October 25, 2010

Seeing Through the Smoke Screen

You know, in retrospect, I have to say: business schools - savvy ones, anyway - make a sale. It's just like in Glengarry Glen Ross (which was later homaged by Boiler Room) with the speeches. Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck.

Always. Be. Closing

Calling the Trick

It's a decent motto to live by - either you make the sale or you're being sold. Regardless, a sale is made. Either he (the ubiquitous he) sells you, or you sell him. It's business.

And business schools are good at this. They (the ubiquitous they!) promise solid career opportunities, post up names of companies on their "top 100 hiring firms" list that are Fortune 500, Fortune 100, Fortune 50. The truth of it is? They hire 4 people from your school, none from your major, and you start in Kalamazoo. Congratulations. No penthouse papartment in New York City for you - unless you're a 4.0 student, honors across the board, and you've gotten into the workshops and seminars that you're supposed to get into - not that anyone will really tell you about those.

It's about finding out who really wants it. Be wary of misinformation. And be even warier of schools listing companies like Goldman Sachs, Barclays Capital, and Google as their top hirers. Chances are, it's spin. Not outright lies - to accuse a University of outright lying would tank my professional career. But a little cynicism goes a long way, and a few questions can rip apart a very beautiful pamphlet's claims.

What to Look For

When you choose a business school, you need to look at several dimensions: first is the caliber of the program. What kinds of professors come to this university? Are they largely research professors, teaching lecturers, a combination of both? Who will be teaching your classes? Grad students? Clinical professors? Full professors? And, finally, what does their grade distribution / inflation look like? I will tell you right now, flat out: Ivy League and top tier schools mean better grades and grade distributions. Period. If you've worked you way into getting into a top-tier university, you will be rewarded your entire university career. And that's not even the bitter, jaded state school attendant in me talking. Grade inflation has been highest at said top-tier schools. The average has gone from a C to a B in most universities; most top-tier schools average an A. Make of that what you will.

You also need to look at where the school is located. If you're going to a business school in Kansas, expect a lot of recruiting from firms in or near Kansas. It's logical and sense-making, but a lot of students (certainly myself among them) didn't make this connection. If you go to UPenn or Columbia, Ivy Status aside, your recruitment is going to be mainly Boston or New York focused, and likely more the latter than the former. If you go to Northwestern, you're going to be headhunted by Chicago firms. If you go to Stanford, expect Silicon Valley recruitment. Georgetown? New York and DC area firms. It's so obvious but so easy to miss when you're trying to figure where the Right Place is for you. If you know you want to end up in The City, go to a school that has recruitment from there. If you want to stay in the Midwest, go to school there! If you don't want to be in Texas for the rest of your life, don't go to school there. While that part strikes most students (certainly I did not go to university in the state where I grew up), the connection of "I want to live in New York one day" doesn't translate for most high school seniors into "therefore I should go to school in or near NYC." I was fortunate; the large city near my Large State School is a city with which I have fallen in love. Not everyone is so lucky.

Using Rankings

Rankings are an easy way to choose a university and a program. The sentiment is common: "I, being the best, deserve the best!" When I applied to universities in late 2006, this is what the list looked like. This is what it looks like today. The top 50 business schools include some recurring faces, but ultimately the most astounding thing is the addition of schools like Wake Forest, William and Mary, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Case Western, and the MIT Undergraduate business school. Compare to schools like the University of Texas, UPenn, and Indiana University, with enrollments anywhere from twice to ten times the enrollment of some of these schools. An accounting program does not a business school make! Cornell's "business school" is actually a school of hospitality management, with a marketing program and accounting program bolstering the main line of "hotelies" that run through it.

It's literally comparing apples to oranges. No one can tell me that my business education at the Lally School of Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic (to which a friend of mine applied as an engineering student) is wholly comparable to my education at the McCombs Business School at the Univerity of Texas, Austin. That's preposterous. And attempting to compare these two universities across "standardized" metrics does both institutions a disservice. This is the equivalent of only adopting The Virginia Plan and tabling the New Jersey Plan entirely. Someone loses, and in this case it's the "voters," the applicants.

Rankings are valuable, I am not denying that. What I am saying is that too many students rely entirely on ranking information in their applications. Also worth noting is that in the last four years, Texas has fallen one space, UPenn has fallen three, and Indiana University has fallen nine. Universities are slow to implement change - how could rankings change that much in so little time? Furthermore, the sampling pool has changed significantly. In 2006, only 61 programs were surveyed and 50 schools listed. Today, 111 programs are represented, and all are ranked.

I'll freely admit: part of this is the bitterness talking. I am somewhat stymied in my job search and feeling more than a little jaded at realizing that the truth was fudged when I applied. But a larger part of me is trying to have you understand something: asking probing questions like the ones I've highlighted can save you from feeling like you've made a very grave error when it's too late to change it.

Alternative Options

Okay, the last thing I want to mention: if you're reasonably sure you want to be a business major, consider not going to business school. Something my friends and I have noticed is that it's far more likely that you'll be hired by some of the top-tier firms if you are, say, summa cum laude in History but you've demonstrated an interest in business by reading articles, journals, and newspapers. If anything, you are more impressive that way. Also, in our experience, liberal arts are more likely to give you the grade you earn. If you write a series of A papers, you receive an A. By comparison, a lot of business schools force a bell curve fairly aggressively - unless you're in an honors program, where the grading is more like a lib arts degree.

Furthermore, if your best skills are writing, communicating, and creative thinking, you may be better off being a liberal arts major with a business interest. Play to your strengths: graduating summa cum laude is equally meaningful regardless of your concetration.

Parting Words

Choosing a university is one of the most important decisions of your life - it can affect the trajectory of your entire career path. Don't allow yourself to be sold by a university. Email professors, explore the campus independently, spend the night with current students, talk to people involved (and not involved!) in Greek life. The more you know, the better off you are.

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