first hurdle. In other words, having an average GMAT is just the starting point to determine whether you are even in the running or not for your target b-schools – much like a great diet and genes are necessary before even determining whether exercise can even get you the six-pack abs you want.       ###

Monday, November 28, 2011


Consider this:

You walk into a college classroom where most of the faces are Indian and Chinese (or “South Asian” and “East Asian” for the more broad term – and in this context, it’s not really a question of citizenship i.e. Indian-American vs Indian but of race).

If you were a recruiter for Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Apple or any global company, would you perceive this school to be MORE or LESS prestigious? If you were a recruiter where post-MBA jobs are managerial and become more relationship-based (not analytical/technical), and where the key contacts your company corresponds with (investors, Board members, clients, customers, government officials) are mostly white (American or European), or at least a sprinkling of various nationalities and cultures (but still mostly white), would you be more willing to hire students from this classroom, or would you be more inclined to recruit from a similar caliber of school where there were more white faces in the class?

Now, if you were an applicant and walked into this very same classroom, would you perceive this school to be more prestigious or have an “exclusive” brand compared to a class that is more diverse (or where at least half were white)? As an applicant, would your opinions be different depending on your own race or nationality (which gets into the ugly truth that even in non-white countries, the perception of prestige and exclusivity is still defined by whether white people will buy it). And if b-school classrooms looked more like MS-Engineering programs (where the overwhelming majority are Indian/Chinese), would that increase or decrease the likelihood of you applying to a highly selective business school? (Note that “highly selective” and “prestigious” can be related but are not synonymous.)

And herein lies the ugly truth of race, prestige and admissions.

For business schools, and especially those in the very top tier like Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and so forth – a big part of ensuring that their MBA programs stay relevant is to maintain their perceived prestige (exclusivity), because as we all know – while having an MBA can be of value, it’s not necessary for success in business, as amply shown by countless examples of incredibly successful entrepreneurs and executives out there without any formal business education. The perception of exclusivity for b-schools is rooted in the assumption that blue chip white males/females are the people others (regardless of background) want to be associated with. And that feeds on itself – the more of these people who apply, the more it will attract others to apply (including Asians), which creates a “network” which b-schools will then trumpet as something invaluable to its students (who are then networking with each other).

That’s why b-school admissions is more like the selection process for a private club: a country club, the freemasons, a hot nightclub (bring in all the hot girls, groups of guys are left standing in line), motorcycle club, or any sort of private organization. They can admit and reject whomever they want, and constantly change the parameters for admission to suit their needs (which isn't to graduate the "best and brightest" but to maintain that perception of prestige). Business school admissions is NOT a meritocracy, and it never really was, since the admissions process by nature is subjective and a "black box" if there ever was one.

When it comes to race and admissions, it’s not about trying to marginalize white or Asian applicants in the name of diversity – that seems to be a common refrain from many detractors who feel that adcoms are on some socialist, pinko, leftist agenda to admit as many “blacks, Hispanics and lesbian paraplegics” (of course, all mentioned in a derogatory tone by these very detractors) into b-school over more qualified white and Asian candidates –which is simply not the case because that is not what recruiters want, and it’s not what will ensure that applicants see these b-schools as “prestigious” (which will ensure that these schools continue to receive a crapload of applications each year).

In short, top MBA programs want their schools to be *diverse* (read: mostly or at least half white) rather than *ethnic* (read: mostly non-white) – that helps to ensure perceived prestige and exclusivity in our current culture of how we view the relationship between race and status symbols, which then helps to attract the maximum number of applicants as well as the most “exclusive” (read: highest paying) corporate recruiters. That is partly why they also are looking at younger candidates: it’s a way of reaching into the blue chip American pool (white kids with Ivy/equivalent backgrounds) to ensure that their numbers don't drop off to the point where b-school has to start looking like an MS-Engineering program – the less white people in the applicant pool, the more “ethnic” they have to go. This is ugly to say, but it's what is bubbling underneath all of this.

The one big silver lining to all this is that how we perceive race changes over time – it’s not static, but fluid. Even now, for many b-schools, the incoming classes are no longer overwhelmingly white, but again, the schools are “diverse” and not “ethnic”.

One example of how perceptions changed is that of the Jewish community – from “ethnic” to “mainstream.” Ivy League schools in the post-WWII era had a reputation for an unspoken two tiered admissions standard as a way to stem the influx of Jewish students for the very same reason: the perception of prestige. Many of these Jewish kids had as strong if not stronger credentials than their white counterparts to the Ivy League’s law and medical schools (b-schools back then were a bit of a backwater), but would still be underrepresented in these classrooms relative to the applicant pool. And yet, within a generation, that bias (at least when it comes to university admissions) has all but disappeared by the early 1980s.

With race and prestige today, I am confident it will change as the economic and cultural input of non-Western communities is considered mainstream, but this is where we’re at right now. So who knows, maybe in 10-15 years time, these biases may disappear altogether at least in this context of university admissions.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

How would you differentiate the top schools? (updated)

I assume you’ll do your own research, and since there’s so much info out there on the websites, discussion forums, etc. which take a pretty dry approach in comparing schools, I’ve decided to stick with the car analogy – when you strip away all the discussion about GMAT averages, salary stats, career placement profiles, student satisfaction surveys, rankings, etc. you’ll find that these analogies are pretty apt (if I must say!). The reality is, these schools are far more similar than they are different, so here’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek comparison of the schools’ reputations:


HBS is like a British exotic car of varying quality – Rolls Royce, Bentley, and Aston Martin. They are Establishment, top hats and all. Like British exotics, HBS is really known for its heritage and prestige (with sport performance and classic styling to back it up). Some drivers are able to break the "unapproachable" mold and will take their cars for a bit of a joyride, but some are trapped in the pomp and circumstance of their cars. Only drawback is that they are incredibly high maintenance (more reliable than Italian exotics, but the repair costs are astronomically high) and insist on being noticed. And watching an HBS alum “fail” a la Jeffery Skilling is like seeing a Bentley stranded on the side of the road – everyone else can’t help but gloat.


Stanford is like an Italian exotic – from iconic marques like Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Alfa Romeo, to super exotics like the Pagani Zonda, as well as the “all style and no substance” that are the Maseratis. In terms of styling and performance, they are bold, distinctive, and anti-authoritarian much like Stanford – built as if to be a complete counterpoint to the British exotics. They aren't the most reliable cars, but they sure look good, and they are the ultimate joyride car, risks be damned (few cars can replicate the exhaust note of a Ferrari). If HBS is about prestige, Stanford is about rebellious sex appeal. Just like not every Stanford GSB alum is of the same caliber, knowledgeable “car guys” know that there’s a huge difference between Ferarri and Maserati – the former is a real sports car, while the latter is a piece of sh*t. But to the uninitiated, they draw attention in equal measure.


Wharton is like a German exotic – Porsche, AMG, Maybach, Alpina, and Ruf, which represents a long history of performance that is analytical, clinical and precise, with styling that has always maintained a sporty middle ground, in between the conservative or even stodgy styling of the Brits and the more extreme elements of the Italians. They combine the quality/reliability of German engineering that the British and Italian sports cars don't have, with the cachet that rivals only the British and Italian luxury cars. The styling for the most part hides some of the best engineering under the hood, so the cars tend to draw less attention on the road. For example, most people may not even know the difference between an AMG or a regular Benz, much like most people may not have heard of Wharton, but when you say “Penn”, they respond, “oh, Penn State.” Moreover, they don't quite have the same cachet of the British and Italian luxury cars, even though many drivers would still kill to say “I drive a Porsche” even if it’s just a Cayenne (i.e. a Toyota SUV with a Porsche stamp).


Booth is like Mercedes-Benz – one of the preeminent luxury car brands, but without as much of the sex appeal and prestige of an exotic car. Underneath the hood, the performance is as good and sometimes even better than its more “prestigious” counterparts in the UK, Italy, or its neighbor in Zuffenhausen. In fact, while a Ferrari, Aston Martin or Porsche owner will talk about the driving experience as “fun”, “raw” or “holy f*ck yeah!!!”, Benz owners will whip out spreadsheets of performance statistics to quantify how their cars are just as good as the others. Styling wise, it’s even more conservative than its German counterparts, perhaps a bit stodgy, boxy and awkward at times (and some models are just downright ugly). But hey, it's built like a tank - impenetrable to any kind of criticism.


Kellogg is like a Volkswagen - they aren't the most reliable cars, but they are sure fun cars to drive. They also have a very young, hip and aspirational image - but one that is within reach of many people. When you think of the Beetle, Golf GTI, Jetta, Cabrio, Rabbit, Vanagon/Westfalia (hippie van!!), Passat or Touraeg, you think of a hip young couple who shop at farmer’s markets on their way back from CB2 to pick up funky kitchenware to decorate their so-hip-it-hurts exposed brick loft space – in the suburbs. They are very good at promoting and managing its reputation as a “cool and hip” car to drive. Oh, and they are always smiling, showcasing their Crest Whitestrips ™ bleached teeth. But damn, they are a good looking bunch of people who manage to out party every other school and still look good doing it.


Sloan is like an Audi - more people have them than you'd expect, and for a German car, they are a bit younger and hipper – and more accessible. They are mentioned alongside the other great auto manufacturers, but still fly under the radar in most discussions. They are reliable workhorses that hide its performance and luxury behind a very understated and unassuming exterior – much like Sloanies and their abilities. Even their sportier versions (S-series, R8) are understated compared to its direct competitors. If its peers are a combination of style and substance, they are almost focused entirely on substance, if at the expense of style (if you have ever been to the MIT campus, you’ll know what I’m talking about).


Columbia is like a BMW - an amazing machine that combines performance, quality and cachet, but it also attracts a disproportionate number of overly aggressive drivers who believe they own the road, and act accordingly (blasting horrendous techno music, cutting people off in traffic, honking their horns, etc.). Like the BMW, the “New York advantage” of Columbia has a Jersey Shore element to it. Cheesy club music, overpowering cologne, and drivers who love challenging every single luxury/sports car at a stop light. Or if you happen to drive a Honda (Stern), the BMW driver will rev up his engine and give that look of disdain. I’m sure there are some laid back and friendly BMW drivers, but they seem to be drowned out by the sheer number of a**holes – much like the loud minority at Columbia that give the school a bad name. But hey, across the board, they are still amazing machines and an astute person will know it’s not the car, but the driver behind the wheel. Just don’t get the X5, which is known to explode for absolutely no reason, much like a few loose cannon Columbia alums out there.


Tuck is like a Swedish car, from the pedestrian (Saab and Volvo) to the exotic (Koenigsegg). It's quirky, relatively small in number, but has a fiercely loyal following of aficionados. Not many people know about these cars, but those that do rave about it. Some Tuckies, like the Koenigsegg, are truly exceptional and can stand toe to toe with any other exotic in terms of performance, styling and cachet. Beyond that, if there is any reputation it has, it’s the family-oriented cars for hippies. Volvos and Saabs like Tuck seem to scream “I am a liberal outdoorsy vegan who collects bumper sticker slogans!” Strap some skis and bikes on its luggage rack, and you’re off camping! Don’t forget to bring your weed and Phish paraphernalia.


LBS is like Jaguar and Land Rover. A luxury British car that is high performance, but with some reliability issues that vary from one car to the next. Styling is decidedly refined and sophisticated, much like how LBS grads see themselves. They have that muscular feel of American cars with more European styling and refinement, much like how LBS has that American-style 2-year MBA structure but with a decidedly European student body. Also, when you think of Jaguar and Land Rover owners, you think of upper middle class blokes of all ages (including the geriatric) who love to drink, and drink lots of anything alcoholic – much like LBS which might as well own a chain of pubs for its students.


INSEAD is like Peugeot-Citroen. Not because they are both French, but because they are both very well known everywhere in the world but the US. Similar to how Peugeot-Citroen is one of the world’s largest car makers, INSEAD is one of the largest business schools – but if you lived in the US you’d never know it. While they have a reputation amongst the public as “the everyday car for Europeans,” to those in the know they have the reputation for building supercars that have dominated the Le Mans (which again means nothing to the NASCAR/Indy centric US). Similarly, INSEAD grads are found in all sectors of industry from middle management upwards, but that has a reputation as Europe’s preeminent business school, and one of the most respected names within those who know business schools.


Ross is like General Motors. A bit of everything for everyone, but not really anything in particular that makes them really stand out, other than the fact that it has the feel of a quintessential college town. When you think GM, you think America. When you think Michigan, you think Americana. And like GM cars, quality will vary, but for the most part the cars are down the middle when it comes to styling, performance, and reliability. It’s a solid, good choice for a buyer with a modest budget and who isn’t interested in flash or being super urban and hip – much like how Ross is a solid middle-of-the-road top school for those who want some of the prestige of the other top 8 schools, but who aren’t too fussy and caught up in keeping up with the Joneses. It’s a utilitarian choice that gets you from point A to point B – a degree that helps you get a decent job so you can enjoy your family life. And if you want a bit of flash, you get their Cadillac.


Fuqua is like Chrysler, because it’s hard to tell the difference between GM and Chrysler cars, just like it’s hard to separate out Ross and Fuqua, and they seem to be interchangeable amongst applicants anyhow. Sebring or a Buick? Which one is Chrysler and which one is GM? I thought the PT Cruiser was GM? I’m confused. Just like Ross, Fuqua is a solid middle-of-the-road choice when you see the MBA for what it is (get a better job) while you get on with your life. It’s for people who don’t have hang ups about what school they go to, but want a good school – and unlike NYU and Haas (see below), for people who want a more quintessential American college town experience. Basketball. Football. Cheerleaders. Suburban Americana.


Darden is like Ford because it prides itself on being “built tough”. From the Mustang to the F-150 to the Crown Victorias, their bread and butter are cars that can withstand all kinds of grit, grime and abuse – much like how Darden students pride themselves on their ability to survive their infamous workload. Just like the Big-3 US automakers, applicants tend to apply to Michigan, Darden and Duke (below) collectively because they are similar to one another. The difference is, Darden is the macho brother of the three. Not known for their refinement, but the cars most likely to withstand nuclear war. Don’t mess with Darden, because they will grind you up, spit you out, and crush you with their boots of steel. Boo-yah!


Stern is like Honda – similar to Duke/Darden/Michigan, it’s a solid choice for people who want a good program that gets them from point A to point B in relative comfort, but whose style is a bit more fun and peppy than its Detroit counterparts. From the Civic to the Accord to the Pilot, it’s about practicality first and foremost. However, there are obnoxious owners of all marques, and Honda is no different – there is the minority of folks who constantly proclaim in that smug way that they could’ve gotten a BMW or Benz, but chose a Honda because of blah blah blah, just like a few Sternies here and there will claim they could’ve gotten into Columbia or Booth, but chose Stern instead. I don’t doubt that it’s true, but methinks the lady doth protest too much. Going to Stern is just like buying a Honda – no one is ever going to fault you for it, and for many who go there, they are happy with it being an enjoyable means to an end.


Haas is like Toyota, much like Stern is like Honda. It’s for the practical minded who simply want to get a good degree so they can get a better job. Nothing more or less than that. And Haas fits that bill, much like a Corolla, Prius or a Tacoma. While some may be curious about why you would buy an American car, no one will question why you bought a Japanese car – just like many internationals may have more explaining to do when it comes to “why did you go to Ross/Fuqua/Darden?” but fewer if any outside the US will question why you chose Haas. Or Stern. In other words, Haas and Stern are like Toyota and Honda because they are all very well known worldwide, whereas American cars have more limited traction, especially outside of North America.

And don’t even start on the supposed luxury brands such as Lexus or Acura – as good as they may be, they’re just “nicer Toyotas” and “nicer Hondas” – and there’s nothing wrong with that.


Johnson is like Subaru – a high quality and practical car, for those who know about it. The marque is typically not on the top of people’s minds at first, although if you were to ask them to track how many Subarus they see in a day, chances are there are more out there than they ever realized. You see, Subarus don’t like to draw attention to themselves, they simply get on with their business, and they attract buyers who want a reliable import/Japanese car, but want something different for the sake of being different (and something a bit more rugged). In a way, they are quirkier than the other Japanese marques, using boxer engines instead of an inline or V. Similarly, Johnson is sort of out there in rugged upstate New York – there’s more of them working amongst you, but you wouldn’t realize it unless you actually asked people where they went to school.


Yale is the Mazda of business schools. What causes a person to go to Yale over NYU? It’s a toss up, really just like a Honda versus Mazda. Oftentimes, it comes down to who gives you the better deal and better financing. Similar to Honda, Mazdas are known for being fun and sporty economy cars that don’t take themselves too seriously. For example, who chooses Miatas? While I’m sure some could afford the more expensive European cars, most want a comparable quality experience that is within their reach. Again, if given the choice with no constraints, I’m sure most Miata owners would rather drive a German or Italian sports car, but few if any are complaining about driving that zippy little Miata around town. Similarly, while few would choose Yale over other top 8 schools, it’s a place where people seem pretty happy about being there – they could certainly do a lot worse.


Anderson is the Nissan of business schools. Like Nissan would be compared to other Japanese marques, Anderson tends to fall under the radar, even though it’s known worldwide and they’re everywhere. Similar to Toyota and Honda, for the most part they are solid cars that appeal to the practical minded buyer who just wants to “get on with it.” Likewise, Anderson attracts students who simply see the MBA as a means to an end, and want a high quality school that will help them get a good job – it’s the practical choice for many who want or need to stay in California for their careers. While it doesn’t get the same level of exposure as Toyota or Honda, no one is going to fault you for ever getting a Nissan. At worst, it elicits no opinion, and at best, a positive one.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What Can I Do To Improve My Chances?

One of the most common questions I get from readers is "What can I do to improve my chances in the next few months?"

In short, there are really four things:

(1) Get a "good enough" GMAT score. Your GMAT needs to be within range: for top 16 schools plus INSEAD and LBS, you realistically need at least a 700 or greater for it not to be a significant handicap. If it is below 680, your chances at a top 16 are going to be slim. However, trying to eke out 10-20 more points when you already have a competitive score (700+) is a waste of time. For top schools, a below average score is a liability, but a high GMAT is not an asset. Or to put it another way - the GMAT can only hurt your chances if it's way below the school's averages, and can never help you if it's way above average. Focus on "good enough" and move on. However, if your score is below average, do whatever it takes to improve it, even if it means taking it multiple times (although after 3 attempts, chances are your score probably isn't going to get better).

Again, the magic number for the top 16 + INSEAD/LBS these days is 700 or greater. Move down a tier to the top 30, and the magic number is around 670-680 (in other words, there isn't much of a difference in GMAT scores amongst applicants to any decent schools these days).

I think the GMAT is a silly way to evaluate career professionals, but it's a necessary evil. If you can't get a competitive score for your target schools, then you will either have to reassess your list by including lower ranked schools, or go into it rolling the dice knowing that your GMAT score will be a handicap.

(2) Visit 2 or 3 schools. You don't have to visit every single school you're applying to. However, visiting a few of them can give you a real feel for what business school is all about in a way that no website, blog, magazine or second-hand information can do. There really is no substitute for sitting in on a class and seeing how b-school works with your own eyes and ears, talking to current students "off-the-record" about their experiences, and just spending a few hours to a full day just soaking in what it means to be a student at that particular school. This will not only help you with your essays and interviews, but will also give you a stronger reality check for where you feel you stand compared to asking strangers on the Internet for validation on "my chances". It's worth the time and money.

In a subtle but important way, when you've visited some schools, there's a tone of authority and confidence when talking about what you want and why you want it in a specific way that just naturally comes through in your writing which others without that experience can fake.

And this is ESPECIALLY important for those applicants who aren't surrounded by post-MBA colleagues in their workplace.

(3) If your undergrad GPA sucked, take a few extension classes. This is more important for those who went to US colleges. Those who studied outside the US are given way more leeway, and practically a free pass on their GPA, since it's harder to benchmark and assess -- so for those who studied abroad, it really comes down to your GMAT and to some extent the prestige of your undergrad institution in your country. Anyhow, if your GPA sucked and you went to a US college, take 1-2 extension classes, either locally at an accredited college/university or online from an accredited institution (doesn't matter which one). If your GPA was below 3.1, definitely consider taking 1-2 classes. If it was below 3.3, only do it if you have time. As for what classes to take, so long as it's a freshman level or 100-level quantitative course (calculus, stats, accounting, algebra, etc.), you're fine. You won't get extra brownie points for taking advanced classes.

One last thing. If you studied engineering, adcoms will be more forgiving because they know that engineering programs tend to grade on a much harsher curve. So long as your GPA is above 3.1, you probably don't need to take extension classes so long as your GMAT is competitive.

(4) Do the best you can on your written application. In short, aside from getting a "good enough" GMAT and visiting a few schools (and taking extension classes if your GPA sucked), all you can do beyond that is wait for the applications to come out in June, and do your best on the essays and coaching your recommenders.

If you're only a few months to a year away from applying, all you can do is to tell your story about what you've done to date. You don't really have time to create "new" stories that are substantive enough. Avoid window dressing because you're not fooling anyone. The reason why is that you can't fundamentally change who you are in just a few months. Real change takes years, not months. If you "start" something, you will have nothing to say about it other than you "started" something, because any significant achievement usually takes time, and doesn't happen overnight.

If you've known anyone who has achieved extraordinary things or are "outliers" - it was often years if not decades in the making. Becoming a nationally ranked athlete is a culmination of years or a full decade of work. Getting admitted to an Ivy League undergrad isn't some casual thing, but a culmination of healthy school habits and focus since elementary school. No matter what it is (athletic, artistic, academic, career, political, etc), doing something you're truly proud of usually is a culmination of a LOT of blood, sweat and tears (literally and figuratively), which isn't something that you casually pick up on the fly. Don't be arrogant to think you can just turn on "exceptional" when you want it, on demand.

A lot of business school websites now emphasize that they want to know who you really are, they want you to be authentic, sincere, and genuine. Its basically code word for "we have seen so much bullsh*t over the years from applicants. We are not easily fooled - we can detect bullsh*t faster than you can write it." Keep in mind the fact that while the adcoms are typically not that much older than you (mostly in their late 20s to late 30s), they are still older than you and likely have more life experience than you - they aren't absent-minded seniors who will believe everything you say. Don't bullsh*t them.