Finding the Right 'Fit'

"'Fit,' it turns out, is all about you, and how you'll fit into the puzzle that is your business school class"

Now that I'm well into business school and have had some time to reflect on the application process, I have a confession to make: I have embraced "fit." Why is this a confession? Because during most of my business school application process, I hated "fit." Hate is a strong word, I know, but I'm going to have to stick by it. As I was applying, it seemed as though every business school information session referenced "fit" as a selection criterion. This would have been O.K. if it weren't for the fact that no one seemed to be able to define this elusive concept.

For those of you who are nodding your heads in frustrated agreement right now, here's the key: "fit" has everything to do with your answer to that ubiquitous application question, "Why do you want to attend [insert B-school name here]?" "Fit," it turns out, is all about you, and how you'll fit into the puzzle that is your B-school class. It's your intelligence, sense of humor, life experiences, work ethic, and your tolerance for (or embracing of) teamwork. It's also, quite frankly, the degree to which the Type A personality that got you this far is going to help or hinder your education and that of your classmates. At the same time, the business schools you are applying to will have their own personalities and fits with you.

I chose well when I chose Stern, and I think that's because, as it turns out, I was researching fit all along (even as I denied its existence and fervently wished admissions personnel would be just a little more specific). So, in the interest of specificity, here's my advice: visit, visit, visit. It can be expensive, I know, and time-consuming, but you are about to spend two years of your life and a significant sum of money on attending business school. An up-front investment to ensure that you're choosing wisely is a smart move.

reality check

A visit is also a good opportunity to do a personal fact-check on the things you hear from blogs, chat rooms, and other resources. If you can, try to time your visit during one of the student-organized conferences—I visited Stern during the Stern Women in Business Conference last spring (ladies, save the date for Feb. 6, 2009), and it provided a phenomenal view of the extremely talented women that Stern attracts, as well as the strong corporate relationships maintained by the school and its clubs (very important when it comes to the job search).

I've realized that "fit" is not made up—it's real. The better you can identify and communicate that fit in your application essay and interview, the stronger an applicant you'll be and the better the experience you'll have at your chosen business school. So you may be wondering how my own experience at Stern is going so far, and whether it's delivered on the promise of fit. In a word, yes.

In this journal entry, I'd like to look at this fit through the prism of academics. As a career switcher, I've been pleased at how Stern's flexible curriculum complements what I see as a "whole-person" admissions process. By this I mean a process that looks at what each admitted student will bring to the classroom. It means there's room for me, a former federal government bureaucrat getting in on the ground floor of business, as well as the others drawn to Stern's phenomenal finance program, for whom the MBA is a way to further advance their already distinguished finance careers. How does that work in the classroom?

It works by keeping me out of the finance folks' way as they pursue their interests and I pursue mine, but also by encouraging a "skills cross-pollination" (my words—more on this later) as we are brought together for the nonfinance courses that we all take together in our 70-person blocks. So, for example, this semester I am taking marketing, while many of my classmates are taking foundations of finance.

We are all taking accounting, but there are separate sections for those who are in finance and those who are not, so that the accounting and finance syllabi complement each other and I learn the accounting most relevant to my interests.

curriculum overview

Next semester, my finance-oriented classmates will take corporate finance with one of Stern's most celebrated professors, Aswath Damodaran, while I take the foundations of finance core course. And that's fine, because I know I'll be able to take Damodaran my second year, since the class is generously sized in reflection of its popularity.

So that's just one example. To give a more general overview of the curriculum, at Stern, students take four required core courses—accounting, statistics, teams and leaders (noncredit), and professional responsibility—and a minimum of five of the seven "menu" core courses (leadership in organizations, foundations of finance, macroeconomics, marketing, microeconomics, operations, and strategy—these are my shorthand names for them, but visit Stern's academic advising Web site for more details).

In our first year, we take three of the required core courses—accounting, statistics, and teams and leaders—and between five and seven (our choice) of the menu core courses. The third required core course, professional responsibility, is taken second year. The ranges of experience students bring to Stern means it is possible to place out of core courses, as my CPA and former statistic-teaching-assistant friends have done.

As a career switcher, I plan to take all seven classes in the core. It's important to me to have that solid business education foundation, both for my internship next summer and moving forward in my career. At Stern, classes for the next semester are chosen through a lottery process, with second years receiving preference for a majority of the elective courses and first years receiving exclusive access to the core courses as well as preferred access to certain electives, like Professor Damodaran's corporate finance course. We recently submitted our lottery entries, so results aren't out yet, but second years report that students typically receive their preferred courses.

Before I close, I just wanted to revisit my cross-pollination comment from earlier. A key element of the learning environment at Stern is working in teams. Stern assigned all of us to teams of six people, and I couldn't be happier with my group. We're from all sorts of backgrounds—financial services, post-production in L.A., advertising, and government—and each of our skill sets complements the others'. Given Stern's high percentage of enrolled women (just over 40% in my class), each team has two to three women. While the workload of this semester has been intense, just as promised, being able to work with my formal team, as well as the informal teams that have sprung up around shared interests and friendships, has made the rigorous schedule extremely rewarding. I look forward to the challenges of next semester.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE