The MBA Summit: Straight Talk From Ross, Tuck & Haas Adcoms

If getting to really know a business school is not unlike dating, as Michigan Ross’ chief gatekeeper Soojin Kwon suggests, then is it more like Tinder or Match.com?

That’s just one of the dozens of questions tossed in the direction of the admission directors of three of the world’s top MBA programs at the second annual MBA Summit at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Kwon, managing director of full-time MBA admissions and program, Luke Pena, executive director of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, and Morgan Bernstein, executive director of MBA admissions at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business answered just about every question an applicant could possibly have.

The questions flew fast and furious during a one-hour panel discussion moderated by Poets&Quants Founder John A. Byrne on April 17th that was viewed by thousands of prospective students all over the world (see video below). The trio tackled a wide variety of subjects, chosen from both applicants and a social listening study of the most common concerns expressed by potential MBA candidates on community boards and forums.

IS THE MBA REALLY WORTH ITS COST?

Among them: Is the MBA worth its cost? Should you take the GMAT or the GRE? How do you determine ‘fit’ with a program? If you are in an over-represented pool, how can you stand out? How do schools weigh GPAs and standardized test scores against work experience and extracurriculars? Is there such a thing as a perfect application? How should you pick your recommenders? What should you look for during a campus visit?

The threesome dispensed lots of valuable wisdom for would-be applicants. Morgan noted that most candidates inevitably start their applications with “a laundry list of achievements, awards, and accolades. But a lot of what we’re looking for are the imperfections, the times when you have faltered, when you have failed, and how you have recovered. As I reflect back on some of the strongest applications I’ve read, they are not never perfect. It’s the ones where somebody was willing to show a little bit of vulnerability and then help us understand how they reacted to that.”

Pena goes a bit further. “Not only are there no perfect applications, but there are also no perfect applicants,” he said. “I will often tell candidates, half-jokingly, that if you’re already perfect, the MBA’s not worth it for you. Don’t come to get the MBA, the point of this is to grow. If you believe that you’re already perfect, either you lack self-awareness and you’re not going be a good applicant, or maybe you are already perfect so just go and save the world now.”

‘I’M PARTIAL TO MATCH. BUT YOU HAVE TO OUT ON A LOT OF DATES’

Kwon urges candidates to portray their uniqueness in an application, even if they are in a part of the applicant pool that is overrepresented. “Everyone has a unique story,” she said. “The danger comes in trying to look like the quintessential MBA applicant. It’s really not about that, it’s telling your unique story. As long as you’re telling your story, no two people are going to have had the same experience. Even if you’re in the same firm, you’ve worked on the same project, even if you’ve had the same roles, your impact is likely to be different. What you’ve learned about yourself is likely to be different, what you want to do is likely to be different.”

As for that dating question, Kown had little hesitation in her answer. “I’m partial to Match,” she says. “That’s how I met my husband. But you have to go out on a lot of dates. You have to give schools a chance, even the ones that you might think you should rule out because of their location, size or what not. You really have to take a school for a test drive because you may find that it feels smaller than it is or it feels bigger than it is.”

Agrees Pena of Tuck: “The dating metaphor is almost too apt. In some ways, it invokes the idea of two parties trying to impress each other and put their best foot forward. And I would say the best kind of dating experiences may actually go beyond that where you can actually just be comfortable and present yourself as you are. And that may be a really thoughtful way to think about approaching schools.  If you feel like you have to present a version of yourself that’s not you that might actually not be the right place for you.”

What follows is an edited transcript of the panel conversation:

John A. Byrne: There are a lot of prospective students out there who are wondering if the MBA is worth it. The costs of the degree are higher than ever and the economy is going strong with plenty of opportunities for smart, ambitious people without having to go to graduate school. Now, all of you have MBAs and as the admission directors of three top programs, it’s certainly within your self-interest to say, yes, the MBA is worth it. But prove it to me. 

Soojin Kwon: Absolutely, it’s worth it. Here’s why. If you want to expand your career opportunities there is no other degree that will expand it the way an MBA can. You’re going to gain four key things: 1) Knowledge about business, 2) Skills that you won’t get on the job, 3) You’ll get to practice interviewing and job searching skills that you won’t be able to get if you stay where you are, and 4) Access to a great network of other people with MBAs and with within your university. So those are four great reasons to get an MBA. I don’t think it’s bad for anybody.

Byrne: Near 100% percent employment rates and six-figure salaries help, too. Luke, you have a perspective?

Luke Pena: I agree with all of those, but I would say it’s not worth it for everybody. I think you have to really think about the costs and the benefits for yourself. So I think the MBA might not be worth it for somebody who’s only focussed on the short-term because this is a real investment in the long term and the rewards that come long after you’ve graduated from the program. I think it might not be worth it for somebody who is only focused on the costs because there is a big upfront cost. But I also think it might not be worth it for anybody who isn’t ready to fully commit to this experience and to reap all of those rewards that Soojin was talking about. You have to not go halfway. You have to be prepared to fully engage, fully immerse yourself in the experience, and fully take advantage of all of the resources. If you’re not yet prepared to do that I would say you might wait because you’re not going to get the maximum value out of the experience.

Byrne: This is not a box you check off on your resume.

Morgan Bernstein: So often candidates think about the ROI in terms of their salary before and their salary after against the investment they need to make in the education. That’s important, of course, and one way to think about ROI.

But to get the most out of the investment you really need to think about the other rewards of business school: How you grow personally, what you learn about yourself, the self-confidence that you’re able to build in a program. Those things can’t necessarily be measured in an Excel spreadsheet.

Byrne: That’s true. Far too often people merely look at the starting salary numbers and make the calculation. So if you do decide that you want to pursue an MBA, how do you know which school is right for you?

Kwon: If I were doing it all over again I would talk to as many students and alumni as possible from the schools that I’m considering because they’re the ones who are really going to be able to give you a perspective on what that experience will be like for you. More recent alums and current students are going to be the best resource. Most schools have on our website student ambassadors that you can connect with, and you can filter by backgrounds and career goals and where you’re from. So you can find someone who is similar to you and then get their perspective if that’s of interest. But really talking to people is the most valuable way.

Byrne: That’s really helpful, along with the campus visit.

Bernstein: What Soojin was touching on is fit with the program. Again, I think just as there are many different ways to evaluate ROI, there are many different ways to define and evaluate fit. I think one of those is certainly coming to campus before you submit your application. You also can always do that later on in the process, certainly before you make a commitment to one of the schools. But there are a number of ways to learn about the program virtually, whether that’s through virtual chats, fairs, connecting with students via email or phone as well.

Kwon: I was just talking with one of our MBAs before this session and asked, ‘What do you wish you had done differently,’ and one of them said in fact, ‘I wish I could have reached out to students earlier because then I would have had a better sense for which schools were really worth investing my time in applying to.’

Bernstein: Some candidates hesitate to reach out to current students or recent alumni feeling that they are imposing upon their time. But really current students love telling stories about their own MBA experience. While it’s important to be mindful of the time that you are taking from them, students are always more than happy to share their own personal stories.

THE COMPLETE 2019 MBA SUMMIT

Candid perspectives from MBA students, admission officials, and employers

STRAIGHT TALK ON HOW TO GET INTO A TOP BUSINESS SCHOOL

IS THE MBA STILL WORTH IT? THREE ALUMS REFLECT ON HOW IT SHAPED THEIR CAREERS

USING YOUR MBA FOR SOCIAL IMPACT

About The Author

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.