Letting Go Of An MBA Safety School

The signs were always there; like knowing deep down that I haven’t really been that aroused by you, despite your attractive veneer; a bad first date full of hiccups; and friends (like T.C., Columbia GSB ’08 and M.P., Stanford GSB ’06) telling me that I could do better.

For years I’ve been impressed with how popular you were around town, only to find out that your shine lacks luster beyond the local domain. You’ve told me time and time again that no one could give me what you can; yet, the data says otherwise. And as a recovering numbers whore, I still have a hard time turning my back on a nice set of empiricals looking me right in the face. Plus, I can’t enter a long term relationship on uncertain terms; doing so would forever haunt me as to whether I made the right choice.

Still, I’ve held on, unwilling to let go–partially out of fear that my dream picks might think of me as “over the hill”; and, well…I’ve heard you like older guys. In fact, your name has gotten around quite a bit for that. Call me a nontraditional applicant, but I really liked that smutty little fact about you. What can I say, it’s hot. You’re hot; but hot’s just not enough for me to stake my future on.

You must believe me when I tell you that I really, really wanted this to work–I mean, you’re SO darn attractive; but I’m way too experienced and mature to ignore what I know are red flags. This simply isn’t going to pan out. Therefore, I must bid you farewell, my intriguing, sexy safety school–USC Marshall. Though we were not meant to be, I will always remember you fondly.

Warmest Regards,


P.S. Please don’t try to stop me. I’m deleting your web page soon after publishing this post; and I won’t look back.


I’ve thought long and hard about this; and it hasn’t been easy, since I’m such a big fan of this school on many levels. I’m definitely a fan of their football team (which is second only to my Miami Hurricanes, whom the NCAA just won’t give a break on those violations; mostly because they want to ensure that non Florida schools get more chances to divvy up world-class Florida football talent); but there’s a larger, broader mystique to USC that extends far beyond the gridiron.

Maybe you have to be familiar with Southern California’s culture to know what I am talking about. You see, in socal, you could almost compare USC’s alumni network to the mafia. It wields an unseen hand that is deeply felt in every nook, crack and cranny of the public and private sectors.

Not only does the mere mention of the name lend instant credibility, but the actual alumni share a Stanford GSB/Dartmouth Tuck-like bond that prompts them to literally bend over backwards to extend opportunities and assistance to a fellow alum. It’s an amazing thing to watch; and can be a frustrating experience should you find yourself outside the fold. Even with a degree from powerhouses like Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech and UCLA (all considered to have ivy league-comparable educations) it can be a challenge to penetrate a professional or civic network brimming with Trojans.


My decision to break ties with this great institution was a function of goals and fit. Both my long and short term goals are tied into entrepreneurship. I first had thoughts about the possibility of an MBA from USC Marshall years ago when a close friend (and Trojan, of course) mentioned that the school was ranked #1 for entrepreneurship; I checked online to find that her assertion was true. In a general sense, I was sold on the concept.

At the time, however, I had absolutely no intention of making a move toward an MBA; I was working hard on my first internet business and thought, “who has time to take a class about business when they could be building one?” I filed the data point that she had presented in the back of my head didn’t think much about it for quite some time.

As I learned and grew over the years I discovered that an MBA would actually be an excellent next step to help me build the kind of company that I began to envision. This new vision was markedly different from previous models that I had built both in size and scope. When that time came, USC was the FIRST institution that popped into my mind based on what I had come to know about it.


As I began to embark on more serious research about nine (9) months ago I started to see weaknesses in the bond between my goals/needs and Marshall’s offering. They boiled down to:

Entrepreneurial Ecosystem – One of the things that I believe contributed to USC being recognized as an entrepreneurial leader in the first place was that they saw a need to teach entrepreneurship before it became the “fad” that it seems to have become in recent years. This isn’t a surprise at all coming from a California-based school. California institutions in general tend to be trendsetters for all things nontraditional.

However, fad or no fad, perennial “suit and tie” stalwarts like Wharton, Harvard, Booth, Columbia and Tuck have all “stepped their game up” tremendously within the last decade. They are obviously intent–individually and collectively–on not allowing usual suspects like Stanford, MIT and Berkeley to get away with “owning” entrepreneurship.

Consider that the “b-school rock star” of today is characterized more often by a start-up founder than a rising corporate tycoon. My personal opinion is that this growing trend is owed to the intersection of the “do it my way” millennial generation coming of age and the return of flush venture capital reserves (when I was 25, the country was still reeling from both the dot com bust and the September 11th attacks; few VC’s were willing to touch an unproven internet venture with a 50-ft pole, and I went to work for a brick-and-mortar behemoth to dodge the economic firestorm).

I think it’s safe to say that the prestige of any program that does not have a strong presence within the entrepreneurial realm can be expected to steadily erode over the next decade or so. If there has ever been a reason for top business schools to jump on a bandwagon, the rise of the legitimacy of entrepreneurship is it (top b-schools used to look at entrepreneurial types as semi-delusional dreamers with a loose grip on reality–not that we aren’t, it’s just considered cool now).

That being said, the schools that I’ve just mentioned have all poured tremendous resources into fostering entrepreneurship in their programs in recent years. Then, of course the death blow was John Byrne’s LinkedIn study that didn’t even show USC as being on the map in a comparative sample of actual entrepreneurs who have started businesses within the past 10 years or so.

Alumni Network Strength Outside of Socal – The fact that I am originally from the south means that I may eventually want or need to move back there to be closer to family and/or take care of my parents. Another possibility is that I may decide that after b-school I’d prefer to live somewhere on the east coast. While returning to California is a strong probability, I’d like my degree (and network) to carry sufficient weight regardless of where I choose to land.

As an entrepreneur (or anyone, for that matter) what you actually accomplish is infinitely more important than where you graduated from–or if you graduated at all; however, your alumni network can be critical to helping you pivot into key networks and/or opportunities where you may not already have friends.

My friend J.J. from undergrad who has a Sloan MBA and a Harvard M.A. claims to have gotten a meeting with a Silicon Valley VC–sight unseen–based on his grad school email address alone–while living in Washington State; now THAT’S what the hell I”m talking about. Besides, if I’m going to invest $150k in a damn piece of paper, it needs to open the right doors from coast to coast–end of story; just keeping it real.

Graduate School Environment – During my hilariously problematic school visit, there was something that really bothered me beyond the chaos of The Kids Choice Awards. I didn’t feel like I was in an environment that had been sufficiently distilled from the undergraduate population.

I’ve already experienced undergrad and have no interest in revisiting it. While on USC’s campus I felt that Marshall was engulfed in a post-pubescent undergrad playpen (The Kids Choice Awards notwithstanding); not sexy. I found the experience to be a sharp contrast to Stanford, which sequesters its MBA students in an enclosed Pantheon of GSB life, and even UCLA, while part of a large campus of some 40,000 undergrads still manages to pull off its own little business school-focused world somehow.

Grant it, there are other schools on my list who I’ve heard have a similar environment. And to be honest, I could probably stomach this for a school that had nearly everything else that I wanted; but not with so many other sub optimal characteristics added to the mix.

Likelihood of Transformation – One of the things that I wrestle with–even with Anderson–is the fact that I truly am looking for an experience that causes a transformation in that way that I think about and move within the space of business. I’m not so sure that I can accomplish that in such familiar surroundings.

Los Angeles is a city that I have lived, breathed and literally become one with for over 10 years. And though I feel that I will always be able to come back to it with a hometown-like familiarity that I’ll probably never lose, I wonder if I need to be completely ripped out of my current environment to be that much more open to new ideas, new paradigms, and most importantly, new networks and associations. For these and the reasons laid out in the previous 1630 words, I know that I know that I am making the right decision in removing this great institution from my target list.

MBAOver30 offers the perspective of a 30-something, California-based entrepreneur who is applying to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT, Northwestern, Berkeley, UCLA and the University of Southern California. He hopes to gain acceptance to the Class of 2015 and blogs at MBAOver30.

Previous posts on Poets&Quants:

How I Totally Overestimated The MBA Admissions Process

Musings on MBA Failophobia