Category Archives: MBA Adcom

Top-3? Top-10? Among Elite MBA Programs, Does It Really Matter Where You Go?

One from the files, answering an ever-present question: does it matter to try for “Top-3” vs. “Top-10” vs. just top-tier MBA?

The original discussion was on the Businessweek MBA forum pages. I selected extracts to present here because they offer  important (and corrective) thinking about what matters with rankings, and to whom.

Also, they helps understand how US program rankings are perceived internationally. It finishes with common sense that I endorse.

Original question: “Does rank really matter among Top Business schools? With my European point of view, I consider that there are only 6 Top Schools (in descending order): HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, Booth and Kellogg. Actually, I don’t really care about rankings here: my only criteria is prestige (which in my view is the only thing you can’t ignore when applying to business schools). In Europe, these schools are famous: if you say Stanford or Columbia, everybody knows what you’re talking about. [But]If you say Tuck business school (at random), very few people will have heard of it regardless of the quality of the school.

“So my question is: among this prestigious top, does is REALLY matter if you go to one or another? On this forum we can often read that if you go to HBS it is infinitely better that if you go to Wharton but Wharton will change your life so much more than Kellogg, and so on and so forth.”

Response: “In France [among] 100 person taken randomly in the street and educated in France, 100 will know about HEC, 90 about Harvard, 3 to 5 about Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg, Columbia and 10 maybe will know about INSEAD. But I would say that 90 will know about Yale, Princeton, 100 about Oxford, Cambridge.”

Response: “As a Frenchman I feel the need to throw in my 2 cents on this one. INSEAD is hands down the strongest MBA brand in France. Does every random person on the street necessarily know the name? No, but who cares? The employers do.”

Response: “I would like also to add that the education at the top business institutions is quite the same. I highly doubt that you will learn better investment management in Chicago or Wharton than in Yale, Haas or Fuqua. If you visit those schools, you might get surprised by the background of the faculty. You might take a class at Berkeley taught by a Yale alumni or even receive Michael Porter at Tuck.”

Response: “Although I agree with the notion that the value of an MBA drops as the ranking drops, I do not agree that there is a substantial difference between similarly ranked programs. Every objective metric I can think of (starting salary, quality of recruiting companies, average salary of graduates after 20 years etc.) clusters most top 15 programs closely together. The main exception seem to be HBS and Stanford. Another objective metric are the GMAT and the GPA. Those two metrics are hardly distinguishable in the top 15 programs, including HBS and Stanford.”

Original: “I’ve reached my conclusion I believe: go where you think you belong regardless of what people say/think. I chose to apply to Wharton and CBS finally even if i totally agree HBS/GSB are more famous and Booth/Kellogg are great schools simply because i think it will teach me what i want to learn in my specific field… and education among them is NOT that different, apart from some specialties that should ultimately lead your choice.”

Find your USP for Top School MBA Admissions

There is always a debate in the MBA admissions community as regards the benefits of applicants “selling themselves.” On the one hand, some say the applicant is like one among dozens of cereals in the supermarket aisle, and so has to work to actively pitch him or herself to the Admissions Committee to stand out.

Others say the applicant should not do a sales job. Any form of selling takes away from the “authenticity” of their voice, which is what Adcom really wants to hear.

As in many things, the truth is somewhere in the middle. You can’t afford to be naive. Companies spend millions on marketing and sales because it works. Admissions to elite schools is very competitive, and if you pitch an admissions message that is tightly designed and produced to meet and beat Committee expectations, that will advance your admission chances.

On the other hand, if you come across like a used-car salesman with a cheesy grin, that’s obviously not going to help you at all. If you’re going to sell yourself in any way, you must sell yourself as an authentic, reflective voice imbued with “humble confidence” in your leadership skills; as a manifestation of ambition-with-integrity; as a persistent force for innovation; and so on.

If you can package yourself this way, then selling yourself will work for you. And when selling yourself, don’t forget what is perhaps the very essence of a market proposition that works in the world — a unique selling point (USP.)

In other words, just as a venture capitalist will ask the entrepreneur of a new product: “what’s its unique selling point?” which is to say, what’s so different about this vs. all the other competing offerings in the market, such that the consumer is going to buy this one? So you should ask yourself: “what’s my unique selling point for elite MBA admissions?” What is going to make Adcom pick me?

Two things come together in a USP — uniqueness and value. Uniqueness is what’s different about you compared with the general applicant: the things in your personal and professional experience that are not common. Value is what the Committee sees as valuable in an applicant: what they think you will contribute to the program and the b-school, both while at school and in the future.

I’ve written in other posts about what makes up applicant admissions value, and this topics is also handled in depth in my book. My point here is to say: look for attributes that combine uniqueness and value, and if you find that, you’ve found your USP.


“These were the worst of times, these were the best of me”

Over my years as an MBA admissions advisor I’ve seen a lot of setback stories. Sometimes these are asked for, as in the old HBS classic “Tell us three setbacks you have faced,” but sometimes it is raised by the applicant, for example in the optional essay to explain a gap or something unusual.

Often people have to talk about unemployment. It happens, particularly in uncertain times. MBA adcoms know that sometimes applicants are laid off for business reasons rather than the candidate’s own fault.

There is a better and worse way to talk about unemployment, or any setback. I see a lot of copy that goes something like this: “I was going along great in my career – then suddenly my whole department was laid off – I was totally in shock and despair – but I didn’t get downhearted – I sent out thousands of resumes – eventually I landed a good position – I learned to persevere and how important it is to have a network to rely on.”

At a surface level there is nothing wrong with it. No red flags. But there’s also perfectly nothing there that will get the MBA admissions reader to notice you. It’s generic.

So, do you say: “I was laid off – I thought the world had ended – I moved back in with my parents and sat in a darkened room for a month”? Of course not. Telling the truth is recommended, but “too much information” also hurts you.

The path through this (and through any situation where your experience is similar to that of many other applicants) is to demonstrate individuality not in the story, which is by definition common, but in your response which is unique.

So don’t just show resilience and resourcefulness. Everyone will do this. So show your personality too. Even in hard times, there are events that are funny or cute or somehow emblematic of the situation, or of you. What were they?

Going beneath generically “keeping on keeping on,” what did you actually do, really learn, or specifically do to navigate the choppy waters of life? You can also make points that have to do with creativity – how you didn’t just tried hard, but tried differently.

Unemployment also forces unstructured free time. How did you fill it? Talk about volunteering, talk about courses you took sharpen your skills and keep yourself in circulation. But again, most applicants will say this kind of stuff, so don’t forget to highlight your individual story. If you fell in love with two puppies and had time to take them for slippery winter walks in the hills around Vancouver, that’s worth saying too.

At every point in your career there will continue to be uncertainty and setbacks. Managing this with positivity and passion is a life skill, and a career skill. Therefore showing you can do this is an MBA admissions skill.