Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Biggest lie MBA adcom will tell you


I've gone to a lot of mba info sessions and campus visits and have had a chance to talk to senior admissions officers on various topics.  These public events are mostly a dog-and-pony show, designed to give off a certain marketing image to prospective applicants.  I've learned to take their answers with a grain of salt since they are mostly generic statements intended to not offend or scare off potential applicants. 

There is one thing that adcom says that irks me to no end.  Whenever I hear it (and I hear it at every info session) it takes the utmost self-control to not pull off a Joe Wilson and scream "You lie!" 


That lie is this: 

"We do not care what company you worked at.  What we care about is the quality of your work." 

There is a reason why I find this statement more egregious than anything else.  Aside from the fact that a handful of banks and consulting firms make up a disproportionate amount of the class at the top b-schools, it gives the impression that every applicant is on equal footing, a pure meritocracy if you will.  Someone who buys this at face value will think that as long as he is smart, hard working, and productive, it doesn't matter what industry or firm he is working in. 

Unfortunately, MBA admissions is a far cry from a meritocracy or anything resembling that.  Yes, there is a signaling effect insofar as the college students who manage to get jobs at top banks and consulting firms were usually top performers.  At the same time though, there are a lot of late bloomers and those who chose to pursue other ventures and made a decision later that an MBA is right for them. 

If you're from an overrepresented demographic group and not working for a name brand firm, you're at a fundamental disadvantage.  Your best bet is to work in a highly niche "exotic" industry where you can stand apart.  But by and large, the good chunk of people who get into the elite programs have followed a rather linear path; this is even more acute at HBS/Stanford/Wharton (please don't buy Stanford's whole "we're different" schtick; they care about work pedigree just as much as HBS, if not more so). 

I think the MBA admissions process in a way punishes those who did not get on the "right" track straight out of college.  There are reasons of course why they do this.  For one, companies such as Mckinsey, BCG, Bain, Goldman, KKR, Blackstone, etc., have a long history of sending their employees to these programs and thus have strong relationships with them.  Many of the alumni give money, so from a business/marketing standpoint, it makes sense to accept many of the applicants from those firms.  I am not making a normative claim on what adcom should or should not do.  They are free to accept whoever they want.  I merely wish to dispel the myth that adcom perpetuates because I think it's disingenuous, dangerous, and misleading. 

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  3. Yes it's really messed up. I realized this when I looked at the "Class of 2014" Facebook group for one of the top schools and half of them (it seemed) worked for McKinsey, Bain, BCG, or Goldman.

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    1. CinderellaMBA, thanks for your comment.

      I wouldn't say it's "messed up" per se, in that the top college students do tend to gravitate towards those jobs, so there is a lot of self-selection. My beef with elite MBA admissions is twofold. First, I think it unduly punishes late bloomers and/or those who did not go into finance/consulting after college. Second, it is still the least meritocratic when compared to the other programs such as college, law, medicine, Phd. Family connections and wealth still play too much of a role. This is ESPECIALLY true for wealthy internationals who blatantly game the system better than anyone I know. The stories I have heard from friends at top b-schools have been pretty ridiculous.

      Life is not fair, of course. You just gotta make the best of the cards you're dealt.

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