Human nature dictates that while engaged in a competitive MBA application process—exaggerated by the pervasiveness of rankings and the chatter surrounding them—some candidates will perceive that they are “ahead” of others because they were accepted at a top school, while others will perceive that they are “behind” their peers because they were accepted at a lower-ranked school. What is often lost amid all this worrying is that you, not your target business school, are the independent variable. You, not your target school, will determine your success.
Many regard such prestigious institutions as Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business as some sort of holy grail and believe, “All you have to do is get in and you are set for life!” This is patently wrong. Although tremendous opportunities exist for those who graduate from Harvard or Stanford, no graduate is simply given a free pass. When MBAs find summer or full-time positions at prestigious firms, they are still competing with others from many schools once they enter the workplace, where (surprise!) their individual performance—not their pedigree—then determines their success.
An mbaMission Senior Consultant recalls her MBA summer internship at J.P. Morgan. The firm had recruited students from 17 top MBA programs, and at the end of the summer, students from Wharton, Michigan Ross, UVA Darden, Texas McCombs, and NYU Stern were offered full-time positions, while students from many other schools were not. This simple anecdote features a very small sampling from one firm and one summer, but it can be an eye-opener for an MBA applicant who assumes that a top ten school is a kind of guaranteed “ticket.”
Further, a myriad of studies suggest that lower-ranked schools offer a greater return on investment than top-ranked schools. In one study sponsored by GMAC (the collective of MBA programs that administers the GMAT), data suggested that lower-ranked schools offer lower costs and higher returns over a ten-year period (185% vs. 118%). We are not saying that you should start applying exclusively to lower-ranked schools or shun Stanford or Harvard—both have excellent programs. Our point is simply that some applicants focus too exclusively on their target schools and neglect to recognize that their unique experiences, skills, and potential are what have made them competitive applicants in the first place. And these qualities will not be nullified during or after business school but will instead continue to drive them in the future.