The MBA Summit: Vetting Top MBA Programs

Ariana Almas (top left) of Michigan Ross, Nate Micon (bottom left) of Yale SOM, Ramu Annamalai of Michigan Ross, and Tam Emerson of Berkeley Haas

Byrne: Nate, how about you?

Nate Micon: I actually feel a little bit happy I did not make any spreadsheets. When I started going through the process, I started speaking with students I already knew as well as reaching out blindly to people that were on the websites. And I started figuring out who I was clicking with, what drove and what motivated the people at some of the different schools, and how they spoke about their programs.

Then, once I went on campus, honestly, there was a very clear moment when Yale just clicked with me. I walked away from the interview actually excited, and I don’t think I’ve ever really walked away from an interview other than nervous, but I was super excited, and I could see myself there. I think there’s something just very intangible that you feel at the right program, something that speaks to you that is impossible to put into a spreadsheet. So I’d encourage everyone to do your research, winnow down schools based on high-level criteria, like you want a school that excels in whatever aspects you’re looking for or is located in whatever cities you’re looking for. But then you just need to kind of throw your hands up and immerse yourself in the student body there and see what they talk about, and how the community clicks with you. And there will definitely be a school that just resonates more with you than others, because every school has its own culture, its own norms, its own guiding principles that will speak to you.

Byrne: What comes through in both your stories is the importance of actually going to a campus and meeting the students and faculty, and getting a real true feel for what that school could be like for you.

Annamalai: Or if you’re an international student, getting in touch with some of the alumni or current students if you’re not able to go and visit campus. How many times have I got an email either on LinkedIn or a random email saying, “Let’s connect”? I’m happy to talk to anybody about Ross.

Byrne: And Ariana, did you use certain tools to decide if Ross was right for you?

Ariana Almas: Yeah. I was told to use certain tools so I did use certain tools.

Byrne: What do you mean, told?

Almas: From folks that had gone through the process. They were like, “You have to make the spreadsheet, figure out your story, your journey.” That actually didn’t work for me as well. I think I’m a little offbeat perhaps for the MBA program, but I’m more of a see-where-things-go kind of person, not a 10-year-plan person. That stresses me out. I am very spontaneous and go with the flow. So I had my spreadsheets and I felt ready to go. And then based on the spreadsheet I had a very different set of schools I began looking at. When I arrived in Michigan, it was very similar to what Nate and Ramu were saying. I interacted with one student who was my host. She hosted me in her home. I remember I came back from the day. I started making up the sofa, and she came in and stared at me, and she said, “What are you doing?” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m not doing it right. Maybe I should be out. Should I be doing something else?” And she said, “You’re sleeping in my bed. I’m sleeping on the sofa. You need your rest. This is a big weekend for you.” I was shocked and blown away. My own brothers won’t give me their bed. So that was a moment for me. I think that’s when the gut starts to speak, because I realized this is someone that barely knows me and has already given me so much while bringing me into her home. And she’s also at Microsoft, where I’ll be going after school. So she’s gonna be a mentor for life.

That was a really key moment for me because I’ve not experienced that ever in my life, to have someone offer their own bed to me when I was visiting and I’d just met this person. It made me realize that this is someone I want to model myself after. And I gave my bed to a friend who’s now at Ross the year after, and I imagine that she will do the same.

Byrne: So Tam, how important was culture in determining the right fit for you?

Tam Emerson just completed the first year of her MBA program at UC-Berkeley Haas

Tam Emerson: It was probably the number one piece that I as looking at when it came to making the right decision. Similar to Ariana there were tools that I wish I had known about, particular things like Management Leaders for Tomorrow, opportunities that I could have used to help me better hone some of these pieces that I didn’t quite understand. So it really did come down to a lot for things like fit and culture. I did a lot of looking. I think that it’s hard sometimes on a school website to feel like, “Is this authentically what the school does, or you had a marketing officer put on a piece of paper,” who are incredibly intelligent and thoughtful people, but sometimes there still can be that disconnect. And so for me it was connecting with people and the culture of Haas. We have four defining principles that I thought were some of my own values. It wasn’t that I’m looking at something and saying, “Oh, I’d love to aspire to these.”

The dean right now will openly talk about the process he went through. It was about serving our current population, our faculty, our staff, and our students and saying, “How would you describe what we have here?” and then he created the principles off of that, whereas all too often companies or organizations say, “Here are our values and we’re working towards them one day. We aspire to do these things. We aspire to live these things and be these things,” versus a place that said, “We are just describing what already exists.” You could feel it as soon as you got there. You feel it in the students.

I have a very similar story as Ariana about the student weekend at Haas. But it was different. I was paired with two other incoming students, all of us were part of the Consortium for Graduate Management Study. When we got there, we were all scared. One admit was looking through her luggage and after traveling for months, she couldn’t find shoes. It was a very dumb moment for me in a similar way where I was just like, “Oh, well, I’ve got a pair. Take them.” There was kind of automatically this feeling of, “I’ve got your back. You’ve got mine. We’re here to do this together.” And that culture then just permeated throughout the weekend. At the other schools I visited, I just didn’t feel that the same way.

Byrne: One thing I like about your collective backgrounds is that you very much represent what people want out of an MBA. Many people go into a program hoping to use the degree to transition out of a career. Some people make the so-called “triple jump” where they transition out of a company, an industry, and a geography. And then some people want to accelerate their careers. Nate and Ramu, I think you two fall in that category since you’re both going to stay in the consulting industry. But for Tam and Ariana, was the degree a way to help propel you out of the nonprofit world?

Almas: I actually love the nonprofit sector. I hope to transition back in the future or get involved in some sort of way. But I saw the work that we were doing had limited impact, because you’re kind of an outsider trying to affect the corporate world. And I wanted to be in the corporate world to be an advocate and champion there for diversity, equity, and inclusion, among other things. So when I was looking at programs I wanted a program that had a really strong human capital focus, a program that was dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and that actually had some really tangible centers or resources. A few things stood out to me at Michigan: Number one is that you’re able to take classes at other schools. That was very important to me. I wanted to take an interdisciplinary focus with my MBA, and I’ve been able to take classes in education and at the law school. That was number one.

Number two, we have the amazing Center for Positive Organizations here, which I got involved in as a fellow. Their whole purpose is around how can you bring out the best in your employees so that they could bring out the best in the company. In the non-profit sector, we struggle with that because you’re really dedicated to a mission and you sort of forget about your own needs. I definitely used to ascribe by that, and then I started to get burned out. The Center for Positive Organizations I thought was really great, because they have a lot of amazing theory and research and they bring in practitioners all the time, and we have positive link talks.

And then the last thing was human capital and HR because that was the space I wanted to go into. Not all schools have that as a large focus, so I really wanted to zero in on schools that had that. We have a Human Capital Club. We have fact groups here at Ross where second-years are prepared for certain industries through our career services office, and there are two human capital fact groups.

Byrne: So you may not have a done a spreadsheet, but you did one in a head.

Almas: I guess I had one in my head. I had a checklist.

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About the Author...

John A. Byrne

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.