Surviving B-School

"It turns out business school is inherently extreme. Take 500+ hardworking, determined self-starters with a few years of work experience and a false sense of yuppiedom, then bring them to a hotbed of academia"

Life is full of applications. Some of the most intimidating include the following: jobs, loans, mortgages, and for those reading this article, admissions. For the egotistically challenged, the application process has a way of highlighting self doubt, insecurity, and fear of rejection. For the egotists among us, applications are time-consuming and tedious. Either way, the process is grueling. However, the culmination, if you've successfully targeted your efforts (and the admissions gods smile upon you), is rewarding: admission.

Before we get all warm and fuzzy, there are many hurdles before securing a seat at the school of your dreams. Deciphering the logic of the admissions process is a topic worthy of PhD study; it lacks transparency and, like Boston's street layout, is seemingly arbitrary. As an aspiring MBA student, you are likely a working professional with an insufficient amount of time to devote to the things in life you deem important, never mind applications. Further, depending on the level of disclosure your current position allows, you may be managing a highly clandestine operation for the next few months until you've scored your ticket to Hollywood. (Yes, that was an American Idol reference.) Given the situation, maximizing the efficiency of your efforts is, indeed, paramount.

I think this is the point where I am supposed to provide insight and offer some secret for cracking the admissions code. Instead, in my lack of expertise, I shall humbly offer you some tips. Aside from the obvious —ace the GMAT, be a Rhodes Scholar, find an alternative energy source— you can improve your odds and save time in the process by tackling applications with purpose. Time management is one of the skills you'll utilize most once you've elected to take the B-school challenge.

Once you've taken the GMAT and your name and demographic profile have been released to the admissions community, the courtship begins. We pick up at the part where you are thumbing through Barron's Guide to Graduate Business Schools and surfing's MBA page trying to determine the highest ranked schools to which you have the greatest chance of admittance. Stop right there. Back away from the Barron's. Your admissions strategy lies in this rather simple process: Segment the market, identify your target consumer, align your brand with the needs of the consumer. (Ah, perhaps marketing is the hub of the wheel, after all…)

Segmenting the Market

Among the top-tier schools, there is relative parity: Each offers world-esteemed faculty, expansive alumni networks, recruiting relationships with Fortune 100 companies, and a virtually unlimited amount of incredible opportunities. Upon further segmentation, however, the nuances that separate one school from the next emerge.

There are many ways to break down the B-school equation: by tier, academic specialty, reputation, ranking, city, coast, to name a few. To be most effective, determine the features most important to you. In doing so, heed the words of our literary friend Hamlet, "to thine own self be true;" because after all, the success of this whole thing lies in landing you at a school with a culture, reputation, and value system in alignment with your own. If there's one thing the admissions dogs can sniff out, it's a phony applicant who lacks focus and is merely throwing applications at all of the top schools in hopes that something will stick.

Determine Your Target Consumer

The secret is to find fit; for me that means finding a place with people whom I genuinely want to spend my time. Chicago Booth has a tradition of academic rigor, a flexible curriculum, a collaborative learning environment, and grade nondisclosure; attracting a specific student body.

Students here are engaged in crafting their own unique MBA experience; as a whole are more concerned with mastery of material and comprehension of concepts than pursuit of a particular letter grade; and, perhaps most important, (with the help of grade nonisclosure) are inspired to take classes which might otherwise deflate a GPA: Turbo Economics, for example. We wouldn't be here if some part of each of us weren't committed to high performance.

To determine your target schools: visit campuses, talk to current students, even research the school's motto; it will, at the very least, give you an idea of the tradition from which the school has grown. At Chicago Booth, we "challenge everything" (even our recent name change, but that's another story).

Create a Brand

Now that you've homed in on the target, you've got to communicate your personal brand. Each communication (essays, application, résumé, interview) with a prospective school is a chance to promote and reinforce your vision, purpose, values, and passion. And each communication should offer a clear, consistent, succinct message which says "why you," "why this university," and "why now."

And there you have it: a targeted admissions strategy that will streamline the process and hopefully too, improve your acceptance rate. Once you've mastered this highly sustainable process, remember to reuse and recycle next year when you begin your recruiting efforts.

Look in the Mirror

Perhaps I should heed my own advice and target my recruiting efforts toward a few specific industries or companies. But I know myself better than that; some part of me would not be satisfied had I not exhausted every career path possible before settling on the one (or three) for which I shall recruit. It's as if I won't have done my job search justice unless I attend every single corporate event scheduled (even if that sometimes means attending the first half of one presentation and the second half of another). Besides, it's like a breakfast buffet—how do you choose just one? However, as all of the days here blend into one, every day begins to feel like Groundhog Day. The question begs, "Am I getting anywhere?" Is it a case of so many channels (HD, satellite, etc.) and nothing to watch? Kind of the way you can spend an hour of your time surfing for something that catches your attention only to realize an hour later you didn't watch anything at all.

The Low Point

November is a particularly challenging month because the ramp up in course material and the recruiting cycle have coincided nicely with the bottoming out of the U-curve of cultural adaptation. Effectively, the honeymoon phase has ended and those of us who've moved here purely to pursue our MBAs are beginning to feel the pangs of adjustment. Factor in a little sleep deprivation, some stress, and a calendar that resembles Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm—voilà, the harried B-school student appears. A fellow classmate said it best: "Every week I tell myself, 'I just have to get through this week.'"

And, the rat race ensues. "You never feel like you're doing enough, because no matter how long you study, how many practice problem sets you do, recruiting events you attend, alums you contact, there's always more you could be doing."

Every minute spent on something "unproductive" inspires guilt, a guilt that is only amplified when everyone around you appears pointedly on task. A sense of self-identity begins to fade as there's no longer time in the day for the activities which once defined you, and perhaps gave your life a sense of meaning. Instead, you've become a number: just one of the hundreds of students lining up for the next recruiting event to kick off, hoping to edge out the competition by weighting your crop circle with friends and other like-minded comrades.

It turns out business school is inherently extreme. Take 500+ hardworking, determined, self-starters with a few years of work experience and a false sense of yuppiedom, then bring them to a hotbed of academia, and distort the value chain so that all else comes in behind the pursuit of the perfect summer internship. The perfect internship which will incidentally allow me to have some positive impact on the world around me (or at least in my community), provide vast and varied experiences, reinforce the concepts I'm learning in class, challenge me to think outside the box, and afford me the ability to repay the mounting heap of student loans. Did I mention it'd be really great, too, if said job were located in a major metropolitan area east of the Mississippi?

And the beat goes on. Everyday is a struggle to find fit and to fit it all in. And, the catch-22 is that as soon as we fit in, we strive to differentiate because after all, we are individuals. And, we're hoping at the end of this maniacal search for summer internships, the stars align, the economy will rebound, and like pairs will fall in line.

Until next time…that's all she wrote.

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