CentreCourt: The MBA Gatekeepers At MIT, London, Duke & Indiana


Hubert: I would say be honest with yourself, be careful of falling into the hubris trap. A little dose of humility is good in this process because it keeps you honest. It allows you to recognize your Achilles heel. And then, if you’re more introspective as part of this process, you will be able to be honest with yourself, and share those things that you don’t know yet. Because you’re not coachable. You’re going to business school to learn, and to grow, and develop, so we don’t expect you to be perfect coming in. And those people who are a bit more vulnerable and have a bit more humility are really interesting to us. And we really feel like they’re going to get the most out of business school. They’re in the right frame of mind and have the maturity level to understand what they don’t know. This is an opportunity for transformation.

So you definitely want to be confident and talk about what great things you have to bring to the table, but also be very self-aware about those areas that you need to still work on and shore up. You need to know and be willing to work on those areas throughout those two years. That’s what the transformation is really about.

Simpson: I’d take a step back further, right to the very start, to your reflection point, which becomes before your research starts. Don’t sleep walk into business education. Even if it’s the well-trodden path at your company or industry, you need to think about, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And, ‘Who are you doing it for?’ And the answers need to be: ‘I’m doing this for my long-term future,’ and, ‘It’s for me and those around me.’

So get to know yourself first. Ask others. Do a mini kind of personal 360 so you know who you are and what others see in you, and that will help you to prepare your story to us. But lots of these points resonated in terms of being authentic, learn a lot about us, but make sure it’s you, talking about you, to us, without sort of trying to twist it and bend it to fit to us. Because we see thousands of applications, and we have to dig underneath to get to the people who make the final class. The best way to do that is for you to get straight into the personal stuff of what makes you you.

Kristen Lindema, associate director of MBA admissions at MIT Sloan

Symonds: It’s interesting that you talk about a community. I’m often struck that, whether it’s through the rankings or even the schools themselves, you all publish a class profile, which can be very reductive because it shows the average GMAT score is 690, or 709, or 723, whatever it might be. It spells out GPA averages and the average age of students. And it might lead people to the idea, “Well, unless I have that GMAT score, that GPA, and I’m exactly that age, I’m not perfect for the school.” But it’s so much broader than that.

Hubert: Absolutely, Matt. I’ve seen students who are in their early 20’s. Maybe they have only two to three years of experience, but they have done so much in their careers, have had such great impact either from a social impact perspective or have started really cool businesses. Or they have done something that really allows them to grow and develop in a way that is beyond their peers. And so for them, they’re ready to take the next step. They’re mature enough.

I think you do need to have enough experience, regardless of your age, to be able to contribute something in a class discussion. In our business schools, it’s all about, “What are you learning from each other? How are you leveraging your experiences to analyze a case, or to analyze a business problem?” And so you have to have enough of that, regardless of your age, to be able to contribute.

On the flip side, if you have a lot of experience, you have to ask yourself, “What’s the value that I’m going to get from an MBA? Are there other formats that perhaps I should consider?” Is it the executive format? Is it a part-time format? And it may be the two-year format, but you’ve got to be realistic and understand what that program offers, and what you’re looking to get out of it to say, “Is that trade-off worth it?” Remember, besides the cost of the program, you’ll also have two years of opportunity costs. If you’ve got a lot of experience already coming in, that opportunity cost might not be worth it, especially because you can still get the value of an MBA in a very different way.

Symonds: Right. Just one thought for the European business schools, where typically, the class age average trends a little older, but also reflects academic studies, and various different aspects. Can you be too old to apply for an MBA, David?

Simpson: It’d be illegal for me to say, “Yes, you can be too old to … ” I think it is more about fit for a school, as in, you, and your personal background, your personality, and how you fit. We have a portfolio of programs at London Business School to suit people at different career stages, from early careers for your typical MBA to right through to senior leadership for your executive education programs. It is really a case of finding one that suits you best, rather than trying to say, “I must get into this one.” We develop those different programs for good reason, which is to look after people when they’ve been through certain journeys so far in their careers.

Saying that, the age range within the classes is vast. I’m perfectly happy to have people who are two years out of their undergraduate studies if they’ve been doing something extraordinary already, and they have personal maturity, and are able to reflect in a way that’s way beyond their years. So the number doesn’t count too much.

And it’s the same at the other end. If you’ve got bags of experience, as long as you’ve progressed at a level that ties in with your experience, if you want to be surrounded by people who have a little less time in the workplace, but perhaps offer things that you don’t have in terms of how they look more like your customer base, that’s fine, too. As long as your aspirations, especially professional aspirations, fit with what’s possible.

So it’s a case of learning who the recruiters are, who the students are, where do I best fit. And sometimes if people apply, and we don’t think that they’re right for this program, but they’re right for another, we’ll help you to do that. We won’t just cut you off and call it quits. We’ll say, “You should take a look at this program here.” So if they’re a finance specialist who wants to stay in finance, maybe we’ll ask you to take a look at our master’s in finance program. We’re there to partner with you in that decision. We’d rather we did that before you applied. That’s why we have a recruitment team. But we can do it through the journey as well.

Symonds: And you’re also one of the schools, along with MIT, with the one-year Sloan Fellows Program, which is for slightly more senior executives in their mid-thirties and onwards.

Hubert: Today, many of these programs, especially at the executive level, are blended. They’re becoming broader and students bring a larger range of work experience to them. They’re intergenerational. They span all different types of generations. And so sometimes it’s not so bad to have individuals in the same cohort who have vast different experiences in terms of their number of years of experience.

At Fuqua, in one of our global MBA programs we have students with five years of experience and students with more than 25 years. Part of the value is this reverse mentoring that folks who are millennials, or Gen Zers, are providing to folks who are Gen Xers, or Gen Yers, or baby boomers still in the workforce. So I think there’s less of an age range cut. Figure out the program that’s best for you, as David was saying, and what you want to get out of it.

Symonds: Last year at CentreCourt, we had a Berkeley graduate who’d moved to Bhutan to work on a hazelnut farm now applying to business school. We don’t see many of them. You see many more bankers, you see many more consultants, software engineers, increasingly healthcare management. How does a profile like that stand out in an applicant pool, if you’re at the bottom of the bankers, consultants, all the well-represented groups?

Linderman: I think the word we’ve said numerous times is “authenticity,” and being authentic. You don’t want to put yourself in the box. So don’t write your cover letter, if you’re applying to Sloan, and only talk about putting yourself into that category. You want to think of yourself as an individual, and I really love your example of the 25 facts about you because I think you need to look at each school’s application and find the opportunity to set yourself apart and talk about you.

At Sloan, we’re now doing a one-minute video statement, and it’s an introduction to your future classmates. It’s just meant to have you talk into the camera. We don’t want you to use flashy editing or have a produced video production. We just want it to be about you. And that’s the perfect opportunity to really not stand in front of the camera with a suit on and reiterate what’s on your resume; it’s the opportunity to tell us what we can’t glean from those other parts of the application that might be more professionally focused and might put you in a box. “This is me as an individual, this is what I would want my class to know about me.” Use your judgement, obviously. We want you to still remember this is a professional application, so you might not want to go too far down the casual route. But each application has a place to showcase that other side of yourself.


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