B-School: The View from the Trenches

Here's what four MBA students think about everything from admissions to student life to the job market

The best place to get the straight scoop about what B-school life is really like is from students themselves. With that in mind, we asked four of our MBA Journal writers to be our guests for a live chat on Feb. 27. Joining host Brian Hindo were: George Mathew, a second-year student at Duke University's Fuqua School; Lyon Hardgrave, a second-year at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School; Sucharita Mulpuru, a second-year at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business; andfirst-year student Mike Grossman from the University of Iowa's Tippie School. An edited version of the chat follows:

Q: Since we're right in the midst of application season, what are some tips you can offer applicants about the often frustrating process?

Mike:

First, make sure that you start early, and that means at least 9 to 12 months before your deadlines. Stay organized, and if you have the luxury of leaving your job and focusing on the application process full time, that's a big plus.

Sucharita: I'd also make the process easier for those you ask to help, like recommenders. What I did was give them copies of my resume, and a cover letter with specific things that I thought it might make sense for them to highlight.

Q: George, you're an M.D. -- was it difficult to make your case to the admissions committees as a career changer?

George:

No, not really. When I applied to Duke, I had already been considering the change for a little while. It helped that Duke was looking for somebody like me for the Health Sector Management program here.

Q: Is B-school life as hectic as people say?

Lyon:

I'm probably not the best person to ask, considering my comparatively lackadaisical approach. But it runs in spurts -- sometimes it's very busy, and then there are lots of slower times when it's possible to socialize, relax, and travel.

Sucharita: For me, it's definitely hectic, but in a fun way. There are about 20 hours of class per week and study groups, but also the requisite dinner parties and bar nights (which are institutionalized -- two nights a week here). Lots of classmates spend the weekends going to Lake Tahoe or on other trips.

George: Not to badger Lyon too much, but I would hardly describe him as lackadaisical. He was working at one of the top banks this summer.

Q: After reviewing books and articles in preparation for B-school, was there anything that you weren't prepared for, that caught you off guard, or that otherwise differed from your expectations?

Mike:

I would say that I failed to understand the difference between professional school and graduate school. Don't make that mistake. The workload and the pace of life are far faster in an MBA program than in a PhD. program that focuses on political science or history.

Sucharita: For me, the culture of a school is critical and is something that books and articles can't really communicate. A great culture of cooperation can make for a phenomenal experience.

George: I have to agree with Sucharita: B-school is unlike most other graduate programs, precisely because everything outside of your classes is as important to your personal and professional development as the classes themselves.

Lyon: I was surprised at how supportive the environment was -- nothing remotely cutthroat.

Q: The job market -- how bad is it out there?

Sucharita:

I found that the job market was the most difficult for people who came to business school to change careers -- like going from a nonprofit to investment banking. But when I came to business school, I knew that I wanted to stay in marketing, so that made it easier for me to find companies and to make a stronger case for myself.

That's one more answer to the earlier question about things they don't tell you...look at a school's career center and relationships with recruiters. Good relationships are critical to the opportunities you'll have.

Lyon: Not good, but I think people are trying to keep their spirits up. Nonetheless, I can now see the situation begin to wear on some weary job-seeking friends. With time running out until graduation, jobless people are starting to turn to plans B, C, and D.

George: It's strange. I know quite a few people who don't have a definite offer from any particular company, but seem sure that they'll find a place -- whether they'll start their own company, or find an offer later. Also, it seems that many people who got offers are still looking for an offer that better suits their lifestyle and career goals.

Q: Mike, can you shed some light on the internship hunt?

Mike:

I think the smartest thing I've done with regard to internships is to maintain contacts I made before I came here, and also to network like crazy. Internships are all about selling yourself, and that's something I do shamelessly.

Q: Sucharita, is it your impression that Stanford students stay on the West Coast? Are networking opportunities limited by geography at any of the schools?

Sucharita:

This year, I think there are more people going to the East Coast (like me) than in a long, long time. In the past, I think that Stanford was portrayed as more of a local school because there were so many great jobs in the Bay Area. But now that's changing and people are moving to other cities.

That said, I don't think that my networking opportunities are at all limited to the West Coast. There are Stanford graduates all over the country and world, and the school draws all sorts of speakers, visiting professors, and other resources.

Lyon: Here in Philly, people looking for West Coast opportunities are finding it difficult. But then I know some of the banks around here have decided to slash the number of schools at which they recruit, and I think the West Coast schools catch a lot of the brunt of that.

Q: For the job opportunities out there, are salaries consistent with previous years?

Sucharita:

No, definitely not. They are much lower. Consulting, for example, is paying the lowest in several years. Bonuses are lower too.

Lyon: Salaries are lower in finance, and I think across the board. Much of the wonderful bonus activity of the go-go '90s has pretty much disappeared.

George: Many companies know that they're in the driver's seat, and they aren't offering what they used to. For example, one Wall Street bank decided to allow new hires to take an advance on their salaries instead of a signing bonus.

Q: When it comes to extra-curricular activities, how much is too much? How many clubs or associations should you sign up for?

Mike:

I'm active in the MBA Association, where I'm VP. I think you have to make sure that if you're going to join an activity, you have an end game in mind. There has to be something about it that you want to accomplish. For me, it's working with our alumni association.

Q: George, can you speak a bit to how Fuqua helps spouses of incoming students find jobs during their stay in Research Triangle Park?

George:

Fuqua has a Partners' program to help spouses feel more of the "Team Fuqua" spirit vs. feeling that their mate has joined a really large, socially acceptable cult. I'm pretty sure that similar organizations exist at most B-schools, though how formal they are may vary. As for jobs, I have several friends whose spouses work in the university.

Q: Do any members of the panel have spouses or children? If so, what impact has attending school had on their family life and, conversely, what impact has family life had on their schooling?

Sucharita:

I'm married, and I think there are two types of spouses -- the kind that get involved with their significant other's activities at school and those who don't. I think there are good things about both.

For those who do get involved, that's fantastic because then everyone knows your wife or husband and vice versa. But on the other hand, my husband doesn't get too involved (he got his MBA several years ago), and I think that's fine for me because it lets me have an outlet away from school when I don't want tobe involved in school activities every single day.

Q: What aspects of the admissions process are most often overlooked by applicants wanting to get into a top-tier program?

George:

One of the major points overlooked in an applicant's story is why they're choosing that particular school. Many applicants choose a school because of its ranking. Then, they get to the interview and have absolutely no idea why the school would be a good fit for them. Many admissions interviewers detect this and then ding the applicant.

Mike: Your essays are your chance to pitch yourself. If you have a weakness from a "numbers" standpoint, i.e. a low Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) score or grade point average, use the essays and the interview to make the appeal that will put you over the top.

Lyon: I think George is 100% right. It's key to understand the school, and as I learned through repetition, the Web site doesn't really cut it. You need to visit the school and talk to students -- really understand what about the program is so attractive.

Sucharita: The "why this school" question -- I think people don't realize how important it is to customize your answer to that specific question and answer why no where else in the world is as good a fit as their particular school. Few people seem to do it really well, especially from the essays I've read for other people.

Q: Lyon mentioned earlier that many MBAs have had to choose options "B, C, and D" in a bad job market. What's the best way to do that?

Sucharita:

Network with alumni, do independent research projects for companies for class credit and use it as a springboard to persuade them they need you. Talk to friends at other MBA programs that may have leads that your school doesn't have.

Lyon: It tends to be a balance between fear and desire. The dream job that some people had in mind when applying (a perfect case is private equity) isn't always available, forcing people to consider other options. I know several people who are returning to industries they vowed to leave. It's sometimesthe best option available. I shouldn't be overly dismal -- many people are getting Plan A. Just not everybody.

George: I don't know about everyone else, and I don't know how many people read me ranting in my last journal entry, but Step One is to develop a very thick skin. Step Two is to make a list of all of the possible opportunities that you have an interest in, that you can see yourself doing, and thatyou want to apply for. Step Three is talking to alumni and asking them about these positions. And lastly, Step Four is either finding or creating an opportunity to try it out and see how you like it.

Q: What do you consider the most important criteria in deciding between schools? How big an influence was financial assistance in your decisions on where to attend?

Mike:

For me, both parts of that question are related. The criteria that I set were the quality of the teaching, the affability of the student body, and the return on investment. In my case, I felt that Iowa offered outstanding teaching in both marketing and finance, and the people here couldn't be better. The Iowa in-state tuition, which they offer if you do a graduate assistantship, was hard to turn down.

Lyon: I just went with the school that I felt most comfortable with, and that was Wharton. Financial assistance was important. I'm leveraged to the hilt now, but Wharton does a good job of working with banks to facilitate loans.

Sucharita: On the financial-aid question, most everyone I know is highly leveraged right now. Loans for the entire program are available and the one good thing about the crappy economy is low interest rates. Some bank loans now are cheaper than the government loans.

Q: Any words of wisdom for preparing for the GMAT?

Sucharita:

Take as many practice tests as possible. And I always suggest that people use the LSAT tests as extra practice -- there are a couple of sections that overlap.

Mike: The only thing I would add is that the most accurate predictor for the final GMAT score was the two practice tests you can download from the GMAC site.

Lyon: Take the practice tests (or hire somebody who looks like you).

Q: How important is your GMAT score for the job search, especially for management consulting?

Sucharita:

I've had my GMAT score asked a couple of times in a handful of management-consulting interviews. But it seems like there are other factors that are more important -- your performance on the case, your reason for wanting to be in consulting, and ultimately whether or not your interviewer likesyou as a person.

George: Duke's not the first stop on many consulting interview tours, and it does seem that the initial screen for the Big 5 companies has been GMAT score. But the smaller firms seem to emphasize experience more.

Q: With limited time, energy, and sanity, is there any one thing that has helped you get the most out of your courses, as well as the extra-curricular activities?

Lyon:

I think it's critical to balance your time between schoolwork and networking. The course material is outstanding, but in the long run, the network you build will be countless times more valuable. Focusing too much on schoolwork at the expense of developing relationships with your classmates isprobably a mistake. Or at least, that's my philosophy.

Mike: I just decided to forego my sanity -- just kidding, sort of. I think you have to be comfortable with making sacrifices, and in my case, I made the decision first semester to take a bit of a beating academically in the interest of the job/internship hunt.

Sucharita: For me, it's asking the question, is this something I really need to know for me personally or professionally, or am I just following the crowd? That's why I opted out of all corporate-finance classes.

George: Focus. Know why you came to B-school, and what your major goal is. If it's working at McKinsey, you'll have to start before Day One, scoring high on your GMAT and getting into the best school that you can. Then, when you get in, it's networking with alumni, working on your cases, etc. However,if you came to B-school for the experience, and just want the degree, you may not have to jump through all of those hoops.

Q: In terms of networking, what can you expect out of people you've met during B-school?

Mike:

I think that your friends -- both in B-school and in life in general -- are your network. That's why it's important to meet people if you want to build an effective network.

George: It all depends. Even here, people vary from being extremely competitive to literally introducing their contacts to all of their classmates. As Mike has mentioned though, once you get to the B-school level, don't forget that the people who will know you best will be classmates.

Sucharita: I think these are people who will be your colleagues who could promote you or place you professionally. And even if that may not happen, they're a fun group of people. B-school brings out the best in people -- that's one thing I didn't realize before I started.

Lyon: Fellow alumni will always make an effort to assist, but as Mike says, if you want substantial help, it really depends on whether you have a relationship with them.

Q: Knowing how the economy is now, would you still have started your MBA program two years ago?

Sucharita:

Yes. This has been two fantastic years -- I couldn't imagine my life without it. No regrets.

Mike: I've never been a big advocate of waiting for the right economic climate to go to B-school. I think it's something that you have to come to terms with on a personal level.

Lyon: Most definitely. I can't think of a better time to be off the treadmill.

George: Yes, I would have. Given my background, after my residency was the best time for me to apply. However, if I hadn't gotten in, I would have applied again and again until I did, regardless of the economy.

Sucharita: They always say that a bad economy is the best time to go to business school -- that's when your opportunity cost is lowest.

Q: Are internships leading to jobs or is there a lower correlation between that now also?

George:

Internships are increasingly becoming part of the job strategy, as your 12-week trial period at the firm you want to work at. Traditionally, people would just try something out to see if they like it, but times have changed.

Sucharita: I actually heard worse stories from the Class of 2002 than my class. I know tons of my classmates who got jobs from their internships.

Lyon: Less than normal. Anecdotally, lots of internships ended with "we think you're great, but we don't have a spot for you."

Q: How do your respective schools measure up to their stereotypes?

Lyon:

Wharton is generally "quant" heavy, as its stereotype would indicate. Moreover, the two biggest employers are banks and consultancies, even now.

Mike: I spend a lot of time fighting what I call "the corn factor," whereby many of my friends think I spend my time amongst corn. Iowa City has a vibrant student body and faculty, and Iowa City is great town.

George: I'm not sure what Duke's current stereotype is among the applicant pool. I know we still get the "Gee, what friendly people" award, and generally, people respect Duke.

Sucharita: I think Stanford has a reputation for focusing on tech companies and having an entrepreneurial focus. I think that's pretty accurate. Most of my cases are on Bay Area tech companies. The economy has made the entrepreneurial stuff less popular, but it's still big.

Q: As an applicant, what is the best way to feel out a school's culture?

Mike:

It's all about visiting the school. There's no other way I can think of to understand a school.

George: I know that here, when I meet applicants, I typically ask where they're from, and what their background is. Then, I usually try to think of a classmate with a similar background, and give them my e-mail to contact me. Once I have their e-mail, I put them in touch with the other person. I assume that when you visit a school, you could ask if somebody has a similar background, and start a dialogue with that person.

Sucharita: Ask how many nights a week people go out. Also check to see if there's a grade disclosure policy to recruiters -- a no-disclosure policy will definitely mean a more cooperative culture.

Lyon: Visit it and try to befriend a few students. I think the open days for admitted applicants also give a pretty fair picture of reality. Until you're admitted, it pays to try to find alumni to talk to.

Q: So, then, how many nights a week do you and your fellow MBAs go out?

Sucharita:

Well, I just got back from a class trip to Vegas about 12 hours ago.

Lyon: Five, not counting weekends.

George: It varies. Depending on your course load, and where you are in your job search, anywhere from one to five nights during the week.

Mike: I'll take the fifth.

Q: Do you think company programs that pay tuition in return for a return commitment are a good idea, or would that limit you upon graduation?

Sucharita:

I have to say I'm pretty envious of my classmates who have no debt because of such deals and didn't have to go through struggles of the recruiting process. In a bad economy it seems like an awesome strategy.

Lyon: I think most programs like that have an opt-out policy which allows you to pay back tuition if you jump somewhere else. They're basically a free option, so yeah, I think they're a great deal. So do my friends who are returning to their former employers, even if they never originally planned to.

George: In this economy, if a company says you owe them at least two years' work, that's not such a bad thing! Still, I have several friends who feel pretty limited and wish they could have tried something else afterwards. If anyone has any other questions, feel free to e-mail me at gtmbweek@hotmail.com.

For more info about B-school life, articles, Q&As, and much more about management education -- check www.businessweek.com/bschools

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