Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is Business School Right For Me?

Darden participates in a program with the McIntire School of Commerce, UVa's undergraduate business school. This program matches a Darden student with a current bachelor student to essentially be a peer and answer any questions the student has about an MBA. Given that I haven't been in one place long enough to hold a conversation with my peer, I finally wrote asking what sort of questions he had about an MBA. Surprisingly, he had a number of GREAT questions about an MBA. I finally sat down tonight to respond to him and thought the information may help others thinking about getting an MBA. Please note, these are MY opinions and may not include all the facts. Here it goes:

- How do you know if pursuing an MBA/graduate degree is worth the investment?

This is a very interesting question as I almost want to say that you don’t know if it is or is not worth the investment. Certain fields like banking and consulting can have a glass ceiling without an MBA, so I’d say you could definitely justify the investment. It is my opinion that an MBA from a top school will always be worth the investment in multiple ways. The most obvious way is compensation. You’re typically worth more as an MBA and the MBA is a great stepping stone for positions and careers that simply pay more. Another benefit is the network. I have met some of the most incredible people as an MBA and I believe it’s very different from a bachelor’s degree. People who are getting their MBAs at a top 20 school are often driven in ways I can’t explain. Darden in particular has an incredible network that can be used at any time and they’re always willing to help. This is quite similar to other programs. Plus, you’ll create a personal network of classmates who will likely do something big. I think an MBA also provides you with knowledge that you may have learned during your bachelors but is better understood today because you’ve had work experience. An MBA can open doors for a career switcher or perhaps open doors to firms that are considered more prestigious in the same field. I do believe the investment can be justified, however, it’s not a pure numbers game.

- What is the difference between an MBA and a lot of the other Master's programs some business schools offer such as a Master's in Finance?

I’ll admit, I’m not the best person to answer this question. Here’s my best shot. I think the main difference between the degrees is the concentration on what you learn. More MBA programs require that one covers a range of subjects, including organizational behavior. I imagine a Masters in Finance would focus specifically on Finance and not necessarily on Marketing and people skills. I could be wrong however. This link has a better explanation:

- What is the difference between the various MBA degrees?

I’m not entirely sure I understand this question. My assumption is that you mean an MBA at one school versus another and perhaps an MBA in “General Management” versus “Finance”. There are also different programs in the sense of the way the program is taught as well as its core requirements. Darden, like Harvard, teaches using a 100% case study method. Case study essentially means that students get more practicality than theory. Is it the “right” way to learn, that depends on the student. Case study has no lectures, you essentially learn everything from your peers. Professors often “manage” the discussion, only speaking 30% of the class. Students will read cases, and occasionally technical notes, then come to class discussing what they think the “right” answer is to the case. There is no one right answer. Most programs use some case study, but the percentage of case study varies. When schools aren’t doing case study, students attend lectures, much like I did in undergrad.

Some schools have concentrations while others are “general management”. For instance, Darden is a gen. mgmt school where no student is allowed to take more than 12 credit hours in any one discipline. In contrast, Chicago GSB has concentrations, one which you will often see is finance. This simply means that these students take more classes in that discipline in order to have the concentration. Some programs have a large set of core requirements, others allow you to test out of core classes. Darden sets a core that forces students to take courses in all disciplines (Finance, Marketing, Organizational Behavior, Accounting, Decision Analysis, Econ, Management Communication etc.) for the first 3 quarters. Haas (Berkeley) allows students to test out of subjects like econ and then take more electives. Ross (Michigan) forces students to do a MAP project which is essentially a quarter spent on a consulting gig. These projects can be located all over the world. Ross partners with companies and the students must present their findings to those companies. I also know McDonough (Georgetown) forces students to spend at least a week internationally. You also have 2 year programs and 1 year programs. I’m sure there are many benefits to a one year program (less $$, and less time spent without a job), however, I think the true benefit of a 2 year program is the ability to have a summer internship that potentially allows you to try a new industry, career path or even start your own company.

- When is the right time to get an MBA?

I think the right time for an MBA varies by person. In my honest opinion though, I’d suggest having a minimum of 3 years of work experience. I think having at least that much work experience allows you to have a better reference point for what you’re learning. You can also contribute as much as you learn. Plus, when you are recruiting, having something to speak about helps. Explaining why MBA when you have no work experience is a hard one. MBA schools want to know why you’re coming back to school, but then companies ask the same thing. I had 4 years of experience when I entered the program and felt that was right for me.

- How do you know which MBA school is right for you? Are different business schools known to specialize in particular things?

It sounds silly, but an MBA is all about fit. You’ll hear it time and time again, you’ll shake your head, but when you feel it’s right, you’ll understand what I mean. I’d like to propose the question of “what do you want to get out of the experience?” Some schools are known for rigor (Darden), others are known to be more social, yet still have an incredible reputation (Kellogg). Some schools have class sizes of 900 (HBS), others 100 (Minnesota) and then even others 300 (Darden). Don’t ever judge a school by one person, but try to understand who a group of people are and what makes them tick. Think about job prospects. While Wharton and Chicago GSB are known to be finance/quant schools, you have to remember that when you’re interviewing for jobs at Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley, first and foremost, you’re competing against your classmates on campus. This means, it may be harder to get a 2nd interview with these companies. Other companies will bring students from all schools in together for second round interviews, so in a sense, you’re always competing against them too. Something to think about could be, can I get an education somewhere else that these companies recruit that still has a great reputation where I may compete against less people for finance. Something else to consider is, where do you want to live after school? I’ll be the first to admit, it’s hard to go to the West Coast from Darden given the school’s location. Is it impossible? No way!! It just means your job search may be more off grounds then others. That’s another thing to consider, how good is the career development center? MBA fairs are a great way to get a lot of material on a number of schools. I didn’t know where to start and as much as we all hate rankings, I ended up starting with them. Other considerations can be the cost of the city. I mean NYU is a great school, NYC is a fun city, but I imagine it costs more to be a student in NYC for 2 years than it costs me to be a student in Charlottesville. If you have a spouse, that could be a consideration – how many students are married, can your significant other find a job etc. I think there are many aspects to finding the right school and I hope this gives you something to think about. It’s a personal choice and it is all about the experience YOU want to have. Remember that. As far as specializing, some supposedly do, though I think they’re mostly stereotypes.

- When is the right time to take the GMAT? What is the best way to prepare for the GMAT?

If you have time when you graduate, that may be a great time to try the GMAT. I only say that because you’re still in studying mode and scores are good for 5 years (though I’m not sure what schools think about a dated GMAT score versus one that is closer to your application date). If you prefer to wait, I essentially started studying in March the year I thought I’d apply. I took the GMAT in July, researched in August and wrote essays September – November for Round 1 applications. Had I taken the GMAT earlier, I could have had more time for research, which probably would have helped. I also didn’t do many school visits and I think school visits tell you a lot about a program (though they can get expensive). Darden was the right choice for me and I knew it, so I don’t regret not visiting other schools. I can say that I didn’t realize Darden was the right program until I interviewed on campus. As for how to study, I had a number of GMAT books and studied for a couple hours a day on my own. On the weekends I would take practice tests (full length). Everyone does it differently. The official GMAT guides are great (comprehensive, verbal and quant). I also had a cliff notes refresher for algebra I, a Kaplan math book and a Princeton Review GMAT book. The key to the test in my opinion is knowing when to cut your losses. Given all the time in the world…and a calculator, we could answer all the problems perfectly. Kaplan also has an online quiz bank that costs $199 to access. Seeing that the test is all online, I bet the online quiz bank would be a great way to practice.

Here are some helpful links about GMAT, schools, information, perspectives… etc.

Clear Admit:
Current Applicant Blogs:
MBA Tour:
Forte Foundation (women’s organization that has some good info about getting an MBA as well as a LONGER list of resources than I have here):


Matthew Hayles said...

Glad you like the resources on The MBA Tour's website - we're coming to New York and Washington DC with top b-school admission reps at the beginning of February. Are you in the neighbourhood?


JulyDream said...

@Matthew: Unfortunately, I'm studying abroad through March and then I graduate from Darden in May, so I will miss this year's tour. I attended as a prospective and the event was a great way to get a lot of information and quickly. Thanks for the comment! :)

Elizabeth Dark said...

A lot of good's so hard to know whether or not you should pursue an MBA or not...and then to know WHERE to do it is another story!

Have fun in Sweden!!

Anonymous said...

I'm an undergraduate at UVA and I thought this was extremely useful. I just got admitted into McIntire and I plan to go down the MBA way myself. Thanks for the great advice!