Fresh Out of College and Off to Business School

Sergey Zinger raced through his undergraduate career as a student at SUNY Geneseo in upstate New York, finishing his degree in business administration in a record three years. During his senior year, Zinger, one of the top students in his class, started conducting a job search, but none of the entry-level postings that surfaced excited him.

He'd heard about the Early Leaders Program at the University of Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business (Simon Full-Time MBA Profile), one of a handful of MBA programs open to accepting students straight from college, and decided to apply.

"The opportunities I'd have graduating straight from undergraduate just weren't of the caliber that I really wanted," says Zinger. "I knew I'd eventually want an MBA, so I figured why not do it now?"

He was accepted to the program and entered the business school at the age of 21, one of the youngest members of his MBA class. His gamble paid off when he landed a plum job as a financial analyst in the corporate finance department at Exxon Mobil (XOM) this year, with a salary comparable to those of his classmates with years of work experience. Says Zinger: "I was able to bypass the boring entry-level job market, which was huge."

Zinger is part of a growing movement of students seeking to enter business school either straight from their undergraduate programs or with just one to two years of work experience. This impatient generation is changing the equation for business schools, which typically require students to spend four to six years in the workforce before applying. Most programs still adhere to those requirements, limiting—to just a small handful in most cases—the number of college graduates who can make the leap to business school shortly after graduation.

accepting the gre as well as the gmat

But there's evidence that a mindset shift is occurring among business school admissions officers. More schools are selectively dropping their age requirements and allowing students to submit the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for admissions in lieu of the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), a move they say helps them reach undergraduates who might not otherwise consider a business degree. At the same time, a growing number of business schools—from Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile) to Rochester's Simon—are introducing new programs to attract a younger and more diverse pool of students. Even schools with well-established programs that allow undergraduates to earn their bachelor's degree and MBA in five years—commonly known as 3+2 programs—are reporting a spike in applications and interest from freshman and sophomores.

At Purdue University's Krannert School of Management (Krannert Full-Time MBA Profile), which runs a 3+2 program, competition for the 6 to 10 spots the school usually offers to undergraduates has been stiff, says Brenda Knebel, Krannert's MBA admissions director.

"I think the interest over the years has continued to increase for this program," says Knebel. "We do a callout in the fall and we find that more and more freshman are coming to the sessions we run on the program."

The surge in interest in MBA programs from the so-called millenial generation is being driven by a confluence of factors: a weak job market for undergraduates, a growing openness by business schools to younger applicants, and parents urging their children to consider graduate school at an earlier age, says Julia Tyler, a vice-president of the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), which administers the GMAT exam

"I'm speculating here, but it may be that parents are at cocktail parties and they hear their friends talk about how their child is going to law school and medical school at 21 and they think, why not business school?" Tyler says. "I do think there is an influence of the helicopter-parent factors here that shouldn't be underestimated."

undergrad interest in record numbers

Whatever the motivation, there's no doubt that more younger students are setting their sights on business school. The number of students under the age of 25 who took the GMAT exam in academic year 2007-08 was 38%, up from 30% in 2003-04, according to the GMAC. Perhaps even more telling, the number of undergraduate students who indicated that they want to go to business school one year after graduation was 20% in 2008, up from just 10% in 2005, according to an annual survey of people who register on the GMAC Web site,

Leslie Onkenhout, 23, is emblematic of this new type of business school student. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, the English major applied and was accepted to Washington University's Olin Business School (Olin Full-Time MBA Profile), which is open to considering younger candidates and also runs a 3+2 program.

Her first few weeks in the MBA program were challenging, especially the core classes, where she found herself "humbled" sitting next to former traders and accountants with several years of work experience, she says.

"I think being an MBA without work experience is a little bit like being an American abroad," she says. "Even if you are very self-confident, it is a scary experience."

Not that Onkenhout let that stop her. After a few months, she found her footing and began to thrive, founding the school's Olin Young Leaders Assn., becoming a teaching assistant, and securing a job as a consultant in Booz & Co.'s Netherlands office, where she'll start in August. "I felt I was ready for an MBA program and that I could bring something to the table," she says.

One way business schools hope to reach more students like Onkenhout is by getting their attention while they are still in college. Many see the GRE exam, which many college students are already familiar with, as one of the most obvious ways to get on their radar.

b-schools are marketing to college juniors

There are now 227 business schools that allow students to submit GRE scores for graduate studies, according to the Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE exam. This appears to already be having an impact on college student's career aspirations. The number of GRE registrants who indicate that they want to pursue business studies in graduate school is on the rise, with 4.2% saying in 2009 that they plan to study business, up from just 1.8% in 2006, according to the ETS.

"We have been marketing the GRE to students in their junior and senior year of college, even if they're not sure if they're going to go directly to graduate school," David Payne, head of the GRE program for ETS.

One of the most high-profile business schools to accept the GRE is Harvard Business School, which announced this spring that students can submit either the GRE or GMAT when applying to the school.

One of the reasons the school made that decision is because it has been trying to attract a more diverse pool of candidates through its new 2+2 Program, which the school unveiled in 2007, said Deirde Leopold, Harvard's MBA admissions director. The program is designed so that undergraduate students can apply to Harvard Business School while still in college. Admitted students are guaranteed a spot in a future Harvard MBA class, provided they graduate and get two years of work experience.

"These are people who, when they're in college and thinking about what to do next, may not know what doors an MBA can open for them," Leopold said. "The grand design is to get the message out to a different group of people at a time before they are making other decisions about their career."

reaching students who hadn't considered an MBA

So far the school has succeeded in its goals, attracting students with science, engineering, international development, and policy backgrounds. The school received 631 applications in its inaugural year, accepting 106 students from 52 undergraduate institutions. The admissions staff visited 58 campuses across the county this year to promote the 2+2 program. On Thursday, Harvard announced that applications to the program have jumped 34%, to 844.

One of the students accepted to the Harvard 2+2 program is Janine Kacprzak, 22, a recent graduate of Northwestern University who will be a member of the Harvard MBA class of 2013. Kacprzak intends to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector doing international development work and will be spending the next year working with rural Mayan farmers in Guatemala through a fellowship program. She hadn't considered attending business school until she stumbled on the 2+2 program one night while browsing the Web during her junior year.

"I wasn't sure about going to graduate school, and if it wasn't for this program, I probably wouldn't have considered an MBA," says Kacprzak.

Harvard has also been able to attract students like Eric Calderon, 22, a recent graduate of Texas A&M University who is now working as a petroleum engineer at Concho Resources (CXO) in Midland, Tex. He planned to work for at least three or four years before applying to business school but quickly changed his mind when he learned about the 2+2 program.

"To know for sure that you're going to graduate school before you even finish your undergraduate degree is a really good feeling," says Calderon, who was accepted to the program and will be heading to Harvard in the fall of 2011. "It's a nice thing to have in your back pocket."

does it dilute the mba experience?

Rochester's Simon School established its Early Leaders program four years ago, opening the MBA program to students with anywhere from zero to three years of work experience. The program was the brainchild of admissions director Greg MacDonald, who believed it would allow the business school to attract more women and under-represented minorities.

"I think the business-school industry needs to be more open-minded to all sources of talent, whether students are 22 or 32," MacDonald says.

Today, nearly one-third of the school's MBA enrollment falls under the Early Leader category, MacDonald says. Rochester is one of the few business schools that admits such a large number of students with little or no work experience—last year there were 43 in the graduating class. Programs like Simon's have been subject to criticism from some in the business-school world, who worry that bringing a bevy of fresh-faced college graduates into the classroom will dilute the quality of the MBA experience. Some worry that the older students in the program, with several years of work experience behind them, will resent the naivete of their younger classmates.

This has not been the case at Simon, says MacDonald. The older, more experienced students tend to reach out to the Early Leaders to help them get acclimated back into the academic world, while the younger students turn to their older counterparts for networking advice and industry connections.

"Some of the older students might be critics coming in, but often, many of them will end up graduating as some of the biggest supporters of the Early Leaders initiative," MacDonald said.

His experiment has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. MacDonald has established recruiting partnerships with staff at 30 colleges and universities across the country who have helped get the word out about the program to their students. The school has also made progress in its goal of enrolling more women, increasing the number of women in its MBA program by 20% since launching the Early Leaders program.

job placement is on par with older mbas

This year, applications to the Early Leaders program were at an all-time high, accounting for 40% of the full-time MBA applicant pool, MacDonald says. The school has also seen an rise in the number of students coming to Simon directly from undergraduate programs, he says, noting that there were 20 students who fell into that category this past academic year.

Another reason the program is succeeding? Job placement for these Early Leaders is on par with the rest of the MBA class. In 2008, 37 of the 43 students in the Early Leaders program landed jobs within three months of graduation. In most cases the salaries these students commanded were only $12,000 to $15,000 lower than those in the MBA program with more extensive work experience.

If the past serves as any indication, the school may be on to something. Many of Simon's most famous graduates—such as Bob Keegan, chief executive officer of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (GT), and Joe Abrams, a co-founder of MySpace—came to business school in the 1970s or mid-'80s, a time when it was more common to go to business school immediately after college or just a year or two after graduation, MacDonald says.

"We're not really inventing something new," MacDonald says. "We're just kind of going back to the past and, hopefully, allowing history to repeat itself."

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