The MBA Summit: Vetting Top MBA Programs


What advice would you give a prospective student who is just beginning to look at MBA programs?

How did you select the schools that would receive your application?

What, if anything, would you do differently in your MBA journey?

What’s surprised you most about the MBA experience?

Those questions and more formed the basis of an extraordinary MBA Summit panel sponsored by Poets&Quants and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Livestreamed on May 1 before a global audience from Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, the discussion featured four MBA students from Michigan Ross, Yale SOM, and UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.


Moderated by Poets&Quants founder and editor John A. Byrne, the panel included:  Ariana Almas, who just graduated from Michigan’s Ross School of Business. She came to the MBA program from a nonprofit, Year Up, a national workforce development organization. After interning at Microsoft, Almas will be joining the company at its Redmond, Washington, headquarters. Alma was among 100 MBA graduates this year named to Poets&Quant’s Best & Brightest list.

Before going to Yale SOM, Nate Micon had worked for Greenwich Strategy, a boutique management consulting firm. He joined Boston Consulting Group’s New York office after earning his MBA from Yale in May.

Tam Emerson just completed the first year of the MBA program at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.  She had been executive director of the Segal Citizen Leadership Program at Brandeis University.

Ramu Annamalai graduated from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business this month and rejoined Deloitte Consulting. He started his career out of Georgia Tech as a management consultant with Deloitte’s Strategy & Operations division primarily in the financial service industry.

The student session was among a trio of MBA Summit panels, which also included the perspective of leading MBA admission directors (see How To Get Into A Top Business School) and major MBA employers (see What Amazon, Google and McKinsey Want From MBA Hires).

What follows is an edited transcript of our MBA student discussion:

John A. Byrne: Three of you have already been through the full two-year experience. One of you has just completed the most grueling part of it, the core curriculum. So tell me, how did you decide that you wanted the full-time MBA to begin with?

Ariana Almas earned her MBA from the Ross School of Business this month

Ariana Almas: I worked in the non-profit sector for five years before coming to Michigan Ross. I remember there was a very distinct moment where I had just gotten a new role. I was in it for about a few months, and I just started to realize that I was learning more than I was able to contribute. So the amount of value I was able to bring to the organization was starting to plateau, and I thought what could I do to build up my skillset, build my knowledge so that I would be able to continuously bring value back to the organization that I truly cared about.

That was a big decision for me, and I remember at the time it was very serendipitous. I was talking to a friend who had just moved to Boston. I was in the Bay Area. She started grad school, and she was talking about all these experiences and everything that she was learning, and it just clicked for me. I was like, “I think I’m ready to go to school.”

Business school for me was the natural choice because, again, I was working in the non-profit sector for an organization called Year Up that supports young adults from historically-marginalized backgrounds, preparing them for the corporate space. So the way I saw it, I was working on diversity and inclusion efforts through the non-profit side and I wanted to transfer that knowledge and experience over to the for-profit side, and I thought, “What better way to do that than to go through the MBA?”

Byrne: Tam, you are also a nontraditional student who came from a nonprofit as well. What was your thinking about what the MBA was all about before you actually got to Berkeley Haas?

Tam Emerson: I was very similar to Ariana, and I didn’t ever imagine going to grad school. I’m a first-generation college student and it was a hurdle even to get to that point. So the idea of going to graduate school was something I only understood once I started working in higher education at Brandeis University. Seeing the students working and interacting with first-year master and public policy students flipped the switch that there was some potential there.

I felt like I was a team of one running an incredible leadership development program that was national. I brought a lot of excitement to it but most of the time I was making it up as I went along. I had the ethic and the drive for it, but there was a point that I felt like, “How is this fair to the organization for me to not think about what else could happen under a new leader?” But even thinking about business school felt very overwhelming. I didn’t understand the process all that well, and I didn’t really feel like I had too many people other than some very amazing mentors to help guide me through the process. So it took a little bit of time, but I’m really, really excited that I did it.

Byrne: Well, coming from the non-profit world, I imagine you may have had a less-than-stellar idea of what business school was about.

Emerson: I had a very general understanding that I was going to learn things like marketing and accounting, but I didn’t have much of an understanding of the rigor of it. I don’t think I had an understanding of the whole-hearted and well-rounded nature that a leader could gain because I was seeing management done in the non-profit world for my entire life.

I didn’t quite understand that business school would make me dive in as deep as it did to places that I didn’t even think I would go myself. I don’t think I’m going to become a marketer or jump into investment banking, but I knew that gaining better business acumen would make me stronger. And it took me time to figure out what that would look like.

Byrne: Nate and Ramu both were in consulting before business school, and in fact you’re both going back into consulting fairly soon. So we have two fairly mainstream MBAs here as well. Ramu, how did you determine fit? There’s this sort of intangible but important aspect of choosing a program that has to do with chemistry, your inner gut, and how you feel about a school. How did you make that work for you?

Ramu Annamalai has rejoined Deloitte after earning his MBA from Ross this month

Ramu Annamalai: I think fit for me really started with understanding myself and my story and what I wanted. And that takes a lot of time. You need to do a lot of soul-searching to understand what do you want in a program, what do you even want with the MBA, what do you want to get out of it. Why is this even making sense in your part of your life? And whether you can you do what you want without it? Of course, I’m an engineer, I’m a consultant, and I had lots of spreadsheets and models. But I have in my spreadsheet a personal story. I have my idea of what I’m most proud of, my strengths and weaknesses.

Byrne: In a spreadsheet?

Annamalai: Of course. It’s all very organized.

Almas: Classic.

Annamalai: But I think at first it takes understanding who you are, what you want in life, and then building that out: What’s your 10-year vision and bringing that back down to a two-year chapter. And then when you’re looking at a school, it’s how does that school align with you?

And so I think fit is something we already toss around, but it can be kind of an ambiguous idea. To me, fit is kind of that gut instinct. It’s Thinking fast and slow, as (psychologist Daniel) Kahneman puts it. For me, it was when I went to sell weekend. I went to two schools, and I kind of saw really the dynamics of individuals and the culture. When I came to Michigan there was a certain level of energy that I really gravitated towards that I didn’t get at other schools. And there really was that gut feeling. So all my spreadsheets went out the door, and it really was that “a-ha” moment where you think, “This is what I want to be a part of.”


Candid perspectives from MBA students, admission officials, and employers




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