Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Top 15 MBA better than No MBA?

It's only June, but the application cycle will start soon as most schools will release their essay questions next month.  As I contemplate my school list, I have been asking myself the question that a lot of applicants have asked (or should ask if they haven't done so already):  how "low" down the rankings am I willing to go?

A few friends of mine have advised me to apply to schools in the 11-15ish range, in addition to my top choices.  Their core argument is that those schools will still offer me access to jobs I may be interested in and that I will most likely increase my earning power.  This may very well be true, but based on what I have gathered thus far, I'm still not sure this would be the best path for me.

The most important criteria when choosing a school is obviously career placement.  Recently I have been poring through the employment reports of various top 15 b-schools.  A disturbing reality began setting in as I went through the reports.  For the companies/jobs I'm interested in, there is a very sharp drop in recruitment once you go below Tuck/Haas.  This means that if I were to attend a 11-15 school I would need to hustle like a madman to get my foot in the door.  I certainly don't mind working hard, but this does make me question whether certain schools will help me to achieve my post-mba career goal.  The placement issue will also have implications in other areas of MBA life.  The more time I spend trying to land interviews, the less time I have to spend on social pursuits and building relationships, which is far from being a trivial aspect of b-school.

Another dimension of the MBA experience is undoubtedly your classmates and the overall school culture.  Unlike say top law or med schools, the top business schools are remarkably different from each other.  In my campus visits, talking to students and alums, and research, I asked myself whether I could truly be happy here. 

At Wharton and Booth, for example, the energy and buzz were so overwhelming that I could hardly contain my excitement.  During classes I wanted to jump into the discussions.  While talking to students, I found people who shared my interests across multiple areas, and their passion was matched only by their unique life experiences and accomplishments.  "Yes!" I told myself.  I could definitely see myself here for two years, constantly learning, growing, and pushing myself to the limits.  And I know I would gladly pay $200K to attend without giving it a second thought.  In sharp contrast, at a few of the other schools I visited, I felt underwhelmed, even bored.  It's hard to explain or quantify, but as a Supreme Court justice said when asked how he knew whether something was pornography, "I know when I see it."  At these schools (they shall remain nameless) I just did not sense that my time there would be transformational.  

Therefore, given these considerations, along with the tremendous financial burden, I am still debating whether I should apply to a more wide variety of top 15 programs.  Of course, I can always apply and if accepted, make a decision then.  However, given the time commitment required to write a strong application, I also don't want to waste my time on schools that I am simply not at all excited about attending. 

I will think more about this in the coming weeks as application season rapidly approaches. 


  1. Hmmm, I think you make some good points but may be over simplifying some stuff. Like you, I've visited schools where I have been underwhelmed by either the other prospective students and/or current students. That makes it difficult to be excited about going to the school. However, I think it's important to prioritize. Even at the schools where I was "underwhelmed", so to speak, I still interacted with several people who did knock my socks off so I never got the impression that my time would be totally wasted there.

    I think it's hard to gauge much from an employment report. You have to remember that so much of that is driven by self selection. No school's report tells you how many people who are recruiting for a certain industry/function actually get it. That's way more important. The type of jobs that you're looking at still take a ton of networking and leg work to get into even coming from a top school. I know many people who still balanced an elongated recruiting season with a robust social life. You need to remember that business school is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to socializing opportunities. You don't have to do everything to still reap the benefits of bonding with your classmates. Working hard to find a job does not have to be mutually exclusive of having a good time. The biggest thing I would look at when seeing if a school in the 11-15 range will be a good option is where the alums are. Most people leave their first post MBA role within 2-3 years anyways. Look to see if there is any concentration of a school's alums in the companies and roles you're looking at. I've heard that the 11-15 schools tend to have pretty tight networks that are very responsive to students. You can use that to make the connections you need to get in front of your target companies. Also remember,for certain types of jobs just because a company comes to campus to recruit that does not mean they do mass hiring. For example, IM and PE firms are notorious for coming to campus and then only hiring 1 person, if any at all. Something to think about.

    1. Cheetarah1980, thanks for your response.

      I agree generally that business school offer plenty of social opportunities and that recruiting is not mutually exclusive from having fun. However, there is a reason why those who tend to enjoy school the most are those who are being sponsored or have full-time offers lined up. As you know, recruiting is a very stressful process, especially if one is not making headwinds to get the job he wants. Perhaps others are different from me in this regard, but I would have a hard time taking full advantage of the social components if I'm falling short on recruiting.

      There are basically two components to the recruiting process: getting an interview and then the interviews themselves. I'm pretty confident of my ability to perform well during interviews. It is the former that concern me. For investment management, for instance, the big name firms recruit at a handful of schools, and if you don't attend a "target," getting an interview becomes extremely difficult. Even MBB consulting, which is a major MBA feeder, offers far fewer interview slots for schools in the 11-15 range. This means that at such a school I would face the tremendous pressure of getting my foot in the door in the first place and knocking the pavement, so to speak.

      One quick example to further clarify my point. A friend of mine, who will be attending a top 5 program, recently attended a pre-MBA finance forum where he met with top investment firms. While talking to one recruiter, she asked my friend what school he will be attending, and when he told her, she replied, "That's great. Your school is a target for us, so I will definitely see you on-campus when we visit." A person next to my friend mentioned that she will be attending a school that is ranked around #15, and the recruiter replied coldly "Well, look up alumni on linkedin who works here and try to get an interview that way." Basically this interaction shows that for coveted finance jobs, not attending a core school is a major impediment because you will not be given the chance to meet with these firms face-to-face during campus visits. Of course I am fully aware that these jobs are hard to get, but I'm certainly not asking for a job on a silver platter. I merely want the chance. I'm afraid that at some of the non-top 10 programs, just getting that chance will prove to be enormously difficult, thereby putting me under an inordinate amount of stress.

      Also, I certainly did not say that there are no smart interesting people at other schools or that attending such a school would be a "waste." Such an assertion would be ludicrous and totally unwarranted. I do believe strongly however that there is a fundamental difference in the culture and experience between a #1 b-school and a #15 school. The relevant question here is not, "Will attending this school be a waste?" Rather, I'm asking myself, "will I have a good chance of getting the job I want by coming here and at the same time enjoy the transformational experience I am seeking?"