M7 MBAs: What’s an Elite B-School Experience Truly Actually, Really Like?

Jon Frank, Co-founder and CEO of AdmissionadoWe recently had an internal meeting where we started spilling a ton of dirt on our MBA experiences. The stories felt strangely similar, which got us thinking… “How much of this did we anticipate before we attended?” Answer: We had NO idea what we were signing up for! Then we remembered that we are admissions consultants and literally all we do is help people who are in that exact same boat.

Let’s write an article, we said. So we began it with a focus on Harvard Business School, the shiny car in the parking lot that every SINGLE person has their eye on. But then, quickly, we realized we needed to extend it to other top programs.

So, here you go! The same set of questions, but to folks who attended Stanford, Booth, Sloan, Wharton, CBS and others. You get the idea. If you haven’t already, check out this article and compare notes.

Question #1:

Let’s start easy. What were the PEOPLE like? It’s like our parents always taught us: if you don’t have anything nasty/judgmental/dismissive to say, don’t say anything at all! Every program has saints, as well as d-bags. What are the people like at your b-school?

CBS – “At CBS, the people were a bit pretentious. I think that’s a function of being in NYC. BUT, because the class size is so large, you get a good mix of people. So while the pretentious people tend to have loud voices, there are definitely more down-to-earth folks too. Beyond that, because this is NYC and a good chunk of students lived/worked here before they started their MBA, there’s a split in terms of how “CBS-centric” people are. Around 1/3 are super committed to being involved in their cluster, 1/3 are involved, but have lives outside of CBS, and 1/3 are basically inactive. You can choose your participation level, and hang with that crew.”

Stanford“Diverse, multi-talented, brilliant, ambitious, friendly. My MBA classmates are still my favorite group of people. Okay, maybe my family is my favorite, but it’s a close-run thing!”

MIT Sloan“Compared to people I know at other business schools, Sloanies … [1] Are humble and chill. Sharp-elbowed people stuck out in a bad way at Sloan. [2] Are insanely well-traveled. [3] Are focused on startups and tech, in a genuine way, not a “CEO title sounds cool” way. This meant a lot of people churned through products and startup ideas instead of going to class or doing social activities, which might not be for everyone. [4] Are generally boring, risk-averse people who were there to maximize their earning potential and follow a straight-and-narrow path of banking or consulting. [5] Are a little older. I was 27 when I started at Sloan and I felt young.”

Wharton“I went to the school somewhat intimidated, thinking that my classmates were going to be cut-throat Wall Street sharks. While the school tends to have more Type A people, for the most part, we were there to learn and network, so we were collaborative. Most people were intelligent, some people were book smart AND street smart, and some of them have high EQ and IQ. It is also a big school, so you can find people who have similar personalities to you if you want. I’m hardworking and motivated, but I don’t stress out or lose my temper when I’m under stress, and I found a good number of people who were similar in terms of working style and personality.”

Question #2:

(Two-Parter) Is your school famous for a certain class? Or method of teaching? Or offering? (And when we say famous, it’s gotta be as recognizable as the HBS Case Method…) And? Did it suck? Did it live up to the hype?

CBS“CBS is really famous for its Value Investing Program, and the program is amazing. It’s super selective and you need to apply after you start school. But the classes are amazing, the speakers are best-of-the-best hedge fund value investors (think: Buffett, Seth Klarman), and graduates go on to land amazing jobs. I didn’t do the program (I focused on entrepreneurship), but I took a lot of the classes and they were some of the most interesting I’ve ever had. They are a huge influence on how I think about creating value as an entrepreneur.”

MIT Sloan“Sloan is famous for its focus on entrepreneurship and tech.  It definitely wants to be famous for this, and it’s very real! Many people who go to Sloan are looking to start a company or work at an early-stage <50 person tech company when they leave. A handful of people in my class started companies in their first year with people they met, and never came back for year two, which was exactly their intention. The professors who teach entrepreneurship are among the weakest at Sloan, in my experience, but there’s an Entrepreneurship Center (now called the Trust Center) that is ALWAYS buzzing with activity. It’s very cool. But it’s all student driven. I’d give Sloan an “A” for having an entrepreneurial environment, an “A” for providing resources (buildings, alumni connections, etc.), and a “B-” for the academic/classroom stuff they do with people focused on entrepreneurship. Sloan is also somewhat well known for technical finance classes (Andrew Lo and others). I found the finance classes to be the absolute best ones I took, with the best professors.”

Wharton“Wharton is famous for finance. A really popular class was Decision Making, which I enjoyed very much. That course taught me about the biases people have when making business decisions, and now I notice those mistakes almost every day. Wharton also has some interesting leadership offerings. One is Executive Coaching, where you collect feedback on your leadership style from peers and bosses from the past, and submit them to a coach who works with you one-on-one to refine your leadership style. Another cool leadership offering is Leadership Ventures, essentially a physically challenging trek (for example, summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro or tall-ship sailing). These trips are not glamping like some leadership retreats: we’re talking no showers, extreme physical exertion, and a lot of stress. Everyone takes turns being leader of the day, and it really tests your limits and makes you realize just how capable you really are.”

Booth“The Entrepreneurial Finance and Private Equity class at Booth taught by Professor Kaplan is a “must” for people who want to get into VC or PE. It will teach you more than you thought possible about how the industry works and how to evaluate investments. As a former VC myself, it definitely lived up to the hype!”

Stanford “The entrepreneurship classes stand out, plus the infamous “touchy feely” or Interpersonal Dynamics. That class was amazing! The marketing classes, less so.”

Question #3:

What assumption did you have about your school going in that was wildly, wildly OFF?

Stanford“That once you get in, you’re all set. Nooooo. Not at all. It was HARD, HARD work.”

MIT Sloan“That everyone would be interesting, with their own unique backstory, like at an elite undergraduate program. That’s true for maybe 50% of people (which is a lot, relative to the real world). But for a big chunk of people, they’re just smart people who went to good undergrad schools, worked at a brand-name company before Sloan, and then want to go into consulting or banking after. Of course, boring isn’t necessarily bad. If you plan on going into consulting or banking, then Sloan provides a great network.”

Wharton“A lot of financiers and CEOs send their kids to Wharton, so I thought people were going to be pretentious, talking about their parents’ vacation homes in the Hamptons and complaining that there were too many catamarans in their yacht club. However, I found that most rich people were humble about their upbringing… there was only a small percentage who bragged. Most people were focused on standing on their own two feet and avoiding the appearance of relying on the success and generosity of others.”

Booth“The school has a reputation for being mostly a great finance school, however, we also have a very strong marketing program!”

CBS “I thought CBS people were going to be far more involved in the NYC scene and not as involved in the school, and that was completely untrue for most students. The clusters and classes really bond, which creates a much more fulfilling experience, beyond just the academic portion of an MBA.”

Question #4:

Naturally, you know MBAs from other programs. Anything about THEIR experience you’re kinda jealous of?


MIT Sloan“Stanford has better weather than Cambridge, duh. I also do think the percentage of interesting people at Stanford is higher than Sloan. Tuck kids basically went to summer camp for two years, which I’m very jealous of. I wish more people at Sloan were into outdoors-y stuff on weekends.”

Wharton“I thought the Harvard case method was quite interesting and there were times when I wished some professors would be better about facilitating a case.”

Booth“HBS does not have a lot of written assignments, focusing on class discussions. That would have been nice.”

Question #5:

Okay, someone gives you a magic wand with which to identify a major FLAW with your business school, and suggest a smart fix to it, right here right now. Go.

Stanford “Students were too focused on starting new business enterprises. Too ‘Silicon Valley.’ It can become a distraction from the coursework itself.”

CBS “I wish that CBS did a better job preparing their students for Day 1. I felt very confused when I showed up at Orientation and people were dressed up in wacky outfits. I was then shanghaied into being an AVP in a club! Leadership positions were super important on your resume, but very few of them involved actual responsibility. I just wanted more context when I started. I think CBS could fix this quite easily by having better communication prior to Orientation.”

MIT Sloan“There’s an unfortunate divide between Sloan and the rest of MIT that benefits neither side. Sloan people want to work with tech nerds, and true scientists don’t want to deal with fundraising and term sheet BS. There should be a more structured way, a class or club maybe, to get tech people working together with Sloanies. Otherwise, you get a lot of business school people whiteboarding and building business plans for things that they’ll never actually make. That hurts the morale of people who want to work on startups.”

Wharton“There was a really complicated and competitive bidding system for getting classes; basically if you don’t win in the “auction,” you don’t get the classes you want and had to settle for other classes that 1) you might not need and 2) were not as helpful, and that process and the idea behind the system were both frustrating. My classmates and I felt like if we were paying over $50k a year in tuition, we should be able to get the classes we want and not have to go through some game to “win” them.”

CBS “For Columbia, being in NYC is both a gift and a curse. There are so many benefits to being the best business school in the #1 city for global business. But in all of the school’s marketing materials, in their messaging, and in the broader public image, what CBS is is NYC. It’s a bit shallow. I wish it could be more “this is an elite school, and by the way, it’s in NYC.” The course offerings and the branding should be more reflective of its very real excellence as a business school. I think it would help to enhance the reputation.”

Question #6:

If you could travel back and VISIT yourself on Day 1 of business school, what advice would you give the younger, fuller-haired, slimmer-hipped you? What would you say to help you get even MORE out of the experience, or something that might have led to a different/better outcome?

Stanford“I’m still slim-hipped thank you very much! Hair, an entirely different story. My advice is this: don’t think of b-school just as a platform to get to that amazing job. You will get the job anyway, focus on learning to better yourself in as many ways as possible. Make friends. Take risks. Have fun. You may not have that opportunity again.”

CBS – “Good one! I would have told myself to be more open to all the different people in my cluster. Also, your friends from first year will literally be flipped upside-down during your second year. To get more out of the experience, I think I would have told myself to take my studies less seriously.”

MIT Sloan“Try to meet with more CEOs and business leaders. Sometime in my second year I started cold-emailing CEOs to ask them to talk about their career path, and the response rate was over 80%. When you email from a school email (especially from an MIT, Harvard, etc. email address), people put their guard down and are willing to help. I wish I’d done that from Day 1. Also, FOMO is real. Acknowledge it, don’t beat yourself up about giving into it sometimes, but don’t try to be at every social thing all the time, especially if it’s crowding out your ability to focus on work that’s meaningful to you.”

Wharton“Know what you want and don’t get caught up in the rat race. In B-school, I personally experienced this and saw this in a bunch of my friends – recruiting often turned into a group activity and people felt left out if they weren’t attending an employer info session. Don’t prepare for a banking interview just because everyone else is. If you’re unsure of what you want and prefer a broad skill set, go for consulting. My last advice would be practical: negotiate your first offer, even if you think there’s no leverage. Just try, because that’s going to be your salary benchmark for future jobs.”

Booth“Take more classes outside your concentration to learn different subjects and get to know people from other industries.”

CBS “Focus your extracurriculars. I signed myself up for a lot of activities and leadership roles. In retrospect, I would have picked only one extracurricular. There are just so many demands on your time – between academics, socializing, career stuff, travel – and they’re all so valuable (and fun) that you really need to be selective about how you choose to allocate your waking hours. So yeah, I’d say to myself, ‘Pick one club, and be a leader. Don’t pick three.’”

Question #7:

What was the coolest memory/lesson from OUTSIDE the classroom and squarely OUTSIDE anything “business” or “business-school”-related?

Stanford“All the wonderful ad hoc social events that made b-school much more than it might seem from the outside. I made LIFELONG friends. Nothing beats that.”

CBS “I did not expect to travel as much as I did. Those are the best memories. From sharing a house with 15 cluster mates in Belize, to going to Argentina for a long weekend, to literally almost dying in India because of food poisoning – I actually cannot believe I did all of those things. I had a blast, and it was so worth it. It also feeds into a “business-school” related lesson, which is to always be networking. It helps even years after business school!”

MIT Sloan“Everyone says it’s all about the “network,” which is true. You’re around other really smart, motivated people who are going to be mindful of their careers. So, great, your peers are going places. But the reason they respond to my emails or calls or texts isn’t just because we went to Sloan together, it’s because we’re friends. So, focus on making friends, and then the other network-y stuff takes care of itself. Another lesson is that travel really deepens bonds, period. My closest friends from Sloan, and in life, are people I didn’t know before we shared a hotel room in Munich for three days of Oktoberfest, which we decided to book 24 hours before we left.”

Wharton“Memory: floating in the Dead Sea. Lesson: through b-school I got to travel quite a bit, witnessed many different cultures, and studied abroad. It gave me a broader worldview, taught me to be open-minded, and made me much more adaptable and connect with people from different cultures. This helped in a big way when worked for a multinational company and had to develop close working relationships with my European counterparts.”

CBS “We went on a school trip to India. It was amazing. Three of our Indian classmates organized a good part of it, and one of them got married at the end. There were thousands of people in attendance. The opportunity to visit the country with local guides was something I will never forget.”

That’s a wrap on our second stab at digging for dirt on the MBA experience. Here’s our big takeaway: it all kinda sounds like different sides of the exact same coin, no? Everyone talks about how amazing the people were, how cool and international and talented and interesting they were, and how amazing it was to hang with them, socialize, develop deep friendships, etc. Right? Kinda like, if you took away the school names, it could have been a series of responses from the same frickin program.

There may be a key lesson here. It might just be the case that the actual people and the actual programs are fundamentally quite similar. If there’s a “difference” between them, it may stem more from other people’s perception rather than an intrinsic experience. Those “others” might be applicants or future employers or anyone else. And those perceptions matter, even if your experience is identical. If people pay more attention to the name Harvard, or think your finance skills are better because you hail from Wharton, or that you’re probably a marketing whiz because you graduated from Kellogg… you can LEVERAGE that. Because that perception (however accurate or inaccurate it is) may be the exact edge you need, right?

But, based on everything we hear from everyone who attends these programs, if the perception doesn’t much matter to you, and you’re just looking to spend a few years surrounded by incredibly driven, talented people from all over the world, don’t beat yourself trying to find the perfect “fit” program. Your experience won’t be radically different at School A versus School B. Our advice is always: Go to the best school you can get into and don’t look back.

Jon Frank is the co-founder and CEO of Admissionado, a premier admissions consulting firm. After graduating from Harvard Business School, Jon spent some time fulfilling the post-MBA goals he wrote about in his apps and worked in Real Estate Development. Not too long into that, he realized that he’d much rather team up with his best friend to help people around the world change their lives. And so Admissionado was born. Since 2007, the Admissionado team has reviewed over 30,000 applications and sent students to top programs in the U.S. and around the world. After (proudly) hitting that milestone, Jon’s next goal for 2017 is to eat as many bowls of mac and cheese. Game on.

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