Go Where the Opportunity Lies: Master’s Programs

You took the Veritas Prep Full Course and you just nailed the GMAT on your first try. You’re chest-bumping the rest of your 2nd-year analyst team at J.T. Marlin while the NASDAQ drops it like its hot. You just did a five-point take-down on the biggest standardized test of your life. Your 760 tells the rest of the world that you’re 99% sharper than the other knives in the drawer and good enough for the top quarter of HBS’s incoming class. You’re pretty darn swoll and you’re making your way up to a deluxe top ten MBA program in the sky.

As you kick back in your Herman Miller Aeron, you imagine moving beyond your humble and current 28% tax bracket. As you dream of sunny days, chrome spinnin’ and moving beyond DUMBO into SoHo, your Managing Partner’s assistant’s assistant calls you over. He whispers, “Mr. Gecko would like to see you in his office in five minutes, please do not be late.” Four minutes and fifty seconds later you find your polyestor/wool blend wearing glutes in a leather chair that resembles part baseball glove, part Angelo Mozillo. Mr. Gecko’s perfectly parted hair, Barney’s New York suit and Shell cordovan shoes are a perfect reflection of you and your MBA in 25 years.

You think it must be your lucky day nailing the GMAT and finally getting promoted ahead of your class. As the Gecko starts rattling on a little too long about your potential, contributions and unusually white teeth, it hits you like Maximum Overdrive. You’re being given the chance to succeed elsewhere. Like something that is truly loved, you are being set free. Except you ain’t comin’ back, you ain’t never comin’ back as Andre Young so eloquently put it. Not only are you getting laid off but your MBA hopes and dreams are sinking faster than LTCM. Suddenly that chrome spinnin’ looks more hubcap than plated alloy.

As your fist-bumps turn into that time you got dumped, know that admissions committees understand that it hits the fan. Veritas Prep has put out a pretty slick guide for laid off professionals that addresses the nuances of being liberated from your current profession. While getting laid off does not put you out of the running, it can make you less competitive if the weeks of unemployment drag into months. If you can find a significant extracurricular activity that can show your continued progression, that’s good. If you can find another job, that may be good to great. Just be aware that this new job, given it’s brevity and perhaps urgency, may be unlikely to serve as a showcase for continued professional progression. Basically, you got right-sized, you needed a new gig and you got one. Admissions committees are empathetic to a certain point but in some cases it’s a hard sell to convince them otherwise.

Admissions committees are well aware of the business environment and are in the unique position of serving as gatekeepers for both MBA programs and recruiters. GMAC surveys admissions committee members every year and their research is publically available for download. One interesting report details MBA applicant trends for the 2008 MBA-hunting season. Only applications at full-time MBA programs were significantly up. Part-time and executive MBA programs were basically flat, year over year. This GMAC report also details the acceptance and matriculation rates for other types of master’s programs that utilize the GMAT as an entrance requirement. This includes master’s programs in accounting and finance that create a deep domain expertise within these subject matter areas. These master’s programs also tend to run shorter in duration and may result in a more compelling ROI than a two-year investment at an full time MBA program. The good news; full time acceptance rates at these alternative master’s programs are higher than full time MBA programs.

So if you find yourself pounding the pavement, resume in hand, there is a thin line of hope between fries and shakes. I encourage MBA applicants to think outside of the box when evaluating graduate degrees. Consider this; as recent MBA graduates continue to flood the job market, recruiters are going to place a heavy emphasis on specialized skills that will make these graduates immediately employable. This means that the generalist acumen that many MBA graduates possess may not be enough to convince recruiters that they have the skills to pay the bills. Recruiters and employers want to know you are a known quantity. Within an uncertain business environment, firms want to know that you can come up the curve in days, not weeks or months. It’s a brave new world out there; experience, expertise and execution may count even more on day one than an MBA business plan or case study.

So this is my bottom line advice, go where the opportunity lies. Don’t complain, just adjust and check your current MBA hoop dreams at the door. For example, if you can get another great job, apply to part time or executive MBA programs as applications are flat and admissions requirements are generally easier than full time programs. If you can not find another great job, apply to your desired MBA programs knowing your chances for admission may be diminished. However, hedge your bets by applying to several alternative master’s degree programs. Yes, it’s somewhat non-traditional but think better ROI, deeper domain expertise and higher acceptance rates.

Paul Lanzillotti | Veritas Prep