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Is a Harvard MBA Enough for McKinsey?

Okay, you got into Harvard, Wharton, INSEAD, and Oxford etc. In 2 years you will have a Harvard MBA. Don’t celebrate yet. The real battle is just beginning now.

Many candidates slave away to get into elite schools, assuming that entry into the school alone is sufficient to get into McKinsey or BCG. A Harvard MBA comes close to guaranteeing an interview but it is far from an offer.

And if all you wanted was the interview, then you just spent $150,000 for an interview. That is a sobering thought.

So getting to a good school is just the start. Once you get in, you need to be organized to succeed. In a previous post, I talked about how the type of scholarship you get matters to your future success: it can be a significant career competitive advantage. This stemmed from an even earlier post which explained why we misunderstand the competitive advantages in our careers.

But the competitive advantage occurs not for the reasons you may think. I plan to elaborate on that in this article.

Finances and confidence

It is important to understand that you need at least two assets to make it at competitive schools: finances and confidence. I realized this very early. I saw everyone falling over himself or herself just to get into the Ivy Leagues or their equivalent.

It is naïve to think the degree in itself is the accomplishment. A student unprepared and unequipped for their Harvard MBA is going to be slaughtered.

Granted, it is a great achievement to get into Harvard but if you are unprepared it is a little like being a Gladiator at the Roman Coliseum who has had his weapons taken away, hands bound behind his back, and facing hungry lions. But he is at the Coliseum, the height of his career.

This Gladiator has fought many smaller battles to get the chance to fight for his freedom at this great venue, but he is still going to die since he has too many disadvantages at the moment when it counts.

It is his choice if he wants to get eaten at the Coliseum. To me, being mauled by a lion at the Coliseum is the same as being mauled in some decrepit jungle pit, and there is no point of pride for it to happen at a great venue.

Therefore, getting into Harvard MBA program but not having the tools to be exceptional is going to hurt. You will get mauled. Your career may die before it is born.

Education is a zero-sum game in the short-term. Not many people realize this.

Every year we see the dance of the applications as thousands sit for the GMAT/GRE and apply to schools in Europe, the USA and Canada. These students have been seduced into thinking that getting in is the hardest part and if they just did, everything would click into place.

They will graduate into a middle-income life, and with some luck, proceed to an upper middle-income life.

The most unprepared students

The most unprepared students usually come from poorer backgrounds, so it is important to place this in perspective.

Did your family really spend their entire lives paying for extra tuition, mortgaging their lives, eating leftovers, investing less in the other kids, wearing hand-me-downs just so you could get a degree, even if it is a Harvard MBA, and mediocre full-time employment somewhere?

Do you really think your father wanted to be over-weight eating cheaper and less healthy food so he could save for an education that led to your average performance?

Do you really think your mother likes counting pennies so that she can spend just the right amount on bread and protect your education fund?

The answers are all “No”. No one wanted to do this but they chose to do it for you.

Therefore, how can being average by getting a degree in an average manner, albeit a great school, possibly be rationalized?

When you become the first generation in your family to attend university, your actions are not your own. You are part of a tag-team, with your family, and you need to make decisions so that the entire team benefits. You carry the weight of generations. What you do will decide your family’s legacy.

You need to get in, do your thing and tag someone else into the game. Too many students forget the last part. The more people you tag in, the less you have to carry on your own shoulders since you give others the opportunity to develop themselves.

Therefore, never let good enough be the enemy of great. Do not rationalize away mediocrity. That is the worst disease you can pick up with unprotected socializing on campus.

McKinsey hires fixed numbers per year. So does Goldman Sachs. So does BCG. It is a zero sum game. When one offer is made, another one does not magically open up.

Therefore, getting in only counts if you have the tools to succeed, and money and confidence are crucial.

Most of my friends at university were self-funded, using loans, or partial scholarships or some combination thereof. Many were smart but did not even know about corporate funding. They got in but that was just the start of the battle.

So how did this lack of funding hurt them?

I recall the throng to the lab every day around 5pm. My friends had to be at the computer lab to run the simulations for their physics models. Getting there late created many problems. There was only one printer and if you sat too far away, someone was going to take your printouts. There were not enough computers to go around so you could end up spending hours for one to become available.

Worse, if you needed to step away for more than 5 minutes, the computer automatically logged you out and indicated that the machine was available. Did I mention the nearest rest room was about 5 minutes away?

I had the confidence to request a laptop from the scholarship committee, which made my life much easier.

Ah, the days of sitting under the trees on the campus lawn in summer and building simulation models or heat displacement models.

Today, there is commentary everywhere about how privileged students from India, China, Brazil, and Mongolia etc. must now be, since they are studying at Princeton, Booth, Yale, LBS, and Oxford, etc. Yet being at a great school does not automatically level the playing fields. How the student operates in that environment matters enormously.

Let’s look at my own life as an example.

At university my life was relatively easier since everything was paid for me. I could rent my own off-campus apartment and did not have to share a place. In fact, I lived in the same building and had the same type of apartment as my physics professor.

He was a wunderkind professor but my apartment had a better view. I could buy shiny new copies of every textbook and also buy the CD-ROM versions. I could eat very good food every single day and wear relatively good clothing.

The right kind of scholarship conferred that advantage.

I even had a Siamese cat in my apartment. I did not own the cat. He just arrived one day and never left.

Even he could sense my privileged status on a guilt-scholarship.

Think about the trauma of finding an internship. That is one of the most stressful parts of student life.

I was able to arrange high-profile summer employment, if needed, through the scholarship committee relationships. I, therefore, did not have to worry about the horrors of weak internships or no internships decimating my resume.

For one summer internship I arranged to work on a feasibility study reporting directly to the EVP of Research & Development. I ended up running that study and it garnered lots of positive feedback and exposure for my career. The scholarship paid for my travel expenses each year to fly to the committee and discuss my leadership profile.

I did not need to work part-time, share textbooks, live at home and car-pool through horrible traffic.

That time saving was enormous. This is something we take for granted and something lower-income students do not have. In hind-sight, I know plenty of middle-income and upper-income clients who also do not have that advantage.

Education is just that expensive in most of the world. It just compounds the disadvantage since it leads to less time available, but having to do more in that time.

An expensive arms race for advice

My point is, and I am repeating this in multiple ways to make sure it sticks, just because you got to a good school does not mean the battle is over. It is just starting. There are tremendous difficulties and most, but certainly not all, tend to emanate from financial constraints.

I felt then, and still feel, that students assume getting in means they have won the great battle to success. It comes as a shock to many that, after getting in, they then need to engage in an expensive arms race for advice which they cannot afford and which they should not need to afford.

The arms race being dressing correctly, networking by attending expensive class trips, dinners etc. All of them add up and cost a ton of money.

It is tough to have their families mortgage their homes, if they are lucky enough to own a home, spend thousands of dollars paying for a university and then realize they need to spend even more just to compete for interviews.

For many lower-income students in my time, and certainly today, they are the only hope for their families. They are the back-up plan and the failure is not an option.

In reading this, I hope candidates think more carefully about how they will compete once they get into an elite school, and hopefully get more creative with funding themselves.

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.

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