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Scrambling for Backup Plans

"It's tempting to…take interview feedback as a piercing assessment of my deepest flaws. Denial after denial can feel pretty corrosive."

When Kellogg called to congratulate me on my acceptance, I thought my path to success was set. Sure, I'd have to study and graduate, but I remembered being pretty good at the whole school thing. And of course, I'd want to find a great job. That seemed even easier. Weren't companies falling all over themselves to hire Kellogg MBAs? You bet. It was time to sit back and ride into the business-school sunset.

Of course, a lot can happen in a year. After nearly two quarters at Kellogg, I've realized that succeeding here takes significantly more than an acceptance letter and a polished résumé. Since the moment I started class, I have had to fight for every win and, admittedly, endure plenty of failure. This cycle was never more evident than during my search for a summer internship. In a program where the pressure to succeed is omnipresent, getting a meaningful summer job stands out as our most pressing concern.

Unfortunately, the recruiting marathon that begins in October and ends when you accept an offer is far different than it was just a year ago. Today, a historic unemployment rate and apocalyptic headlines have replaced a frothy job market and blue-sky economic forecasts. As hard as Kellogg's career counselors have worked to prep us for interviews and attract recruiters, landing an internship has been brutal. In the first global recession in 60 years, a tough internship season is just part of the deal.

When Focused Is Too Focused

Downturns on this scale, it seems, shake up conventional thinking. When I started contemplating business school several years ago, most people said that I'd have an advantage if I laid out specific career goals. So, like many of my classmates, I came to Kellogg hoping to work in a particular industry or job function. But with companies slashing their workforces by the thousands, many of us have found those focused paths littered with challenges. On the other hand, my friends who cast broad nets seem to have fared better. Ironically, for those of us with carefully defined search criteria, falling short of our goals has left us scrambling for backup plans.

Most Kellogg students aren't accustomed to that kind of failure. "We're used to winning, especially when we really try," one of my friends pointed out. And we're certainly not used to repeated rejection. Yet it has become increasingly clear that recruiting through a down market—particularly this down market—means being turned away again and again. As hard as it is for us to stomach, many of us have become well-acquainted with those bitter words, "We regret to inform you…."

Self-Worth in Jeopardy

But being humbled by point-blank failure might not be the hardest lesson I'll learn here. I've also had to overcome the urge to let a tough recruiting process erode my self-worth. After all, it's tempting to measure myself against the quantity and quality of my job offers or to take interview feedback as a piercing assessment of my deepest flaws. I'm here to accelerate my career, so denial after denial can feel pretty corrosive.

Yet, despite all the pressure, the rejection, and the lingering self-doubt, if you ask my peers whether they regret coming here, the vast majority would say no. When I think about where I was a year ago, there's simply no doubt that this decision has changed my life for the better. I'm learning more than I imagined, I've built incredible friendships, and I've definitely expanded the possibilities that lay ahead of me. Even with the ugly economy, my six short months at Kellogg have already given me bigger goals, broader dreams, and more ways to achieve both.

And while it might not be as easy as we'd like, my classmates and I are still staring down a tough market and getting jobs anyway. In truth, I don't think this process is supposed to be easy, no matter how much I sometimes wish it were. Hard times bring out the best in great people, and my classmates are no exception. I've seen more goodwill, courage, and perseverance in my peers than I would've thought possible. Naturally, part of me still wants a smooth ride to success. But if confronting challenges makes you stronger, we are well on our way to becoming smarter, gutsier leaders.

Brandon Cornuke is a member of the MBA Class of 2010 at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

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