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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The MBA Arms Race

During one of my first weeks at Wharton in 2001, I remember a second year telling us how one of their classmates really made an impression at recruiting events. That enterprising classmate got business cards from people that he met during information sessions, sent a follow-up email thanking them for their time, and was very succesful during the recruiting season.

You can imagine the impact of telling an entire class about sending thank you notes. I am sure that company representatives began to dread returning to the office to find their email system frozen due to the sheer volume of nearly identical, "Thank you for taking the time to describe your career path while I smiled and nodded with a deer in the headlights look on my face." I noticed that company representatives started to "forget" their business cards. Some probably changed their out of office message to, "Thank you for your thank you. I enjoyed standing in an awkward circle with you too!"

This is an example of the MBA arms race where MBA's steadily send more thank you's, ask for more recommendations, retake that GMAT, volunteer more, cap their teeth, color their hair, or do whatever the previous class did to get ahead and add to it. Some help MBA's get accepted or get the job while some perepetuate this path of mutually assured destruction where you do more and expect less.

Which of these really matter or which are noise in the machine?

Thank you notes: One of my humble classmates turned out to be an absolute all star with the consulting industry. After the interviews were over, she was the only who turned the hat trick and had offers from Bain, McKinsey, and BCG. While we were at the same lunch table, she was going through her bag and a pile of business card fell out. She looked up at us and said, "Oh I still have to send thank you notes to all these people who interviewed me. Do you think that I can just send the same thank you note to all of them?"

The concept of a thank you note hasn't changed whether it's delivered on monogramed stationary with raised gold lettering or through your picklesniffer@hotmail email address that you had since 8th grade. It can show that you are still sufficiently interested to want to keep lines of communication open but main are just about being polite and saying thank you. When organizations have test scores, resumes, recommendations, background checks, google searches, and behavioral interviews to assess everyone, do they really need another piece of information that is tangentially related to the job or graduate program?

Thank you notes are really about what your mother told you they were for. To be polite.

Volunteering and Extracurricular Activities: After getting good grades at a fancy institutions and finding success at a well-known company, MBA's eventually came to the same conclusions that admissions committees did. There are a lot of people with similar credentials. But some of those people used their free time to play a sport at a competitive level, folk dance, or breast feed orphaned goats. Others used their free time to watch every episode of Seinfeld. All are noteworthy achievements but admissions chose to value those who studied hard, worked hard, and found time to pursue outside interests and contribute in focused, chosen extracurriculars. Some applicants feel that this is outside the scope of an MBA program or that they can't make time due to their job. However, extracurriculars are a big part of the MBA experience and they are competing with others who have made the time.

Taking Quantitative Classes: In the last few years, applicants who majored in East Timor Poetry, minored in the bag pipes, and whose only demonstrated application of math was figuring out tips at restaurants have explored taking accounting or statistics classes to demonstrate their quantitative ability. Some will retake certain business classes where they got a B or C. Some take classes because they figure that it will show admissions that they're serious about the business school thing. In reality, the only good reason to take business or quant classes to help with your application is if you really never took a class with numbers in undergraduate and the quantitative section of your GMAT is below the school's average. MBA programs are just looking for a demonstration of mathematical aptitude, they don't need to see a cult-like dedication.

Retaking the GMAT: The GMAT is the most quantitative part of the application which is why applicants want that number to be as high as possible. Since I graduated, I have watched a 700 GMAT score go from being a great score to being a good score. It's the worst case of inflation that I've seen outside of Zimbabwe. The key is that 700 is a good score or whatever the 80th percentile is. Even 670 is within a standard deviation of 700 so it's close enough. If you are thinking of retaking the GMAT if your score is anywhere near these numbers, your time would really be better spent watching Seinfeld re-runs.

However, if your score is below the school's average after 2 tries, you do need to take the GMAT a 3rd time to show the school that you tried. Stopping after 2 tries with subpar scores is like not running out a ground ball in baseball.

I have read some accounts where companies that ask for your GMAT score claim that it should be a 700. Personally, I think that's used as a convienent excuse to reject someone instead of telling them that they failed the airport test or that they just weren't into them.

Pre- MBA internships: This is more about the job search but this seems to be a new part of the MBA experience. Back in my MBA days, if you could rule out consulting or banking by October, you were in good shape. Today, some first years have a pretty focused game plan by the time they've they've finished their beer at their first MBA kegger.

The advantage of a having a game plan in place early (like knowing that you want to do pharmaceutical marketing on the west coast or corporate finance in the midwest) is you can spend more time networking with companies and researching than your classmates who are still trying to figure out the difference between venture capital and hedge funds. However, there is nothing wrong with actually using the 1st semester to figure out which industry you want to work. You will have access to a wealth of information in the form classmates, employer sessions, and free time to develop an excellent game plan. The key is to not get distracted by bright and new shiny employers or industries that you learn about. Figure out what is most important. If you hate airports, than traveling for consulting will still suck no matter how appealing that employer session was.

Now what is a pre-MBA internship and is this a new development in the arms race? A pre-MBA intership is really just a short-term consulting project or finding someone that you can shadow to learn about an industry or a company. You would probably quit your day job a few months early. The main value comes from demonstrating that you're serious about the industry or making connections at the company.

I would be highly skeptical that you will actually do meaningful work. The first 2 weeks of the intership would be spent on introductions to people and systems. Next 2 weeks getting a project which leaves possibly 4 weeks to actually do some work. For a post MBA employer to be impressed, one would have to assume that they place no value on the MBA training but solely value that the school accepted you. While this may not be a stretch, the company probably wouldn't admit it.

The main value of a pre-MBA internship is demonstration that you are serious about a chosen field. However, this could be accomplished with a consulting project during the first semester via school clubs, field trip to corporate offices, or tattooing the company's logo to your arm.

Summary: The only development in the MBA arms race that I've seen with a strong influence an MBA application or the job search has been extracurricular activity or volunteering. With my clients, the ones who surprise me by not getting accepted tend to be weak in this area. Likewise, the clients that surprise me by getting accepted, tend to have strong demonstrated interests and a track record with extracurriculars. They aren't necessarily Olympic volley ball players but rather social chairs of their local club team.

Thank you notes (or even thank you carrier pigeons) and Pre MBA internships don't have an impact (although as my mother would agree, you should send Thank you notes to uphold rules of etiquette and to be a nice person) and quantitative classes or retaking the GMAT have their occasional place.

What have others seen with the MBA or job search arms race? What new things do you see candidates doing and do you think that it's effective?

1 comment:

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