MBA value in the US and Europe

I’ve often wondered why there is such a difference between how MBAs are viewed in Europe and the US. It may be obvious, but here’s my take – it’s cultural, and the reason why lies in cheap ads.

Here’s a sign I caught while waiting in line at a currency exchange:

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Do you see that? The chap who started this little business put his name on the bottom. Keith Berkson is darn proud of being on that sign. More: if you’ve ever ridden a bus in the states, you’ll probably have noticed an LCD screen at the front pumping out cheap ads, and they’re full of these big chested characters wearing suits and big collars pointing at the screen to emphasise how much THIS product could save YOU.

That simply doesn’t happen in the UK. Our entrepreneurs, successful as they are, are almost embarrassed to be in that position. Our cheap ads consist of a cheesy voiceover, and a video of someone hammering their thumb before the Dremel Multitool comes out and saves the day.

Academically, the MBA is basically a big set of instructions in how to run a business properly. In a culture that values business so highly, it’s no surprise the MBA is also held in high regard here.

MBA Books

Here are the most awesome books I used to prep me for my MBA application. I’ve left out the dross – I heartily recommend these.

  • MBA Admissions Strategy by AV Gordon (ISBN 0-335-21890-3) – A good general WTF orientation which will give you the straight dope.
  • Great Application Essays for Business School by Paul Bodine (ISBN 0-07-145299-0) – Has a shedload of actual example essays that worked for whichever lucky bugger got in.
  • GMAT 800 by Kaplan (ISBN 0-7432-6528-9) – If you’re clever and English is your first language, forget the normal GMAT prep books – they’re too easy. This one isn’t. In fact, it’s an absolute bastard set of questions which are harder than what you’ll see on the GMAT itself. If you can ream this book, you can be fairly confident of a decent GMAT score when you get in.

Applying to a school

First of all, you need to do a GMAT. I did the Kaplan prep course – it cost me two weeks and three grand. It was good, but probably wasn’t worth the money. If you’re a hardass, you can study and take the test while you’re working. If not, take some time off (2 to 3 weeks) and get it done. Don’t get to prissy about the score – some 800s get rejected, some sub 600s get in. Generally, if you’re over about 670, you’re okay. Bear in mind that a great GMAT will go some way to mitigate a rubbish GPA.

People usually pick between 4 to 6 schools to apply to. Applying is the biggest pain in the ass, so prepare yourself. You’ll need:

  • Transcripts – get these from your college
  • References – get these from 2 – 3 people who like you
  • Essays

Some people write their own references, and get someone else to sign them. Some people work with their referees on it, like they’re essays. Some just get the referees to do it. For me, it’s probably worth involving yourself in the process, but not actually doing them yourself. Firstly, it’s goddamn obvious if you write it, and secondly it’s not very honest. Figure out what the important parts are you want to get across, and talk to your referee about them. Don’t ask the big boss who don’t really know you to do it – that’s just dumb. The admissions people are trying to find out what other people think of you, so pick someone who knows you well in a work setting, and preferably someone who likes you.

The essays are the biggest pain in the backside, and the most important part of the admissions process as a whole. Some of the questions will floor you. Write something – anything – then rewrite it again and again, stripping out the dross and keeping in the awesome. Get your friends (& maybe your referees) to read them and comment. Don’t take what they say at face value – some of them will be wrong, and all of them will be looking at it from their own point of view. Most of all, be yourself. I know that sounds like bullshit, but if you make yourself out to be someone you’re not, and you get into a college with loads of other people just like the mythical you, you’re basically screwed.

Which MBA?

If you’re not shooting high, or you need to stay very local, make sure your MBA is AMBA accredited. If it isn’t, you may as well wipe your ass with the degree certificate when you get it.

If you have the balls to go for a top MBA, do so. When you need to choose a school, bear in mind that these things mean nothing:

  • Rankings
  • Anything the school says about how it provides a rounded business education
  • Cost

Rankings really are dung. I mean, don’t face off a #2 school with a #50, but if you’re it makes diddly squat difference between #4 and#7, and once you get to #30 or so, who cares about the ranking anyway? The best advice I ever read is from “MBA Admissions Strategy”, a gem of a book by A.V. Gordon. He said, “Here’s the news. The top schools (in alphabetical order) are: Chicago, Columbia, Dartmouth, Fuqua, Harvard, Insead, Kellogg, LBS, Michigan, Sloan, Stanford, Stern and Wharton – with Haas, Johnson, Tuck, Darden, IMD and IESE also there or thereabouts. Nothing will have changed by the time you read this or five years from now.”

If you want to get all Top Gun about it – you can brag to your parents if you went to Harvard, Stanford or Wharton. If you want to brag to anyone who knows about MBAs, go to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Sloan, Columbia, Kellogg or Chicago GSB.

When you’re trying to differentiate these schools, they all drone on about how they provide a rounded education, and how you can go from this amazing school and do absolutely anything. Because they all say exactly the same thing, it really doesn’t help you choose.

Finally, ignore the course cost. I mean, going from a one year to a two year course makes a difference – but whether a course is $80k or $100k will make bugger all difference three years hence. Concentrate instead on the things that matter.

These things actually are important:

  • Location
  • Alumni destinations
  • The feel of the school

Location is obvious. Do you want to freeze your ass off in Michigan for two years, or bathe in sunshine in Berkeley? Also bear in mind that a lot of people in that college come from the local area, and will return to it when they finish. If you want to build a network in Chicago for example, GSB or Kellogg is a good option.

Check out where the alums went. Did they all go into tech startups (Stanford)? Are they all on Wall Street making egregious amounts in private equity (Wharton)? It’s a rough but reasonable indicator of the types of people you’ll be meeting there.

Lastly, the feel. This is the least tangible and THE MOST IMPORTANT thing about a school. Let’s be honest – if you go to a top school, nobody really gives a monkeys which one – you can get into McKinsey if you really want to. But different schools attract different people. You can probably figure this out for yourself – for example, schools in the Midwest tend to be a bit more relaxed, Kellogg has a big rep for marketing, Wharton is very pro “quant”, and so on and so on. The best thing for you is to GO to the schools and the introduction evenings and find out who you get on with, and who you don’t. Pick the people you feel most comfortable with – the people that make you feel like yourself. These people will be your classmates, your network and your friends for the rest of your days.

Do I need an MBA?

Let’s start at the beginning. Do you need an MBA?

Do you want to work in the US? If so, you probably do need one. US companies (and their foreign subsidiaries) look far more favourably on those with an MBA. Yes, it’s two years out of work, but it was described to me as “having a rocket up your ass” for the rest of your career. On the other hand, European companies in Europe are a little snotty about it. One director at a large company that shall remain nameless said “the MBA is not very trendy”. Admittedly he was a dick, but it’s a common feeling on this side of the pond.

Do you have a rubbish university grade / GPA? If you do, getting an MBA from a great school goes a long way to mitigate that. It proves to any employer that you’re not a bum, and you can work your ass off when required.

Are you a career switcher? If so, it’s a great idea to get a rounded business education. It’s hard to go from being a tech gimp into management – you can prove you’re clever, but you can’t prove that you know anything about marketing or finance. If you have a business background already, consider that two years of business experience could be more valuable for what you want to do.

If you answered no to all of these questions, get your ass back to work. Feel smug in the knowledge that while all those MBAs are paying out a disgusting sum of money, you’re earning it.