Does School Choice Really Matter?

Clients often go crazy trying to decide what business school to choose.  While I always advise people to go to as good a school as they can get into, there is indeed much merit in having a good fit.  On the other hand, when it comes to getting a job at the end, which can be argued is the real reason we all go back to b-school, how much does it really matter where you got your degree?

Recently, a client and I were discussing their approach to the Harvard Business School application process.  This client was very excited about HBS and like many other applicants, saw himself as the perfect fit for Harvard for a variety of very good reasons.

As we began diving into his backstory and working together to organize an approach, it also came out that this person wanted to work for one of the top five investment banks after business school.  It seems part of his logic in applying to Harvard and assessing his fit for their program was that it would “look good” to these top investment banks who must of course think highly of HBS and enjoy hiring their freshly minted MBAs.

While I don’t disagree with this logic, and have certainly seen firsthand the impression HBS makes on recruiters, I also recalled a very interesting situation from my own experience being hired by a top five investment bank out of a top five business school, which reminded me of the “Big Fish in a Small Pond” idiom.

Not only was my summer internship class widely diversified across schools from the top 15 programs, my incoming hiring class was also similarly diverse across schools.  In fact, out of a class of around 50 new associates in my division, we had only one HBS grad who “made the cut.”   Now, this of course is not a statistical study of schools and firm yield, and perhaps my firm tried to hire more HBS grads who declined the offer for other opportunities, but from my own anecdotal observations, I saw no real trend or advantage for having gone to good school A vs. good school B when it came down to who was sitting in the orientation session in the end.  There was only a handful of schools who had more than one representative in the hiring class.

There are a couple of interesting takeaways here.  One moral to the story is that firms are made up of people who hire people and it’s ultimately up to the candidate to stand out as a person—your school’s clout will only get you so far.  There is a short list of “target schools” from which top firms recruit new talent and beyond attending one of those schools, there is no real advantage in the hiring process.

The other moral deals with strategy and approach.  If you want to gain an edge on a specific firm or industry, take a look at how many graduates from your MBA program go into that industry and work for that firm.  If you go to a school where your target firm recruits but there are not as many trying for that job, you could have a simple mathematical edge vs. a school where you are competing against dozens for the same job.  Sometimes it pays off to be the big fish in the small pond.

In short, if you don’t get in HBS, don’t fret, you may end up having an advantage in the hiring process, which is really why you are going to b-school in the first place, right?