Diversifying My Life's Portfolio

"What creates income?" I read this question as I studied into the wee morning hours for an accounting midterm. "I really think I should know this," I thought. I bit my lip, read on, and powered through four more chapters. Sometimes the HEC MBA (HEC-Paris Full-Time MBA Profile) program keeps me so busy with classes, group meetings, speakers, career research, and the occasional night out in Paris that finding the time to hit the books presents a challenge. I have been here nearly two months now, and it has been such a whirlwind I almost don't remember the journey here.

I took the GMAT a year before I applied to business school and obtained a score I deemed "just good enough" to go where I wanted to go. I potentially could have retaken the test, but I made the calculation that the stress and time it took to study outweighed the benefits of a higher score. While a gamble, I believed that admissions committees look at more than just your test scores.

With the GMAT completed, I began researching and evaluating schools. I talked to friends and friends of friends in business school and read MBA blogs, including several by former MBA journal writers. I also combined a couple weekend trips to see friends with visits to MBA programs. By researching and exploring all of my options, I uncovered my own motivations for returning to school and reconnected with old friends.

Briefing Your References

About three months before my first application due date, I developed my short list of five schools, three of which I would apply to in the first round and two "backups" I would apply to if need be. I chose only schools I absolutely wanted to attend, as I felt I should attend only somewhere that would truly be a good fit for me.

I also contacted my potential recommendation writers. One was my boss at the time and the other a former boss. For my boss at the time, I had a face-to-face conversation, explaining my reasons for pursuing an MBA, and for my former boss, I did exactly the same but by e-mail. I gave them both a breakdown of my intentions for returning to school, where I wanted to apply, why I had chosen those programs, and what I hoped to accomplish with an MBA.

I then set to work on the applications. In a rare Excel-loving moment, I built a spreadsheet of all the essay questions to gain a comprehensive view of the work that lay before me. This also helped me determine whether certain essay questions overlapped. Most, however, did not.

Feedback From Friends

Draining at times, the application process forced me to stay home nights when I would have preferred to go out with friends. I constantly phoned my mom, my ultimate go-to when stressed. I also frequently succumbed to the chocolate bars staring at me as I absentmindedly scanned items and contemplated essay questions in the grocery line.

Extensively writing and thinking about yourself can exhaust you. Luckily, I had a team of critical editors and trusted confidantes, from my mom to my office mate to several friends, who would frankly tell me if my essays answered the questions, represented all I had to offer, and made grammatical sense. Not only that, my network gave me the extra encouragement to finish when I tried to second-guess myself.

I received my first acceptance—from HEC, my first choice—on Thanksgiving. Elated, I stopped working on my second round of applications and informed my recommendation writers.

The only other aspect that stood to make my HEC acceptance more appealing hung in the balance with an application I submitted to the Tuft's Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. HEC's MBA provides several unique opportunities—via double and joint degrees—for students to cross disciplines and specialize beyond their MBA. The option to do a joint degree with the Fletcher School appealed to me, so I applied. Tufts notified me of my acceptance in early December, and I entered the 2009 New Year knowing my graduate school plans.

Wide Variety of Cultures

To finance my education, I took out student loans from Sallie Mae. In recent months the dollar has weakened against the euro, but by pursuing my MBA at HEC, I enjoy a world-class education at a bargain price compared with what it costs to attend the American schools I considered.

I arrived in Jouy en Josas, the small town southwest of Paris where HEC is situated, in early September, fresh from a month of pure vacation. As the majority of our class hails from places outside of France, HEC devoted much of the first "orientation week" to administrative issues, such as visas, health care, and bank accounts. By no means did we finish all these administrative items in the first week. Alas, this is France, where they love their bureaucracy, but I was thankful the school allotted time for it.

The program is relatively small program, with slightly more than 200 students per class (50 or so who do not arrive until the January intake), but HEC's diversity is magnificent. From Shanghai to New Delhi and Vancouver to New York, cities far and wide are represented by students, who bring a fusion of cultures, languages, and cuisines to HEC.

Learning From Each Other

During the two semesters dedicated to training us in the fundamentals of business (such as accounting and finance), the majority of HEC MBA students call Expansiel, the student "apartments" on HEC's campus, home. An Expansiel resident myself, I must admit it's strange to live again in student housing, though the impromptu dinner parties and random conversations in the laundry room create a strong sense of community. Even with such a sharp contrast of cultures, my classmates are amiable, and our personalities seem to mesh without hesitation.

Over the past two months we've enjoyed countless parties in the piano bar (a quasi-bar attached to the residence), a summer cookout by the on-campus lake, and a weekend of chateau-viewing in the Loire Valley.

When not socializing, we attend lectures and tend to other school-related commitments. Our class is divided into three sections—two English and one bilingual (French-English). For the first two semesters, however, we all essentially take the same classes.

Sometimes too hectic and sometimes somewhat manageable, my typical day runs from 8 in the morning until 10 at night. It involves four to six hours of class, a couple of hours for a career services meeting or a presentation by a company, and an hour devoted to club activities. Any time in the interim is devoted to study group work, eating, and running.

Discussions With Big Shots

Blending case study and theory, HEC professors allow us to view the material from several different angles and at times give us opportunities to meet the movers and shakers of the very business cases we attempt to crack. Classmates in my marketing class were given the opportunity to discuss the successes and failures of Segway not just with our class, but also with the CEO of Segway France.

HEC develops the study groups to mirror the overall diversity of the school, and my group is no exception. On any given night one can find me battling over supply chain formulas or statistics graphs with Vanshi and Sahil, my two highly energetic, dynamic group mates from India, and Gavin, my calm, finance-minded group mate from Scotland.

Running is a passion of mine, so I was delighted to find that HEC's ranks boast numerous athletes. We speculate jokingly that HEC accepted us because the school wants to win the annual sports competition it hosts for the top European business schools—the MBAT. Without doubt, though, sports help create a balance among the student body, and I always have a running partner.

The Club Life

In addition to supporting balance through athletics, HEC encourages us to join clubs, where we can apply business concepts we learn in class and further develop our networks and career goals. Club involvement, in my view, is extremely beneficial, as long as you do not overcommit, which can be tempting.

Before arriving at HEC, I wanted to join the Net Impact Club, an offshoot of the international nonprofit organization Net Impact, which aims to use the power of business for social purposes. Two months in as a member, I have already put my energy toward a Net Impact pro bono consulting project and committed to co-organizing the HEC Net Impact Social Business Conference in late May.

With a balanced balance sheet in hand and a sense of relief, I turned in my accounting exam yesterday. In a few hours, with midterms behind us, nine of my new friends and I will head to Lisbon for a few days of vacation. While only a group of 10, our backgrounds are as varied as the cheeses in France. With just half a semester down, I know I made the right decision in coming to HEC.

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