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The Random Walk as an Application Process

June 19, 2011

My application process focused on a subset of the so-called M7 Schools, specifically those that offered an EMBA program: MIT Sloan, Wharton, Columbia, Kellogg, and Booth. Harvard and Stanford did not offer an EMBA, and commuting to Stanford would have been impractical even if they had. But so far this introduction makes it sound as though I approached the application process in some systematic manner. I did not.

I must admit that in hindsight, my process for selecting the schools to which I actually applied was ad-hoc at best. It started in the aftermath of a Board of Managers meeting in mid-November in Pittsburgh. One of the Board members is a Booth graduate. His command of finance far exceeded my own, to the point where I began to question whether I should consider means of better educating myself in that area, if only to be able to more effectively work with him.

As luck would have it, I fell  ill after the Board meeting with some type of nondescript fever lasting three days, during which time I was laid up in bed with nothing to do and a massive, pounding headache. I get a bit hallucinatory when I have a fever, so as I lay there I kept having these odd dreams about my inabilities in finance and the potential negative impact that that might have on the company and the shareholders. Somehow, these dreams got twisted up with the long-term admonition of my mentor that I should eventually undertake an MBA program. He had recently advised me to look at the MIT Sloan Fellows program as being particularly well suited to someone at my point in their career, i.e. significantly older than traditional MBA students and well into my fourth or fifth venture, but I had not pursued it as I simply could not afford to spend 10 months away from the company.

While I was laying there feverish, I explored the websites of some of the schools and somehow came to the determination that I should apply to Wharton after discovering that they offered an Executive MBA. This was a new concept to me, as I had not spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting the various types of MBA programs. The Wharton program seemed quite convenient, as I could attend every other weekend for two years. Moreover, Wharton was easily accessible by car, train, or airplane as it was just on the other side of Pennsylvania. Here, I think that I was also influence by a conversation that I had recently had with one of my Board members, who commutes back and forth to Philadelphia each month and had, many years ago, done the same to complete his law degree program.

I emerged from the fever focused on the Wharton opportunity. I discussed it with Dean Sullivan, the mentor of whom I’ve spoken, and was encouraged to apply. In retrospect, it had not occurred to me to spend the time to research the other schools. I should have done so, but at the time Wharton seemed like a reasonable solution to my problem and so I engaged in the application. I will write about the Wharton application process at a later point, but for the moment, let’s just summarize the results.

I applied to Wharton well in advance of the February 1st deadline. I interviewed on February 5th. I had a very good impression of the school and the faculty, but felt a bit ill at ease after meeting the students, principally because they all seemed so young and focused on changing careers to go into investment banking. I couldn’t find a single student engaged in entrepreneurship, though at lunch one of the students pointed to someone across the room and said, “You should probably talk to him, I think he started a company.”

I returned from Wharton feeling absolutely certain that an EMBA program would provide substantial value to both the company and I, but with ongoing reservations about the students in my cohort. On March 29th, I received a rejection from Wharton. This was a significant shock, as neither I nor anyone who had been supporting my application had seriously considered the possibility of a rejection. But, none-the-less, that was the outcome.

I backed up and thought about the outcome, then conferred with Dean Sullivan. There was no obvious flaw in my application or background to explain a rejection. I decided to press on with an EMBA application and went back to do what I should have done in the first place and researched the remaining M7 schools.

I should mention here that in applying to Wharton, the application process had forced me to realize that my real goal in seeking a graduate management education was to develop the skills necessary to lead a global technology company, not merely to acquire additional skills in finance. This refined view of my objective was key to informing my choice of programs to which I subsequently applied.

Harvard and Stanford were already out because they did not offer EMBA programs. I had mistakenly thought that MIT Sloan did not offer an EMBA either, but at this juncture came to realize that it did, and was likely to be a very good program given my focus on commercializing bleeding edge robotics technologies. MIT was now back in the mix.

I had missed the Booth deadline for this year, so Booth was out. Kellogg still represented an opportunity and I had even started the online application while in my deplorable feverish state. Columbia also represented an opportunity. I more carefully reviewed the programs and realized that MIT Sloan was  best aligned with my need to acquire the skills to lead a global technology company. I decided to apply to Sloan and hold Kellogg and Columbia as back-up schools, as both operated on deadlines that would still be viable should I also be rejected from Sloan.

Having mismanaged the application strategy, I was grateful that I had only included my partners in the application process. It was somewhat embarrassing that I had so focused on Wharton that I had missed the better opportunity at MIT. In the end, I believe the optimal match was made, but it was not a very efficient process.

If I might digress a bit further, in doing research on these schools, I was appalled at how little meaningful information is available to compare and contrast programs. The various rankings offered by Business Week and so forth aren’t very useful once you narrow in on the elite schools. Ranking Harvard above Wharton, or vice-versa made little sense to me, as it seemed doubtful that absolute programmatic dominance existed at this level of competition.

Perhaps even more disturbing are the various online bboards populated by students applying to various elite business schools. They read like sports fans who offer statistical evidence of a school’s superiority. Statistics such as a low admissions rate, high GMAT scores, high undergraduate GPA and so forth are offered as proof that Wharton is better than Columbia.  Do people honestly make life decisions based on such pseudo-data? My favorite quote in this absurd exploration came from an individual who posted that he preferred the Business Week rankings over the US News and World Report rankings because his favorite school ranked much higher in Business Week. I think that sums up the “look for the data to support your conclusion” approach being taken on these bboards. It simply offered little meaningful value to someone like me who was searching for real programmatic comparisons.

My own conclusion is that at this level, the schools are really only subtly differentiated and the real question among highly qualified candidates is fit. Which program is best aligned to a candidate’s particular life experiences and life goals. Fit is unfortunately not quantifiable in easily reportable metrics, yet seems like it would be of great importance to making an informed application decision. My feeling of being ill-at-ease with the students at Wharton was one such indicator of a poor fit. I found myself in a room full of 30-something students focused on transitioning into management consulting and investment banking. Entrepreneurs did not seem to be in the mix. I just didn’t fit.

Despite my own reservations about the inefficiency with which I applied to MBA programs, I think that the Random Walk turned out to be a rather effective algorithm. It is not clear to me how exploration of these programs to determine a “best fit” can be accomplished in any more efficient manner than applying, interviewing, and meeting the faculty and students at each program.  Rankings and other online information provide only tier-level insights that may bring a block of similar schools to the applicant’s attention, but offered little value in creating a good alignment. At the end of the day, it would appear that the market for MBA student placement remains relatively inefficient.

-R.

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