Competitive? Yes. Cutthroat? No.

For one MBA student at Michigan's Ross, the program's ability to nurture friendships and community are as vital as high academic standards

"For those standby passengers waiting for a seat assignment, this flight has checked in full. We apologize for the inconvenience."

Being the son of a retired airline pilot, the almost-free travel has its perks—and its moments of utter despair. For each business-class seat I snag to Amsterdam, a compensating 21-hour wait in the Seattle airport comes barreling down the chute months later. Each new terminal requires I dole out immense amounts of patience and the ability to restrain from punching a wall devoid of outlets needed to recharge my laptop.

I'm currently on fall break, ahem, "Professional Development Week" at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. It's our five-day respite from the rigors of the first seven weeks of what many MBA2s (our jargon for second-year students) call, simply, "hell." And the standby demon strikes again: I'm stuck in Chicago after a productive, yet somewhat discouraging, trip to Washington, D.C. (more on that next time).

Without getting into too much detail about my short journey east, I will mention that I had a wonderful experience at the National Press Club last evening. The admissions committee held an event for prospective students, and many of the bright-eyed, eager people I encountered were impressed by one obvious characteristic: nearly 30 students and alumni showed up. Hello? Network! Meeting a group of neatly dressed, accomplished individuals with nary a clue of the whirlwind seven weeks I had just encountered was memorable for me. Suddenly Barbra Streisand's song The Way We Were diluted the incessant pounding of Fergie and Kanye West songs that had been running through my head since Ross' Halloween Party.

Late In the Game

So, you might ask, how was my B-school application process? It really was a bit piecemeal, an approach I recommend for someone who enjoys transience and demonstrates an anti-type A personality.

I took my GMAT at a relatively late—and most unfortunate—time: Sept. 16, 2006. I remember this day quite well, as it fell on a particular Saturday near and dear to any Michigan football fan's heart. It was the day we stomped Notre Dame 47-21, and it was the day I gave up a 50-yard-line seat to sit in a video-monitored room for four hours. Nevertheless, I received a score that made me reconsider my previous plan of attending a part-time MBA program while working in the Seattle area. Yes, folks, I'm willing to admit that my GMAT score helped me to decide to forgo a well-paying job for graduate school. In hindsight, I don't think it was an entirely inappropriate approach; it was merely a confirmation that the little seed planted in the back of my head wasn't just a pipe dream.

I got into the game late, though, and since I had already decided to take a couple of evening classes in the fall, the time I could spend on applications was limited. So I selected my schools based on criteria I consider critical to how I, you know, roll—a commitment to a diverse, international student body; a vested interest in emerging markets and the intersection of business and social issues; and some sort of big-time athletics program. Rankings, yeah, they were important, but I truly craved to be in a program that was part of a greater community, and sometimes it's a Saturday football game that brings the community together outside the classroom. Lo and behold, I found three programs of high caliber that embodied my criteria, and I got cracking on my applications.

Financial and Other Aid

Let me address this question quickly as well: Did I use any sort of admissions counselors or consultants? Aside from checking out a copy of Richard Montauk's book, my best advisers were friends and family with MBAs, and the students I met at each school. I considered my network to be robust enough to assist me with the tools I needed to generate a competitive yet honest application. Speaking with some applicants, I realize that not every person may have the same connections; in that case, perhaps an admissions consultant is the way to go.

Of course, getting admitted is one small step in the process. You still have to (a) accept the offer and (b) learn how to pay for the thing! You may remember from my previous article that the former took about four seconds despite knowing that I wasn't eligible for any scholarships to cover the latter. And I was perfectly comfortable with that—by the end of the day I had a spreadsheet compiled that compared all my financial aid options. My education was funded within three weeks and I've comfortably exercised blissful ignorance over the whole thing since my first day of classes.

Come to think of it, I don't recall one gloomy conversation about finances at school, and I'll attribute it to the fact that my classmates and I are having way too much fun here. I promise that we're not taking pleasure in the sudden whirlwind of activity, lack of sleep (who changes their Facebook status at 4 a.m., anyway?) and learning to accept our mediocrity in the midst of overachievers. No, this experience truly is one that has made me a different person even in the seven short weeks I've been in Ann Arbor. I think this hypothesis (a consultant in the making am I!) can best be answered by examining the cohort of students with whom I most closely associate, Section Four.

Building Community

During our first week of Ross Leadership Initiative (the program some schools call orientation), the six sections composing this year's MBA class were pitted against one another in a cook-off. This was no ordinary grill-out or chili feed, though. Our task was to create a gourmet meal, present it, and provide after-dinner entertainment. Through creativity, teamwork, and our secret weapon—sangria—our section was victorious. It was clear that our group played to win, but I wondered what would happen when classes started. Would the gunners come out to play? Would the race to the top be as cutthroat as I feared? Would we suddenly be pitted against one another? My fears were soon humbly cut short.

Four weeks later, Paul, a member of our section, broke his ankle while playing soccer, and he faced a round of surgeries and immobility. Despite the fact that all of us were incredibly busy, classmates took notes for Paul, provided rides when he needed to visit the doctor, and kept professors up to speed on his condition. Yes, the competitive nature of each student didn't subside, but I discovered that my classmates understood the meaning of community—a necessity for this transient soul. Even though I wasn't the recipient of that outpouring of grace, these 80 colleagues were no longer classmates, they became neighbors and friends.

There's something about a place that prides itself on excellence but generates lifelong friendships along the way. And just like any other friendship, it does come at a cost—we all left our loved ones and jobs for this two-year endeavor, but I'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't find it worth every penny.

I close this entry on my flight to Detroit—I finally made it—and a classmate is offering me a ride home despite only an hour's notice. It's the big sacrifices we've made, and the ability to be flexible as a result, that have made these past seven weeks truly memorable.

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