A few weeks ago, I stumbled onto a treasure. I was perusing a friend’s bookshelf, looking for something to read during a flight. I cracked open Poor Charlie’s Almanack, a book written about Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. On the inside cover, I was stunned to see a handwritten note from the legendary investor himself. My friend told me that he’d sent Charlie the book and asked for his most important piece of advice. When he got the book back, Charlie had written three words:
“Invert, always invert.”
Put simply, inversion is a principle commonly applied in mathematics, where you rearrange or reverse the order of something. I like to think of it as turning something inside out. Charlie believes you can solve many tough challenges by inverting them.
I believe we can apply that same thinking to MBA admissions. In reflecting on my own admissions process, I’ve wondered about what I could have done differently. If I could go back in time, what would I tell myself? Looking back, I would have told myself to invert the problem.
I thought hard work and research would show me what I needed to do. I didn’t put enough time into thinking about what I needed to avoid. I would reframe the question of “How do I get into the right program?” Instead, I’d tell myself how to get into the wrong one.
When it comes to choosing a business school, here are ten “inversions” that’ll ultimately lead to a decision that you’ll regret:
1. Prioritize second-hand research over direct experience: People are naturally biased, and one experience doesn’t tell you everything. Research schools’ facts and figures religiously. Look at outcomes, read the curriculum, and listen to testimonials. Make it rational, focused on numbers and aggregate data. A certain “feel” for a school may make you happy, but this is a professional decision. Do the great investors lead with their intuition?
2. Use the rankings as your guide: Pay special attention to the nuances of a ranking to prioritize your schools. A bump from four to three in the U.S. News rankings changes things. While you know the school’s quality hasn’t changed, people’s perception has. What matters most is what the average recruiter or colleague thinks of your school choice. They’ll be the ones hiring you.
3. Emulate the success of others: Study the people who have been accepted. Learn their style, their story, and their interests. Use their paths as a map to guide you through the twists and turns of the admissions process. If yours is too different, you’ll lose your audience. The school sees so many applicants that it rewards you to fit the molds they expect. They don’t have time to appreciate the difference.
4. Write about yourself generally, don’t emphasize specifics: Focus on sharing your complete backstory, and tie it all to what you want to do afterwards. A great essay is a smooth sequence of events inevitably leading to your school and program of choice. Focusing on one experience means that you’ll not show all of yourself.
5. Come to interviews with the answers: Prepare so you can address any question an admissions officer asks with a concise and confident response. Almost any answer is better than not knowing. If you don’t know what you’ll do in school or after, then you haven’t been thoughtful enough.
6. Stick to conventional career goals: Don’t be too ambitious or unusual with your goals. About half of most top MBA graduates go into management consulting or banking. If you’re like the average admitted student, then odds are you stand a better chance of being accepted. Being the odd duck out is too risky, and it’s going to invite a lot of skepticism.
7. Sell an image: Admissions is considering making an investment of a precious seat in their class for you. The key to closing any deal, whether in business or in life, is to create a winning image. Perception is everything. You and your career have to be something that admissions wants to have a part. It’s about learning what admissions wants you to say, and then squeezing yourself into a mold that tells them that.
8. Focus on test scores before all else: Sure, a 670 may be a strong score, but a 730 would put you in a great spot. A 760 would practically guarantee you get in. Above all else, focus on getting an elite test score. Without that, the rest is for nothing.
9. Emotionally commit to this cycle: Your passion won’t come through unless you’re all in. Commit to this admissions cycle. View it as your shot. If you aren’t accepted this year, what are the odds one or two years doing similar work will make you a better candidate? Pick your favorite school based on those you know will accept you.
10. Treat admissions like a challenge to be overcome with more work: You need to struggle and strive to gain acceptance. It’s a zero-sum game. Your acceptance means someone else’s rejection, and vice versa. This is a competitive system that requires focus. The curious, uncertain, and exploratory will not thrive. You must be definitive, whether you truly feel that way or not.
Inverting the traditional format of a “top ten list of things to do” to succeed may seem silly. Why would we shift from defining success to outlining failure? Rearranging our priorities to focus on what might go wrong makes things much more complicated and ambiguous, some might say. Still, I maintain that practicing inversion is critical because avoiding failure is just as important as chasing success.
We do little things every day to build a foundation for success. In admissions that can be taking time to reflect, checking our work consistently, or diligently researching our schools of interest. Those little decisions compound and have a major effect on outcomes. Just doing the basics can enable you to build an outstanding application.
I didn’t appreciate inversion when I started applying. I fanatically pursued doing the small things right. In the process, I built an application that checked a lot of the boxes necessary to be outstanding. What I didn’t do was avoid the small failures, those insidious habits and choices that undermine us. I poured my work into building that foundation for success, and I learned an important lesson. A foundation for success can’t hold any weight if there are cracks running throughout it.
Note: The book I mentioned in my blog post is Poor Charlie’s Almanack, by Peter Kaufman. It’s an excellent read that has been recommended to me by investing professionals across the country. For anyone interested in reading another example of inversion, I’d recommend Charlie Munger’s 1986 speech at Harvard on “How to Live a Miserable Life”.
Originally from Indiana, Ben graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Finance and Political Science. While at Notre Dame he co-founded Dark Horse Sports Recruiting, an undergraduate academic and athletic admissions consulting service. He enjoys baking, dad jokes, alternative history novels, and obstacle course races.
“This article was prepared by the author in his/her personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, opinion, or position of their employer.”