Thoughts About Business School

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bschoolDespite being kind of a closet fuck-up, I am always happy when I can provide opinions to guide people through their life’s decisions. I have a young friend who has been mulling over graduate school, including business school, which I attended a few years ago. She sent me a note with a series of questions which I answered truthfully. Thinking that this might be helpful to some of you, I am transferring these questions and answers to my blog today, with strategic parts of my answer obscured (to preserve what’s left of my anonymity). Would love to hear your thoughts, questions or comments, either in the comments section below or via any other channels where you may know me.

1) What your the biggest takeaway after graduating bschool?

I’m not sure how to interpret “takeaway” but despite this being question #1, I’m answering it last– so I’ll answer with information that isn’t shared below.  I think having gone through the whole process, and despite some of the challenges and misgivings I have had about the experience, I feel really blessed to have done this in my life. I think it’s true that you value the things that you have to work the hardest for. Bschool was never really in my life plan and it’s not something—not at the point of admission, not at the point of attending—that came easily to me. I was rejected the 1st time I applied, I was waitlisted up to the last minute the 2nd time and had to push for admission (and received a phone call acceptance and had to move within a one month!), I struggled in the classes, was on academic probation—it was all super hard! But I also know that I worked harder and I made it and there is something satisfying about that.

I don’t boast about the MBA and in fact more of the time it’s people telling me what they think of me because I have it (and usually it’s positive) rather than me talking about it proactively. But I do think that I am part of a reasonably elite group. In some ways, it’s an honor to have been given this opportunity and I do think I gained a lot from it. So in that vein, it’s like a prize that I feel proud to have earned.

2) What is the one thing you wish you knew before you had applied that would have help set expectations about bschool or make the app process easier?

That bschool admission is a numbers game. Every school will list the average stats of their current class on the website and you should really look at these numbers in assessing your likelihood of admission. In college, admissions is different b/c I think the goals are different. They want some level of diversity, promise and potential in students, etc. And frankly, they have more spots to fill. So usually when you are applying for undergraduate admission, you have your safety schools, you have your reach schools etc. And sometimes the results are really jarring for comparable schools: like getting into UCLA but not UC Berkeley or whatever. For bschool, I don’t think there is that level of flexible hope. Your GPA has to be good, your GMAT has to be good, your work history should be substantial, etc. I think it’s just a much more cut and dry process.

3) What are the biggest challenges? Is it the curriculum, the day to day, classmates, etc.

Because I was a liberal arts major, the courses were really tough for me. I struggled a lot with the quant-heavy classes. While other people were off partying, I was sitting at home doing ALL the supplemental work that was suggested by professors. To be totally honest, I was on academic probation my first few quarters of school (which the dean told me wasn’t uncommon and that you can pull yourself out of). But I worked more and had less satisfying results than I’ve ever had in my life.

I also did find the social component of bschool really tough. I was older than most of the students by about 2-3 years so that accounted for some of it. But I think also it was my first exposure to the non-tech world and there was some behavior that was unexpected and egregious. The amount of drug use surprised me. Being a woman in bschool is tough, I think. To be honest, there are a lot of jerks in bschool (the finance guys come to mind) and I had never had to be around people like that before. To be absolutely honest as well, some of the girls who were perfectly smart and accomplished acted in incredibly self-degrading ways. It was my first exposure to some of this stuff and it was really tough. I didn’t like it.

4) Why did you choose {the school you attended} over other schools?

I applied for school twice and by the 2nd time, {my bschool} was the only school that accepted me. In all fairness, by that second time, I was waitlisted for 2 schools ({school #1 and school #2}) and my friend had successfully lobbied for admission to {my bschool} and was able to pass on the admission director’s email to me (her sister was a student at {the college} and walked to {the bschool} to get the information for her). I wrote an email to the director giving her updates since the time of application (in my case, it included traveling to India for work, retaking and getting an A in statistics, and taking a solo journey through Germany as a life refresh). Admissions directors are assessed on their acceptance rates so basically you have to let them know “if you give me an offer, I will accept.”

In terms of why I decided to apply to {my bschool}: a colleague who had gone to {another bschool located in the South} gave me advice and her biggest piece of feedback was that the geography of the school seriously impacts your opportunities b/c it dictates which companies will recruit there, why students are there and which programs are better. She had difficulty attending {her bschool} and getting traction on internships and jobs back in California which is where she aimed to be after graduation. Geography also dictates why some schools are known for certain programs. NYU, Columbia and Wharton are big finance schools b/c they are close to NYC. There are a lot of good brand marketing programs in the midwest (Michigan comes to mind) b/c a lot of CPGs are in the midwest (P&G is in Ohio, I think Kimberly Clark is in the area too).  I figured {my bschool} was a good bet if I wanted to work in California.

5) How did you know the time was “right” for you to go? Or did you know?

I started thinking about bschool when I was probably around 25 and I was working at a magazine. I had two friends who were either about to go or had just been accepted so there was some “maybe me too” about the situation. My journey to bschool was longer b/c I wasn’t the type of person who had always aspired to it. So around that time, I started taking econ classes at the local community college. By 26, I started working at Google and at that point in time, you didn’t leave Google. You just didn’t. I still though took the GMAT at that time b/c I wanted to use it as a decision maker (basically if I did poorly, I would know bschool wasn’t the thing for me). About 2 years into Google, I was pretty sure I was ready to start thinking about other things and that’s about when I applied for the first time to bschool.

I don’t think there is an epiphany about when the time is right. I think for me the time was right for two reasons. I think, very truthfully, as a woman you have to make these hard decisions. I didn’t want to go to bschool when I was too old. And then I think you should apply when you have a body of work and an application that is impressive enough to grab an admission officer’s attention. So I applied when I thought that all my ducks were in a row and when I thought I had enough professional equity to be able to benefit from going back to school for my master’s.

6) I want to find an opportunity to volunteer…but not just any opportunity  I want to go about it strategically…any tips? Or do you know any contacts?

There are resources like VolunteerMatch where you can find places to volunteer. I think generally I have volunteered at organizations that I cared about or where somebody offered me a chance to volunteer. So I volunteered at a camp for kids with cancer and I was a leader on my high school’s housebuilding trip to Mexico (in this second case, a friend was a teacher at the school at the time and a couple of their faculty leaders dropped out). Currently, I do an annual volunteering project at Glide with {my bschool} b/c an alum puts it together and always asks me if I want to go. I think you need to do things that you enjoy. If you are thinking about this in terms of having it on your resume for bschool, I would suggest that you volunteer for projects where you lead a team, where you produce a deliverable, or something that demonstrates a quality that is impressive.

7) How did bschool change or impact you (either personally or professionally)? 

Before deciding to go to school, I had a friend describe to me what she felt like she gained from getting her MBA. And she likened it to putting on a pair of glasses: that it sharpened everything that you saw from a business perspective. I think pre bschool, I had really good instincts about things and had always been told that I was really analytical. I think I now have a more structured way of thinking about things and sharing my opinions. Also, most bschools are based on the case method where you study how companies in the past had tackled problems. You realize that despite progress that happens in the business world, a lot of the same situations are revisited time and time again. So again, it gives you a framework for understanding any challenges you may tackle currently in your job.

I think also it has helped me with gaining trust or respect in the workplace. I am pretty much the person nobody wants to be in the business world: a minority, a female, small in stature and youthful in appearance. I hate saying this b/c I hope it doesn’t dishearten you but I am never the person that people want to listen to and I am never the person who automatically gets respect from others. When I was younger, I thought it was because I was young and new to the working world but as I’ve gotten older (and yes, ok, I didn’t really age as much so that is probably one reason), I’ve realized that the working world is a tough place for females, for minority females, etc. I feel like when people know that I have an MBA from a good program (and also have a sense of my work history), they cut me more slack than if they were just meeting me cold. So there is a sense of a personal benefit in the workplace from having that beacon in my personal history.

8) You said the curriculum is quant heavy…can you elaborate or give an example of the material? 

You can check out the curriculum for the first semester or quarters of bschool on any school’s site. I can’t remember specifically but your first quarter will always be general classes so something like accounting and statistics and economics etc. For me, a lot of the material didn’t come naturally b/c I had a soft major. Also, unlike in college where most students are on your same level, by the time you hit grad school, people have specialized. So it’s not uncommon for you to be in an economics class with people who were economics majors from great schools. It’s inherently never a level playing field by that point. I remember taking a statistics final where I really struggled up to the last minute (and still did only ok) whereas a girl who I knew was a math major from {a good undergraduate school} finished it within 20 mins and got up and left. And I’m pretty sure she got an A. With that said, I do think that bschool is not set up to help you learn material—you can’t learn Accounting in 10 weeks. So I would recommend that you take some of these courses at the local junior college either to be prepared and not be shellshocked but also to get a sense of if this stuff even interests you. I took Macro and Micro economics classes at the local JC before I even applied to bschool to see if I liked the material at all. (PS I LOVED it)

9) If there’s one thing I should absolutely know – what is it?

You asked me before whether I thought you could still be successful if you didn’t go to grad school and my answer was a resounding “YES.” While going back to school can yield great opportunities, professionally and personally, whether or not you are accepted into a program and decide to go is not a mark of your value, not as a person and not as a professional. Getting an advanced degree is not a guarantee of future success and not getting an advanced degree is not going to handicap you from being exceptionally successful if that’s what you work towards.

I think also, a big revelation is just how much bschool and the admissions cycle is a numbers game. When I was a student, my bschool went through a brand refresh and one of the deans made a really interesting comment. Somebody said to him that the brand should be updated to appeal to prospective students b/c the students are the customers. The dean responded that the students are the product and that their real customers are the businesses who hire from the bschool. It was an interesting comment b/c it gave insight on the whole ecosystem: that the bschool has to produce graduates who go into some industries who are so happy with those employees they keep recruiting there which drives new students to want to apply to that school for the chance of working at those companies… It’s a business. And for that reason, they are eyeballing applicants as unformed “products” that they can buy, update and sell, as it were.

10) Optional: If you don’t mind me asking, what was starting salary like right after graduation?

I don’t want to say the number but my salary increased substantially (but also, I think I was underpaid at my previous employer). I would say my salary increased by 30%+ pre to post bschool.

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