For those who've applied/attended top-3 b-schools...

What do you wish you would have done differently at the start of your career, in order to better optimise your top-3 b-school applications/experiences?

Are there things you found out later that were important, but years ago you hadn't really paid enough attention to? Wish you had gotten more involved in extracurrics, or community involvement outside work?

If you could go back to before the application process and change your behaviour in some plausible way, how would you change it?

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Comments (13)

Mar 21, 2008 - 12:42pm

I think this post makes sense, anyone got some insights?

Mar 21, 2008 - 1:49pm

Here is what I would do: pick 5-10 schools you think you might be interested in, and look at their essay questions ( has all the top schools' essays w/analysis). Think about how you'd like to be able to answer those questions in a few years. You'll see themes like teamwork, leadership, entrepreneurialism, etc. Be opportunistic at work for the next couple of years, looking for opportunities to prove yourself in these capacities. Also, think about your career goals and what you can do now to better prepare yourself for them (take a class, reach out to people in that field, attend professional networking events, etc.)-anything that shows interest or qualification is good.

Of course, ECs and community service are great, but the more professional experience you can talk about the better. Finally, develop strong relationships with your managers so they will write you great reviews.

Mar 21, 2008 - 3:12pm

Great answer. And thanks very much for the link.

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Mar 24, 2008 - 10:49am

Actually, they typically discourage professor recommendations-by the time you have 4-5 years work experience (avg), professors probably don't know you that well anymore, unless you have a very close ongoing relationship with them. Schools always ask for your current direct supervisor, although they are understanding if you don't use them if it will jeopardize your work/bonus. For your second recommendation (most ask for only 2, HBS asks for 3) you should also use someone at work, perhaps a past manager, your boss's boss, or someone you work with frequently. They also typically stress that they are not impressed by big names/titles. They'd much rather have a no-name manager or colleague comment in detail on you work style, strengths, weaknesses, etc. than have a rec that says "Joe is a great guy. Sincerely, Jack Welch"

Mar 25, 2008 - 2:38am

The following aren't things I personally should've, would've, could've (as I'm not anonymous), but in any case here are some banker-specific things to keep in mind in no particular order of importance (since b-schools look at your application in totality):

(1) Never underestimate the power of the GMAT. A high score won't get you in, but a low score can really knock you out. Especially in the last few years, the margin of error is small -- to get that analyst job way back when, many had to be academically inclined in the first place (SATs, GPAs) to get the job in the first place, so a good chunk will have strong gmat scores. If you are a plain vanilla investment banker (i.e. you weren't a D-1 athlete, you weren't signed to a record label in college, etc.), then you really put yourself at a big disadvantage with a score lower than 700.

(2) As a banker/PE type, what sets you apart from most bankers are your extracurriculars in college (because you won't have time while working, and adcoms recognize that you work dog hours, so they don't expect anything while you're working). So by the time you're working full-time, it's already too late to do anything to improve your candidacy, other than to make sure you don't get fired from your job (see #6 below for the exception or work-around). Your candidacy for HBS/Stanford/Wharton in many respects is pretty much set by your senior year when you've accepted the job offer from the bank -- assuming you don't royally squander your stint at said bank over the subsequent years. What I mean by this is that by your senior year, it will become clear whether you have a realistic shot (or a long-shot).

(3) Distinguishing yourself is not necessary if you have a strong GPA from a good school, a decent GMAT (700+), and work experience at a brand name bank (i.e. GS, MS, ML, C, L, CS, UBS, DB, and the boutiques like Blackstone, Lazard, etc.). The key is if your numbers and brand names are strong, don't screw up your application (essays, interview, rec letters). Being unique is overrated if you have the numbers and pedigree. Again, back to college: the senior from Princeton who accepts the offer from MS knows that he/she will be competitive for HBS/Stanford/Wharton before the first day on the job.

(4) If you don't have the pedigree (school or employers - i.e. you went to a state school, you worked at a mid-market or regional, etc.) then you will need something that sets you apart. And usually, that comes down to one of two things: you performed at an exceptional level in college in your extracurriculars (D-1 athlete, nationally ranked athlete, mucho awards for your piano competitions, semi-pro ballet dancer, you produced a documentary which managed to get distro thru Sundance, etc.). Starting from your senior year of college, if you've accepted the offer from a mid-market/regional firm without doing anything particularly distinguishing while in college, say hello to Chicago, Kellogg, Sloan, Columbia, Tuck.

(5) No one cares what deals you worked on.

(6) To take point (4) further, if you don't have pedigree AND you didn't do anything particularly distinguishing in college, then here's what you need to do to make sure you can be competitive for HBS/Stanford/Wharton. First, do your 2 years and get out of the bank. Don't hang around. If your goal is HBS/Stanford/Wharton and you don't particularly care to stay in finance long-term, don't waste time with second-tier and mom 'n pop PE/VC/HF funds. Do something different. Join a nonprofit and develop your leadership skills. Take a risk, be courageous, and do something life-changing like working for an NGO on reconstruction efforts in developing countries, or in aid/development for one of the UN's agencies. In other words, do a Jekyll and Hyde - do the complete opposite of what a capitalist Wall Street guy would not do. Or if you have a burgeoning talent, take the risk and make the leap - if you succeed, b-school will be irrelevant; if you don't succeed, you have a good story to tell for b-schools (and for life). Or start a business, get it angel-funded (or some investment/business milestone that can show some modicum of success. Again, if you don't have pedigree, you gotta do something unique first and foremost outside of finance, and hopefully exceptional - to show that you defy convention.
As an aside: not sure if you any of you know this, but John Legend (the R&B singer who won a few Grammys) was a Penn grad - he actually worked at BCG very briefly (less than a year) while working on his music. From what I know, he had signed a small record contract around that time, giving him a small advance to make a record. Through a friend of a relative, he hooked up with then-unknown Kayne West as producer. And the rest is history. But had his debut not gone anywhere (and there are plenty of forgotten debut albums collecting dust in the $3.99 bargain section at Wal-Mart), he likely wouldn't have quit his "day job" at BCG, worked a few years, and likely applied to business school. Even if his record floundered and he continued with his day job, he would've still been in a good position for HBS/Stanford/Wharton - a Penn grad working at BCG (which would've put him in a good position already), but with the additional "hook" that he was diligent (and talented) enough to have gotten a record deal. This is the kind of "hook" to strive for if you don't have the pedigree in your resume.

(7) There's no shame in not getting into the top-3. In the end, it really doesn't matter which school you go to even if you think it does now. No one really cares 5-10 years out (and longer).

Alex Chu

Alex Chu

  • 1
Mar 29, 2008 - 12:15am

MBAApply, thanks so much for the insights. This is really helpful. You addressed a key question that I had, which was exactly that while I have a bunch of the "boxes" checked (top university, sell-side experience at two bulge bracket banks, current role in private equity), I really haven't had too many extracurricular commitments, mostly because I don't have a lot of free time. However, with all the talk about being involved in the community and stuff, I can't help but think that some extracurriculars matter and I do worry to some extent that my work experience may not make up for not having other commitments outside of work (other than social ones).

Thus I have a couple questions for you, and I would also welcome the opinions of others that have gone through or are going through the MBA application process.

  • I know a lot of people volunteering at soup kitchens, building homes for the less fortunate, and so on and so forth. I don't do this stuff, but on the other hand, I am very involved in my school's career network and undergraduate mentorship programs, where I am a career mentor. I'm involved in these initiatives because while I was in school, there were a number of senior students and alums who had a profound impact on my career development and I am trying to find ways to give back to current students. Would this qualify as a meaningful extracurricular/community service activity at least from the standpoint of an admissions committee, and do you think that if I frame this in the right manner, it can also qualify as good leadership experience?

  • Your points #2 and #3 essentially say that for banker/private equity types, what they did in college matters a lot, presumably because they don't have much time outside of work to involve themselves in extracurriculars. But how do these people go "toe-to-toe" with people who are more active in their communities/charities, or is that not really that big of an issue? Is it generally a good strategy for these people to talk about how substantial college commitments (such as sports teams, research activities, etc.) influenced and shaped their development in the workplace, even if college was several years removed? I'm just trying to get my arms around how one's experiences prior to graduation can be made to look meaningful on an application, when the forms themselves seem to focus on what you've done since you've entered the workforce.

  • Any advice as to how junior employees can demonstrate leadership in the workplace, especially in a big bank where things can be pretty bureaucratic and where you really are the lowest rung on the ladder?

Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

Mar 29, 2008 - 2:25am

The practical thing is, something is better than nothing. However, the "I'm highly involved in my alma mater" is something adcoms will see plenty of across all types (bankers, consultants, engineers, etc.).

Honestly, the leadership thing is a little overstated by b-schools to the point where it becomes a buzzword. Leadership at its essence is about getting a bunch of people to work towards a common goal, and to be in that position to do that, you need to have earned the credibility, respect and amicability of your group to do that -- which usually takes a significant investment of effort over a sustained period of time unless you have formal authority. In other words, it takes time to be in a leadership position within any group especially if you're not given formal authority - it doesn't happen overnight. As such, unless you're in the military where there is a more formal leadership structure and the nature of the job is directing men and women towards an objective, most young people in their 20s simply don't have a lot of formal leadership experience to talk about. And if they do in a non-military (civilian) context, it's usually (if not always) in something they are truly passionate about because you need to have stayed with something long enough to have established some leadership within that group activity that you're passionate about.

In a way, it's back to basics: if you stick with what you love and enjoy for its own sake, and you're good at it, you will be in a position to take on a real leadership role in those group activities that serve what you love (if that makes any sense). You can't just cherry pick a nonprofit or charity and assume that you're going to be commanding the troops to do the impossible or anything (or even have any of them listen to you). It takes time to win people over. And you're only going to spend that time if you enjoy that particular activity to stick around long enough to earn that trust.

Of course, if you have real leadership experience, that's great - for the bankers that do, it would've been most likely in their undergrad. However, for most bankers/PE types, it's about showing leadership potential -- your ability to deal with people in situations of conflict, making clear decisions in ambiguous situations, influencing someone to change his/her mind, coming up with ideas that pull a group in a different direction, getting people to trust you, and so forth.

Which comes back to college - this is why there is a bit of a "best before" date on bankers/PE types when it comes to b-school, particularly H/S/W. If college is more than 5 years past, it starts to become ancient history and a little too long ago to have much weight. However, if it's just a few years ago (read: you're currently a 3rd year analyst applying, or you're just 1-2 years into your PE job after doing the 2 year analyst program), you're not that far removed especially if most of it took place in your junior and senior years.

As for getting involved in your community while you're working full-time - note it doesn't have to be 'charity' or 'working with poor people' -- it could be political (ahem, I heard there's an election this year), arts organizations, athletic/sports programs for the community, religious groups (getting involved in your church), and so forth. Again, it doesn't have to be charity - it should be something that gets you connected to a community, whether it's political, religious, artistic, or athletic (or "business" like trade organizations and industry-specific organizations if you really are a super business geek).

If you work in a PE, VC, HF, or IM job where you're fortunate enough not to work crazy hours (i.e. say around 50-60 hours), then you really should find a way to get involved - if you don't have the time, you don't - adcoms understand with bankers/PE types and will cut you guys more slack than other applicants; but then it will come down to your pedigree (or lack thereof) and what you did in college.

As for how junior bankers can get more leadership responsibility - for the longest time, it was working internationally in satellite offices where many were thinly staffed and the org structure even flatter (i.e. sometimes where there is no associate or VP on the deal), and as the analyst you can be given a lot more responsibility on the deal. The way I've seen this work is for example on a non-US M&A deal, the juniors in London or NYC could be doing the bulk of the modeling, comps, pitches, presentations, etc. while the analyst/associate's job in the satellite office is to help the MD manage the client, which means spending a lot of time actually interacting directly with the clients' CEOs, CFOs, VPs, etc. as the surrogate "go to guy" when the MD wasn't around. This may have completely changed in the last few years -- I have no idea. But if this is still the case, if you get the chance to transfer overseas, you may want to look into it seriously - the tradeoff is you may not develop the kind of deal expertise in say Russia or China as you would in the US (since the US SEC has the most sophisticated securities laws and the actual mechanics of many deals in the US are usually more complex, and plus if it's a gigantic non-US deal the NYC guys will still try every which way to get their fingerprints on the deal by sticking their analysts/associates/VPs on the deal team, flying the NYC MD over for "face time" and "expertise" with the client, all so the NYC MD can claim credit when it comes to their annual bonuses). Plus, the deal volume and types of deals you see will be more limited. However, the tradeoff is you can get more experience handling the interpersonal aspects of client management.

Alex Chu

Alex Chu

Apr 1, 2008 - 8:03pm

MBAApply, thanks again for your thoughtful advice. It really helps to hear candid thoughts from someone like yourself that's actually gone through the process.

I recently picked up a book called "How To Get Into the Top MBA Programs" by Montauk. Have you heard of this book, and if so, did you find it to be a useful read? Are there any other books that you'd put on your "required reading" list as far as top MBA admissions are concerned?

Once again, many thanks.

Apr 2, 2008 - 1:01am

The book you mentioned is certainly a good one, although I would say that you could ahem check out mine. It's in my sig.

Alex Chu

Alex Chu

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