5 Secrets to Maximize Your MBA Investment

It’s been nearly 5 years since I graduated from Northwestern (Kellogg)’s MBA program; I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on business school and consider its true importance as I finally get close to paying off my six digit student loan.

(Image of the Global Hub building taken from Kellogg’s web site)

Here’s what I would tell anyone looking to start on their own quest for huge paychecks, debt, and a life of constant comparison to your peers:

1) Go as early as possible.

I started at Kellogg with 10 years of multinational work experience, 7 years of people management experience, and a few years of true (small startup) executive experience. All that does not matter in the context of business schools, however. MBA programs are optimized to give students opportunities into template big corporate roles such as product manager and consultant. If you want one of these roles, fantastic. Big brand-name companies will be coming on campus with these roles to recruit you. If you do not, however, you’re on your own. Since so many people come to business school looking to change careers, this makes sense – if you couldn’t work in tech without a background in tech, for example, business school would lose most of its appeal.

Thus, since everyone going to Business School can compete for the same jobs, regardless of their pasts, extra experience does not matter. Conventional wisdom suggests the more you experience you have, the more you can get out of the education. Theoretically, that’s true. But Business School…is a business, and the first step into having a business mindset is understanding return of investment and opportunity cost. Like reading a book, you’re not going to retain much of what you learned over the program. If you can hold on to 10 lessons 5 years after graduation, I would be impressed.

You are in Business School to rebrand yourself as a top-tier business professional. When I went to school, there were a number of younger candidates who were only a couple of years out of undergrad. However, they competed for (and got) the same jobs versus others with much more work experience. If you can work two years and get a $150K offer, that’s much better than working five years for the same offer. You’ve accelerated your career faster and spent less time making less money. In my case, I learned that all my extra experience and stress-honed skills weren’t worth even an extra dollar for the typical MBA role.

Schools including Stanford even have programs to allow you to apply as an undergrad.

2) Go to the most famous school you can…..

In the most recent rankings of U.S. business schools, Kellogg is ranked 2nd by The Economist,[56] 3rd by U.S. News & World Report,[57] and 3rd by Forbes.[58] In addition, Kellogg MBA has consistently been ranked 1st in Marketing by U.S News & World Report.[59]

Oh, is Kellogg ranked (quote from Wikipedia) so high? That’s in the world you say? Oh wow. I must be super good at this “business” thing then. Plus, I majored in marketing. #humblebrag

The reality is rankings don’t matter. No one knows what the rankings are unless you’re applying or currently in the program. It’s really about brand. Ask a random person where you should go to Business School – Harvard or Northwestern. Everyone will say Harvard. If you have a chance to go to Harvard, I don’t care how much you care about Marketing, go to Harvard. Plus, just because you focused on Marketing in your MBA, that does not mean you won’t gravitate towards something else down the road.

Here’s my personal sense of school brand prestige, your perception may vary.

Tier 1:

Stanford / Harvard

Tier 2:

UPenn (Wharton) / U of Chicago / Northwestern (Kellogg) / MIT (Sloan)

Tier 3:

Columbia / UC Berkeley (Haas).

If you’re an M7 fanboy and want to move Columbia or add some Ivy League schools to Tiers 2 and 3, go ahead. I won’t even be offended if you think Kellogg is tier 3 – a friend once told me that Kellogg is only known by people who went to business school. Go to the school, not necessarily the Business School, that’s most famous / in the highest tier.

In pure brand, I admit I’d rank Northwestern possibly in Tier 4, perhaps because I’m from the West Coast. Northwestern could outrank Harvard in Business School for the next ten years straight, but there’s a different longstanding perception (in academic pedigree) of someone who went to Harvard vs someone who went to Northwestern. Challenge me if you disagree. I went to UC Berkeley, perhaps the best public school in the world, but I still can feel a bit intimidated if I’m in the room with someone from Harvard. Tying your personal brand to the school brand helps you to anchor someone that you meet that you’re someone important. If you have to explain why you’re important, it’s too late.

Another way to think of it is that when people hear you work for Google, they’re generally impressed. “She must be the best of the best – I’ve heard how many people want to get in there and about the great compensation + benefits they have”.  There’s even a special term for ex Googlers. Even though there are plenty of mediocre people that work and have worked at Google, that association gives you the benefit of the doubt most of the time.

The bigger thing to remember about rankings is that no one knows if you would be better educated going to X school versus Y. There is no objective test, no clinical trial. The only thing you can rely on is a school’s brand and its history of maintaining its brand.

As another friend told me, brands are a filter to help someone appraise you in a few seconds. Pick the best brand, screw the best fit.

Unless you can go to a school that’s in the geographic area you want to be in post-grad…

Northwestern sends many people into tech now. They’ve had to adapt to what their students want, and thus they also opened an immersion quarter in San Francisco recently, similar to Wharton’s own program.

That said about tiers, if I wanted to work in tech, I’d be willing to sacrifice a tier to go to school in the Bay Area. That means I’d choose UC Berkeley > Kellogg, particularly if I’m not from the Bay Area or don’t have a background in tech. To find special opportunities, not the same MBA role that’s offered at every top tier school, you need to be close to the people that are going to hire you. Being in the local market gives you more time to expand your network, impress people, and gain access to those opportunities.

Then re-shift and make your own tiers based on your target factors (location, industry, etc.).

I’m not sure if this is still true, but during my time, Kellogg’s brand was really weak in Asia, especially in China. UCLA, however, was extremely famous there. UCLA’s Anderson School of Management might be a couple of tiers below Kellogg in any ranking, but if you’re looking to work in China, you should seriously consider UCLA instead.

It doesn’t matter how many links to rankings you share with a hiring manager, they’re not going to care. That’s why you’re investing in the school’s brand, to get you through gates faster.

3) Go part-time, it’s easier.

Most MBA programs, top tier or otherwise, are well over six digit investments. Is that worth it for a school that’s not known (will not help you anchor someone with the perception that you’re great) outside its region? I’d argue you that once you get out of the top 15, surely top 25 business schools, there’s a serious question of how much this degree will help you.

That’s why I suggest going part-time. Sure, you won’t get to party the same way and working while going to school for at least three years requires extreme focus, especially if you have any semblance of a family. However, it is much easier to get into the part-time programs and your long term financials will be better since you will still be working. I haven’t looked into this in detail recently, but I believe the difference of getting into part-time is at least a magnitude of one tier, and perhaps even two. That means the choice could be between full-time at the University of Texas, Austin or part-time at Northwestern.

There is no career penalty, bias, or stigma against part-timers.

4) Don’t bother with an MBA if you’re focused on early-stage startups.

Want to start something new or join an early stage (Seed, Series A with less than 30 people) startup? That’s basically the story of my entire career.

Working at an early stage startup is about understanding how you start from zero with little resources, support, or best practices to guide you. I do not suggest Business School for this, particularly if you’re going to come out of a program with student debt. Large debt can quickly damper any excitement you have to take on more career risk.

Speaking from someone who has experience at the early stage startup and an MBA, if an MBA came to me looking for work, I’d have two concerns:

  1. Can this person thrive on their own?
  2. How much money does this person expect? We can’t pay them that.
  3. I do not want someone looking at my company as a two year gap to something more prestigious.

5) Don’t bother going to Europe.

I thought about INSEAD and London Business School once upon a time. Having grown up in the US, and then working in Asia for many years, I thought it would be fun to check out Europe.

For my career, I am glad I didn’t. European companies do not value MBAs as much as their American counterparts and European schools simply aren’t known in the US – go ask a normal person if they know INSEAD.

I’ll reiterate: get your MBA at the most famous US school you can.

My wife went to IE Business School in Madrid, which is consistently ranked among the top 10 business schools in Europe. Remember what I said about sharing links to rankings to hiring managers? That would have been the case here in the US – no one knew about IE, thus her MBA was no better than any other generic MBA. Making things worse, there was a limited alumni network she could tap into to land a good role as everyone was too disbursed.

When schools talk about how great it is to have diversity in nationalities in student classes, this only pays off for you if most of the those students stay in the same area post-MBA. Otherwise, how else can you depend on alumni for help if they go back to the 100 different countries they came from? I have found that top-tier MBA students want to stay to work in the US because it’s the country that best compensates them for their new skills.

Bonus: About those networks.

I always hear how people go to business school to build personal networks. I think what that means is “I want to make new friends as an adult”. That’s perfectly fine, but I feel that almost everyone is missing out on obvious opportunities during the process. The alumni you interview with to get into the school, the ones you reach out to to learn about the school, or the ones you ask for connections and referrals into your desired companies – these are all people you should stay connected and give updates to. These people are already years ahead of you and can give information and insight far beyond anyone in your class. I always encourage people I talk to to let me know how they’re doing in the future, but no one ever does. Instead, it’s a cycle of “let me use this person for what I need now and just ignore building that potential relationship”. If people didn’t care, they wouldn’t talk to you in the first place, and as long as someone isn’t making demands of me, I’m always happy to hear how someone is doing. Older alumni needs friends too….

Alright! 5 steps and I even threw in a bonus too. I’ll end it here and hope I was able to help you frame your decision about Business School in a different way.

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