01. MBA: Choose Program and Start Prep

First article in the “From Moscow to Stanford” series.

November 2015. This is the beginning of my admission story to MBA in (almost) real time. Sitting at home in Southern Butovo (Moscow), I will consistently prepare document packages on weekends to apply to Stanford GSB MBA and Wharton MBA 2016-2018 programs and at the same time I will tell you about the details of my training, the difficulties I will face, useful materials and ideas and other life hacks – and, of course, my trials and errors. As a result of these actions, I will draw concrete practical conclusions that will help you in the future.

Here is the plan:

In the forthcoming months I will prepare the information on the following topics

  1. Deciding on the MBA program. Choosing a program, part1. Making a prep plan
  2. MBA choice, part2
  3. Why Stanford?
  4. Stanford Fact Pack
  5. TOEFL and GMAT preparation and exam process. Useful materials
  6. Motivation letter for Master’s program
  7. Motivation story for MBA. What should be written in your essay, CV and application form
  8. CV, first iteration
  9. CV, second iteration
  10. CV, third iteration
  11. Essay А“What matters most to you, and why?”, first iteration
  1. Essay А“What matters most to you, and why?”, revision
  2. Essay А“What matters most to you, and why?”, final version
  3. Essay B, “Why Stanford?”, first iteration
  1. Essay B, “Why Stanford?”, revision and final version
  2. Recommendation letters
  3. Questions on the interview
  4. Preparation forthe interview
  5. How it was on the interview

Today we shall talk on topic 01, i.e. the basic issues of getting an MBA degree: why do you need it in general, how to choose the school and how to plan the preparation process.

MBA degree – what for?

mba programs - why?

Before you start the long and labor-consuming process of preparing MBA documents, you should decide for yourself – do I actually need an MBA? What is my purpose of getting it? What are alternative ways of reaching my goal – aren’t they better for me than an MBA? Deep analysis of proper goals and preferences and well thought-out replies on these questions are essential for the candidates for at least the following three reasons:

  • If MBA is not your option, you will quickly get it out of your head and concentrate on more important things. Such decision will save you half a year of preparation and at least $ 1,000 on books, exams, tutors and application fees.
  • Application quality.If you understand that MBA is exactly what you need, the motivation to prepare qualitatively will be much higher. You will pass all exams in time, collect a large amount of materials and, most importantly, write sincere and high-quality essays. The chances of getting in for your dream program will become much higher.
  • The quality of life.MBA takes from one to two years of your life and a loan of up to 300 thousand dollars (plus lost income while you are not working). It’s disappointing to subscribe for all of this and then to understand that once, when making a decision, you didn’t think well enough.

Example. If you think that you need an MBA to get a promotion (for example, in consulting), check in advance if this is so. Now in large companies, promotion without MBA is getting more popular. Moreover, at some point such a career track may become even more preferable. The same, if you want to “skip” after the MBA to a new industry. Consulting is still happy to recruit MBA graduates with different backgrounds, but private equity funds, according to our experts and head hunters, prefer graduates with previous financial experience. In other words, if you are a consultant or a marketer hoping to get into an investment fund after MBA, then it is better to try to make the transition before or even without MBA. Chances will be higher.

The decision about MBA is a purely personal matter, depending on the individual goals in your career and in life, and you can have many personal pros and cons. For reference, I’ll share the main factors that guided the students and MBA graduates that I interviewed.

So, what is MBA for?

  • Change of company/industry

MBA is the stage in career development at which it is the easiest to make a leap into a new direction. Universities make great efforts to successfully employ their graduates. Almost every week there are presentations of various companies on campus: from small start-ups to giants from different industries. The most popular employers from IB, consulting, VC funds, IT, FMCG, pharmaceuticals and biotechnologies constantly give lectures at top MBA programs, talk about themselves and immediately select. Business schools and students themselves organize interview preparation groups. In addition, you have an extensive network of graduates who are often happy to help you with your job search. The brand of a business school depends on the success of its students; therefore, a career center will hardly allow you not to find a good job.

Let me once again point out that MBAs can’t always help you get into any industry (see above the story about private equity funds). Therefore, investigate in advance how people with your background get into companies and industries that interest you. If the answer is through MBA, then go ahead!

  • Promotion/highersalary.

Business schools are for a good reason proud of the effect that their programs have on graduates’ salaries. Analysts with salaries of 60 thousand dollars a year after an MBA become managers and earn a one and a half or two (and sometimes three) times more. Graduates’ income is another “measure” of the prestige of the program, so the career center will not leave you alone until you provide yourself with the best of the possible options. In addition, many companies (for example, consulting) traditionally require an MBA to be promoted to the analyst-associate (consultant) stage. In recent years, the trend is beginning to change gradually, but MBA will help in any case (even if it is possible to be promoted without MBA).

  • New knowledge and experience (especially soft skills).

MBA is a great opportunity to return to the student’s bench as a young, but already experienced and successful professional. Often people regret that they did not study diligently and thoughtfully at the university. MBA is a chance to fix it. Moreover, many business schools give widespread freedom in choosing subjects and courses that a student plans to study. If you didn’t have enough economics and business subjects, MBA will correct that – with world-class lecturers, top managers of leading companies as speakers and advanced classmates as teammates and opponents. If you studied economics/business/commerce in detail at the undergraduate or graduate level, you can expand your knowledge of finance, law, international relations, or even design.

That’s concerning the so-called hard skills. However, business education is rightly known for developing communication and negotiation skills (soft skills). The main activity of MBA students is to communicate with each other: visiting lectures all together, preparing case studies and projects, preparing for interviews, and so on. The whole educational process is aimed at teamwork. There is almost no choice: if you go to an MBA, you will have to communicate a lot with people. As a result, you will learn how to do it well. And it’s great: because the higher your position is, the more important this skill is.

  • Obtaining contacts.
    • Classmates

Your relationship with fellow students will develop in parallel with the development of soft skills. This is especially true for programs with a small number of students (for example, at Stanford), because in two years you will be able to get to know your course mates well and even become friends with some of the students. But these students are tomorrow’s top managers and leading businessmen, and today at least highly intelligent and interesting people. Such a social network will enrich your life and career.

    • Graduates

Programs with large enrolments (for example, Harvard) don’t give you the chance to achieve a similar family atmosphere, but you will still make friends. In addition, large schools have a much more extensive alumni network: for example, HBS Alumni accounts for over 82 thousand people, while the Stanford GSB Alumni Association – only 28 thousand. As a graduate, you can address your business school’s alumni network for an idea, advice or recommendation and get a response and help with a high degree of probability. Given the professional status of graduates, the chances of a response when trying to contact a person through an alumni network are several times higher than with a cold call. This can be useful both in the framework of a career in a corporation and in building your own business.

    • Investors

Another type of contacts you can get through business schools are investors.Venture capitalists and business angels occasionally look into the business incubators of leading MBA programs. If you think that at some point in the near future you may need funding from investors, a business school is a great place to make the required contacts.

  • Prestigious line in your CV.

It cannot be said that after MBA, employment problems will be resolved once and for all. But there will be much less of such problems. You will be much more willingly interviewed by potential employers, and the current ones will be no less proud of your degree than you are (in Russia, be prepared to be included in all tender applications of your company). If you are a future or current entrepreneur, communication with investors and partners will become much easier and more pleasant, any arrogance will disappear. MBA is still considered a great achievement in the professional world.

  • Opportunity to work abroad.

Getting an MBA in any country abroad gives you a good chance to stay in this country to work. At least it was so until recently. In the past couple of years, in the United States, there are problems with permanent employment, even among the graduates of top 5 programs (according to the graduates themselves). However, if you want to work in the United States, and there is no other way to gain a foothold there, the American MBA will give you a chance.

  • Leisure/ lifestyle.

Finally, MBA is a time to remember university parties, take a break from the hard work schedule and enjoy life. If you have not lived abroad for a long time, then this experience will also be interesting for you.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? It might seem so. But what’s on the back of the coin?

What are the arguments against MBA?

business school - for and against

  • It’s a luxury.

For most of the people, the key argument against MBA is financial. Tuition is about 60 thousand dollars a year, that is 120 thousand dollars for a two-year program. The cost of living is at least 30 thousand dollars a year, or 60 for two years. The total of 180 thousand dollars with a modest life. For many students, the total student loan exceeds 200 thousand dollars, and for some it reaches 300 thousand. Add to this the unearned income from one or two years of work – approximately 60 or 120 thousand dollars, respectively. Not everyone is ready for such an investment in education, and not everyone has such funds or the opportunity to take a loan.

  • One/two years of life spent on “partying”.

Do you want to not work for two years and go every weekend with fellow students to bars, thus building relationships? Many young professionals I interviewed give a negative answer, emphasizing that they had enough of it in their undergraduate degree and that they would grow much more in career and personal terms, spending time at work or at their own projects than if they went to a business school. Moreover would save on tuition.

If you already have a family, there will be another important question for you: what will the members of your family do while you are studying or meeting with fellow mates? The spouse will not have the right to work or officially study, and cost of medical care and kindergartens for children will be very high.

  • «I already know this».

As we already discussed above, if you previously studied economics or business at a strong university, then from a hard skills perspective, a business school is unlikely to give you much. New subjects from any field – certainly, but are you ready to pay so much for them? As for communication skills, they will certainly improve. However, they can also be improved by choosing a more interactive job (for example, sales).

  • The same contacts as at work.

Most MBA students are current or future consultants, investment bankers and private equity analysts. If you want to get into their circle, then MBA will help. If you are already in it, then again, there will not be so much for you. You will meet the same people at work. However, the investor contact argument remains valid.

  • MBA degree is not as it used to be.

According to many head hunters, the prestige of business education is gradually declining, and now more and more professionals are abandoning MBA in favor of non-stop work. When, in 10 years, this generation reaches the level of managers who make decisions about hiring employees, business schools may have serious problems. So far there is an active debate about the value of MBA. As noted above, now an MBA degree is not necessary for a promotion to associate/consultant in many companies (including McKinsey). On the other side of the spectrum are conservative investment players like Warburg Pincus, still requiring this degree.

Conclusion: success is achievable without MBA, but an MBA degree will help anticipate it

Ingeneral, the choice for or against MBA is an ambiguous decision. Of all the colleagues who received an MBA degree (and I know about 30 of them), none of them regretted the time and money spent, and everyone spoke positively about his unique experience. On the other hand, none of the colleagues who decided not to receive an MBA degree regrets their choice: they all say that they managed to do much more than if they went for an MBA. Such points of view are understandable: it is foolish to regret about the things that cannot be changed. But you have everything ahead, and the moral of the reasoning is this: you can achieve success with and without MBA. It’s up to you to choose the path.

 How to choose the suitable program?

mba rankings

The most reliable way to reduce the likelihood of unsuccessful choice and subsequent internal disappointments is to decide what you want to receive from the MBA, and which program can best give it to you. Below I propose step by step instructions on how to implement this simple logic.

  • Reply honestly to yourself what is important to you in life and where you want to be in 5-10 years.

It is impossible to manage your life without answering these questions when making meaningful career decisions, otherwise you run the risk of being engaged in someone else’s business for many years and following someone else’s dream. As the deceased Steve Jobs said during hisfamous performance at Stanford, follow the call of your heart and ambition. Now is the time to listen to them again. Moreover, you need to prepare the answers to such questions in any case for the essay – and the answers must be sincere!

  • Decide what exactly you want to obtain from the MBA program.

It is just exactly what we discussed before.Choose which of the following suits you or add your reasons. You will also answer the similar question in the essay, so the work on “self-digging” won’t be for nothing.

  • Explore the MBA market on the issues of graduate employment, tuition and other important parameters for you.

The best way is to make a table with the questions you are interested in and fill it in for all potentially suitable schools. Use the websites of business schools, all kinds of forums for applicants and students, school events, as well as live communication with students and graduates. The effort is quite massive, but it will help you make the right choice.

  • From all the variety select the 2-3 most suitable schools.

Did you manage? Congratulations! A huge part of the path has already been covered. If not, as well as for all who are just simply interested and for the purposes of reality illustration, I will tell you about my decision making process below.

My choice

In my work I get the most pleasure from receiving new knowledge and its subsequent transfer to other people. It is also important for me that this knowledge be of practical value, that is, change the lives of people for the better. In 10 years, I want to learn how to effectively invest individual funds and make an extensive practical course that would help everyone learn it too.

Why do I want to go to a business school? In order to

  • Obtain deeper knowledge in finance and investing,
  • meet successful teaching entrepreneurs and investors and learn from them,
  • meet like-minded people from other countries,
  • obtain the title of a prestigious business school graduate, which will help me build further ties in Russia and abroad

Taking into consideration these goals I chose two top business schools – Stanford GSB and Wharton. Both schools, along with Harvard Business School, are considered the strongest in the world. At Stanford, the most important criteria for me are small classes, a strong spirit of mentoring and teamwork, as well as constant communication with investors. At the same time, Wharton is the strongest financial school for future investors, some of whom are likely to share my interests.

Why not other, more ‘closer to reality’, schools?

Having studied the profiles of graduates and current students of the top 3 schools, I was convinced that they are often similar to my own. Many of my colleagues went to these schools in previous years. Therefore, I have no reason not to try. I do not have time to apply to a larger number of schools – and, given the discussion of the shortcomings of business education, I have no desire.

Finally: Why not Harvard then, you may ask.

Since you are going to apply to the top schools, apply there too. My answer is: it’s spirit does not suit me. The people who study there are people with big ambitions who are ready to follow an army discipline in the classroom. As for me, the important thing is an exciting activity even if it does not lead to dizzying success, world fame and wealth. Despite the fact that there are a few of my friends at Harvard whom I respect very much, I’m definitely not going to fit in with the team.

How to prepare for application to a business school?

top mba programs, best business schools, Stanford GSB

Preparing to apply to a business school is a long process that should be started as far in advance as possible. As a rule, candidates begin to prepare a year ahead. Some – 2 or 3 years ahead, in order to have time to “level up” your profile (open a business, participate in a volunteer project in Africa, go through Iron Man, etc.). In addition, during the active phase of the preparation of documents (2-3 months before the deadline), candidates often take a leave from work and devote themselves exclusively to the essay (as one current Harvard student did – and obviously achieved the goal).

Suppose you do not have so much time to prepare. How to calculate the minimum required time?

  • GMAT preparation takes approximately 150-200 hours – that is, about a month if you study for 6-7 hours a day
  • TOEFL preparation – another 50 hours, or 2 weeks. It is better to pass TOEFL after GMAT – the exam will seem much easier, and the score will be higher.
  • It makes sense to be on the safe side and plan another month in case you need to retake any of the exams. Experience shows that re-passing can significantly increase the score. In this case, the admission committee considers only the result that you send it (i.e., the best).
  • You’ll need about a month for writing a CV and essay for one school, if you deal with them only on weekends (4 hours per day). It makes no sense to try to write them in 2 days, working on texts for 16 hours a day – the quality will be low, because you need time to settle the thoughts in your head.

UPDATE: It’s better to take a leave for two months exclusively for essay writing. The essay quality is proportional to the time spent on it

  • At the same time, about 2 months before the deadline, you should contact the referees, meet with them and discuss the key points that they could reflect in their letters. It is important that the referees themselves, and not you, prepare the letters – the admission commission will quickly recognize the deception and give an immediate refusal.
  • In parallel, you should request the transcripts and copies of the diplomas from all the universities you attended, translate them into English (if they are not in English) and certify the translations. This process can also take 2 months.

At the end of the day we have the following calculation:

2.5 months (TOEFL + GMAT) + 2 months (CV, essays for two schools, recommendations, transcripts) + 2 weeks in case of delays and missed deadlines = 5 months.

In other words, if you want to combine work and preparation of documents and at the same time prepare the highest-quality package of documents, fully reflecting your potential and maximizing the chances of admission – get ready to spend 5 months on this.

Accelerating the process is possible, but it negatively affects the quality and, therefore, your chances. The only way to reduce the time cost to 3 months is to clearly plan the preparation and strictly adhere to the plan.

A couple words about my preparation

I started thinking about MBA a year and a half ago and at that time I talked a lot on this topic with students and graduates, exploring the features of different programs. In January 2015, I passed the GMAT (I will tell how to prepare for it in the next article). Then the preparation was suspended, because I decided to become more familiar with the private equity career opportunities. I obtained a huge amount of experience and materials; I will write about them in a future article. Realizing that the life of private equity is not compatible with the family, I began to look for other opportunities to get closer to investment practice and at the same time resumed my MBA training.

I didn’t make it in time for the first round, but it’s not critical: if the package of documents turns out to be decent – and for now I have all the chances – then I’ll pass the selection. If not, then the first round would not help me much. I’ve already written the first version of the essay to Stanford: not bad, but another 6-7 iterations are required to achieve the desired level. All transcripts and diplomas are in English and are ready and waiting in the wings.

What’s next?

Next steps: tomorrow I will take the TOEFL, and next week I will continue to work on the essay and meet with the referees. In parallel, I am writing about my preparation for GMAT and TOEFL.

Well – let’s go! Thank you for your attention and stay tuned.

Thank you for reading,

Viktor Rogulenko

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