Positioning Yourself for Business School, Part 1: The Financier
It’s a question on everyone’s minds these days:
“How can I get into the Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton MBA programs?”
“If I don’t get into finance or consulting right now, should I go back to business school instead?”
“How can I stand out from everyone else who’s applying?”
With the markets still in turmoil, more and more people are thinking of heading to business school. Even those who actually have jobs are thinking of going back to school to insulate themselves from layoffs and get a 2-year vacation while they’re at it.
Regardless of your background, though, you’ll face a unique challenge getting into business school and then using it to get into finance:
The criteria to get into business school is different than the criteria to get into finance coming from business school, and the two often contradict each other.
So here’s how you solve that problem…
The False Promise of Re-Branding?
Here’s the paradox that crops up when you apply to business school and then try to leverage it to get into finance:
- Top schools like a diverse student body – they don’t want everyone to have done two years of banking followed by two years of private equity. Especially in recent years, these schools have become biased against students with pure finance backgrounds.
- Banks and financial firms, on the other hand, don’t care nearly as much about diversity and would love to recruit only students with previous finance experience. Someone with previous experience represents reduced risk, and is more likely to stick around past their first all-nighter creating a pitch book.
In late 2007, recruiters were still trying to convince me that two years of banking followed by two years of private equity was a “guaranteed” ticket into top MBA programs. It’s funny how quickly things can change.
One of the key selling points of MBA programs is a chance to “re-brand” yourself. And when banks desperately need people (see: 2004-2006), they’ll open up to your story of personal transformation from traveling bard to the next Gordon Gekko.
But when they’re not so desperate (now), they start to consider only those who have done finance before.
So this selling point is highly dependent on market conditions and often turns into disappointment for MBA-level applicants without some type of finance experience.
This past recruiting season, I spoke with many talented business school students who had started companies, nonprofits, and had all sorts of other impressive accomplishments. But even with those credentials, each one faced an uphill battle getting interviews and job offers if he or she had not done finance previously.
This brings us to a curious conclusion when looking at both of these points together:
If you’re already in finance, you need to find a way to stand out from the crowd and tell an interesting story if you want to get into business school. And if you’re from a different background, you still need to worry about that – but more importantly, you need to find a way to show banks that you can do the work.
In this article, we’ll address anyone in the first category: anyone from a finance background thinking of business school.
Standing Out From a Finance Background: Got Prestige?
I received an email from a reader the other day asking, “I thought it was basically the prestige of your firm that set you apart in MBA admissions?”
My response: While brand-name recognition matters, admissions committees don’t view you dramatically differently based on where you worked within a specific industry. They’re not going to look at someone and say, “Aha! He worked at Morgan Stanley so he should definitely get in, but that guy only worked at Houlihan Lokey so he is obviously unqualified to join us!”
You do gain an advantage by working somewhere well-known, but keep in mind that people from all sorts of different backgrounds apply to business school – so the “prestige” arguments people often get in on message boards become even more pointless in this context.
After reading thousands of applications, anyone in admissions starts to view most banker types as… pretty much the same.
So basing your entire application on the “prestige” of wherever you worked is a losing proposition, especially these days when tons of laid-off financiers are applying to business school.
The Real Way to Stand Out
Alex from MBA Apply hits the nail on the head with the real way to stand out in admissions:
“Build a life, not a resume.”
This is not a new concept for anyone who’s been reading this site over the past year. Regardless of whether you’re applying for business school, university, or even going through investment banking interviews, your chances of success depend largely on your “story.”
One small problem: if you work full-time in finance, it may be almost impossible to find the time to do anything outside work.
How to Develop an Interesting Story Even If You Have No Time
You don’t need to spend 20-40 hours per week on something to make yourself stand out.
But if you’re in banking or at a large PE firm, you probably don’t even have five hours per week to spend on other activities.
If you’re still thinking about business school and have absolutely no time for outside interests currently (Wait, how are you reading this article then? Hmm…), here’s what I’d recommend:
- First, decide if you’re actually interested for the right reasons. If you’re planning to stay in finance for the long-term and you’re already in it, an MBA usually doesn’t make a big difference (exceptions apply). Being “interesting” therefore matters far less.
- If you are interest is sincere, reduce your work commitment by moving into a different firm, group, or industry. A word of caution: in most cases the only move that “guarantees” a better schedule is leaving finance and moving into “industry” in a business development or corporate finance role.
- Once you have the time, develop some of those forgotten interests and hobbies… or find new ones. Even something that only takes up a few hours per week can be spun into a good story on your applications.
Before exiting or entering different industries, you really need to weigh why you want to go to business school in the first place. My own personal view is that the “2-year vacation” plan is a bit silly given the expense, opportunity cost, and the fact that you’ll actually be quite busy (programs have become more rigorous).
That’s especially true these days, when everyone has the exact same plan and admissions are more competitive than ever before – you need better motivation than just wanting to take a break.
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