For most MBA applicants trying to gain acceptance to their top schools, there are hurdles to overcome. For those transitioning out of the military, one of those hurdles is a stereotype.
“The sentiment I often hear is, ‘Hey, you’re really good at following orders.’ Which is true, sure, but I also spent a lot of time with more autonomy than most 20-somethings are going to ever receive in the corporate world,” says Matt Cowsert. He’d know. After graduating from The Citadel — a military school in Charleston, South Carolina — Cowsert enrolled in the U.S. Army, where he quickly moved up from an infantry platoon leader managing 30 other soldiers to a company executive officer, a role that required managing 125 others.
Before enrolling in the full-time MBA program at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Cowsert was a budget analyst, managing $56 million. But, he says, that’s not the way he’s often been perceived.
“I feel like a lot of people think that I’ve been told what to do my whole life and I’m a drone, I can’t think for myself, there’s no creative thinking involved,” Cowsert says. “And it might not be true for everybody, but through anecdotal conversations I’ve had over the past two years, I’ve seen it more than I appreciate and I feel like it’s something I’ve tried to actively overcome throughout my interactions in interviews.”
WRITING A 101-PAGE HOW TO GUIDE ON MAXIMIZING THE MBA
Now, as Cowsert transitions from school to a technical product manager position at Amazon in Seattle, he has put the lessons he learned through the whole B-school life cycle into a 101-page guide called What’s Next: A Military Veteran’s Guide to Maximizing Your MBA. In the book, Cowsert focuses on three essential transitions that military veterans go through while applying to business school: convincing yourself, convincing your target school, and convincing your target company.
“As I was transitioning out (of the military), I was pretty deliberate with my research and my methods. I probably spent 18 to 24 months working through how I was going to evaluate these schools,” Cowsert says. “So I tried to put as much structure into the process as possible because, for me, at least, it was pretty daunting, to try to suss some of these things out — not only my transitioning out of the Army, but also finding a career in which I would be able to support myself and my family. What was our future going to look like and how was I going to align those things?”
In the wide-ranging interview below, Cowsert goes into detail about his experience applying to business school as a military veteran as well as what he has learned by mentoring other veterans transitioning into MBA programs.
Cowsert: I think I have a similar story to most vets that came in around 9/11. I was in high school when that happened and I was just really inspired and wanted to give back to my country. So I ended up going to The Citadel, which is a military college in Charleston, South Carolina. After that first year — it’s kind of like an initiative period — I was like, there’s no way I’m going to go into the military. But the more I was there, the more I enjoyed the culture and the structure. And then the people I looked up to the most, that I had direct leadership experience with, they were all going into the Army versus some of the other branches.
So I started to check it out a little bit more and by my sophomore year, I was signing a contract for the next couple of years. The other key piece in that is I knew I wanted to go back to school at some point. I didn’t exactly know how I was going to pay for that, so the Army had a program at the time where they would help you for graduate school. So it kind of seemed like a win-win. I was going to be around people that I knew well, that I admired, that showed great leadership potential, but also gave me the opportunity to eventually go back to school.
P&Q: What are some of the direct lessons or skills you picked up in the Army that were immediately applicable to business school and now moving into a full-time role at Amazon?
Cowsert: One of the things that really stood out to me, and I think it was first noticeable in the first week of school when we were doing a lot of group work. You have a lot of people that are in their career paths that are non-military that are going back to school and they have generally been individual contributors. It’s not always the case, but it’s pretty consistent. The first job I had in the Army I was in charge of 30 guys. And I had that role for almost two years and then I went to a role where I was second in command of 125 people. Understanding those relationship dynamics and some of the softer skills towards management, helped me prioritizes as soon as I got to school to say, OK, you’re good at this thing or if you’re really good at doing financial analysis, we’re going to have you do financial analysis. If you’re really good at doing PowerPoint or marketing or research, then we are going to have you focus on those things. And I think I learned trait on aligning people with their strengths and the benefits to the organization in doing that, I think I learned that in the Army first.
P&Q: When you decided you wanted to go to business school, what was your initial approach? What were you looking for in schools and how did you narrow your school list down?
Cowsert: I originally started with about 14 schools. Number one, they were programs that I thought I could get into or had known others that had gone to, which I think is a pretty similar story that most people have. But when I started to dig a little bit deeper, I started to focus at the company level, and I think that really helped me. What I ended up doing is figuring out which companies I thought I wanted to work for and then started to focus on metropolitan areas. I hadn’t lived in a larger city before, but I thought there would be benefits to being in a larger city. Not that the schools don’t have great career services, because they do, but after not having as much control over my future career directory in the military, I was really ready to own it. So I wanted to pursue opportunities outside what was just going to be structured in school.
P&Q: What were those target schools you were really focusing on?
Cowsert: It was Harvard and MIT up in Boston. It was Berkeley and Stanford in the Bay Area. And then NYU and Columbia in New York City. I also targeted Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. And then I had a one-off in Seattle for Foster because they have such a great technology program.
P&Q: And what was it that made NYU end up being the final decision?
Cowsert: I think for me, it was my interactions with the students that were there — not just the veteran population, but the non-vets as well. I felt like a lot of my success in the Army was relationship driven. Everyone has these set core-competencies that you should be strong with like your ability to relate to people, to get along well, to motivate them, to lead without authority, even when you’re in an authority position. I felt like those were the things that really helped me be successful, so I was looking for a similar environment. And for me, NYU fit the bill.
I had the opportunity to visit all of these programs and be in touch with veterans at all of these programs and then to work with the adcoms in these programs. And, I don’t know, man, it was something about walking through Washington Square Park and the experience I had with the folks that were already there that made it special for me.