We make a living helping applicants get into the world’s most competitive business schools, law schools, and medical schools. As a result, it is fair to say that applicants’ desire to get into the world’s top graduate schools is what puts food on our plates at night. (And those plates carry all sorts of food; the Veritas Prep team includes devout vegans, die-hard carnivores, and everyone in between.) But today, we’re going to offer what at first glance may appear to be a stance that goes against our students’ ambitions, but it is definitely one that some applicants need to hear this week after getting getting rejected or waitlisted by the grad school of their dreams: the path your entire career and life will take is NOT determined by what grad school you attend!
Read it again, and make sure you take it to heart: the path your entire career and life will take are NOT determined by what grad school you attend!
Whoa, did I actually just write that? As I continue typing this, I can see the traffic to veritasprep.com dropping as I finish this very sentence. Previously-loyal fans are deserting our Facebook page by the dozens, furious applicants are leaving one-star reviews on various review pages, and our Twitter feed is turning into a veritable social media ghost town. I think I just saw an ASCII-rendered tumbleweed roll by, and I’m pretty sure the ghost of an old-timey prospector is giving me the evil eye. Regardless of the hit the Veritas Prep reputation just took, it is absolutely something that needs to be said: while a top-tier MBA, JD, or MD from the program you have your heart set on can significantly improve your career prospects, it is not the only path to accomplishing your goals in life. How successful you will be in life still depends on you, the decisions you make, and the effort you put in, more than anything else that plays a role.
Where’s all this coming from? It was prompted by an excellent pair of questions from a very thoughtful applicant. He went into the test prep and application process with a very specific, realistic goal in mind for what he wants to do after business school, and he’s currently making plans to help achieve that goal (including applying to business school this coming year). He wants to go into investment banking and is carefully considering which schools will give him the most realistic shot at landing at a blue-chip firm such as Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. He basically had two questions for me: “How hard will it be to get a blue-chip banking job at a ‘top-twenty-ish’ MBA program?” and “will a not-so-prestigious MBA hurt me my career prospects after my first post-MBA job?” While those were his specific questions, many grad school applicants find themselves thinking about very similar quandaries: “does the prestige of my grad school matter?”; “will the grad school I choose hurt my career down the road?”; and “does it really matter where I go to grad school?”
The first question is actually one that some applicants don’t ask as often as they should. Sadly, every year some students enter business school or law school under the assumption that there will always be plenty of job opportunities with a certain firm or within a specific industry, only to find out that recruiters from that company/industry don’t actually recruit much (or at all) from their school. So, the fact that he asked this question before he committed to a graduate school certainly shows an impressive level of forethought. In this applicant’s specific case, he’s considering a very good but lower-ranked school. The key factor for him is that this school is one that actually does send some grads to Wall Street every year. Despite slightly lower graduate school prestige, this business school is more likely to help him attain his goals.
The difference between the lower-ranked school he’s considering and a top-ten school is usually more in the number of jobs that those firms hand out on campus. For instance, Goldman Sachs may make dozens of offers at HBS, but that figure will be more like half a dozen at this particular school (which happens to be a much smaller program with many fewer enrolled students, too, so the ratio of jobs-per-student is better than it might appear at first glance). In his situation, he may have to hustle to get one of those few available jobs, but he seems so strong a candidate that we bet he will be able to pull it off if he opts to enroll there.
Now, for the second part of his question: assuming you go to a less prestigious graduate school and get your foot in the door at a high-caliber firm, then the rest is really up to you. That’s what many grad school applicants fail to consider: how you’ll do in your career over the long-term depends far more on how you perform and who you make connections with, rather than on what school name is on your resume. Of course, a “better” school gives you access to a “better” alumni network, which may always help in the future, but even that matters less than what experiences you gain and what accomplishments you can start to rack up in the first several years out of business school. The prestige of your graduate school may help open a door after graduation, but from there it’s up to you to choose the path your career will take – regardless of graduate school prestige.
In this way, the working world and the admissions world are not radically different: What undergraduate school you went to and what company you work for now certainly matter, but what’s even more important is what impact you’ve had on the company and the community around you. That’s a far better predictor of success in your career (and in life, for that matter!).
Before making your grad school enrollment decision based solely on how prestigious the schools to which you were admitted are, you may want to spend some time considering the answers to other questions that will affect your career after your degree:
Where do I want to this degree to take me?
Instead of focusing on the prestige of the school as a whole, consider what you’re hoping to do with your shiny new graduate degree. If you’re using grad school as a way to boost your career prospects at your current company, then the prestige of the school you attend matters less than if you wish to switch industries entirely.
Does my desired program have more prestige than the entire school?
Depending on what concentration you’re hoping to study in grad school, the prestige of the individual program may outrank the prestige of the school as a whole (for proof, compare MBA program overall rankings with specialty rankings; it’s certainly not a perfect correlation). If you have your heart set on studying and working in marketing, for instance, then targeting Northwestern may make more sense than targeting Harvard, even if the entirety of HBS is widely considered more prestigious than the entirety of Kellogg is.
How much does prestige matter in my chosen field, anyway?
If you’re applying to business, law, or medical school, then prestige is certainly a factor (though not the only one, as I hope I’ve made clear!). On the other hand, if you’re looking to attend grad school in a more academically-oriented field, such as many of the social and physical sciences, then prestige may be much less of an issue. For instance, if you’re really interested in cephalopods (and let’s be fair, octopuses are definitely cool), then targeting a school with a marine biology program that does research in that area makes more sense, even if the school as a whole is not your most prestigious option.
Does the program in question have ties to the company/industry I’d like to work for/in?
Going back to the previous applicant’s example, he found a less-prestigious program that still gave him inroads into his desired field. Do some research into career placement at the schools you’re considering; you may be surprised which ones have connections you didn’t expect.
Can I thrive at this graduate school, or am I just hoping to keep up?
Another important consideration is that just “getting in” to the prestigious school doesn’t mean that you’ll thrive there. While GPA in business or other graduate programs is much less important than it was in undergrad, you do need to keep up with the courseload, find opportunities to be a leader in organizations and on projects, stand out among applicants for jobs recruited on campus, etc. If you’re just scraping by at a truly elite school, that may not be as powerful for your job opportunities as having been a campus leader at a slightly less prestigious school might have been. Does grad school prestige matter? Yes, but your own “prestige” – level of involvement and leadership – often matters just as much or more, and sometimes that personal prestige can be harder to accomplish if you’re the smallest fish in the big pond of a prestigious school.
As you can see, there are many factors in considering which graduate schools to apply to and which one to attend. While prestige is certainly a factor for most applicants, it is not and should not be the factor. You have many important elements to consider, and you should take plenty of time to do so during the application and admissions process. If you do, you will be much more likely to make the smartest choice for your needs and goals, and in the long run, that will give you the greatest chance of achieving success during and long after grad school.