My Story: From Hollywood to Booth

I applied to four schools: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and Chicago. My parents had no preference, or at least never expressed one to me. My dad was completely neutral about my attending Chicago. But I came to visit here and after the experience, I got on the plane knowing I wanted to go here. I sat down for half an hour with (Deputy Dean) Stacy Kole and my brain was so engaged. A lot of people were deciding between Chicago and Kellogg. Everyone, of course, applies to Harvard. A lot of others try Wharton and MIT. It just became very clear to me, a gut feeling if you will, during the course of that conversation with Kole and throughout the rest of the day that Chicago was a place that would challenge me on every level – intellectually, personally, and professionally. I felt like I belonged there. Once I’d decided to go, my dad felt it would give me the maximum flexibility because the school provides you with fundamentals and frameworks, that whole “how-to-think-and-not-what-to-think” formula.

As you probably know, Chicago is the only school that asks you for a slide presentation in the application. My slides were all visual. There were two pictures of my family, a picture of me reading, and a poster from a dual-career couples event on work/life balance, and a see-saw of stuff I like: passions like surfboarding, movies and tennis on one side; on the other, places I’ve worked. I think an application to a business school should capture all of you. Use the part of the application you have control over to express other parts of who you are.

The people who chose to come to Chicago are not expecting a two-year cocktail party. People really care about learning and ideas. Students here love mucking around in ideas. It’s not that Chicago is all about finance and numbers. It’s more about understanding that even if you are doing strategy, you need to back it up with numbers. It’s about thinking quantitatively, not being quantitative. It hasn’t felt like an overwhelmingly quantitative place to me. The curriculum is so from a menu that you might not be in any of the advanced classes in finance. It definitely takes work to do well here. At Harvard, during my undergraduate years, it was hard to get in but the grade inflation was huge.

I went to math camp, which was two weeks before orientation. A lot of Chicago people go on these trips called random walks or go to pre-MBA statistics and pre-MBA accounting courses. They’re both one-week long. I did both. It was a shocking re-immersion. It was eight hours a day in a classroom and it takes you through the first four weeks of the material. But it does take the stress out of the first part of the program if you don’t have a background in finance.

Then, orientation is about three weeks long. The entire incoming class is taken by bus to Wisconsin to a place called “The Abbey” for the leadership part of the program. It’s called LEAD for the Leadership Effectiveness and Development program. You’re there for about two and one-half days and then come back to campus. About 40 second-year students are LEAD facilitators, and there are eight or nine sessions of bonding, leadership training, sessions on conflict management, communications, and ethics. There’s also a career services piece and an intro to extracurricular activity at the school.  You spend your first three weeks doing all of this.

We have cohorts of 60 students each as part of LEAD. You’re also broken into squads of eight people and cohorts are given money to do activities. We’re on the quarter system at Chicago so everyone in your classes change every ten weeks. There are few part-timers on the main campus. They take their classes in downtown Chicago at the Gleacher Center.

As a poet, I generally found that you are a huge bonus to any group you’re in. I took a class called ‘Commercializing Innovation.’ In it, a venture capitalist takes you through eight deals he considered: how you value an opportunity? How to do due diligence on a venture? Every week, I had my three partners do the models and the numbers, and I would do all the strategy. You bring a perspective to the group that is very different. People will speak up and say, ‘Wow, I never thought of that.’

The professors here are amazing. I had Alan Bester’s introductory class in statistics and it was terrific. He is one of the most intuitive teachers I have ever had. His homework assignments were like an Ikea assembly brochure. Teacher evaluations by students are made public so you can use them to choose your courses. The administration will work with professors, providing coaches to help them if they are having trouble.

What adjectives would I use to describe Booth? It’s challenging, supportive, enlightening, intellectually curious, creative, and rigorous. You can’t come here without having all of who you are challenged. My Chicago experience was way more intellectually challenging than Harvard. The cross-fertilization here is a big factor. You are what you learn in each class you’re in.

The school is a choose-your-own adventure. A lot of the community here is built around the extracurricular activities. You find your community in them. I was on the Graduate Business Council and I was a LEAD facilitator. Every Thursday night, most of the students all go to a chosen bar around the city. We call it the Thursday Night Drinking Club.

My first day at my new job was last Monday and I could not be more excited about it.  As I wrote to a Booth friend the other day, I am reminded every day that I am here how much I owe the school, not just for the experience I had over the last two years but for setting me off along exactly the career path I had hoped for.

Other My Story features:

From Deloitte Consulting to Harvard

From an Army Ranger in Iraq to Harvard Business School

From West Point to Berkeley’s Haas School of Business

From Communist Romania to London Business Schoool

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.