The Blue Star System for a Top Twenty MBA Admisson, an International Perspective



    I. Overview

    II. One Year or Two

    III. An International Perspective

    IV. Regional Orientation

     V. Alternatives

    VI. Application and Admission

         1) Your Grades

         2) The GMAT

         3) The Essays

         4) Letters of Recommendation

   VII. Humor - High Risk, High Return

         1) Urban Legends

  VIII. A Step-by-step Action Worksheet



I. Overview

    The “real” professions such as engineering, accounting, law and medicine have stiff national licensing requirements. MBAs (Masters in Business Administration), Management Consultants and Executive Coaches do not. So is an MBA worth pursuing? And if so, where? The traditional U.S? Catching-up, no, caught-up Europe? Emerging India? How about playing the China card? (This last option is treated separately as Appendix I, below the footnotes.)

    The answer to the lead question of whether to pursue an MBA is a loud, clear and resounding MAYBE. On a scale between "must have" and "nice to have," it will certainly rank much higher for a career in a large corporation than for starting your own business. For an amusing viewpoint on its relevance to Silicon Valley type start-ups, look at the short YouTube video (2:38) "To get an MBA or not" by Guy Kawasaki, an entrepreneur and founder of the venture capitalist firm Garage Technology Ventures Inc.

    For those of you who already know you want an MBA the relevant question may be whether to get help to prepare the application from an advisor, mentor -- or paid consultant. The latter is a grey area, which all too easily moves into the charcoal grey of unethical co-writing and the pitch black of outright fraud. It is therefore rightly frowned upon. As a faculty member I have not only encouraged various students to apply to top schools but also assisted a select few on the journey.

    Guidance and support on "how best to prepare for the GMATS, how best to apply" is one thing; creating an application avatar for someone that not even his own mother could recognize quite another. Regardless, the right advice can make a substantial difference, especially for non-Americans applying to U.S. schools. Not all advisors are created equal and fees can be substantial, caveat emptor.

    A good place to start for advice on top schools is the MBA podcaster, an on-line resource. Some of the ten minute "Getting into name of school" videos it produces seem to have more emphasis on PR for the school than help for admissions. Still, viewing them certainly won't hurt, the one for Stanford  being one of the better ones.

    Three of the admissions firms, which at least offer qualified teams are MBA mission (as of 2010 with fees around $3,500),  Inside MBA admissions  (with fees somewhat less) and Accepted. Accepted also offers services for law and medical school admissions. Interestingly, it adjusts its prices for MBA assitance by school. M.I.T., Harvard and Stanford come in around $3600, but assitance for some other schools is offered at $2,000, e.g. IESE in Barcelona, also a top program.

    Similar to advisors, not all business, management science and MBA programs are created equal either. Initially, all such programs had much to offer. However they have mushroomed since their inception, with a severe impact on the range of quality. ECSP, established in 1819, is probably the oldest business school in Europe, and certainly the oldest in France.

    The first business school in the U.S. was Wharton, established in 1881 at the University of Pennsylvania (founded by Benjamin Franklin). Next were the business schools at the University of Chicago and the University of California, both founded in 1899, followed in the next decade by Dartmouth´s Amos Tuck School in 1900 and two in 1908: New York University´s Stern School and Harvard Business School. INSEAD in France is often credited with offering Europe´s first "full U.S. type" MBA in 1957. 

    Of the 2300+ colleges and universities in the U.S., about 450 offer MBA programs. The difference between a top ten school (Harvard, Stanford and Wharton being the perennial “Big Three,” along with the relative newcomer London Business School as a contender for primus inter pares) and a school in the second half, let alone at the bottom, is huge – in terms of quality of education offered, average quality of student attending (genius students do surface from time to time anyplace, even from the least demanding, unaccredited “junkyard” programs), and quality of outcome, i.e. job offers and starting salaries.

    The major investment in a top twenty school is worthwhile, beyond doubt. The average starting salaries of some leading MBA schools are given below. Note that the best candidates receive substantially more than “average,” typically a quarter or a third more. Some outliers will receive over half again as much, including signing bonuses and help in paying off student loans. Also note that these salaries reflect the global, and above all, national, economy at that time.

    Ranking five of the top U.S. schools in terms of average salary (2008)1

            Stanford Business School             $167,225

            Wharton (U. of Penn.)                  $165,859

            Columbia Business School            $165,123

            Harvard Business School              $162,316

            M.I.T. (Sloan)                              $155,160

    Salaries from the top schools in Europe were not far off this mark:

            INSEAD (France/Singapore)         $146,878

            London Business School (U.K.)     $144,198

Furthermore, since 2008 the Euro has risen dramatically against the dollar.

    A 2011 ranking by U.S. News & World Report for the top four U.S. programs is:


           Havard Business School

           M.I.T. (Sloan)

           Wharton (University of Pennsylvania)

(M.I.T. and Stanford took the 1st and 2nd places in engineering, with Berkeley 3rd.) Such rankings create a nice loop. The high ranking schools attract the best students, who create high rankings. I once overheard a Dean at M.I.T. make an interesting private remark. "We have a great product. We admit the best. What we do with them while they are here is irrelevant. After their years here, they will still be among the best. These students are so motivated and competitive, we could put wooden Indians in front of them as professors, and it would not matter. They´d continue to go off to the library to study night and day on their own anyway. The fact that we have some professors who are great teachers is just icing on the cake."

    In short, at any of the top 20 or so schools, you are buying a premium, blue chip stock, and paying the market price for it. If you have what it takes to be admitted (cf. admissions, below), this route is the one to take.

    Penny stocks are to be avoided. They are unlikely to be worth the purchase price. But outside of the top 20 there are a large number of good stocks. You want to do the research to be able to “buy a good stock cheap” – one that will go up in value, i.e. that will serve as a springboard for your career advancement, even it does not have the “power branding” of a name like Harvard.

    Funding this investment is beyond the scope of these introductory comments. Some of the leading schools such as Harvard and Stanford are fabulously wealthy, with multibillion dollar endowments. Their own scholarships are available to quite a few, and student loans to many (especially for low risk categories such as business (MBA), engineering, legal and medical studies).

    For other funding, begin with the major outside scholarships, such as Erasmus for Europe and Fulbright for studies in the U.S. Fulbright operates in 155 countries and awards 7,500 grants a year. In 2008 its funding was $215 million from the U.S. and $60 million from other countries. After researching the majors, start building your own database on obscure, little known scholarships early. Try to write or E-Mail previous winners to get some suggestions on what it takes to win.

    When I pursued an MBA (decades ago), I was financially in good shape, but not at all confident of securing admission anywhere, let alone to an elite program. The reason for the lack of confidence was an appalling undergraduate performance. (It included flunking out of or being expelled from eight (!) different colleges, a "lie of omission" to this very day on the resume. A partial example is given at Testimonials at the first of the "Losses." When I finally did obtain a Bachelors, my performance probably ranked me flat dead last in the class. I was a "1 in 1000" -  in the wrong direction!)

    To discover a “good stock cheap” I examined two areas: 1) universities with exceptional law schools, but new to the MBA market and 2) programs newly established outside the U.S. I discovered the then inaugural programs at Yale University and Notre Dame (both famous for exceptional law schools) and, overseas, London Business School (U.K.) and IESE (Barcelona, Spain). Interestingly, both European schools have since become world-class. In fact the Financial Times review of MBA programs ranked London Business School, jointly with Wharton, as #1, and IESE as 11th, in 2009 and 2010. 

    Two schools to look into nowadays which may be “stocks on the rise” are the MBA program at Babson College in Mass., which focuses on entrepreneurship, and the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at Claremont College, CA. (Peter Drucker turned down chairs at both Harvard and Stanford, instead choosing to be a professor at Claremont at its business school, named in his honor.)



II. One year or two

    A two-year program offers major advantages: the summer internship, the chance to write a solidly researched MBA thesis (tied in to the job search), and, for non-native speakers of English, a major gain in language competence. A one-year program really only makes sense if the following conditions are met:

      1) One has a strong business oriented academic background through studies (an undergraduate degree) in ind ustrial engineering, accounting, business administration, law, or to a lesser extent, in mathematics, physics or another engineering discipline.

OR 2) One has a solid graduate degree (Masters, PhD) that is the primary career driver, and the MBA is just an add-on. (In this case, a distance learning program may well be a good choice. An accredited program with excellent learning materials is that of the Open University in the UK. And it has open admissions, no pesky GMATs!)

OR 3) One has three or four, better, six, seven or more years work experience.

     4) One’s English is already excellent.

     5) One has high GMATs, i.e. can work, learn quickly. (The GMATs are a speed test.)               

    But does one not have to meet these conditions to apply to a top two-year program?

    Not really. Some examples: if your quantitative score in the GMAT is in the rare category (99%+), M.I.T. will give a candidate from, say, the University of Tokyo a break on just how good his English needs to be upon arrival. Harvard really does not care what your undergraduate field of study was - better an honors student of Sanskrit than ordinary grades as an accountant or economist.

    With an exceptional academic background and test scores, Wharton and Stanford will often (but Harvard rarely) admit someone with hardly any work experience.

    Hult International Business School (cf. one year MBA programs below) will admit candidates with low GMAT scores who have solid work experience.

    Although most MBA programs that do not require the GMATs are to be avoided, a few exceptions do exist, such as the program at ESCP mentioned in the paragraph below, which, at least as of 2009, apparently did not require them.


III. An international perspective

    To delimit further deliberations to manageable proportions, the focus here is international. Two areas not considered at all, where one may well indeed find a “good stock cheap,” are Australia and India (e.g. the Indian Institutes of Management). In Europe the leading two-year programs include London Business School and IESE in Barcelona, Spain. One may also mention ESCP Europe, part of the elite French Grandes Écoles system, with campuses in Paris, London, Madrid, Berlin and Turin. It does not require work experience (or apparently the GMAT either). Therefore it will have, in contrast to the leading U.S. programs, few students over thirty.

    A relative newcomer to the elite programs is the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, It is further discussed in Appendix I, The China card, following the footnotes.

    The leading one-year programs include the Judge School of Business at Cambridge University, U.K., INSEAD of France, which also has a campus in Singapore, and Hult International Business School, formerly (from 1964 to 2003) Arthur D. Little´s Management Education Institute. Hult has U.S. campuses in Boston and San Francisco and other ones in London, Dubai and Shanghai. 

    Which full (i.e. two-year) MBA programs are internationally oriented in the U.S.? Two excellent programs with intensive language instruction are the Lauder Program of Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania, and the IMBA program (formerly MIBS) at the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business, Columbia, S.C. The latter program entails two-year tracks for European languages and three-year tracks for difficult ones, such as Arabic, Japanese and Chinese, in which case one would spend about a year in the target country. Starting salaries for the Lauder/Wharton graduates will be substantially higher than for those from Moore, even though the Moore School program has consistently ranked number one for an international MBA in various polls for twenty years now. This “placement gap” can be extreme in fields such as investment banking and management consultancy, as the footnote below elaborates.[2] 


IV. Regional Orientation

Pacific Rim: Besides the China Europe International Business School mentioned above, M.I.T. and Stanford would be among the schools to look at. M.I.T. is actively developing its relationships with Chinese universities and has an extensive program for learning Mandarin. Further information about such options is given below in Appendix I, The China Card.



Europe: Besides the excellent programs in Europe itself (including ones in the Netherlands and Italy) there are U.S. schools with a European orientation.  Harvard is one example, along with Columbia Business School and the Stern School at New York University, the latter two in part because of their location in New York City, the most international U.S. city.


U.S.: For those more interested in U.S. business, there are a plethora of additional schools to consider. Three of the best, all of which give due consideration to global business, are the Amos Tuck School at Dartmouth University (corporate strategy), the University of Chicago (finance) and Kellog at Northwestern University (marketing).


V. Alternatives

“There is more than one way to skin a cat."

    In the U.S. the first question is not so much what you studied, but where. Essentially all students at elite schools such as, on the East coast, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, M.I.T., in the Midwest, the U. of Chicago, and, on the West coast, Berkeley, Stanford and Cal Tech, were stars at making it through an extraordinarily competitive admissions process.[3] The chances are high that the student falls somewhere between “bright and studious” to “near genius who never sleeps.” What counts is that one’s last degree is elite. Therefore many people ratchet their way up: no-name undergraduate, solid second tier Masters, upwards and onwards to the elite concluding Masters or PhD. That is one approach to consider.

    Another is the “sideways” career entry based on a top school Masters that is not in business or management. For instance, there are three excellent programs in International Relations, which can provide a springboard for a career in certain fields beyond diplomacy, e.g. investment banking, and, with some extra effort, consulting as well. The degrees do not have as broad a reach as an MBA, but may well suffice. 

    These programs are the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, SAIS (School of Advanced International Studies) at Johns Hopkins University and The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University.  



    VI. Application and Admission

    A standard joke at the top schools is that the common denominator to the submissions of successful applicants is that “they were written in ink made from their own blood.” In other words, the applicant showed that he really wanted to attend. A frequent paragraph in the essays is something along the lines of: The first time I skipped a grade, when I was eight years old, the teacher said:  “Someday he’ll go to (Harvard, M.I.T., Stanford, etc.)” Ever since then that has been my dream. Therefore at the age of eight I already began to. . . (make vocabulary lists, set myself extra math problems, etc.)

    Not understanding the admissions process (of which the above is a key element) is a major reason top candidates (especially foreign ones) get rejected by elite U.S. schools. The admissions process is based on an application package – (1) grades,  (2) test scores (GMAT and TOEFL),  (3) essays and (4) letters of recommendation. A fifth component which sometimes is added is an interview. 

    Before considering the application package, realize how the applications are screened. At some universities, the first person to read it may well be a graduate student. Beware of offending or confusing her! She is really busy, stressed out, and needs to screen out the large pile of “rejects” quickly so as to have time to consider the “maybes” more carefully. The "probables" and "maybes" move forward to get screened by the formal admissions committee made up of professors.


1) Your grades 

     Do not assume they will be understood. A “first” in geography in Germany (a five or six year course of study) might put you in the top 15% of your class – pretty good. Get the exact same marks for a “first” in law (also a five or six year course) and you probably will be the only person in the entire graduating law class to have achieved it in years. People in the U.S. reviewing applications are unlikely to know that. They will also not know the difference between the Technical University Munich (TUM) and the Munich University of Applied Sciences (die FHS München)[4], let alone the ranking of a university in Korea, China, Japan, India, France, Spain, Italy, Russia, Brazil, etc.


2) The GMAT (Graduate Management Aptitude Test)

     This test consists of a verbal and a quantitative section, and is, if not completely learnable, certainly improvable. Many people study for it on their own for a few weeks, or take an intensive crash course for it, such as those by Kaplan Test Prep and The Princeton Review. Both approaches help, but major improvement is not a function of 50 or so hours of practice. You are not likely to take your knowledge of a foreign language (e.g. English) to the next level with, say, a month in England or the U.S. Spend a year or two there, and then you will see real results. 

    If you are not a natural at such speed tests, spending some hours every day preparing over a period of six months or so (above and beyond a prep course) will at least get your timing down. The learning curve tends to flatten out on the quantitative section much faster than the verbal section for those who are not native speakers of English.

    If your academic performance were poor, the top schools will forgive you that, properly explained away in the essays, if your GMAT scores are high. The other direction is more difficult. When reviewers look at high grades and low GMAT scores, the natural conclusion is that the grades reflect easy standards at an undemanding program.

    There is some good news about the GMATs if you are applying to a top school. In the old days of the written GMATs, there were the "Big Three" (Harvard, Stanford and Wharton) as permanent members of the "Fabulous Five."  The other two places varied from year to year, with schools such as M.I.T. and the University of Chicago sometimes making it, sometimes not. The now world-class programs at London Business School and IESE were not even contenders.

    That meant that the competition for entry at the very top schools, at least in terms of GMAT scores, was tougher. In those days the average GMATs for these schools was 97% or 98%; nowadays it hovers around 700, i.e. 90%. Stanford is a striking example of "GMAT decay."  Its entering class of 200 in 1974 attracted attention by averaging slightly over  the minimum score for 99%. The average was equivalent to a score of 770 on the computerized test today. In other words if you scored "just barely" 99% (750), you would have been below average that year at Stanford. In striking contract, the 2010 MBA class averaged 96% (730, normalized, a 40 point drop). Still, Stanford did attract some 800s, which is still difficult to get. Of 300,000 people a year who take the test, I have seen numbers between 20 and 50 for how many hit 800, i.e. somewhere between 1 in 15,000 and 1 in 6,000.

    Two reasons contribute to the decline in average GMAT scores at the top schools. First, there are now a "Dynamic Dozen" elite MBA programs instead of the old "Fabulous Five." More than double the number of schools are competing for the very best students.

    Second, the schools themselves have gotten bigger. Currently, Stanford admits some 380 students versus 200 in the past. If you removed "the "weak and the lame" who constitute the bottom half of the class, presumably the remaining 190 would also average out at 99%.


    2.1 - TOEFL Test of English as a Foreign Language

     American institutions have a lot of trouble with the concept "foreign." I had thought my experience with TOEFL was unique. However my own ludicrous story can be topped. When I applied for my MBA, I was living in Germany. I had had mixed feelings about applying to Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania. I had done my undergraduate work at Penn., and not really liked it there all that much. Still, I had a couple of contacts there, which I thought would improve my chances of admission. And it was, after all, a top school.

    I received a letter that my application was incomplete. My TOEFL score was missing.  I telephoned to ask if they had lost their collective minds. I was an American. My Bachelors was from their very own university. I had scored 99% on the GMATs, including 99% on the verbal, I humbly pointed out. I needed to submit a TOEFL to serve what purpose? I was told all applications from abroad had to include a TOEFL score. I had mailed my application from Germany. Therefore I had to submit it.

    On reflection, I decided I´d pass, save myself some money and hassle. If my application were good enough for Wharton, I´d probably make it into another top school anyway. Regardless, a TOEFL score, great, good, average or awful, was hardly going to make the "accept/decline" difference.

    The above story sets no records for U.S. bureaucracy being dismayed and confounded by the concept "foreign." A rather upper class, strikingly blond Englishman told me of his own experience with TOEFL. He graduated with a 1st in philosophy from a university in England in the 1980s. He was admitted to a PhD program in his field at a Big Ten university in the U.S. (These are solid, second tier universities, among them major schools such as Purdue and Ohio State.) Upon arriving, he called in at the administration office to check on his scholarship funding.

    An assitant there was quite upset. The Englishman was told he had been admitted in error. His funds were therefore blocked. His application was incomplete. He had not submitted a TOEFL score to prove he knew English well enough to pursue doctoral studies in America.

    But, he spluttered, he was from England. The assistant explained to him that all foreignors had to take the test. England was a foreign country. Therefore he had to take the test. Besides there were lots of people in England, for instance from China, who did not know English particularly well. However, if his major had been English, perhaps an exception could be made, otherwise not.

    The Englishman, who had scored 99% in the verbal section of the GREs,* was not amused. He went to the Dean and said "no." The Dean calmed him down, and arranged for him to be granted a waiver.

    But, you object, these examples are from decades ago, when TVs were still being made in America. (Now all TVs that are in America were manufactured in Asia.) Surely America has become more internationally oriented since then? Let us take Stanford Business School as an example. Here is a quote from its website (2011), honest, no joking:


"Ning from China got her undergraduate degree in London and is not required to take the TOEFL-IELTS-PTE because the language of instruction was English. James from the United Kingdom went to Germany for his undergraduate (sic) studies and is required to take the TOEFL-IELTS-PTE (even though he is a native English speaker) because the language of instruction at the univerity was German."


    First point: now there are some private schools in Germany where one can earn a Bachelors, but these are almost invariably programs in English, some accredited, some not. If you studied in German, you almost certainly went through the (normal) national university system. You studied your one subject for five to seven years, and sat a cumulative examination. Upon passing it you received a "Diplom," which is a Masters. Otherwise you attended and left without any degree at all. Therefore you are hardly going to be applying to Stanford Business School on the basis of your "undergraduate studies in German," i.e. as a college drop-out, but rather as someone who already has a Masters.

    Second point: a great many native speakers who would score 99% on the TOEFL would not have a prayer of scoring 99% on the far more difficult verbal section of the GMATs. So what is the point of asking an Englishman to take the TOEFL at all? Stanford believes the English of Ning from China has become, after four or five years in London, better than that of a native speaker who spends the same amount of time abroad? Stanford is so convinced of this development (turbocharged learning by Ning, accelerated Alzheimer´s forgetting by James) that they waive/require the TOEFL accordingly. Interesting.  


*The GREs, Graduate Record Examinations, are similar to the GMATs. They are multiple choice aptitude tests in math, logic and English that are required by graduate schools in a variety of subjects.  The GMATs are really a specialized form of the GREs for business school, as the LSATs are for law school, and the MCATs for medical school.


3) Your essays

    Foreigners need to realize they are competing against many U.S. students who are members of fraternities or sororities. These are national social clubs of men and women with chapters at various universities. Many of them provide living quarters for their members in a “frat house” or “sorority house.” Some of them have files going back for fifty or more years. These files include copies of exams, research papers, AND copies of successful applications to various graduate schools made by their members.

    The current applicant has say, low grades and high test scores, or the reverse. He goes to the files and researches how other candidates in the same boat overcame these weaknesses in their essays. Or he is stuck on a tricky essay, say one about ethics. He cobbles together his own answer from what previous candidates had written. Of course this procedure is grossly unfair. In fact, it is cheating. The author hastens to add he never joined a fraternity. And certainly no fraternity or sorority at any university he has been associated with would condone such underhanded means to gain a competitive advantage. No, no, that just happened at all those other universities. 

    Besides having better research, many Americans work on the essays for a year or more. A first draft is written, shown to various people for criticism, then filed away. Every now and again it is taken out and thoroughly re-worked with new content, new ideas, again shown to one and all for review, to be filed away again.



4) Letters of recommendation 

     Americans and foreigners alike make two common mistakes: over-estimating reputations and under-estimating control.


    4.1 - Over-estimating reputation

     People like to have a letter of recommendation from someone famous. What could be better than your professor who won a Nobel Prize? If he is going to put in nice bold print underneath his signature “Nobel Prize winner,” that could be a terrific recommendation. But most winners are unlikely to do that.

    Furthermore, that first reader (the graduate student) is just as unlikely as, say, the marketing professor, to have ever heard of this person anyway. Sure, they both know that Paul Samuelson at M.I.T. and his former professor at Harvard, Wassily Leontief, won it in economics, along with Milton Friedman at the U. of Chicago. But how likely are they to have heard of other winners of it in any given year from, say, 1985 to a couple of years ago? Or of the winners in a different field entirely such as chemistry or physics?

    In most cases an ”outstanding” assessment from a no-name teacher or boss is going to be far more helpful than a "good” assessment from the Nobel Prize winner. That comment brings us to the second mistake.


    4.2 - Under-estimating control

     Many of the leading schools ask that the letter of recommendation not be shown to the applicant who requested it. The letter is to be kept secret. Showing it to him “violates the application code” and is considered cheating. This ethical position seems questionable to the author, who has been a graduate business school faculty leader.

    For the recommender, the letter is a minor task, distracting from more important work, with little upside for scintillating writing or a brilliant laudatory essay. For the applicant, the letter is part of a life-changing decision. A poor letter (sent to several MBA programs) can slam doors shut. Given this huge “importance gap,” the applicant should be allowed to see what has been written about him, to correct errors of omission or commission, to say: “If that is really all you feel comfortable in writing about me, then I withdraw my request.”

    If the writer of the recommendation does not agree in advance to show what he will have written, one should take that as an ominous red flag)[5].


    4.3 - The ultimate, best of the best, recommendation

     The best recommendation is one from a professor at the school you wish to attend whose voice carries weight with the admissions committee. Careful! Not all professors are viewed with unmitigated enthusiasm by their colleagues. How do you get such a recommendation? First, provide value! 

    Do your homework and find some professors at your target schools who publish and consult in an area of interest to you. Read their articles religiously and send them information you think could be of interest to them. Do this repeatedly with several and with one of them you should strike a cord and form a relationship. Note that doing so has to reflect a real interest and commitment by you over a period of years. These professors are not naive. They will see through any "quick fix getting to know me" attempt for application and resume boosting. However legitimately sharing your enthusiasm for a professor´s research -- and doing the work to provide solid information -- can really help you move forward in life.

    You want to aim high, for the moon? Consider publishing a telephone interview with him for your college newspaper or a local business journal. Better, seek to be a co-author (by doing a major portion of the data mining) for an article in a journal you have found that he would not otherwise publish in.

    You want to aim for the stars? Suggest co-authoring an E-book for release on or Nook Books (Barnes & Noble). An E-book can be short, even just 40 or 50 pages if the content is good. You assist with the research and your friendly professor even lets you write a few paragraphs. You create the images and graphs for him. Most importantly, you take over the submission and marketing process.

    Most professors are busy and not particularly interested in learning about that. And there is a lot to learn. Just one tip as an example: in Rick Freshman's "Sunday Tips" E-Zine (17.07.11) about book publishing Jeff Rivera of makes an interesting observation. He states that he saw his sales go up for a targeted market by 300% when he embedded (instead of just linking) his book trailer in a forum/message board page.




VII. Humor - High Risk, High Return

    Humor is the ultimate high-risk application approach, but it can work. Two candidates from the University of Pennsylvania a couple of years apart from one another had good grades and test scores, adequate for second tier law schools, but pretty far away from what one needs for first tier ones. Both achieved admission to Harvard Law School by writing humorous applications.

    Encouraged by this precedent, my first application to Harvard Business School was humorous. I still consider it my best application ever. I took a minimalist approach, seeking to answer each essay with a sentence at most. My second best essay was on strengths and weaknesses, answered with just one word (admittedly a lie, but still): “Conciseness.”  I topped that with the best essay of all, on “Why do you want to attend Harvard Business School?” The answer was even shorter, not one word, but just one character, the dollar sign: “$.”

    Harvard was not amused. The reviewer did not wait until the normal date for answering, but sent a rejection by return post, undoubtedly regretting that a fax number was not available for a faster response. However humor, judiciously applied, can indeed help. Successful attempts take on the aura of urban legends. They are to be viewed with caution as, over the years, they take on the character of Paul Bunyon and his mighty Blue Ox, Babe.  Nevertheless there is a grain of truth in their inception, and that grain may give you an idea for your own creative approach.


1) Urban Legends


    The first two urban legends on the subpages are “minimum humor” and  “maximum application.” The last two are legends of people who were admitted against all odds. All these have at least a grain of truth in them. In descending order of probability (least probable last) they are:

            1) M.I.T. –  a minimum of humor.

            2) Stanford Business School - a maximum of application.

            3) Harvard Business School - the determined applicant: education – bottom tenth of her class at a no-name college; GMAT scores – average (middle 500); work experience – waitress; goal – a Harvard MBA.

            4) Harvard Medical School - The practical joker: “God has spoken to me.”


VIII. A Step-by-Step Action Worksheet

[1] Source: Financial Times MBA 2008 Rankings. Other sources for 2009 and 2010 salaries show somewhat lower figures. (Alledgely there were even offers from consulting firms to Harvard MBAs as paltry as $125,000.) Regardless, some kind of six-figure offer should surface for a top school MBA who has done his job search homework, good times or bad. 


[2] McKinsey, BCG, Bain and similar firms in the U.S. send recruiters to only a few schools in major cities, where the firms have offices anyway. A solid program elsewhere, such as the Moore School at the University of South Carolina, is often not part of their standard hiring process. Furthermore in the U.S. intellectual snobbery is prevalent at such firms. Harvard, Stanford and Wharton MBAs who have become partners tend to hire, surprise, surprise, Harvard, Stanford and Wharton MBAs.

    One way around this barrier is to apply in Europe. Candidates who were not even able to schedule an interview in the U.S. because of the lack of an elite degree are regularly made offers at offices outside of the U.S. Naturally the partners at any of these firms will vigorously deny that a two-tier system exists.


[3] Similar competitive admissions systems do exist elsewhere, equally demanding, for example, at Cambridge in the U.K., the Grandes Écoles in France, the leading universities in India, China, and in Japan, for instance, at the University of Tokyo, arguably the most demanding entry procedure in the world.



[4] Both are excellent at what they do, leading institutions of their kind. The first, TUM, is a full-blown research university with some of the toughest admissions standards in Germany and with outstanding doctoral programs. The second, the University of Applied Science, Munich is focused on practical education. It is not chartered to award doctorates.



[5] The author served on a „first review“ committee while at M.I.T. The most remarkable letter of recommendation ever seen began with the sentences:  “ . . . has asked me to recommend him because he received A´s in all of the courses he has taken with me. Although I have not actually been able to catch him cheating . . . “ The phrase in yellow is an accurate, word by word, quote -- unbelievable. The professor was considered by one and all to be a remarkable jerk. When asked for a referral, he should have just said “no.” The applicant, who had otherwise been in the running, was rejected for “extraordinarily bad judgment” in selecting this recommender. 


Appendix I - The China Card


    As a loyal M.I.T. alumnus, my emphasis here is on how M.I.T. is playing the China card. M.I.T. is a small school (total student enrollment of ca. 10,000  - 60% graduate students) compared to Harvard (21,000) or Stanford (18,500) - 2010 figures. Therefore M.I.T. can move a little faster than some of its larger colleagues. You should use M.I.T.  -- and Stanford -- as best practices benchmarks against which to compare other programs. To give the others their due, a couple of them will be treated first.


    One should consider options in Singapore (INSEAD has a campus there), Taiwan, Hong Kong, and, of course mainland China. For instance, China Europe International Business School in Shanghai,, has an excellent program, for which admissions is fiercely competitive. In 1994/95 there were 4,000 applications for 64 places! Despite competition for the best students from new MBA entries in China, the admissions bar remains high. The school has partnership programs with:

  • IESE (University of Navarra), Barcelona, Spain
  • HEC School of Management, Jouy en Josas, France
  • WHU - Otto Beisheim Graduate School of Management, Koblenz Vallendar, Germany
  • University of Michigan Business School, Ann Arbor, U.S.

    In the U.S. one can begin by looking at the China tracks of the Lauder Program, the international MBA offered at Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania, and of the IMBA (formerly MIBS) program at the University of South Carolina. A newcomer in this field is the University of San Francisco, one of the few Jesuit universties - with that rigorous tradition - in the U.S. (Notre Dame with its famed law school is the best known one in the U.S.)

    Naturally, you will want to review Stanford´s website carefully to see what its latest offerings for China are. Moving oni to