MBA now from less-than-top-school, or later from a top school?
April 14, 2016 1:53 AM   Subscribe

Hello good folks of MeFi, I'll be a college senior later this year, and I'm having a lot of trouble deciding whether I should apply to MBA programs this fall. If you have a minute--or several, this is a long one--please give me your opinions, reality checks, and/or virtual smacks upside the head.

Here's the deal. I struggled through most of my undergrad with moderate depression, while being assured by certain trusted adults that I was "set" simply by graduating from (my university). That mindset, plus impostor syndrome and ambition-murdering confidence issues (super fun right?), means I've taken college at "Let's get through this" speed rather than "Do all the stuff and look extra good for grad school!" speed. In fact, I didn't even realize that I wanted to go to business school until just a month ago.

In a nutshell, my problem is this: As someone who will be fresh out of undergrad with no industry work experience, I do not believe myself to be a competitive enough candidate to get into a top 25 MBA program (as ranked by, say, U.S. News).

To make matters worse, when one is inexperienced, admissions committees lean harder on your academic achievements and test scores. Alas, my GPA is "okay"--it will be 3.3 when I apply and perhaps 3.5 when I graduate, and while my university is a top-5-in-the-U.S.-type-place with a rigorous reputation, my major is a relatively non-rigorous social science. For an engineering student, 3.3 might have been good. For my major, eh.

In addition, the GMAT kicked my ass both times I took a practice test. My score hovers around 620 (out of 800), which is a good 60-100 points below the 680-720 median score for top schools. It will take a few months of studying to bring it up to par, but that's no guarantee--top programs regularly reject candidates with perfect scores if they are otherwise unimpressive.

This feels frustrating. Now that I have direction and know with certainty that MBA is the path I want to take, I want my MBA (and the business school experience) as soon as possible. However, if I choose to get it sooner rather than later, chances are I won't be able to aim for a caliber of school comparable with my undergrad alma mater.

Here are some things going for me:
- Female and multiethnic--hooray, affirmative action. Most b-schools still fail to enroll more than 30% women.
- I've got an awesome essay editor whose essay-editing magic I'm pretty sure is the reason I got into my undergrad. The essays are likely to be the strongest point in my application.
- If I practice, I can be above-average-amounts-of-charming in interviews.
- Youth may perhaps be able to be spun as a positive thing for perspective/diversity.
- I'm very very excited about the prospect and possibilities of b-school, and this will be apparent in my essays and interview. I am the energetic opposite of the "Just give me my degree so I can go work for an investment bank" candidate.
- I can devote more time to studying and preparing right now than when I'm working 3 years from now.

Here are the things going against me:
- Young and inexperienced.
- Test scores will be "good enough" and GPA is "acceptable," but neither will be outstanding.
- Not a superstar--lacking an above-average amount of leadership experience. Also, no awards or scholarships or any of that.
- Small network, no one to ask to put in a good word for me.
- No money to pay for GMAT tutoring, admissions coaching, etc., which might have increased my chances.

If I do decide to defer b-school, I'll be applying at 25 with a couple years of work experience and some leadership activities under my belt.

So, MeFi, am I overestimating the influence that the school's ranking will have on what I get out of my b-school experience and my MBA in general? If I really want this education, do I just suck it up and go to a school that will take me right now? Or should I defer, work hard, and hold out for "better" connections and recruiting opportunities, more prestigious faculty, and potentially a more significant pay raise?

All opinions / "if it were me" projections are welcome. (Please do also let me know if you believe this is question is actually a false dichotomy and you know of alternatives to what I've put forth here.)
posted by blissfulchar to Education (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A good question for yourself would be: "How much is the business school academic knowledge earned by going to grad school worth to you?"

Why I ask this is that many of the top grad schools are about the post grad employment opportunities rather than any sort of academic gooblygook.

A so-so school is only going to attract some local companies, plus or minus a few bigger names. If you end up leaving business school with only the MBA and no employment... I'm sorry, but you would have wasted your time and money.

Good business programs want candidates with (relevant) work experience. A school that is okay with just your academic resume probably just wants your tuition fees.
posted by Bodrik at 2:41 AM on April 14, 2016 [13 favorites]

Yay, a "Should I go to grad school?!" question that's a slam dunk!

No, imho there's absolutely no reason to do an MBA program right now. Those programs are like 70% about the networking opportunities, and even if your now-MBA program were identical to your later-MBA program, you're much less well positioned to take advantage of networking as a downy post-undergrad than if you'd worked a few years developing some sense of who you are and where you'd like to be.

Plus, if you've worked for a few years, your employer may pay for some part of the degree.
posted by Bardolph at 3:36 AM on April 14, 2016 [15 favorites]

As someone who worked at a less-than-top business school for many years and has an MBA from another one: Better school, later. Your career prospects will be much better, and you really will get more out of the program with some practical work experience under your belt.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 3:44 AM on April 14, 2016 [10 favorites]

I recommend applying after you've been working for a few years. You might find that you don't even need or want to do the MBA anymore.

I applied for a post-graduate program in a field that I thought I really wanted to work in, but was offered a full-time job in a completely different field a week later. I ended up deferring admission to the programme to take the job, and have pretty much completely decided that I won't be enrolling once my deferral expires. My main focus is now work experience, since the struggle of being over educated but under experienced is very, very real.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 4:12 AM on April 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have an MBA from a 'meh' school. My company paid for it and I had to have my arm twisted to go. I can honestly say that the value of that degree is precisely squat. It was the vogue back in the day to get that MBA, now it's like a college degree, since everyone and his brother has one, it's pretty cheap in the market.

So start making plans to get out in the work world, build up skills and confidence, and after a few years, you can decide if it's going to be worth it to get an MBA. I posit that it won't.

My course was interesting and I learned a lot, but it hasn't really done anything for my career. Not really.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:18 AM on April 14, 2016

Best answer: Is the top school important to you because you believe the program will be better or because it will look good on your resume? I guess what I am trying to get at is whether you want an MBA to set up your own business or to work for other people. If it's to work for yourself, I think it's irrelevant and i'd choose any. If it's to work for others, I think a meh school with an internship is worth a lot. I would also choose to study 'now' because you're hungry for it. That will get you through the meh times.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 4:37 AM on April 14, 2016

Much of this depends, I think, on what you ultimately want to do career-wise. Certain business schools tend to feed into different career areas - think Wharton and Wall Street - to the point where recruiters won't even give you the time of day unless your MBA is from one of their preferred schools. I guess what I'm saying here is that there are other dimensions to consider besides the ranking of the business school. If you could provide some more information, perhaps we could give more specific advice.
posted by DrGail at 5:07 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My father is an HBS grad. He graduated from Stanford undergrad, and went straight into Harvard's MBA program (essentially choosing the route that you had hoped to have open to you right now). He was as top-flight as you could imagine for a nerdy Asian kid in the 60s. He will tell you that this route is a fucking trap, and he still wishes that he worked for a few years before getting his MBA. I took his advice and worked for three years before taking my first GMAT. I don't regret going the opposite route, but I do sometimes wish that I had worked even longer before going to grad school.

Having a foundation of real world experience can only help your MBA education. You really should try to go as far as you can in the professional world before switching to grad school. The only time when you should expedite your switch is if the world can align so that you're able to attend your program as a full-time student, because a part-time or evening MBA is a special flavor of hell.
posted by bl1nk at 5:13 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Now that I have direction and know with certainty that MBA is the path I want to take, I want my MBA (and the business school experience) as soon as possible.

Pursuing an MBA is not a path, it's a tool you use to facilitate the path you want to take. What is it that you actually want to do? Not for the two years that it takes to earn an MBA, but for the rest of your life.

The majority of top MBA programs do not take students directly from college (or take very, very few) and a lot of it has to do with what you say in your post -- you don't seem to know what you want to do with your MBA, and it's not your fault because you don't have the experience yet to figure it out. It sounds like you may also feel a little seduced right now by the fact that an MBA is a very well defined way to spend the next two years, but "get a job and figure things out" is not.

Your top-5-in-the-US school should have a career advising office with very knowledgable people and a lot of job postings that would love to hire someone like you with a degree from your name brand school. Go talk to them.
posted by telegraph at 5:16 AM on April 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

To build on telegraph's advice, does your top-5-in-the-US school have a top 25 MBA program?
If so, arrange to talk with somebody from their admissions department, Ask them what they look for in a candidate. Ask them about the application process - it will usually involve an interview component, and you'd better have good answers as to why you want an MBA. That is, what does the MBA enable you do?

The top MBA programs only rarely admit students straight out of undergrad. It will also be difficult to interact in classes and with your cohort if you don't come with some kind of work experience. Your performance in classes will be affected, because assignments tacitly assume you do have (corporate) work experience and you might not be able to pull your weight in group projects. I am speaking from my experience collaborating with faculty at a top MBA program.
posted by needled at 5:38 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

You only decided to go to business school a month ago, right before graduating. Even outside of the meh school/ brand name school issue, you should spend more time considering the amount of debt and opportunity cost you'll be taking on, especially since you have no work experience. Wait.
posted by metasarah at 5:42 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

If I do decide to defer b-school, I'll be applying at 25 with a couple years of work experience and some leadership activities under my belt.

That sounds like a great plan! I ended up doing my masters a few years later than originally planned (and ended up getting an MPH in Healthcare Admin instead of MBA), and I'm so glad I did- the extra experience in the workforce was so helpful.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:49 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I will speak from two sides, one as an applicant and the second as a graduate school representative: wait for a top ranked school. The advice given to me from my old boss, whose bona fides were very solid in this area, "If you can't get into a top ten school then don't even bother." My observations, as a member of the machine, are that good schools want students with real world experience and that an MBA program's advantages are the networks and social/cultural capital gained. People who went to a very low rent MBA program find that recruiters are not interested and that their networks from the program are awful. A low ranked MBA is just another degree and not really the pathway that many students may have hoped or expected. Further, once you are out in the world you may decide the MBA is not the optimal path to get to your desired end state.
posted by jadepearl at 6:00 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like you're having a classic senior-year freak-out. You're graduating, and it's the first time in your life when there's no clear next step, and that's kind of terrifying for most people. An awful lot of people try to solve that problem by going to some professional school that seems to provide a clear next step, and it's often a mistake. You can waste a lot of time and money, and you can end up in a career that isn't right for you, because you didn't want to confront the scary uncertainty of not having an obvious next step. So everyone is right that you're not going to get into a top business school right out of college, but you also shouldn't go to business school right now, because I don't think that you're doing it for the right reasons. I think you're doing it because you're scared, and that's not how people make good decisions.

What you should do now is aim to be in a position to get into a top business school in a couple of years. That might mean taking some classes as a non-degree student. (Did your non-rigorous social science major require a fair amount of math? My sense is that business school is pretty quantitative.) It also means getting out there and getting some experience, which your university career center should be able to help you do. And then be open to serendipity. It may be that while working towards your goal of getting into business school, you'll discover that you really want to do something else, and that's great, too.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:06 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Non-top MBA programs are low value, with the possible exception of accounting concentrations for people without undergrad accounting classes for whom they can provide access to the profession. This is not to say that there are not a lot of successful people with non-top MBAs, just that the MBA didn't have a lot to do with it.

Find out what graduates of your college have to do to get into a top school and then go do that.
posted by MattD at 6:07 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

If I do decide to defer b-school, I'll be applying at 25 with a couple years of work experience and some leadership activities under my belt.

This is the only way an MBA of any kind will be useful to you at all. The value proposition of going to a meh business school is dicey at best. The value proposition of going to a meh b-school without any experience is roughly zero.

Figure it out what you career path is. Start doing it after college. Then lay the groundwork for how an MBA will advance your career.
posted by deanc at 6:31 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Caveat - I haven't gone to business school, but I do have lots of friends and students who have. So, my advice is from the perspective of watching them from the outside. My advice would be to wait for a few reasons:

1. Pretty much everyone I've talked to about their business school experiences has said that the networking/connections are a huge part (maybe the biggest part) of the value of the experience. These are obviously going to be better at a top-ranked school. I'm sure you will be able to find great professors at lower-ranked schools, but you'll be missing out on the big-name networking opportunities, which really matter for where you'll land after you complete your degree.
2. The MBA/business school experience is 1-2 years of your life. That is REALLY SHORT in the span of your entire career. It is not an end in and of itself. You should be doing it not with the intention of getting that experience/certification, but with the really clear connection of this is what I need to advance X specific career goal. My sense is that people who go into grad programs of any sort with a vague sense of "it seems like this grad degree would be good for me" tend to flounder. Figure out what your longer term career goal is and whether/how an MBA may fit into that. Working for a few years is a great way to get this perspective.
3. Improving that GMAT score is easy money - it is definitely doable and will make a difference. There is no reason to not spend the extra time preparing for this. If you don't have the funds for a prep course, check books out of the library and just buckle down and work through them. Pretty much all standardized tests are gameable if you take the time to learn the structure/question types.
4. You seem to feel really certain that an MBA is the path forward for you, but you only figured all that out a month ago! This is not some lifelong dream you've been working toward. This is not to say that the MBA may not be the right choice for you eventually -- but there is no need to be in such a rush! Putting in the time to put forward your best possible application can only put you in a better spot.
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:49 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Get a couple years experience before applying. MBAs are much more about what you bring to the table than other grad programs and having industry experience will make your MBA courses that much more useful and relevant.
posted by sid at 7:29 AM on April 14, 2016

My last job was at a consulting company that only hired from top-tier undergrad schools (Ivies, and mostly Harvard since we were located in Cambridge). After a few years of hard work, it was expected that they would go off to get the MBA (often at HBS). If they came back and worked for a certain # of years, it was paid for by my company. You should wait, get the first year job, work your butt off, and then get your company to pay for your degree at the better school.
posted by clone boulevard at 7:34 AM on April 14, 2016

Take a breath and go work for a few years. Talk to more senior people in whatever company/companies you work in - especially people who are doing stuff you think you might want to be doing. Ask about their grad school experiences (or lack thereof). You may realize that an MBA isn't so appealing - but another graduate degree is a better fit. I graduated from a top school for undergrad and thought I wanted an MBA, but after 4-5 years working in a few different positions/functions, I realized that I didn't want to be management - so a Master's in Integrated Marketing Communications was a much, much better fit. (Basically a marketing-flavored MBA - we did the same finance, statistics, law, etc as an MBA, but were heavily focused on understanding buyers and how to align business goals with buyer needs.) There are lots and lots of paths for grad school - and you'll be happiest (and most successful) if you take the one that can fuel your interests the for 30+ years you'll work, not just 1-2 years of school itself.

Also, in my experience, GMAT/GRE scores didn't matter nearly as much when you have work experience you can talk/write about. My program gave strong preference to people who had 5+ years of working and interviewed well (and could articulate why they wanted to pursue the path) vs test scores and GPAs.
posted by writermcwriterson at 7:36 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with many of the sentiments above. An MBA is not an end in and of itself but a means to an end and your long-term goal, I imagine, is finding success in a fulfilling career. Suppose you did pursue an MBA directly after finishing your undergraduate degree. That means you'll graduate at ~25 with a BA, an MBA, and no significant professional work experience. Experience matters for employers, especially in business-oriented careers. Given the choice between hiring a 25 year-old with a BA, an MBA, and no significant professional experience or a 28 year-old with a BA, an MBA, and some professional experience, I would hire the latter job applicant easily, especially if they earned their MBA from a better school than the 25 year-old.

Also, I don't mean this to be mean so please don't take it that way but the items on your list of reasons to pursue business school now aren't that compelling. A lot of professional schools care about rankings. Test scores and GPAs are factored into rankings. Essays and interviews aren't. Youth and inexperience may not necessarily be deal-breakers but there are probably a lot of people who apply to business school right after undergrad so the admissions officers have the ability to say, we only want people who are graduating this spring if they have a 3.8+ GPA and/or a 750+ GMAT.

Plus you seem to think that you have much more passion for the field than other potential applicants. Do you know who really has a lot more passion/interest in pursuing an MBA (or at least can make a very compelling case that they do)? Someone who has been working professionally for a few years and can say with a straight face that they're prepared to quit their job, stop earning money and start paying for this thing. Unlike someone coming right from undergrad, a person with work experience can say for sure that they know they really want to earn an MBA because they know what the working world is like and they know that an MBA will help them get where they want to go in their careers.

And to go along with that, maybe after you work for a few years, you'll find that you actually don't need an advanced degree. When my husband and I were graduating, he was accepted by a prestigious grad program. He deferred and got a job. Years later, he was interviewing job applicants whose work he would be supervising. They had graduated from that same program. He has never taken additional steps towards pursuing that degree and I doubt he ever will because not having an advanced degree has never hurt his career progression.

So I vote to wait.
posted by kat518 at 7:53 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've never heard of an MBA program worth its salt that will admit students directly from undergrad with no work experience. The entire point of an MBA is to take your undergrad knowledge plus 3-5 years of work experience, and help you meld them into a coherent higher level of knowledge and business acumen. Wait. Work a while, and then decide whether an MBA is a tool to get where you want to go.

MS programs, of which there are more and more, do allow straight-from-undergrad. They're not as highly valued by employers on the other end, so caveat emptor.
posted by Liesl at 7:57 AM on April 14, 2016

For some grad school programs, it makes sense to go directly from undergrad. But for an MBA, it only makes sense after a few years of real-world work AND if it's a top-ten school.
posted by samthemander at 8:43 AM on April 14, 2016

This is an obvious slam-dunk answer. You definitely DO NOT want to be in an MBA program right out of undergrad. Use your high-quality undergrad institution and whatever network you have to get an entry-level job and figure out how the business world works and what you ultimately want to do, and then in 3-4 years you can go back and use the MBA to leverage yourself into the next stage.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:44 AM on April 14, 2016

I previously worked in admissions for a top-5, Ivy business school, and now work in admissions for another sector of the same university.

In an MBA program, what you really care about is networking, and so it actually is far more important to go to a top tier school than it is for some other fields. In fact, I would argue that it's better not to get an MBA at all if you go to anything out of the top 25 ranked b-schools.

I know this sounds a bit obnoxious, but it really is true. (This is a major part of the reason I left!)
posted by spectacularicity at 9:41 AM on April 14, 2016

Best answer: I don't have an MBA.

I think there is a case to be made for doing the MBA right away depending on your undergraduate curriculum and what kind of work you want to do. There is book-learning that is very good to know, and a lack thereof could be a drag. I'm thinking of things like bookkeeping, economics of a firm, marketing basics, etc. It's a real help to know some of these things at the beginning, because you will want to know them all eventually.

OTOH, included in the case for waiting is that it enhances the chances of targeting your education on the subjects that will be best for you, which might not call for an MBA at all.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:10 AM on April 14, 2016

Wait. Don't get your MBA right after you finish undergrad. You'll get a lot more out of it once you've been in the business world for a few years. Seriously, don't. Ask me how I know.
posted by radioamy at 10:16 AM on April 14, 2016

Do not get your MBA straight out of undergrad. Work a few years in your target industry and then enroll. Who knows -- your firm might even foot the bill.
posted by lecorbeau at 11:11 AM on April 14, 2016

Response by poster: Thank you all for your thoughtful answers! You've given me quite a lot of perspective. In particular, I didn't realize that so much of the value of an MBA was in networking and the opportunity to work for a specific employer. I was under the impression that the classes themselves (I like the idea of learning to solve business problems in a case and project-based format) had at least an equal amount of value.

Some of you are correct in that I haven't pinpointed exactly what position at what company I want coming out of an MBA. I don't think that's such a bad thing--I like to keep my options open. My interest was far more in the skillset than in a specific opportunity. I'll explain.

My long-term projection is to, as soon as possible, secure a management/strategy-type position in an industry that gets me excited about the future. I don't care for being on the front lines doing highly detail-oriented work (read: the vast majority of entry-level jobs), so I was hoping that an MBA program could prepare me for an accelerated career trajectory to an executive-level position. Beyond that, I believe that the management, leadership, and high-level decision-making skillset is my key to freedom and options in the working world; getting a head-start on attaining those things is what I was aiming for. A lot of my past depressive tendencies and "what's-the-point"-ness came from the dread of anticipating working for somebody else forever--by cultivating this skillset, I believe myself to be creating independence, enhancing survivability during tough economic times, and setting myself up to take advantage of opportunities to start my own businesses or pursue other ventures someday.

From what most of you tell me, it sounds like it'll be better for me to simply be patient. That's the direction I was leaning as well, but I wanted some objective confirmation. Thanks very much to everyone who chipped in with their two cents; I read and appreciated every one of your thoughts.
posted by blissfulchar at 4:31 PM on April 14, 2016

I don't care for being on the front lines doing highly detail-oriented work (read: the vast majority of entry-level jobs), so I was hoping that an MBA program could prepare me for an accelerated career trajectory to an executive-level position.

The entry-level stuff helps prepare you to strategize and manage; it's the foundation and it's crucial in many (most? all?) fields. You will not be an attractive candidate for the jobs you want with an MBA and no full-time work experience.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:28 AM on April 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

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