Listen to this article
Could an MBA help you in your career? If so, how much would it cost? And how do you choose the right programme? These and other questions were answered by our panel of experts in a live Q&A session on our MBA blog.
On the panel were:
David Schmittlein, dean of MIT Sloan School of Management
David Schmittlein is dean of MIT Sloan and a professor of marketing. He has a wide range of business school experience and is on the international advisory boards of HEC Paris, Tsinghua, in Beijing, and the Indian School of Business. Prior to becoming dean at Sloan in 2007, Prof Schmittlein was deputy dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. At Sloan he has launched three new masters degrees - the EMBA, Master of Finance, and Master of Science in Management Studies.
Brian Rolfes, head of global recruiting at McKinsey
Brian Rolfes oversees recruiting strategy, policy and operations worldwide, including campus and experienced hiring, at McKinsey. Before this, he was director of professional development in Canada and a client-serving consultant.
Caroline Diarte Edwards, a director of Fortuna Admissions
Caroline Diarte Edwards is an MBA admissions consultancy with Fortuna Admissions. She is an MBA graduate of Insead, France, where she also worked as director of admissions, marketing and financial aid for the MBA programme from 2005 until 2012.
Anne Pao, MBA graduate of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business
Anne Pao is an MBA graduate of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, where she was a 2013 class president. She is from the US but plans to stay in Cape Town to join an IT company and work on the launch of her social enterprise start-up Weaverlution, an online marketplace for social impact campaigns.
Della Bradshaw, FT Business Education Editor
Charlotte:Welcome everyone. Here’s the first question from one of our readers:
I have a PhD in engineering and a seven year background in semiconductor R&D. I want to do an MBA to learn more about business management, product marketing and strategy, amongst other things. However, at an age of 35 years, is it too late for me to go for a full-time two-year programme? Should I only be considering EMBA programmes? ~ Abhishek
Anne: Hello Abhishek, I understand where you are coming from. When I applied for my MBA, I realised I would be 32. Given similar concerns, I consulted friends at different business schools where I was considering applying about the average age and spread of students. Some of the top schools in the US for instance are known for wanting to “mould” young MBA minds and as such seem to have younger classes. Some of the contributing factors for applying to the University of Cape Town and choosing it as my school included:
1) The average age is 31 to 32 years of age and the school requires students to have 5+ years of experience, which appealed to me.
2) The programme is a full-time programme and can be completed in 11 months. This was also a big positive given that I would only have to take one year off work, which for someone in the later stages of their career was important.
My best advice would be to research and speak with representatives for the schools you are interested in, and also consider one-year programmes that are full-time. Esade business school in Spain, for instance, also seems to have students in their early thirties and has various length programmes from 12-18 months.
Caroline: This is a question that we often face at Fortuna. The reality is that top full-time MBA programmes focus primarily on a younger age range and this will make it very difficult for you to gain admission. Though the likes of Harvard, Stanford and Wharton can all point to older students in the current class, they are very much the exception.
The situation is in part due to career placement, and recruiters who are looking for MBA graduates in their mid to late 20s / early 30s to match the positions they are trying to fill. Many schools are trying to bring together a peer group with a similar level of experience and maturity, and I’ve sometimes seen students in their mid-30s struggle to fit into a full-time MBA student community.
You are indeed likely to have more success with EMBA programmes. As they are typically more oriented towards leadership and high-level strategy, they target a more senior profile than full-time programmes. You will definitely need to show evidence of solid management experience and leadership ability in your application.
Della: Hi Abishek, two-year MBA programmes generally target managers of around 27 years of age, with less business experience than you. But most of them would relish admitting someone with your credentials. Would you enjoy being in a class with younger students, though? Another alternative to an EMBA would be a one-year MBA, where participants are usually older. Top- ranked schools such as Insead and IMD target those in their early to mid thirties.
David: One very positive change in management education during the last 10-20 years is the customisation of programmes, both in content and in the profile of learners for whom that content is ideal. You should look in detail at the design of the various programmes but then have no problem finding one that is right for you in both respects. Investing in management education in your mid to late 30s allows you to incorporate over a decade’s worth of practical experience in the classroom. I wonder whether you are especially interested in learning alongside others with the same base of experience?
For example, the MIT Sloan EMBA programme focuses on this unique opportunity, with an average age for participants of 39 or 40 years. The programme meets in Cambridge, MA about once a month and draws executives from all across the US. But other schools’ EMBA programmes vary greatly in the age of experience of the programme participants – some are hardly more experienced than full-time MBA students.
As a further example, MIT offers a Sloan Fellows executive programme, leading to an MBA that is also designed for seasoned executives (average age 40) but is offered full-time in residence, so provides an immersion experience that a traditional MBA provides — though in a condensed (12-month) format which is often optimal for more senior leaders. This is a popular option for executives coming to MIT from outside the US.
Brian: The choice to enroll in an MBA programme is certainly a very personal one, and we would be hard-pressed to say there is a bad time to pursue something that you are passionate about. Students at business school usually have a wide variety of backgrounds and a broad range of work experience so you should be able to find a programme that would fit you and your interests.
You could consider not only traditional and EMBA programmes, but also compressed MBA programmes (e.g., 12-18 month-long programmes at Kellogg and Insead) if you are hoping to get back into the work force more quickly.
MBA programmes such as those at Insead and MIT Sloan are highly competitive. Can you offer any insider tips for how I can improve my chances of admission? I am a female Indian engineering graduate, and have been working in my family business for three years. ~ Diviya
Caroline: Diviya, you are correct that there is increasing global competition for entry to top MBA programmes such as MIT Sloan and Insead, and it is important to stand out from the crowd in the admissions process. I suggest you take some time to reflect on your profile and your experiences before diving into writing your application. What is unique about your story? What experience do you bring that will be valuable to your classmates? Do you have a clear vision of what you want to achieve when you graduate, and is this both ambitious yet realistic?
For any of the top schools you also need to demonstrate a real fit with the culture of the school. Your background research needs to go beyond the fact they ranked highly in the FT, or lifting phrases from the school website – show how the programme is uniquely suited to your short and long-term career goals, and try to reach out to students and alumni whose background and interests speak to your own. The admissions office needs to see that you will thrive in both the classroom and the school community.
The fact that you have worked in your family business for the last three years could prove a great source of material for the application. Schools are looking for diversity in the MBA classroom, so think carefully about the roles and responsibilities you have had, and what they say about you. If you are looking to return to the family business after school, you should explain in specific detail how the MBA will help to make a positive impact on the business.
Investing some time in thinking through your strengths and weaknesses as a candidate, and the highlights of your profile that you can showcase in your application will really help. Don’t do this in isolation – it can be very helpful to get feedback from friends or colleagues who know you very well, as well as someone who knows your target school very well and can help you understand how your profile will be evaluated by the school, and therefore how you can put your best foot forward.
Anne: Hello Diviya – in a prior round of applying to MBA, I submitted applications to Stanford and Wharton. I received interviews for both and what really helped gain interviews was investing time to get to know the schools. This goes beyond simply visiting websites. Go to informational sessions and try and meet the alumni or representatives there. Set up time to physically go and visit the school and sit in on a class or two. The top schools like to see that you have invested in getting to understand more about the campus, and also that you are a good networker.
In addition, consider what are the distinguishing factors for students at these universities. For instance, at Insead and Esade they have a strong international representation. What experiences do you have internationally that differentiate you? What leadership experiences can you share with the admissions team that are concrete, unique and show commitment?
Brian: Others on this panel are likely better suited to answer this question, but I can say that we advise our own McKinsey junior consultants who apply to an MBA programme to highlight the depth and breadth of their achievements, as well as their skills that match the MBA school requirements.
Being able to succinctly and clearly illustrate the professional, academic, and personal accomplishments you have made over time – especially those that may bring to light your unique talents – will start you off on the right foot with the admissions process.
We believe the range of experience and professional development that a business analyst or internship role in a management consulting – such as here at McKinsey – offers an unparalleled opportunity to develop. I’m guessing that your own experience in your family’s business should similarly provide good development examples to draw upon for your MBA application.
David: Naturally, you will wish to indicate how your experiences to date, together with your passion and curiosity, provide a strong basis for the professional future that you will pursue. In addition, it can be helpful to write about your development as a leader. This could include describing a setting in which you chose to take a risk or go beyond your comfort zone, and offer a reflection as to why you did so, what you learned from that experience, and how it changed your capabilities, confidence and/or perspectives going forward.
Finally, it is always helpful to show a school’s admissions staff that you understand some of that school’s points of distinction, e.g. faculty, centers of excellence, unique teaching programmes, global activities, and the like, that appeal to you.
I work as a management consultant and am planning to apply to business school but I understand that there are many applicants to the top programmes with a similar work background. Is there anything I can do to help myself stand out in the application process? ~ Dee
Brian: As with most job or admission applications, highlighting the specific skills you have mastered and the achievements you have accomplished is an important starting point. You likely worked on projects and led specific workstreams that had significant and broad impact; or perhaps you took an early leadership role or were promoted at a faster rate than your peers, or volunteered in your local community. Whichever examples you share, make them as explicit and tangible as possible. Your management consultancy experience should give you lots of examples.
Caroline: Management consulting followed by business school is a pretty classic track and I evaluated thousands of these profiles during my time at Insead. 27 per cent of the current Insead class come from a consulting background, with 29 per cent in the LBS class of 2015.
These candidates are typically very smart (great academic backgrounds, strong GMATs), have impressive work experience (exposed to a range of industries, worked on some high-level projects) and have glowing references. So don’t expect any of these factors to make you stand out from the crowd.
You need to showcase some aspects that make you different. It could be international experience, extra-curricular achievements, or a particular passion for an aspect of your work that you build into an exciting career vision. If you are a management consultant and have some time before you plan to apply, think about what you can do in the meantime to differentiate your profile. Ask for an assignment abroad, take an initiative for a project that someone at your level would not normally do, or seek to have an impact in your extra-curricular activities.
One of the other challenges for consultants that we also focus on with our clients at Fortuna is the need to secure personalised letters of recommendation that really speak to the work and accomplishments of the individual. Because senior consultants are often approach for recommendations, with the implied demands on their time, the temptation is to produce a fairly standard template of comments. We try to make sure that applicants work with their recommenders to secure a letter that is detailed, authentic and insightful.
I am a software engineer, working full-time. I want to acquire more capabilities on running a business and more expertise on management. Due to the limitation of money and time, it is not easy for me to take an MBA course. Can I just learn by myself or read some books? ~ Karl
Della: Hi Karl, what a timely question. Two of the really big selling points of an MBA are the credential itself and the network of other students and alumni. If these are of no real value to you, then why not look at online programmes, especially Moocs, this new generation of free online programmes? MIT is one university that has done a lot of work in this area, as have other top schools such as Harvard and Wharton. In the UK, the Open University is curating programmes from lots of universities under the Futurelearn brand. Much more fun than reading books!
David: Of course! One very simple but important approach to self-instruction involves keeping a journal, in which you note and reflect on the characteristics of effective (and perhaps ineffective) managers that you meet. What seems to you to account for their success? Consider how you might emulate them – or develop some of their particular skills or traits for your own development.
In addition, while the supply of terrible business books seems limitless, there are some very good ones. A classic is Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive. Don’t be deterred by the fact that it was written about 30 years ago – there is a reason that this book is still in print and popular! On the more entrepreneurial side of business, let me suggest to you Disciplined Entrepreneurship by MIT Sloan’s own William Aulet.
Finally, you are likely to be able to find free online courses from top universities that are of interest. Some of these courses are tedious, but check out for instance the version of Disciplined Entrepreneurship available for free from Bill Aulet on MITx within the edX platform:
Anne: There are online MBA programmes now available. Wharton for instance and a number of other top schools allow you to take classes online. This is an option, however, a lot of the true value comes from the network and opportunities you engage with while at a full-time or part-time programme. If money is a concern, consider looking into one-year programmes.
Brian: Given the way we work collaboratively in teams, McKinsey is a great believer in the apprenticeship model of continuous learning well beyond graduation. Earning an MBA is a great way to develop business acumen and knowledge, as well as creating a personal network among several colleagues that will last for years. Independent reading can also be a helpful approach.
That said, you may want to consider opportunities in your current company to gain the first-hand experience in management you seek. Specifically, look for a range of opportunities in your company that will push you to develop new skills, learn new parts of the business system, and expose you to a variety of leadership models. Finding mentors who can apprentice you and help shepherd your career within your company will be key.
Caroline: There is for sure a lot you can learn from books and now also online courses (Moocs). Wharton is among a number of schools that are making courses form the first year of the programme available, and as the dean at Darden recently commented in an interview with my colleague, Moocs are good at delivering knowledge, but fall short when it comes to developing certain skills such as negotiating, or delivering the attributes of wisdom and empathy.
Without a formal programme and without any physical classroom time, you will miss out on some important parts of the MBA learning experience – the interaction with the faculty and classmates, and all the learning that brings, in terms of knowledge, mind-set change, team work, communication and leadership skills.
If money is tight, look into scholarship options – many programmes, especially top schools, have significant scholarship budgets. Loans to fund MBA programmes are also increasingly widely available, and the ROI on an MBA, especially from a top programme, is normally very good.
As the FT has reported in this year’s MBA ranking, graduates from the top schools have typically doubled their pre-MBA salary in the three years after graduation – all the more impressive given the economic context.
You could also look at part-time programmes: this would enable you to work and study at the same time. This can be a great option if you decide you really can’t afford to take a career break.
I am a 29 year old Spanish graduate of business administration and management and I have been working in administration and finance for five years. I have reached this point in my life where I feel I won’t grow professionally where I am currently due to the structure of the organisation. Therefore, I am considering travelling to Ireland to improve my English and then applying for an MBA. Should I study for the MBA in Europe or the US? I have an estimated budget of 60,000 Euros. Please could you advise me on which programmes to apply for? ~ Daniel
Anne: You are lucky in that Spain has a couple very strong MBA programmes. Iese is top 10 globally and Esade is top 25. If the goal is to improve your English, all classes at these universities are taught in English and would enable you to stay in Spain, which may reduce costs beyond tuition if you can stay with family/friends for instance.
The top US MBA programmes tend to be fairly expensive, especially when you consider all the extracurricular trips and activities. Saying that, you can tailor the MBA to your experience. I think it would come down to, what are your primary goals out of the MBA? Getting the degree and hoping it will open doors? Do you hope to change careers?
Many programmes are general management MBA programmes and then you can specialise your MBA towards a particular area in your electives. My advice would be to have a couple of rough ideas of where you see yourself in a couple years (industry, role) and to research those programmes that fit within your budget.
In addition, many of the MBA programmes also offer opportunity for exchange which will allow you to gain access to schools abroad. For example, Esade has exchange programs with schools in the US like Kellogg and Columbia, as well as schools on other continents such as Asia or Africa. It will be important to balance your goals professionally post MBA with your budget if that is a significant factor. It would also be useful to look into loans/financial aid with favorable interest rates. These tend to vary.
Della: My question would always be….where do you want to work on graduation and are your aspirations realistic? Schools in the region where you want to work would usually be the ones with the best links to local recruiters. But do bear in mind work visa restrictions.
Caroline: I would suggest thinking about which school is the best fit for you given your career goals. For example, if you definitely want to work in Spain when you graduate, then why not focus on the Spanish schools – for example Iese and IE are both excellent choices. If you are not primarily focused on Spain, then it makes sense to also consider other schools. Remember that many schools tend to feed graduates mostly into their local markets (this is particularly true of US schools), whilst schools such as Insead and LBS offer more international opportunities.
If you have a tight budget, then you may be better off looking at a one-year programme rather than the traditional two-year format. IE, Insead and IMD all offer excellent one-year options. 60k Euros is going to be tight however for any leading MBA programme, but likely you would qualify for an MBA loan? I would definitely recommend going to a highly ranked programme, even if that means taking out a loan. The ROI on a top programme will be higher.
Brian: Given that the cost of an MBA can be intimidating, you may want to consider some of the compressed MBA programmes (e.g. Columbia, Insead, Kellogg) versus a two-year programme in the event the tuition for those are more affordable for you.
Given your past experience in Spain, all things being equal (and affordable), you may want to consider going elsewhere for the MBA to allow yourself the opportunity for an international experience.
I am really worried that, despite having a pretty interesting career, my GMAT scores won’t even let me get in the door. I have a strong undergraduate quantitative background but I am having a hard time getting over a score of 700 on the GMAT. How much will schools read past the numbers? I know that schools SAY they look at everything, but do I really get “dinged” if I am just below the average? ~ AJ
Della: Let us hope not. Some recent investigations by my colleague Emma Boyde show that women’s GMAT scores are 20 points lower on average than those of men – alarming! It would be depressing to think that this was in part responsible for the low percentages of women at the top schools.
Anne: Hello AJ, this is a very common question. To share, the first two times I took the MBA I got a 660 and a 690. For some reason, I could not seem to penetrate the 700 boundary. Saying that, it did not prevent me from gaining interviews from both Stanford and Wharton.
I think what is important is to have a really solid “story” for the top schools. What do you want to do? What examples do you have of leadership? How are you unique? How involved are you in your communities? What types of projects have you managed or led in your different career(s) and how will this help you be a key contributor to your MBA class? These are differentiating factors and it is really important that you dedicate significant time to developing this story and ensuring it comes through clearly and concisely.
In addition, it will be important to network heavily, especially for schools in the US. Having an alumni who knows you and can vouch for your character can sometimes help open doors. It comes down to putting in the time and energy to getting to know the school, its programmes and why they would not only be a good fit for you, but why you would be a good fit for them.
Caroline: I often work with candidates in your situation. Top schools are quite stringent as regards the GMAT, but indeed there is some flexibility for really top profiles. You just need to be aware that the GMAT may be a weakness and given a highly competitive applicant pool, you may unfortunately be pipped at the post by another candidate with an equally exciting career track but a stronger GMAT.
Schools do look at the GMAT in the context of academic performance overall, so a score that is on the weak side is mitigated somewhat if you went to a very good undergraduate school and have a good GPA. Also, if you are applying with a GMAT that is below the average for the school’s student body, then you had better wow them with your application and interview performance. Am happy to discuss how you can do this offline – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David: Schools really do look at everything. Of course, “everything” includes undergraduate courses taken, and performance in those courses, and the reputation for rigour in that undergraduate programme. At the end of the day, admissions is not about rejecting people. Rather, excellent admissions officers attempt to construct a compelling narrative as to how this applicant will succeed in the degree programme, and, become an alumnus/alumna of whom the school will be proud for years to come.
Confidence regarding this narrative is a key to admission. The successful applicant will not so much spend time avoiding being rejected, as thinking about how to create confidence among those deciding admission that this particular applicant with (always) a unique background of strengths and weaknesses, will turn out to be a great fit for this school, achieving the applicant’s apparent goals in the short term, and becoming a point of pride for years to come.
Lately I have been reading a lot regarding the value of an MBA. Although it was acclaimed all over for getting students to the management positions at top organisations, many are now speaking out on how it might not be a good idea to invest two years and $150,000 for an MBA in the present scenario. Please could you provide your views on the credibility of an MBA programme nowadays and maybe two-three years down the line, even if the programme sits in the top 20 positions? Will it be distinguished at the same level as it was years before? ~ Avinash Korukollu
Della: I think a top 20 school will always be a good investment, but with up to 12,000 business schools in the world, these 20 schools represent just a fraction of one per cent of all the business schools out there. Between them these 20 recruit just 10,000 full-time MBA students a year – a drop in the ocean in corporate terms. The question is, are the others worth the money? It is a question that I think few traditional MBA schools are prepared to deal with. But if prospective students such as yourself vote with their feet, then their futures will be decided for them.
Anne: Hello Avinash. Value for money is a popular topic. I think it is less is the MBA worth it from a public or group perspective, and more is it worth it for you from a personal perspective. For example, a few years ago after applying, interviewing and ultimately not getting into MBA, I gave a hard look as to whether it made sense to invest and try again. At that time I was living in the US and many people applying for the job I was in were recent MBA graduates from top programmes. If I had chosen to stay in that field, perhaps an MBA would not have been worth it.
On the contrary, moving to Africa and changing my ultimate career goal (to manage a social enterprise startup or innovative IT company with a social thrust) changed all that. I realised that for this goal to be achieved I would have to understand the local context of working in Africa and build my business knowledge as well as networks. In addition, to launch and run a company, personally I felt that an MBA, and an African MBA at that, was a requirement. Once again, this is a very personal decision and it comes down to determining what you think you want to get out of the MBA and where you want to ultimately end up.
Another important consideration is the reputation of the MBA, yes, globally, but also locally. The University of Cape Town is number 59 in the world for instance, and if I was going strictly after global rankings and saw myself in the US or Europe, perhaps a US or European school would be more appropriate. However, Cape Town is number one in Africa and that is the environment I see myself working in.
It all comes back to: 1) What do you want to be doing? 2) Where/what location will best facilitate that? 3) What options exist in that location that are credible?
David: Considered on simply a financial basis, top MBA programmes continue to produce positive returns on the tuition investment, as The Financial Times table accompanying the rankings makes clear. Of course, the tables show average levels of compensation, and increase in compensation, and any particular person’s background experience and goals will be unique. Schools need to continually adapt their content and student experiences and relationships with employers to maintain this pattern of positive return – and the best schools do just that.
Finally, beyond the understandable desire to recover the cost of an MBA programme, a student’s pursuit of the degree should be driven by the desire to understand management, and to develop as a leader – and not for a narrow sense of monetary opportunity.
Brian: McKinsey has always looked to the top MBA programmes around the world for a significant portion of our global hiring, so we certainly value the MBA and the experiences and knowledge it provides to our candidates. That said, McKinsey has for many decades also looked for top talent from many different sources including other advanced degree programmes (engineering, medicine, law, science, humanities, etc.) as well as to industry for hires with deep experience and expertise in the workforce.
Not much has been talked about the opportunities for international MBA students. Since we have to spend a handful for the two years, I would also like to know about the opportunities for international students post-MBA? ~ Avinash Korukollu
Brian: Each year, global employers such as McKinsey have focused recruiting efforts at the world’s top MBA schools. Each year, we return to those campuses, knowing that MBAs are a substantial portion of our annual hires (though – as I mentioned earlier – we also draw large numbers of top students from a diverse set of academic disciplines as well as hire significant number of current professionals who have a broad set of experiences). An MBA is an excellent way to deepen your knowledge, develop your skills, build a network of friends and colleagues, and to ultimately expand your horizons.
Anne: From this question, I am assuming that you refer to students who pursue their MBAs abroad with the purpose of ultimately working in that geography. This is once again case particular.
For example, the majority of MBA students at Esade in the current year are from outside Spain so it is very international. The school has plenty of career center and networking activities, but one must also consider the economic situation of Spain and potential difficulty in finding a job if one does not have an EU passport.
South Africa’s University of Cape Town MBA has 14 different countries represented in the 2013 class, yet the climate for gaining a work visa is more complicated than other countries considering the unemployment rate and employment laws in the country. It is important to research the regulations around foreign or international MBA students gaining a work opportunity post school.
Saying that, there are still ways to gain jobs. Many students, for instance, participate in an internship programme at local companies which enable them to create a relationship that showcases their worth ethic and product.
Caroline: Hi Abhinav, with regards to your first question, an MBA is not a prerequisite to success in business. But investing in your education can help you reach greater levels of responsibility, and open doors that might otherwise have been closed. There has been noise about the diminishing value of the MBA for years. The articles and video on the FT website this week about the latest MBA rankings make some good points about the salary progression that MBA graduates achieve, and the feeling amongst alumni that they have achieved their goals. So I think this data speaks for itself. I do think it is important however to go for a highly ranked programme to be sure that you get a good return on your investment.
Also, those starting their MBA in 2015 will graduate in 2016 or 2017, when the global economy is predicted to be swinging upwards again. That is a great time to graduate from your MBA. If financial services comes back on tap, they will be competing to recruit newly-minted MBAs with the consultancy firms, tech and new media companies, e-commerce businesses and the rest of industry, so it could be a golden age of MBA recruitment.
With regards to your second question, you will find that opportunities for international students vary a lot by programme. At a school like Insead, there is no separate group of “international students” versus domestic students – everyone is international.
Schools with a heavy international orientation such as Insead and LBS are well positioned to help international students, as they offer access to global recruitment opportunities, and the new Insead grads take up positions in about 60 countries every year. US programmes do tend to focus more on recruitment in North America. If you are looking primarily at US programs, then do delve into their career stats and quiz their staff to better understand how they support international students and what your recruitment options might be.
I have applied to MIT Sloan, Harvard and Wharton in Round 2 and hope to be invited for interview in the next few weeks. What advice do you have for the MBA interview? ~ David
Della: You could be really flattering to Prof Schmittlein in this live Q&A….
David: Three suggestions: (1) Be prepared to say what is – to you – special about the school with which you are interviewing that day and how it is distinct from other schools, (2) Think about specific experiences in your past that have taken you in new directions and helped you develop as a manager and leader. Be ready to use those stories in illustrating your adaptability, your developing expertise, your passions, etc. (3) Be prepared to discuss honestly your less-strong points and the plans you have to grow in those respects.
Anne: Hello David, I have interviewed at Stanford, Wharton and University of Cape Town. What helped was showing that I had engaged with the school through visits, informational sessions and discussions with current students and past alumni. This level of engagement will help to show that you have spent time getting to know the culture and offerings of each programme,and how these offerings align with your goals for pursuing an MBA.
You will also want to be very familiar with all aspects of your resume, application and essays in case any follow up, deeper questions emerge.
In addition, think about what else is not in your application that helps to differentiate you. What stories do you have from both professional and personal that demonstrate your leadership capacities, ability to handle failure or bumps in the road, innovative spirit? Think about the school you are interviewing for, and what their “culture” is; what they are most proud of and then be prepared to discuss examples of how you fit into that culture.
I am looking to switch career paths from IT consulting to management consulting. So my question to Mr. Rolfes is what does Mckinsey look for in an MBA graduate during recruitment? I have read the website and The Mckinsey Way, but how could somebody from IT better position themselves to get a post-MBA offer in Mckinsey? ~ Wayne Viegas
Brian: Thanks for your interest in McKinsey! We hire candidates from all industries and sectors, so our focus in evaluating candidates is more about the intrinsic skills and overall achievements regardless of the particular industry background.
In your application, I’d recommend illustrating your abilities and experiences in problem solving, entrepreneurship, personal impact, and teamwork through tangible professional and personal examples. Given your specialised background, it may help to know that our hires from MBA programmes typically come to us in one of two different paths, either our generalist track (focusing on client work across many sectors/functions) or our specialist track if they have a particular expertise, experience and passion for an individual industry or function.
If you would prefer to continue to focus on technology-related issues, you could consider joining our Business Technology Office, as an example, where you’d be guaranteed to spend the majority of your time on our clients’ most challenging technology projects across industries. As a generalist, you’d still have access to that kind of technology-related work from time to time, so the choice is ultimately yours… A number of individuals who join us with specialised expertise still prefer to join as a generalist in order to expand their experience and knowledge across other dimensions and are just as successful as those who directly build on existing expertise.
By the time it takes someone starting in the fall to get their MBA, will the workplace be flooded with them, making the investment less profitable? Would an engineer be more profitable getting a Masters in Finance and taking less time to get the same return on their investment? ~ Ryanne Chapman
Anne: I have worked with a number of engineers in multiple companies and in my experience those who are successful among their peer groups are the engineers who also are business savvy. A number of my classmates studied engineering before school and pursued the MBA to diversify their experience away from being strictly quantitative. It comes down again, to what role you will be pursuing post MBA. Do you want to stay in engineering and simply buttress your repertoire with business skills? Are you looking to move into a different field?
The positive about the MBA is the breadth of exposure you get to general management. You will study not just finance but also strategy, operations management, marketing, accounting, entrepreneurship and innovation. This variety will help you think more broadly which can help if you move into an industry requiring you to work on a cross-functional team.
I will be joining an IT company as a senior consultant in April 2014 and my role will be to be the bridge between the business (clients) and IT. I think accessing this opportunity was due primarily to being able to think across both spheres of business/engineering and design. I recommend that you consider what will provide you with the most diversity of skills.
Brian: McKinsey recruits a significant number of MBAs each and every year, and throughout the year. We are always on the look out for talent across all disciplines. And the recruitment conversations generally start during the MBA programme, before graduation. So I’d suggest you not get too worried about the exact timing of your MBA.
My advice would be to decide the academic subject you want to pursue based on your personal interests – students should use university as an opportunity to study and pursue what they are passionate about and have a real interest in, not what they think others will expect of them. If you are passionate about something, you are more likely to excel and to make a real difference – and that is what will make you distinctive in the eyes of prospective employers.
Caroline: Actually I think right now is a great time to apply to an MBA, as the recruitment market will likely be stronger in a couple years. If you are concerned about the value of your MBA, then do focus on getting into a top school and do some analysis of their career stats to see if their graduates get the type of opportunities you are looking for.
I would also suggest taking a long-term view and thinking about what programme is going to give you the greatest benefits in the long-term. Masters in Finance courses are great if you know you want to specialise in finance. An MBA gives you broader options.
Della: Hi Ryanne, you need to make some big decisions about where you want to work in future. Is it in finance or banking? If you are not sure, then stick to an MBA.
On the question of ROI, it is difficult to make comparisons, because those that study for a Masters in Finance are often pre-experience students, straight out of undergraduate programmes, while MBA students are older and have some managerial experience.
One school that does run a post-experience Masters in Finance degree is London Business School. It tops the FT’s ranking for these degrees and three years after graduation alumni from the programme report salaries of $127,173. This compares to salaries of $155,624 for MBA graduates at the same point in their career, according to Financial Times MBA 2014.
I have recently completed my undergraduate degree in textile engineering but I do not want to take a job in textile industry because of the poor working conditions and low salary. Moreover, I do not see any job security in the textile industry, so I have decided to change track. I want to take an MBA and I am currently studying for the GMAT. What should I say to the admissions committees regarding the purpose of my MBA and how do I go about selecting the right programme? ~ Abuhuraira
Anne: Hello Abuhuraira. In my experience, there is no “slam dunk” single answer. Many people, depending on their various backgrounds, have different purposes for pursuing an MBA. When it comes down to it, MBA programmes want to know your story. They want to see that you have given considerable thought to what you want to achieve. If not textile engineering, what would be another field that you believe you can parlay your skills into that would benefit from having an MBA, for example?
It comes down to really figuring out: 1) what are your strengths and what evidence (from school extracurricular, leadership and especially professional experiences) showcase these strengths? What are your weaknesses? 2) How do these strengths and weaknesses relate to your overarching career goal?
This is not to say you have to know exactly what you want to do. But the admissions committees do want to see that you have done your research or due diligence, thought about your goals, and engaged in an honest and deep personal self-reflection about who you are and where your development areas lie.
These are big questions and they cannot be answered in a night or even a week’s time. The best advice is to research different careers. Talk to people who have your background and find out what they have done/have not done and see if any of those align. Or, if there is a real area that you feel passionate about but have no experience with, but believe an MBA can help to fill that gap, do additional research around what you can start doing right now to gain additional experience or exposure.
MBAs like leaders, action-oriented individuals with a strong sense of self and purpose. This needs to come out in your application.
Lastly, the GMAT is important yes, and will require investment to get to the score ranges required for top schools – but they are not choosing you for your GMAT, they are choosing you for your past experience, your story and what they think you will accomplish or are capable of accomplishing post MBA.
Caroline: Generally I think that candidates are best advised to get some work experience before undertaking an MBA programme. You will gain a lot more from the learning process if you are able to put things into context of your own professional experiences.
My advice would be to start work now, get the best job you can (even if this does not offer an attractive salary), get some professional achievements under your belt, and then you’ll have a much more compelling story with which to sell yourself to an admissions committee.
I am from Turkey and I have six years work experience in audit (Deloitte), fast-moving consumer goods (Coca-Cola, P&G) and retail (IKEA). I strongly believe that it is time to apply for an MBA at a top 20 business school in the US and pursue a career in consulting. Is an MBA the right choice for this career shift? If so, how should I rank top schools in the consulting area? The rankings are generally based on finance, entrepreneurship or leadership areas. Should I check post-MBA recruitment ratios in consulting to find a good programme? ~ Bagcan Babayigit
David: An MBA degree is often an excellent choice for someone interested in pursuing consulting. In my experience, leading consulting firms actively consider graduates from all the top schools in the US – at least from the top 10 or 15. So, among those schools, I suggest that you worry less about whether consulting is a viable career path at graduation, and spend more energy considering the values, culture, content and learning approaches, and network of those schools.
Brian: Given the diverse set of experiences you’ve had, you will likely be a good fit for the consulting industry so it is great to hear you are interested. As I mentioned earlier, we hire significant numbers of MBAs from the top business schools around the globe.
While an MBA is not necessary to make the transition from industry to consulting, it can be a helpful by providing time to reflect on the experiences you have already had, build additional business acumen, and develop a network of peers. When selecting a programme, we would encourage you to chose one that fits with your passions and interests.
Caroline: I would definitely spend some time analyzing the careers stats reports of the top US schools and see for yourself which schools are feeding good numbers into the companies where you are interested in working. This data will speak for itself and can help you draw up a shortlist of schools.
But then you should look beyond the recruitment data and get a sense for which school is the best fit for you in terms of student community, culture, alumni network, etc. I highly recommend visiting the campuses of your shortlist of schools if at all possible. It will give you a much stronger sense of which school is right for you. I also often see my clients write much better applications if they have visited the school – their passion for the place really shines through.
What are your recommendations for students lacking a quantitative background? Do you need to address this on an application? How do MBA programmes view this and how do they support students in building these skills in the first year? ~ Kim Kennedy
Anne: Just because you lack a quantitative background, this does not discount you from pursuing an MBA. I know plenty of classmates who previously did not work in finance (and had careers in graphic design, non-profit work, or teaching) who gained admission to the MBA and excelled in more “quant” classes. Saying that, the MBA programmes do want to see that you will be able to succeed in the required quantitative classes (such as finance, accounting, etc).
Part of their assessment will be looking at your GMAT scores. If you are uncomfortable with the GMAT preparation for these quantitative sections, there are a number of programmes both in person and online to prepare you. The maths on the GMAT is not beyond algebra/geometry level and one section is less about the quant and more about understanding when you need additional information to appropriately answer the question (without solving it).
Perhaps if the gap in quantitative skills is alarming, you can consider taking preparatory courses (many universities offer quantitative classes in finance or accounting through extension programmes). If you excel here, you could reference this gap and the action you took to fill that gap. Many applications have an “extra” question that allow you to bring up anything you’d like to share with the admissions committee (such as quantitative courses you took to buttress your experience).
I’m 32 and I work for Google Enterprise in an advisory/account manager role. I’m fortunate enough to have lived and worked through what Gartner classified as a convergence of The Nexus of Forces (cloud, social, big data, mobile). This constant self-development to keep up with these flux of disruption has awoken a burning passion within me for everything about newly evolving digital tools in the business world. Would an MBA enable me to build on this moment, gain a greater appreciation for the business processes in motion, across organisations that would ultimately equip me to branch out occupationally? My fear is becoming too much of a soldier and not a general in my chosen field ~ Justin
Brian: Yes, earning an MBA is a great way to explore your passions and learn new skills — whether your interests lie in hi-tech, digital media, big data or global public health. Beyond earning your MBA, you should consider a career in consulting as well – if I may put in a plug Emoticon.
At McKinsey, you would be able to continue to explore a wide variety of topics that are critical in today’s world (including those you mention), together with your peers from many different backgrounds. You would receive great support and mentorship along the way to help you reach your full potential professionally.
Right now, even coming from a highly selective liberal arts school in the US, the job market outside of engineering and the sciences really seems to be based on your own contacts as well as your family’s contacts. Is this also the situation for students graduating from US business schools? Often, US undergraduate schools give job placement information but do not differentiate between jobs obtained through personal contacts and jobs obtained outside of personal contacts ~ EK
David: MIT Sloan, like other top schools, maintains a substantial and diverse set of relationships with companies who interview our graduates on campus. To that, add in the MIT network of 120,000 alumni worldwide, who can often be helpful in directing graduates toward opportunities, and the perception of MIT itself can of course help open doors.
Brian: For McKinsey, the quality of intrinsic skills (problem solving and interpersonal) as well as a candidate’s past experience are what matter, not personal contacts. We look for recruits who are entrepeneurial, and are passionate about what they have done and what they want to do.
Our consultants must have intellectual horsepower that they can bring to bear on complex and often ambiguous fact situations. They must be able to communicate well. As our consultants work in teams and support one another, we want people who are team players and can demonstrate real leadership .
In our experience, a diverse range of academic and extracurricular backgrounds creates stronger and more effective teams leading to better, more creative solutions for our clients.
From various discussions I have had with current and former MBA students, I get the sense that career switching may not be as straightforward as some schools sometimes advertise. Somehow, your post-MBA first job is highly correlated to your previous professional experience. Is an MBA really the best option to switch your career considering the time and cost required? ~ Bruno
Brian: As I mentioned in my response to Justin earlier, an MBA can be a great way to switch career tracks, but I would recommend you decide what to study and where to take your career next based on your personal passions and interests.
At McKinsey, we serve a wide variety of private, public, and social sector clients across sectors and functions. Many people join us as generalist to explore different topics, while others join us to specialise in one particular area in which they already have prior experience. It’s a great place to work if you aren’t sure what area you want to specialise in next or if you are looking to shift your focus.
Caroline: It is true that changing careers can be challenging, and exactly the extent of the challenge will depend very much on your own profile and ambitions.
However, the vast majority of students at top schools do make some sort of change in their career. I would suggest discussing your own career goals with your target school, or with alumni of the school, if you can, and get their feedback on how realistic your plans are.
I would also say that the students I have seen who have been the most successful at achieving a major career change (e.g. professional pianist to strategy consultant) are those who have a clear vision of what they want to do, and are absolutely determined to make it happen.
Without knowing more specifics of your case, it is hard to advise further, but feel free to send me further details at email@example.com.
I´ve recently been admitted to one of the top MBA programmes in Europe. What advice would you give on financing an MBA besides scholarships/fellowships provided by the school and taking a loan? ~ Vyt
Caroline: The major sources of financing are personal savings, loans, scholarships and company sponsorships. Have you considered asking your company if they would offer any financial support? Of course this would mean that you would have an obligation to return to your employer post graduation, so you have to weigh up whether that is in your best interests.
Do make every effort you can to save before you start the programme. This may be obvious, but I have seen a few MBA students blow their savings e.g. on a fancy wedding just before they start.
Something else to bear in mind is that you need to make a conscious effort to adjust your spending habits once you are a student again. This can be difficult for some!
I did a certificate course in automotive technology in 2009 and worked as a junior automotive technician for two years in Melbourne, then I did a degree in logistics at University College Dublin. Now I want an MBA from a reputed business school in order to gain employment in top multi-national corporations around the world, but as schools require a minimum of two years post degree work experience, I have to work here in India (where I am from) for two years and also get my GMAT scores. Which business school should I apply to in 2016? And which major (stream) i should opt for? ~ Sapan Mishra
Anne: Hello Sapan, while MBAs require two years of experience, that is still a minimum. I applied to business school the first time 2.5 years after working, then after five years and again about seven years after working. I can say that comparing what I had to say after 2.5 years to my latter applications, I had a much better grasp on what I wanted to get out of my MBA, and more robust professional experiences that I could pull on and reference in my application.
The MBA is a personal decision. Admissions committees want to see that you have thought about your personal goals, what they look like in the short term and long term, how your experience to-date has helped you, what gaps you have that an MBA can help fulfill, and why their specific programme will help you get there. As such, I would not venture to say what business school to apply to in general.
There are a number of top programmes but they all have different focuses. Stanford likes to be known, for instance, for building and grooming leaders. Esade prides itself on its international diversity, MIT is highly innovative, the University of Cape Town is particularly strong in emerging markets and social impact.
I think your decision should be based on much more than simply reputation. It should be informed by your personal goals (i.e. you talk about MNCs but what MNCs? do you want to stay in the automotive industry? What roles interest you?) Figure out these questions first and then start looking at the schools that match your level of experience, desired ranking or international reputation.
Caroline: Hi Sapan, I would suggest that you first give some serious thought to your career goals – what exactly do you want to achieve, what impact do you want to have, and where do you want to be? Once you’ve developed your career vision, it will be easier for you to identify a short list of schools. You should also look into the question of visa issues, as some Indian graduates struggle to gain employment abroad due to visa restrictions. Some schools may offer more support on this issue than others.
Do look into the career stats of various schools to get a sense for which programmes may be the best fit given your career goals. If you have the opportunity, I would suggest visiting some of your potential target schools, to deepen your knowledge of the programmes and get a better feel for which community is the best for you.
But do remember that no school can “assure” you a job placement. There are no guarantees. You need to take ownership of your job search and whether you land your dream job or not really depends on you. The careers services teams can help open doors, but you are the one who has to convince a recruiter to hire you.
Charlotte: Thanks for participating everyone. More information on studying for an MBA, including how to guides, can be found in our MBA hub.
Get alerts on MBA when a new story is published