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By Dominic Basulto

While the attention of most potential MBA applicants during the fall is rightly focused more on the application process itself than on post-MBA career opportunities, understanding the business school-recruiter relationship is crucial for understanding how the business schools think. Once one understands how they think, it becomes easier to develop a cleverly marketed application strategy for the "Top 10" business schools. After all, the business schools are looking for a particular type of candidate - and this prototypical candidate is the exact candidate that the leading consulting firms, investment banks, and Fortune 500 companies would like to hire. There are three crucial aspects to the business school-recruiter relationship: (1) elite business schools act as "filters" in order to assist firms in the recruitment selection process (2) image is more important than substance during recruiting season and (3) business schools and recruiters exist in a precarious equilibrium.


One of the most important notions is that the elite B-schools act as "filters" for the leading recruiters. In an analogous sense, gold miners during the California "Gold Rush" sifted dirt through a sieve, trying to separate the gold from the dross. Essentially, the "Top 20" B-schools are looking for the gold, and the recruiters are more than willing to delegate this responsibility for several reasons. The intensive application process - by requiring a plethora of documents, academic transcripts, and essays - makes the job that much easier for the recruiters. A business school such as Wharton effectively says to the recruiters: "We have chosen 800 students out of 8,000 highly-qualified applicants during a 9-month process that has been continuously refined over the past 40-50 years. According to our rigorous analysis, these students represent the highest potential candidates in the world." Likewise, the core curriculum is adapted for the unique identity of the program (e.g. Stanford's stresses strategic analysis) and ensures that all candidates are conversant in each major area of business – marketing, finance, strategy, human resources management, etc. Finally, B-schools establish unique events such as seminars and inter-term business trips that change and adjust the recruiting profiles of the students

In understanding the idea that B-schools act as filters, it comes as no surprise that personal characteristics and "cultural fit" become paramount. Once a candidate has been accepted to an elite program, academic excellence and competence in business fundamentals is assumed. At Stanford, for instance, recruiters are not allowed to ask MBA students for their grades. Recruiters who visit the campuses of the leading B-schools are assessing the relative values of the candidates for the nest-higher position, not the immediate post-MBA position. As one JP Morgan banker once remarked, "We're hiring Managing Directors, not Associates." In essence, these companies realize that the new MBA hires will be the new members of top management within 4-7 years. Being able to do the functional part of the job, then, is only part of the equation - more important is evincing those personal traits that define the best upper-level managers.

The characteristics needed for entrance to business school are exactly those that are needed for upper-level management; if you can convince the admissions officers that you have these personal traits, then you have also convinced them that you are worthy of admission. Most important is demonstrating a diverse set of interests as well as the ability to "walk and talk" like an MBA graduate. After all, the leading business schools know that being able to converse over a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild about hobbies or extracurricular activities is just as important as being able to discuss the financial aspects of an internet IPO. For example, each year the Yale School of Management stages a 1-day event at a local country club, where students are instructed on the finer points of business etiquette by a professional image consultant.


In addition to the B-school students themselves, both the B-schools and the corporate recruiters have a very real stake in the recruiting game. This is a game that has been repeated many times, so all the players are well aware of the rules. From the B-school's perspective, the bottom line is seeing that every student is placed in a suitable position after completion of the MBA program. This fundamental concern of the career services office at each B-school, however, is often surpassed by more pressing concerns such as average number of offers per student, average annual starting salary, and total number of firms recruiting on campus. These are the typical yard-sticks by which MBA programs are evaluated in the rankings. On the other hand, firms are eager to attract the most capable students possible, meaning that they move instinctively to the elite business schools for "first pick of the litter." What exactly constitutes the "elite" business schools is largely determined more by perception than by reality. In assessing where to recruit, the B-schools move in packs, following a herd instinct. Within New York City, for instance, there has been a pecking order which dictates that Columbia Business School is favored over Stern (New York University). Selecting the B-school that you attend, then, inevitably means selecting how recruiters will perceive you

While firms themselves view the respective business schools in terms of image and relative standing in the rankings, it is no surprise that the students themselves view the range of potential employers through an equally critical prism. In the world of consulting, firms such as McKinsey and BCG are often viewed as comprising the "first tier" while in the area of investment banking, it is Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch that are considered the "elite" firms. Of course, the relative image of these firms is far less resilient to change than those of the business schools themselves, as it depends primarily on total compensation level. Nevertheless, students use the relative prestige of the respective firms as a sway of measuring their post-MBA success. The same "prestige" that is associated with such names as Wharton or INSEAD also is associated with the above-mentioned firms.


Business schools deal directly with the firms that are hiring MBA graduates. There are rarely any third-party intermediaries involved; that is, recruitment agencies for the leading hirers of B-school grads. In return, each major firm has a person responsible for "MBA recruiting," who acts as a conduit for applications for the $100,000 jobs. Getting into this conduit is only possible by being a current MBA student. That is the beauty of the MBA degree - it is practically the only entrée to these high-paying jobs.

There are two sides to this equilibrium between B-schools and recruiters, of course. The B-schools attempt to establish a strong relationship with key recruiters while key recruiters demand access to the best and the brightest. Not surprisingly, this relationship can become intensely personal. Firms feel mistreated if given worse ties or places for interviews, while B-schools can feel slighted if firms announce that they are only hiring one of two from a class of over 300. In the interest of its students, B-schools lobby these firms to interview as many students as possible. The level and intensity of this lobbying can assume the proportions of a high-stakes poker game. For instance, if Harvard Business School feels that a particular company is not hiring enough of its graduates, it may decide to assign the company worse interview times and dates in the next recruiting cycle or even threaten to accept fewer professionals from the company into the next class at HBS.

The key link in the is recruiting game is B-school alumni. Alumni have the ear of both the B-school and the firm for which they work. B-schools with strong alumni networks (e.g. INSEAD has 20,000 alumni in 31 countries) have more leverage during recruiting season. In fact, most recruiter teams that visit a campus will include at least one alumnus who can assess the relative value of the MBA candidates in the current graduating class. That is, an alumnus from Harvard will most likely interview an aspiring candidate from Harvard Business School. Alumni involve themselves for at least two reasons; they are, after all, choosing with whom they want to work as well as assuring that their MBA degree is "endorsed" by the mere fact that the company is hiring even more graduates from their B-school.

In conclusion, understanding the business school-recruiter relationship is a necessary first step in understanding how business schools think. In short, business schools are businesses - and like any business, they need to be concerned about their end users (the firms who hire new MBA graduates). Candidates currently seeking admission to the "Top 20" business schools should demonstrate that they are the "gold" that the leading banks, consulting companies, and Fortune 500 companies will be eager to hire.

Dominic Basulto is a 1998 graduate of Yale School of Management and currently works as a consultant for Pericles ABLE. He represents Pericles in America and does MBA Advising through the internet. For more in formation please write to or call us at 292-6463/5188

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