Can You Really Use Business School to Re-Brand Yourself and Break Into Finance?
“Just go to business school.”
“Go to a top MBA program.”
“With HBS on your resume you can do anything you want.”
It’s one of the most common pieces of advice given to anyone interested in consulting or finance: get into a top MBA program.
Even if you went to a no-name undergraduate, did nothing finance-related since then, and you don’t know anyone in the industry, a top MBA program will let you break in.
Or will it?
The Short Answer
Getting into a top MBA program may narrow the gap between you and former bulge bracket investment bankers.
But it won’t level the playing field.
Business school is often thought of as a magic bullet – a way to break into finance when all else has failed or when you have no shot normally.
There’s some truth to that – but there are also a lot of problems with it.
Ranking banks, schools, and anything else is a massive waste of time and brain cells – which is why there will never be “rankings” of any kind on this site.
But the relative “prestige” of your business school is important, even if the specific “rank” doesn’t matter: if you don’t go to a school that banks recruit at, you’re wasting your time and $150K.
So even if something seems prestigious on paper or it’s in “The Top 10” you need to go there in-person and ask students how recruiting really works.
There’s a less obvious conclusion as well: if you have a very small chance of getting into the top programs, then you’re better off pounding the pavement to get in.
Start with informal and unpaid internships and temporary positions at smaller places, and then leverage that to move up.
Cold-calling may not be fun, but it’s a far better use of time than going to a school where no banks recruit and where no alumni are in finance.
Part-Time vs. Full-Time
Until recently, there wasn’t much respect for part-time programs.
This is starting to change, but they’re still not on-par with the most well-known full-time programs.
If you can’t afford to go back full-time and are only looking at part-time options, you need to visit the school in-person, walk around and ask students and faculty how many banks actually recruit there – otherwise you’ll end up with $150K in debt and access to 0 recruiters.
Running Away From Your Past
If you’re coming from an unknown school, you have a lower GPA, or you have less “prestigious” schools or companies on your resume, you might feel like The Fugitive: you didn’t do anything wrong, but you’re always running away from your past anyway.
But here’s the problem that often gets overlooked: your past will still come back to haunt you, even if you get into a top program.
There are some people in finance who just don’t understand anyone who’s not from a wealthy, blue-chip background, and you’ll always have to deal with it if you have the misfortune of running into them.
Getting into a top business school may reduce your sentence, but it won’t clear you of all the false charges.
“What about top MBA programs in Europe / Asia? Are they as recognizable as ones in the US?”
The short answer: the best programs are still well-known, but no, they are not viewed the same as Harvard/Wharton/Stanford etc. if you want to work in the US afterward.
It’s not because they’re “worse” – it’s just that most US positions are taken by people who go to US business schools. Recruiting is a lot easier when you don’t have to cross multiple oceans for an interview.
If you can get into top schools in Europe / Asia, but can’t get into the top US programs, then sure, go abroad.
You might be motivated to go to business school if you don’t have a great network and don’t feel like cold-calling dozens of firms each week to get into a local boutique and then working your way up.
On-campus recruiting is convenient, but it’s almost too convenient. The temptation is to sit around and wait for companies to come to you – but that doesn’t work when everyone else at your school is also impressive.
So you need to start building your network even before you even get there. Start calling alumni, say you’re going to attend XYZ school next year and wanted some advice, and take it from there.
Experience: Too Much vs. Too Little
Another dilemma: you might have too little experience or too much.
Going straight for an MBA right after undergraduate is a losing proposition (yes, there’s Harvard 2+2 but that is new and unproven) – you need at least a few years of experience and often more than that to be competitive.
I get emails every week from students asking, “Should I go for a top MBA program right after I graduate?”
No. Bad idea.
Many Associate-level resumes have 5 or more years of work experience – even if you get into a top school, it’s tough to compete with that.
You can also have “too much” experience to make business school useful, but this is less of a problem than having too little.
If you’ve been working for, say, 15 years, it’s almost easier to work your way to the top in another field and then move into finance at a much higher level.
All these pitfalls go back to the original point made in the beginning, and something that Kevin and Jerry brought up on Management Consulted (Why Harvard Business School Does NOT Equal McKinsey):
Going to a top MBA program helps, but that alone will not solve all your problems.
It’s Just Like Breaking In As an Undergraduate
I still get a lot of questions on the CFA and other certifications, despite repeatedly bashing them in the past.
Many students think that adding these lines to their resume will seriously boost their chances, forgetting that they’re just small pieces of the big picture.
And yes, business school is different and much more than just another certification, but the same principle applies: a top school and access to recruiting there will improve your chances, but you need to do more than just go to a good school and drop $150K to break in.
What to Do?
Let’s say you are committed to going to a top MBA program to re-brand yourself and then using that to break into finance – what should you do to make sure it’s not a waste of $150K and 2 years of your life?
- First, make sure that banks actually recruit anywhere you’re seriously considering. Visit in-person, meet with students and career services, and see what the real story is.
- If you come from a more “random” background then start addressing “objections” to your background even before you arrive at school.
- You also need to start networking long before you ever get to business school – all the former bankers will have a big advantage over you otherwise.
Think about pre-MBA programs in finance – if you can, take time off to do an unpaid or part-time job related to finance.
Think about activities and professional organizations that might take you closer to business, or at least ones that let you spin your resume more aggressively.
And start contacting alumni and going through referrals in the months before you arrive so that they know who you are when it’s summer recruiting season.
But Sometimes You Have to Go
Business school is not a magic-bullet solution, but sometimes you pretty much have to go just to have any shot of breaking into finance.
Recent graduates would be better served by going to boutiques and then working their way up to larger banks – but if you have 5-10 or more years of experience, banks only take you seriously if you’re coming from an MBA program.
And if you had a completely random background that had nothing to do with business – like a traveling bard – then you might have to go just to have more than a 0.000001% chance of getting in.
There’s always a temptation to buy more degrees, certifications, or anything else that gets you more “prestige” and makes you seem more qualified.
But not only does HBS not equal McKinsey, it also doesn’t equal Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, or any other top bank.
Think of recruiting as a court case, with your key witness representing business school: a great testimony can push the odds in your favor, but you need plenty of “supporting evidence” as well.
That might be informal work experience, anything that can be spun into sounding like business, or a solid network.
So make sure you have both the supporting evidence and the key witness – otherwise, you’ll end up with a hung jury and no offers.
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