Admissions Advice and Commonly Asked Questions
The following are articles mostly from my blog (http://mbaapply.blogspot.com) as well as magazines that I wrote for. I have also produced the video series Interview Don'ts. Enjoy!
What Are The Top MBA Programs?
If you've read my postings on the Businessweek, GMATClub, or WallStreetOasis forums, you'll undoubtedly know that I try to avoid the rankings talk. Rankings debates usually disintegrate into pissing matches, with the resulting discussion exaggerating the differences that no one else but applicants and students would actually care about.
What I've posted below isn't something I care too much about, but it seems like enough people are curious about my opinion as an admissions consultant. This is the first and last place I will post anything about rankings.
Here’s how the tiers more or less break down:
Top Three: HBS, Stanford, Wharton (some say Wharton is just a rung below HBS and Stanford but above Kellogg, MIT, Chicago, Columbia or Tuck, which I won’t dispute – opinions vary).
Elite Eight: Top 3 plus Kellogg, MIT, Chicago, Columbia and Tuck. Some say Tuck is just a rung below; again opinions vary.
Sweet Sixteen: Elite 8, plus Michigan, Duke, Darden, NYU, Berkeley, UCLA, Cornell, Yale (some will say that Cornell and Yale are just a rung below, but again opinions vary).
Rest of the Best: These are the top regional schools including (in no particular order) UT-Austin, Georgetown, USC, UNC, Emory, Babson, Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame, Maryland, Carnegie Mellon.
Big Two International: It’s basically INSEAD and London Business School (LBS), and then everyone else. The caliber of the student body and reputation of both these schools are comparable to the US Elite Eight.
There is no material difference in reputation between schools within the same tier. In other words, don't ask whether Columbia has a better reputation than Chicago or Kellogg, because other than the alums and students, no one cares!
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How would you differentiate the top schools? (updated)
I assume you’ll do your own research, and since there’s so much info out there on the websites, discussion forums, etc. which take a pretty dry approach in comparing schools, I’ve decided to stick with the car analogy – when you strip away all the discussion about GMAT averages, salary stats, career placement profiles, student satisfaction surveys, rankings, etc. you’ll find that these analogies are pretty apt (if I must say!). The reality is, these schools are far more similar than they are different, so here’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek comparison of the schools’ reputations:
HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
HBS is like a British exotic car of varying quality – Rolls Royce, Bentley, and Aston Martin. They are Establishment, top hats and all. Like British exotics, HBS is really known for its heritage and prestige (with sport performance and classic styling to back it up). Some drivers are able to break the "unapproachable" mold and will take their cars for a bit of a joyride, but some are trapped in the pomp and circumstance of their cars. Only drawback is that they are incredibly high maintenance (more reliable than Italian exotics, but the repair costs are astronomically high) and insist on being noticed. And watching an HBS alum “fail” a la Jeffery Skilling is like seeing a Bentley stranded on the side of the road – everyone else can’t help but gloat.
Stanford is like an Italian exotic – from iconic marques like Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Alfa Romeo, to super exotics like the Pagani Zonda, as well as the “all style and no substance” that are the Maseratis. In terms of styling and performance, they are bold, distinctive, and anti-authoritarian much like Stanford – built as if to be a complete counterpoint to the British exotics. They aren't the most reliable cars, but they sure look good, and they are the ultimate joyride car, risks be damned (few cars can replicate the exhaust note of a Ferrari). If HBS is about prestige, Stanford is about rebellious sex appeal. Just like not every Stanford GSB alum is of the same caliber, knowledgeable “car guys” know that there’s a huge difference between Ferarri and Maserati – the former is a real sports car, while the latter is a piece of sh*t. But to the uninitiated, they draw attention in equal measure.
WHARTON (UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA)
Wharton is like a German exotic – Porsche, AMG, Maybach, Alpina, and Ruf, which represents a long history of performance that is analytical, clinical and precise, with styling that has always maintained a sporty middle ground, in between the conservative or even stodgy styling of the Brits and the more extreme elements of the Italians. They combine the quality/reliability of German engineering that the British and Italian sports cars don't have, with the cachet that rivals only the British and Italian luxury cars. The styling for the most part hides some of the best engineering under the hood, so the cars tend to draw less attention on the road. For example, most people may not even know the difference between an AMG or a regular Benz, much like most people may not have heard of Wharton, but when you say “Penn”, they respond, “oh, Penn State.” Moreover, they don't quite have the same cachet of the British and Italian luxury cars, even though many drivers would still kill to say “I drive a Porsche” even if it’s just a Cayenne (i.e. a Toyota SUV with a Porsche stamp).
BOOTH (UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO)
Booth is like Mercedes-Benz – one of the preeminent luxury car brands, but without as much of the sex appeal and prestige of an exotic car. Underneath the hood, the performance is as good and sometimes even better than its more “prestigious” counterparts in the UK, Italy, or its neighbor in Zuffenhausen. In fact, while a Ferrari, Aston Martin or Porsche owner will talk about the driving experience as “fun”, “raw” or “holy f*ck yeah!!!”, Benz owners will whip out spreadsheets of performance statistics to quantify how their cars are just as good as the others. Styling wise, it’s even more conservative than its German counterparts, perhaps a bit stodgy, boxy and awkward at times (and some models are just downright ugly). But hey, it's built like a tank - impenetrable to any kind of criticism.
KELLOGG (NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY)
Kellogg is like a Volkswagen - they aren't the most reliable cars, but they are sure fun cars to drive. They also have a very young, hip and aspirational image - but one that is within reach of many people. When you think of the Beetle, Golf GTI, Jetta, Cabrio, Rabbit, Vanagon/Westfalia (hippie van!!), Passat or Touraeg, you think of a hip young couple who shop at farmer’s markets on their way back from CB2 to pick up funky kitchenware to decorate their so-hip-it-hurts exposed brick loft space – in the suburbs. They are very good at promoting and managing its reputation as a “cool and hip” car to drive. Oh, and they are always smiling, showcasing their Crest Whitestrips ™ bleached teeth. But damn, they are a good looking bunch of people who manage to out party every other school and still look good doing it.
Sloan is like an Audi - more people have them than you'd expect, and for a German car, they are a bit younger and hipper – and more accessible. They are mentioned alongside the other great auto manufacturers, but still fly under the radar in most discussions. They are reliable workhorses that hide its performance and luxury behind a very understated and unassuming exterior – much like Sloanies and their abilities. Even their sportier versions (S-series, R8) are understated compared to its direct competitors. If its peers are a combination of style and substance, they are almost focused entirely on substance, if at the expense of style (if you have ever been to the MIT campus, you’ll know what I’m talking about).
COLUMBIA BUSINESS SCHOOL
Columbia is like a BMW - an amazing machine that combines performance, quality and cachet, but it also attracts a disproportionate number of overly aggressive drivers who believe they own the road, and act accordingly (blasting horrendous techno music, cutting people off in traffic, honking their horns, etc.). Like the BMW, the “New York advantage” of Columbia has a Jersey Shore element to it. Cheesy club music, overpowering cologne, and drivers who love challenging every single luxury/sports car at a stop light. Or if you happen to drive a Honda (Stern), the BMW driver will rev up his engine and give that look of disdain. I’m sure there are some laid back and friendly BMW drivers, but they seem to be drowned out by the sheer number of a**holes – much like the loud minority at Columbia that give the school a bad name. But hey, across the board, they are still amazing machines and an astute person will know it’s not the car, but the driver behind the wheel. Just don’t get the X5, which is known to explode for absolutely no reason, much like a few loose cannon Columbia alums out there.
TUCK (DARTMOUTH COLLEGE)
Tuck is like a Swedish car, from the pedestrian (Saab and Volvo) to the exotic (Koenigsegg). It's quirky, relatively small in number, but has a fiercely loyal following of aficionados. Not many people know about these cars, but those that do rave about it. Some Tuckies, like the Koenigsegg, are truly exceptional and can stand toe to toe with any other exotic in terms of performance, styling and cachet. Beyond that, if there is any reputation it has, it’s the family-oriented cars for hippies. Volvos and Saabs like Tuck seem to scream “I am a liberal outdoorsy vegan who collects bumper sticker slogans!” Strap some skis and bikes on its luggage rack, and you’re off camping! Don’t forget to bring your weed and Phish paraphernalia.
LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL
LBS is like Jaguar and Land Rover. A luxury British car that is high performance, but with some reliability issues that vary from one car to the next. Styling is decidedly refined and sophisticated, much like how LBS grads see themselves. They have that muscular feel of American cars with more European styling and refinement, much like how LBS has that American-style 2-year MBA structure but with a decidedly European student body. Also, when you think of Jaguar and Land Rover owners, you think of upper middle class blokes of all ages (including the geriatric) who love to drink, and drink lots of anything alcoholic – much like LBS which might as well own a chain of pubs for its students.
INSEAD is like Peugeot-Citroen. Not because they are both French, but because they are both very well known everywhere in the world but the US. Similar to how Peugeot-Citroen is one of the world’s largest car makers, INSEAD is one of the largest business schools – but if you lived in the US you’d never know it. While they have a reputation amongst the public as “the everyday car for Europeans,” to those in the know they have the reputation for building supercars that have dominated the Le Mans (which again means nothing to the NASCAR/Indy centric US). Similarly, INSEAD grads are found in all sectors of industry from middle management upwards, but that has a reputation as Europe’s preeminent business school, and one of the most respected names within those who know business schools.
ROSS (UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN)
Ross is like General Motors. A bit of everything for everyone, but not really anything in particular that makes them really stand out, other than the fact that it has the feel of a quintessential college town. When you think GM, you think America. When you think Michigan, you think Americana. And like GM cars, quality will vary, but for the most part the cars are down the middle when it comes to styling, performance, and reliability. It’s a solid, good choice for a buyer with a modest budget and who isn’t interested in flash or being super urban and hip – much like how Ross is a solid middle-of-the-road top school for those who want some of the prestige of the other top 8 schools, but who aren’t too fussy and caught up in keeping up with the Joneses. It’s a utilitarian choice that gets you from point A to point B – a degree that helps you get a decent job so you can enjoy your family life. And if you want a bit of flash, you get their Cadillac.
FUQUA (DUKE UNIVERSITY)
Fuqua is like Chrysler, because it’s hard to tell the difference between GM and Chrysler cars, just like it’s hard to separate out Ross and Fuqua, and they seem to be interchangeable amongst applicants anyhow. Sebring or a Buick? Which one is Chrysler and which one is GM? I thought the PT Cruiser was GM? I’m confused. Just like Ross, Fuqua is a solid middle-of-the-road choice when you see the MBA for what it is (get a better job) while you get on with your life. It’s for people who don’t have hang ups about what school they go to, but want a good school – and unlike NYU and Haas (see below), for people who want a more quintessential American college town experience. Basketball. Football. Cheerleaders. Suburban Americana.
DARDEN (UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA)
Darden is like Ford because it prides itself on being “built tough”. From the Mustang to the F-150 to the Crown Victorias, their bread and butter are cars that can withstand all kinds of grit, grime and abuse – much like how Darden students pride themselves on their ability to survive their infamous workload. Just like the Big-3 US automakers, applicants tend to apply to Michigan, Darden and Duke (below) collectively because they are similar to one another. The difference is, Darden is the macho brother of the three. Not known for their refinement, but the cars most likely to withstand nuclear war. Don’t mess with Darden, because they will grind you up, spit you out, and crush you with their boots of steel. Boo-yah!
Stern is like Honda – similar to Duke/Darden/Michigan, it’s a solid choice for people who want a good program that gets them from point A to point B in relative comfort, but whose style is a bit more fun and peppy than its Detroit counterparts. From the Civic to the Accord to the Pilot, it’s about practicality first and foremost. However, there are obnoxious owners of all marques, and Honda is no different – there is the minority of folks who constantly proclaim in that smug way that they could’ve gotten a BMW or Benz, but chose a Honda because of blah blah blah, just like a few Sternies here and there will claim they could’ve gotten into Columbia or Booth, but chose Stern instead. I don’t doubt that it’s true, but methinks the lady doth protest too much. Going to Stern is just like buying a Honda – no one is ever going to fault you for it, and for many who go there, they are happy with it being an enjoyable means to an end.
HAAS (UC – BERKELEY)
Haas is like Toyota, much like Stern is like Honda. It’s for the practical minded who simply want to get a good degree so they can get a better job. Nothing more or less than that. And Haas fits that bill, much like a Corolla, Prius or a Tacoma. While some may be curious about why you would buy an American car, no one will question why you bought a Japanese car – just like many internationals may have more explaining to do when it comes to “why did you go to Ross/Fuqua/Darden?” but fewer if any outside the US will question why you chose Haas. Or Stern. In other words, Haas and Stern are like Toyota and Honda because they are all very well known worldwide, whereas American cars have more limited traction, especially outside of North America.
And don’t even start on the supposed luxury brands such as Lexus or Acura – as good as they may be, they’re just “nicer Toyotas” and “nicer Hondas” – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
JOHNSON (CORNELL UNIVERSITY)
Johnson is like Subaru – a high quality and practical car, for those who know about it. The marque is typically not on the top of people’s minds at first, although if you were to ask them to track how many Subarus they see in a day, chances are there are more out there than they ever realized. You see, Subarus don’t like to draw attention to themselves, they simply get on with their business, and they attract buyers who want a reliable import/Japanese car, but want something different for the sake of being different (and something a bit more rugged). In a way, they are quirkier than the other Japanese marques, using boxer engines instead of an inline or V. Similarly, Johnson is sort of out there in rugged upstate New York – there’s more of them working amongst you, but you wouldn’t realize it unless you actually asked people where they went to school.
Yale is the Mazda of business schools. What causes a person to go to Yale over NYU? It’s a toss up, really just like a Honda versus Mazda. Oftentimes, it comes down to who gives you the better deal and better financing. Similar to Honda, Mazdas are known for being fun and sporty economy cars that don’t take themselves too seriously. For example, who chooses Miatas? While I’m sure some could afford the more expensive European cars, most want a comparable quality experience that is within their reach. Again, if given the choice with no constraints, I’m sure most Miata owners would rather drive a German or Italian sports car, but few if any are complaining about driving that zippy little Miata around town. Similarly, while few would choose Yale over other top 8 schools, it’s a place where people seem pretty happy about being there – they could certainly do a lot worse.
Anderson is the Nissan of business schools. Like Nissan would be compared to other Japanese marques, Anderson tends to fall under the radar, even though it’s known worldwide and they’re everywhere. Similar to Toyota and Honda, for the most part they are solid cars that appeal to the practical minded buyer who just wants to “get on with it.” Likewise, Anderson attracts students who simply see the MBA as a means to an end, and want a high quality school that will help them get a good job – it’s the practical choice for many who want or need to stay in California for their careers. While it doesn’t get the same level of exposure as Toyota or Honda, no one is going to fault you for ever getting a Nissan. At worst, it elicits no opinion, and at best, a positive one.
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