Are you just starting to kick the tires on the idea of going to bschool?
Hopefully you’ll put into it at least as much effort as you would if you were buying a new car.
We don’t mean “effort” like hanging out in applicant forums. Reading all the posts in the Harvard Business School thread on your favorite MBA discussion board is highly unlikely to be a useful expenditure of your time. You may as well be hanging out in a fanforum on the latest Real Housewives segment. There is hardly anything of concrete value to be had if you’re there; it’s mostly hearsay and posturing and emotions.
Obviously we’re biased. 😀
That doesn’t mean you can’t hang out on those boards if you like to, but often they’re filled with half-truths and falsehoods and okay yes, here and there you might stumble on one or two kernels of reliable data or applicant-generated insight. Sifting through all of that is fine but recognize that it’s entertainment. You’re there because your brain enjoys reading about other people’s trials and tribulations and opinions. You’re not there to learn how to get into Harvard.
Really, the process of school research should be approached at this early stage like you’re shopping.
If you’re in the market for a big-ticket item, then likely you start by reading up on the thing. Whether you want to buy a house and you’re spending all your time scouring the real estate sites, or you’re looking at cars and you’re immersed in makes and models and options packages, or you want to buy a new surfboard or the latest iPhone or some gadget, you’re probably doing it by reading the web.
You can do that with bschool too. It’ll at least help you get acclimated to the whole process, and perhaps get an appreciation of the challenges of breaking in to a school like Harvard or Wharton or Kellogg or wherever.
But if you really want to understand what the options are, you need to experience them in person. We have already suggested that you plan a road trip to get on campus and see these schools for yourself. If you can do that, we highly recommend it.
That’s not the only thing you can do, though. At this early stage, you can be nurturing a mindset. You’re in “shopping mode” where you’re researching and investigating and finding out what’s available. You’re taking inventories of all the options and filing them away in the brain. You’re being a buyer where you’re looking to see what the market offers, and finding out what’s important to you.
Before you start shopping for a new car, for example, you are vaguely aware that there are cars, and trucks, and SUVs, and gas, and hybrid, and all-electric. But you probably don’t really know what you personally care about. Your priorities are not yet fully formed.
The only way to discover what matters to you in a business school is to learn about business schools. Saying “I want an MBA!” is only the beginning. Most people have very little appreciation for what an MBA is about.
Maybe you know that you’ll learn finance and accounting and stuff (or at least, we HOPE you know that!). But what else is there?
What does bschool even teach you? What does the MBA involve?
Then, you need to go to the next level. In college, you declared a major. Does it work that way in business school too? Will you major in some specific topic or discipline like you did in undergrad?
Well you might, at some schools — but not most. Some allow you to declare a concentration or an area of focus, but most only require their standard core curriculum and then you get to determine the rest of your education, based on electives. Every school does this part differently. Some even require you to apply to a specific concentration or program within the curriculum, like the Columbia Value Investing Program which is very selective and not everyone makes it in. These are the details that you need to be conversant in if you’re going to be applying there as a finance person (just to use that as an example).
So, knowing what’s common to all MBA programs, and what are specific to the school that you’re interested in, is very important.
None of this even is touching on the other very important aspect of culture. A school’s culture is developed through any number of forces, including school size, location, physical placement of the bschool on the overall university campus, and most especially its leadership and where the administration places its attention. A school like Haas was one of the early adopters of culture as an important element of their school; other schools have also surfaced culture more directly as part of their pitch to the marketplace of MBA applicants. Most recently Tuck embedded their values into their essay questions, telling candidates that “Tuck students are nice, aware, accomplished, and smart” or some such, and asking applicants to write about themselves in those dimensions as well. (Not an easy essay question to do!! We hope and pray that Tuck modifies its approach at least somewhat this season.)
So at this early stage of your MBA journey, you need to go into shopping mode. Be a sponge (but have a filter). Soak it all up, and take lots of notes. Talk to everyone you can. Figure out all the ways that an MBA can be done, by learning about how these different schools do it.
Later in the process, you’ll move from “shopping” mode as a buyer, to “selling” mode as an applicant, where you need to package yourself up and present yourself effectively in the essays to pitch the adcom on why they should select you. That’s the essence of this “school fit” thing that you may be hearing about. The dynamics will be different then, when you go from the fun part of all this researching and excitement of hearing about the adventures of bschool, to the stressful part of identifying the elements that the schools care about in your own profile, and figuring out how to tell the best stories in those essays, in response to the school’s essay questions, in a way that lets you highlight those qualities well. Writing essays is to some extent a marketing exercise, and your approach there needs to have your audience in mind. You’ll be in a position of wanting the adcom to pick you so that’s a seller’s mindset, where you need to be attractive to the one who is choosing.
Then — hopefully!! — later on, after you have done all the hard work of convincing these adoms, you will switch back into buyer mode again, when you (again, hopefully!!) will be in a position of choosing between two or more great offers of acceptance. You will be amazed at how much the tone of the admissions process changes once the schools have said “yes” to you and they are actively courting you as an accepted candidate who they hope will matriculate. For the Class of 2023 candidates, that’s way far off in the future, so let’s not get too ahead of ourselves with the optimism.
For now, leveraging the buyer’s mindset as you gather information and learn learn learn about what options are available is the fun part. Doing this type of on-the-ground firsthand research is the very best way to discover what you want out of an MBA experience, and to find the school and the school community that can give that to you in a way that fits your personality, priorities, and style.
When we say “do research on the schools” then that may be a turn-off, as it can sound like work, like we’re giving you a task to complete. But really this is where you can do some exploring and future-self dreaming. You may also want to pop for the Comprehensive Profile Review at some stage along the way, to make sure that your dreams are lining up with the realities of your profile, and gain even more fuel for the research effort at hand. Either way, enjoy this part; being a shopper and learning about options can be exciting and fun, and now is the time to be tackling that.