I grew up in a very traditional Asian household. The philosophy: If you put your head down, study, and work hard, you’ll be rewarded on merit alone. I was told that I didn’t need anything else to be successful. This approach paired nicely with the American dream, which is premised on lone wolf meritocracy. Even when I was enlisted in the US Military, we didn’t need to network. Promotions were mostly merit-based. Therefore, I never realized the true importance of soft skills like communication, compromise, and awareness.
That’s why I was shocked to learn how much networking skills were involved in admissions and recruiting. Whether it’s networking for your future career or exploring interests, interpersonal skills are a big part of every MBA program.
THE VALUE OF REACHING OUT
I used to be a bit of an introvert in my early days. My social circles were small, I never reached out to anyone for help, and I most certainly did not network. Ever. So when I decided to apply for my MBA, I was outside of my element. I didn’t know how to reach out to students and alumni and build relationships. In an information session at one school, I was lost when we had a chance to speak with alumni. All of the potential candidates had formed the “circle of death” around the speakers. I couldn’t get a word in while I shyly stood to the side waiting for my turn. I watched as the alum handed out their business cards to those with whom they’d spoken. This was my first realization of how important it is to make genuine and strong connections in the business world.
You can be the most extraordinary candidate, but no one will ever know that if you don’t speak up for yourself. I never did because in Asian culture, we defer to our elders with filial piety. In the military, we follow a chain of command. I needed someone who was willing to champion me. I knew it would be difficult to reach out to people at first. To be successful, I also knew that I needed to authentically connect and build true relationships to gain insights into the schools and career paths I wanted to pursue.
Luckily, I discovered most MBA students are friendly and happy to help. Most assuredly, someone helped them and they’re willing to pay it forward with me. I reached out to a 2nd year veteran. Not only had he gone through the application process, but he’d also spent a year at the school and completed the recruitment process. The information was fresh and up-to-date. I spent the first 10 minutes getting to know him and his background. This is where I found something where we truly connected. He told me that he’s an avid traveler, having been stationed all around the world. As a world traveler myself, we discussed our favorite spots. Once he realized I wanted to know him as an individual and not as a means to to get my foot in the door, he gave me honest and insightful answers to my questions — the kind I would never have received otherwise. He would later be my mentor during the recruiting process after he graduated.
FIND SHARED INTERESTS
Here at Stern, where I’m earning my MBA, IQ + EQ (intelligence and emotional quotients) is a core value. Sternies are living testaments to these qualities. Not only does the entire application require a minimum of 2 EQ endorsements, your essays and interviews need to showcase them as well. Stern also has a smaller cohort (our class size is 320). This creates a more tight-knit community; you’re not just another face nor number. Being in the most diverse city in the world, it attracts people who crave diversity or embody it. EQ is not something that’s desired at Stern, it’s necessary.
Therefore, I was able to easily reach out to a variety of people at Stern. They were willing to talk to me about their school experiences, as well as their recruiting journey in specific industries that interested me. I was able to ask and get candid answers to how to pivot from my military and teaching background to consulting or tech. Like many, I was wary about my lack of business or corporate knowledge. I worried that I would be way behind my peers in both experience and insights. They assured me that this wasn’t a handicap, but an advantage. That’s because I could bring value from outside perspectives that would have never been considered before.
The best way to make that initial and genuine connection is, in my opinion, to find an affinity group such as LBGTQ, women, veterans, minorities, or faith-based. The reason for this is most of the professional clubs are flooded with general questions and thus will take a long time to reply. When you have something in common, it makes it much easier to connect with complete strangers. I found club members to be very open to spending time chatting with me. What’s more, if you get in, you’ve already made a connection or potential friend with someone who will either be an alumni or upperclassman.
LEVERAGING MY NETWORK’S EXPERIENCE
I became interested in Stern when I attended an outreach event called the Military Summit, where current veteran MBA students shared their experiences with prospective candidates. This was in a more intimate setting, where speakers were very transparent about their experiences. They also talked about the challenges they’ve faced, such as concerns about their mental health and stability. I appreciated the authentic nature of the event and felt comfortable enough ask questions about my concerns as a non-traditional student. For example, I inquired about what the relevance of what I’d done in the service, the value of my experiences in class discussions, and whether I could truly relate to the concepts taught in class.
Afterwards, I was able to contact people from Stern’s Military Veterans Club (MVC) for more information. I was even referred to non-veteran Sternies. Due to my busy work schedule, I couldn’t attend an official class visit. Instead, one of the veterans was able to bring me to sit in on a class with Aswath Damodaran, the popular Finance professor. I witnessed a lively and open discussion with an engaged student body. I was even able to learn how to apply quantitative analysis in determining the valuation of a company pre-IPO. Later down the line, I was able to get direct feedback on my essays, applications, and even interview preparation from my Stern network. For example, they would help find examples of my EQ to use in my essays and interview answers. Other times, they would show me how my application was too heavy with what I thought admissions officers wanted to hear rather than being more genuine with my goals. These relationships were invaluable during the application process and I’m happy to say I’m friends with many of these Sternies to this very day.
As you explore schools and start your application process, the key takeaway from this journey would be to start making connections early and often. Find something you have a strong passion or interest in and use that commonality as a starting point. If you can’t make an initial connection with someone, try again with someone else. These connections are likely to grow into friendships that will last beyond business school and throughout your career.
Bio: Phan Hoang, a first-generation Bostonian, is a second-year MBA candidate at NYU Stern School of Business. Prior to business school, he was an enlisted in the United States Air Force serving in humanitarian and peacekeeping missions worldwide. He has also taught internationally in countries such as Honduras and China. He is currently working in Product Management during the summer.