Admissions Advice and Commonly Asked Questions
The following are articles mostly from my blog (http://mbaapply.blogspot.com) as well as magazines that I wrote for. I have also produced the video series Interview Don'ts. Enjoy!
What is the next hot sector that MBA graduates are coveting?
Every decade or so, one "hot" sector captures the imagination of MBAs looking to be the Masters of the Universe - that big payday or that job that would be the envy of their classmates and peers. It's this glory seeking, trophy hunting and status-seeking mentality that drives the herd mentality within the MBA jet-set.
In the 60s, it was advertising. In the 70s, it was conglomerates. In the 80s, it was bond trading. In the 90s, it was dot-coms and venture capital. And in this decade, it's private equity/hedge funds.
It wasn't long ago when people were arguing that dot-coms were going to be hot for a long time. Even b-schools introduced ecommerce majors, as if business fundamentals were somehow different in a virtual world (well, they are when you are in a stock market bubble). Before that, quite a few assumed that bond trading would continue to be the darling of MBAs, and Silicon Valley was scoffed at as just a bunch of geeks in a garage. If history is a decent guide, you can probably fill in the blanks. Things change, but human nature never changes.
While some of the interest certainly is genuine, most of it is, like any market bubble, driven by greed and fear. Like any asset market, greed makes you buy when you should be selling, and fear makes you sell when you should be buying. The smart money got in before the sector got hot.
You probably know that the private equity market is overheated right now. Same with hedge funds. Too much cheap money chasing too few deals. Bad times never last forever, but good times never do either.
If you're looking for a career in the "hot" sector, by all means go for it. But if you're looking for glory, you're too late to the game. By the time you have a shot at glory, the party's over. All that talk of billion dollar bonuses at hedge funds and private equity shops are about 10 - 30 years removed from where most MBAs (and aspiring MBAs alike) are at today. Working as an underling *for* a big swinging d*ck isn't the same as *being* the big swinging d*ck. The former is like being a chambermaid for royalty - just because you help make someone's bed, doesn't make you part of the family, nor does it mean you have anywhere near the same benefits and perks either.
Like celebrities in People Magazine (and MBA herd mentality is like People Magazine), all hot sectors "jump the shark" before it's replaced by something new.
And private equity has jumped the shark. What used to be the playground for burnt-out investment bankers in the past has now become the dreams of IT engineers - just as the market has peaked. It's like schoolteachers talking about the latest penny stock.
Like advertising, conglomerates, bond trading and dot-coms -- private equity won't disappear. But it sure won't garner the attention or glory in the future that it does now. And it may even institutionalize even further, making the "big swinging d*ck" in private equity as obsolete as it is in investment banking. The nature of the job is gatekeeping. You are a gatekeeper of money. The folks who made it big didn't make it big because they were good gatekeepers. They made it big because they got in early before others caught wind.
Again, if you're banking on glory, status or even just a huge financial windfall, don't count on it if you're this late in the game. By the time you make partner, People Magazine would've moved onto something else much sexier, trendier and more lucrative - you'll be yesterday's news by the time you've made it. All the press, accolades, and money that showered the partners today will be on some other industry by the time you've climbed the ladder.
The folks who generate the enormous windfall have one thing in common -- they get in early. Whether it's real estate, stocks, art collections, or even careers - they managed to stay ahead of the uninformed masses.
It's not about being smart, educated, pedigreed, or rich - it's about being early. Most of the personal wealth amassed by Google staff isn't concentrated in the Stanford MBA alums - most of it goes to those who were there in Google's early stages - from the CEO all the way down to the customer service rep. In most cases, the early birds have the largest piece of the pie in any venture.
Buy low, sell high. MBAs who are part of the herd mentality unfortunately tend to buy high and sell low.
So what is The Next Big Thing? It could be healthcare. International porn. Or it could be all about Eastern Europe, China and India (note to international students, and particularly the Indians who seem to be the most adverse to repatriating compared to other internationals -- if you believed this, is there any reason why you need to be an H1B indentured servant post-MBA, rather than being the early bird entrepreneur back home -- as an aside, the few folks who are going back now will likely reap greater rewards long-term than any H1B employee ever will who believes "someday I'll go back"; mark my word on this).
Personally, I have no idea what the Next Big Thing is nor do I really care. And you probably don't. That's the point. You're chasing your own tail if you do. It's not about trying to time the market or to play market contrarian with your career. It's simply about being brutally honest with yourself about what it is you enjoy doing, and sticking to it. Because everything will have it's day in the sun if you enjoy the job enough to stick through the tough times. Who knows, maybe even insurance or accounting may be The Next Big Thing... stranger things have happened. And if you're too risk averse that you have to stick with what appears to be safe, then don't expect much - greater returns come with greater risk.
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What can we learn about the job market from previous downturns?
With an expected increase in applicants to the top MBA programs coupled with a far tighter job market, the next few years for MBAs is going to be tough. It'll be harder to get in, and it'll be harder to get the jobs that they want.
However, this isn't the first time it's ever happened. And it certainly won't be the last. Every time the current crop of folks will say "this time, it's different" -- those who've been through multiple cycles know otherwise. The circumstances may change, but it's been that way since the dawn of time -- there will be good times, and there will be bad times, and neither last forever.
So here is some food for thought.
Be pragmatic. You may not get the dream job you want. Frankly, even during boom times, it's hard to get your dream job, especially if you're career switching and need to convince a company that "even though I don't have direct relevant experience, I ...." It's just hard to get a good job, period.
Know what and what not to settle for. This will vary by individual. Some of my classmates in the aftermath of the dot-com bust in 2001 and post 9/11 took whatever job they could get (just anything) because they couldn't bear not being employed and needed the money badly. And they turned out all right. Others were more willing to hold out -- some as long as a year and a half to get the job they wanted (and they turned out all right). The most important thing is to know that everyone has a different threshhold -- and to AVOID getting sucked into whatever peer pressure you may be facing (i.e. "all my friends are holding out, so I should do the same" or "all my friends are settling, so I should do the same"). It's your life, your money, your obligations, your priorities. From a practical standpoint, it comes down to how much risk you're willing to take to hold out, vs settling for whatever it is you have. How long are you prepared (mentally and financially) to survive without a job post-MBA to get the job you want?
There are many paths to the same goal. For example, if you really really want to work in some specific sector in finance, you don't need to necessarily start there right after b-school (although the direct path is usually the preferred route). In a bad job market, you may have to be prepared to reach your goal EVENTUALLY rather than IMMEDIATELY. And if it's really what you want to do, it really shouldn't matter in the grand scheme of things whether you get there now, or get there later through some circuitous route.
There is no template or formula. It seems like so many MBAs are too keen to search for some template or formula to follow whatever it is they want, rather than THINKING FOR THEMSELVES. MBA students (and applicants) seem to be so prone to herd mentality, like they need constant reaffirmation for the choices they make by constantly benchmarking the actions and choices of others. When many of your fellow MBAs act like sheep, it's easy to just fall in line if you're not aware that they're just being sheep and looking to you to figure out what to do. Be aware of the convention, but don't feel bound by it. Forge your own path.
It's not that fragile. As alluded to in (2), most if not all the MBAs I knew from various schools who graduated in '01 turned out all right. Likewise, the 2009, 2010 and 2011 grads will turn out all right - the first few years post-MBA may be a tumultuous and stressful time for many, but in the end it'll be fine - short of armageddon (but then, it wouldn't really matter for any of us if that were the case, now would it?). The direction of your whole life doesn't hinge on whether you get the interview with a particular firm, or whether you make $X or anything else that may seem to cause an MBA to get an unnecessary ulcer. Yes, it can be stressful if you have loans to pay back, and being unemployed sucks, but adding phantom stakes of how this will impact your life long-term only makes it worse. You are getting an MBA (or just graduated with one) to work a desk job at a company -- nothing of real consequence is going to happen to you if it doesn't quite work out. And if it's a matter of survival, no one is going to laugh at you if you have to live with your parents (it's been done by quite a few grads from top schools in the last crash of '01). You're not shut out of some uber-prestigious job because you've had to take your old pre-MBA job to make ends meet, or to work part-time at Starbucks. Yes, it can be trying, it can be tough -- but you'll come out such times a stronger and more wiser person -- wiser about who you are and what you *really* want. And when you've finally been able to strip away the mystique or prestige or whatever it is you've ascribed to whatever career path you so coveted, you'll see that WORK IS WORK. Most people (even those who may have seemed to reach their childhood dreams) aren't exactly thrilled about having to work - but they do the best they can.
Some of you may know that careers aren't linear. Life isn't linear. Things happen to you that will change your world forever, causing you to start over. Or you will make that choice. You will more likely go from one career path to another completely unrelated career path -- and do that a couple of times for the rest of your life. This isn't your parent's generation where you work up the ranks as the "company man" or there's clear "exit strategy" for job XYZ which then leads to job ABC and so forth. Lawyers go back to med school. Equity research analysts quit and join a rock band. Many walk away from corporate life to start a mom 'n pop business, with some only to come back to corporate life. Others become full-time parents. A life's work these days is becoming a random series of careers - and in the workplace, a revolving door of newcomers coming in and veterans leaving.
That's why there isn't some 10-step plan for getting a job in a tough job market (or any job market), other than keeping your expectations realistic.
And most importantly, like many things -- NOT getting what you want can lead to other more wonderful things you never would've even discovered otherwise -- if you're willing to see it that way.
As vague as it may sound, you want to be as focused as you can, but open to other things along the way as well - it's a difficult but worthwhile balance to strive for as you enter b-school this fall (or if you're applying to b-school, a good way to get a head start on this before half the MBAs start jumping off the cliff in panic and fear).
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How much does brand matter?
For many applicants, getting that prestigious name on their resume is one of the many reasons why they want an MBA from a top school.
But does the brand of your MBA really matter? Like many aspects of b-school, admissions, recruiting, etc. -- it all depends.
In essence, the pedigree of your education matters more the less experienced (read: younger) you are. It matters if you're looking to work in specific industries like management consulting and banking - where these firms do most of their recruiting at select schools.
If you're in your early to mid-20s and you're not particularly sure about what you want to do post-MBA, then going to the school with the best overall reputation is likely your best bet. But if you're pretty sure about what you want to do and it doesn't involve investment banking or management consulting, then you want to focus far more on the specific strengths or geographic location of the school.
Also, if you're in your 30s and beyond, you already have an extensive body of work that employers will look at no matter how hard you try to run away from it. Of course, there's a difference in opportunities between say an online degree and Darden, but there's not really going to be a huge difference for you whether you got to Darden, Kellogg, or Stanford -- because as a seasoned professional, you will be judged on your entire body of work. In fact, depending on your circumstance, it may not even matter whether you go to a top30 vs. a top16 school.
Pedigree matters for kids because they don't have much else. Experience matters for adults - even if such prior experience is not related to your current career aspirations. And other than banking or consulting, just about every other industry values experience above all.
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An Alternative to Entrepreneurship
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.
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