A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, EssaySnark helped a Brave Supplicant with some applications to business school.
As some Brave Supplicants do, this person has stayed in touch with EssaySnark, offering updates about the journey and news of experiences and conquests along the way. Over the holidays, we had another such exchange with this person, and we hit them up to offer some advice to all of you still-in-the-midst-of-admissions BSers.
Today is Part I of the great response we got back.
Making the Most Out of Business School
You’ve done it! You got the acceptance call/email/letter, received the congratulatory pats on the back, and stuffed yourself silly for the holidays to boot. You’re now contemplating when to submit your notice to your boss. Life is good. (For the record, that was not my experience, quite the opposite, in fact. So if you’re still applying or worse—got the thanks but no thanks—hang in there, you’re in good company.)
I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum. I’m now 6 months out of business school, about to re-immerse myself into the workforce and reality after a post-MBA startup internship. I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my business school experience.
Business school could be a remarkable and worthwhile experience, not simply an expensive one. Some of my peers thought it was a life-changing and transformative. Many who knew what they were going back to treated it as a two year-long vacation (I’m looking at you, firm-sponsored consultants). Others, more skeptical and cynical, saw it in purely transactional terms: an exchange of cash for the branding and prestige, as well as being part of the alumni network. Your mileage may vary. For myself, I found it to be a little bit of all of the above. As a career switcher with little prior business background, I found many of the classes stimulating and sought to expose myself to new experiences and take advantage of the resources offered. Here are a few things I discovered (or wish I discovered earlier).
Be focused or hypothesis-driven. When it comes to identifying what goals you want to achieve going into business school, be focused or hypothesis-driven, as consultants would say. If you know what you want to accomplish during business school going in (network into real estate with no prior background, land a cushy consulting offer, break into private equity), great! You can afford to be focused right off the bat for that first year internship. However, for those of us career switchers who don’t have a solid clue as to what we want to do, it pays to develop a hypothesis of where we think we would like to end up rather than having no concrete idea.[This of course is why many bschools force you to think about these things in advance, with the career goals essay! -ES]
Instead of recruiting for banking, consulting, corporate, and startups all at once, develop a hypothesis of what it is that you think you want to do, and develop a compelling storyline around that target industry. (There is a bit of Catch-22 involved. While you won’t know if you’d like an industry until you’ve tried it, you won’t get the chance to try it unless you pretend to the recruiters that’s what you wanted to do all along!) As someone who has advised foreign military on the ground, I developed the hypothesis that I would like to try investment banking because of the critical advisory role they play for their clients. It turned out to be a bad hypothesis for me personally as I found out over my first year summer, but even that has value: I had a concrete data point against investment banking and could cross it off my list of hypotheses with certainty as I went into my second year. And if your first year hypothesis turned out be right, well, you can just enjoy second year. (Quick note: 1Y and 2Y recruiting are completely separate. I saw many who struck out with their target industry 1Y, bounce back, and landed their dream job 2Y during the fall. Don’t be disheartened if you didn’t land your dream internship right away.) [Sounds like Round 1 and Round 2 admissions! -ES]
Business schools are breeding grounds for groupthink (By virtue of having made the investment to attend business school, most of us are a little risk averse and prone to follow the herd). However, it is OK to follow the herd if the herd is going where YOU want to go. This is where you have to be honest with yourself. The worst thing is to go on autopilot, go along with what everyone else is recruiting for, and then realize too late that you never felt passionate about it to begin with and have now wasted valuable time and energy.
While the focus has been on career goals, this hypothesis-driven approach applies to picking extracurriculars to be involved in. It is impossible to do many things well, and a common first year “mistake” is to join too many clubs right off the bat thinking that you’ll get to try them all. I made this typical first year mistake, which meant that I was not very active in many clubs and subsidized quite a few with my club dues for which I never even made an appearance later on. You have four semesters to try new clubs. Be targeted in your approach.
Make some lifelong friends. Quit snickering. This is tougher than it sounds. Business school by nature is competitive. It is competitive getting in. And guess what? It is competitive getting out with your dream job in hand. You will meet with people in a social setting one day and go head-to-head against them in interviews the next day. It is definitely possible (and desirable) to be authentic, treat your classmates with respect, and take a collaborative approach to classwork and recruiting. Don’t let the competitive dynamics of business school cloud over your friendly self.
As a friend advised me before I started business school, you can aim for breadth or you can aim for depth when it comes to building relationships. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar found that people could reasonably expect to get to know about 150 people socially (thank you, teamwork management class!). Depending on your class size, you will probably meet more. In the larger business schools, most people will be generally nice but in a shallow way. They won’t really care how you did in marketing class or that you landed a coveted internship. A handful will resonate with you in a meaningful way. Nurture and strengthen those relationships.
Though it may sound incredible, a lot of people seem to go through business school on autopilot and never develop any meaningful friendship (and that’s OK, people’s motivations for what they want out of business school differ greatly). I saw many people scrambling to hang out and try to make more friends toward the end of second year, which felt forced and awkward. I didn’t walk into business school with the intention of seeking out a group of lifelong friends. I just kind of fell into a group that shared a similar perspective, and over the two years of shared experiences—trepidation over taking exams again, stressing over recruiting, business school dating, honest conversations over coffee about our aspirations and dreams—the level of trust is there where I feel that they are akin to a personal board of directors. If nothing else, if you can walk out of business school with a core group of friends who are authentic and can offer you genuine, honest feedback, you’ve succeeded.
The soft stuff is the hard stuff. As a former Army guy, I had the veteran hubris to think that business school did not have much to teach me about leadership. I realized that I was wrong, much to my surprise. I initially set my priority in business school to developing hard, technical skills that I would need if I wanted to pursue a career, say, in financial analysis. However, I’ve come to realize that a lot of the technical skills that business schools teach tend to be academic, and the real technical learning comes on the job (“Beta? Just assume the WACC is 10%”). [LOL. -ES] Another epiphany that I had was the importance of developing peer leadership skills. The military exposed me to a variety of leadership and teamwork challenges, but it sits at one extreme of leadership culture. The decisive, direct leadership style that the military encourages functions because of the coercive nature of military hierarchy: the person telling you what to do outranks you. Early on in business school, as I was trying to cajole a small team of peers into completing a project, it dawned on me that I was facing an entirely different leadership challenge: how to motivate people who just don’t care. Nope, there was no Army manual for that. As my management professors were fond of saying, the soft stuff is the hard stuff.
Developing one’s leadership/teamwork style is a lifelong endeavor that starts before business school and continues afterward. There will always be new leadership challenges that don’t quite fit prior mental models. However, business school is a relatively safe, nurturing environment in which to test different styles and build one’s leadership foundation. Take advantage of business school resources such as experiential leadership workshops, executive coaches, international trips, and teamwork classes. Some won’t be worth your time, but some will be really worthwhile. You won’t regret it.
All you current BSers, we hope you found value in that! WE SURE DID! This particular former BSer always impressed us and this contribution did so all over again. We actually have more such “from the trenches” advice coming from this person, and from a handful of others, too!