Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Moving 10,000 pounds to school

I believe nearly all MBA candidates find themselves making some sort of sacrifice to pursue their dreams. Some may be separating from a significant other, some may be leaving behind close family and friends, some may be leaving behind a great job and career opportunities, some may be putting their entrepreneurial passions on the back burner, some are completely leaving their way of life and culture behind, and some may be making material sacrifices for their new temporary lifestyle. The latter may is the easiest of all these sacrifices, though it's still felt when you have to go through it.

This week the homestead got packed up. The military offers one free final move of all household goods when leaving service. The total authorized weight varies by rank, but normally it is more than enough. For example, I am authorized 14,000 pounds of personal household goods. This is the 6th military provided move I've made in my career, and will by far be the heaviest. The first three for example, I did entirely with nothing but my personal car. I estimate almost 10,000 pounds for this one. I know that sounds like a lot of stuff, but it's not so much when my suburban house has almost 3000 square feet of possible storage space. Since my new apartment is only (a generous) 800 sq feet, a lot of my stuff is going into storage.

Some things are particularly difficult to deal with. For example, I probably have over 30 sets of military uniforms - as they've changed more than once in my career. So what to do with them? I'm not going to sell US military uniforms to unknown parties on eBay. Nor does throwing a US service uniform in the trash ever seem appropriate either. So I've accumulated them, and continue to do so, until the proper solution presents itself.

I believe that this kind of painful downsizing is actually a significant deterrent to a lot of applicants. It can definitely feel like something of a step backward and requires a lot of sacrifice. If there was one symbolic pair of transaction for the whole theme, it was last week: I sold my beloved Porsche 996 (which was completely paid off) to help finance the MBA, and also bought a used futon on Craigslist because our apartment guest room is too small for our guest bedroom set. Now those are words I would had NEVER imagined saying just a few years ago.

For those 24 year olds coming from a studio apartment in Manhattan reading this and thinking I'm from another planet... just enjoy that freedom and independence while it lasts! There is a heavy cost that comes with success.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Letters of Recommendation for Business School

I'm starting a new feature on my blog where I answer reader's questions. I try to reply to everybody's email directly, and if the question can benefit others, then I will post it on my blog as well. So let us begin:

Q: What is your take on letters of recommendation for applicants (particularly military)?
-- Captain Dan in Iraq

A: As always, I will begin with the caveat that I don't have secret admission knowledge and that all my answers are purely my own speculation. I'll answer this question generically first, and then add some specifics for military applicants.

Unlike most schools, HBS requires three letters of rec, not two. There is no such thing as an ideal lineup, and every applicant is different. However, generically speaking, if I could have my dream recs, it would be the following:
  1. Direct supervisor
  2. Academic reference
  3. Leader from a non-profit organization or any organization outside of your profession
I would consider this as a very strong lineup and let me explain why. The HBS application is relatively short. Every essay, every letter of rec, and every sentence should be used to complement and add to your application. Therefore, for example, three letters from supervisors may be redundant (i.e. he's a great worker, brilliant employee, visionary leader, etc.). Ok, got it, and reinforcement is always good, but I think that a deeper picture is more important than reinforcing existing expectations/assumptions. I believe that presenting yourself as a multi-dimensional and multi-talented candidate is more important than reinforcing your professional accomplishments. However, this doesn't mean that every letter of rec should present a totally different strength or side of your personality; rather, it should show how your focused strengths and abilities are manifested across diverse settings. The exception to this is if you are trying to break out of a pre-conceived expectations (see my HBS 2012 essay post for more on this) and are really trying to focus on one specific aspect of your personality. Let me discuss each one with a little more detail.

1. Direct supervisor

If your resume is already packed with great professional accomplishments, one letter of recommendation from your professional circle might suffice. It should bring to life some of your accomplishments and reinforce your claims with a human touch. It should also breath some life into an otherwise unemotional resume list of accomplishments.... such as how your personality enabled those successes. As with all letters of rec, it should reinforce the strengths and weaknesses that you are presenting throughout the application.

As far as direct supervisor versus peer recommendations; take the best recommendation you can get, but direct supervisor probably trumps a peer all else being equal. Anybody can get a recommendation from a peer saying he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. A direct supervisor is more difficult, and he also sees you from a more professional point of view, so if you can swing it, I think it's better. What about direct supervisor versus non-direct supervisor from higher within the organization? I would say that all else being equal, the higher ranking (and experienced) the recommender the better... however... the more separated somebody is from you the less detailed and genuine the recommendation tends to be. The latter (detailed and genuine) is too important to compromise, so don't sacrifice those just to get a more impressive title at the bottom of the letter.

2. Academic reference

This may seem most relevant to those just coming out of undergraduate, but I believe it applies to all. An example can be a professor or a supervisor of your research. I believe it's actually most beneficial to older applicants who need to show how much they value their academic record and that they have not outgrowned their scholastic interests in life. If anything, younger applicants could use more of the other two types of letters of recs (assuming a strong academic record).

3. Non-profit or non-professional organization

The trickiest part for most people will be the third letter (outside of school and outside of work - as I have artificially defined it). People heavily immersed in creating a strong professional track record often don't have the time to also establish a strong reputation with a non-profit or non-professional association worthy of a serious recommendation. However, such a letter of recommendation could really add to one's application. The difficulty of achieving this speaks to its advantage in differentiating the applicant from others who only have business related letters of recommendation.

In general...

Think of the letters of recommendations as three shots across the bow of business school. They are not to be taken lightly and I believe their importance may be underemphasized by some applicants. Each one should have its own message and should reinforce a dimension you are trying to send to the ADCOM. If you have a weak academic record but strong professional accomplishments, consider getting two academic letters of recommendation. If you have a really strong professional record but weak extra-curricular activities, you would probably benefit from having a letter from an outside organziation. If you are a non-profit guru with strong social work background, perhaps letters of rec from supervisors highlighting your direct business skills and potential would serve you best.

The above list of letters are just a generic solution to the world's most perfectly balanced applicant - who probably does not exist. You have to carefully pick and choose your letters of rec to support your own strategy and the message(s) you want to send. Don't forget to also consider how good of a job your recommender may or may not do for you. There are people who may love your contributions and speak highly of you, but are not the most persuasive authors.

For schools that only require two letters of rec, your combination of letters is simpler, but the strategy should still be the same.

Military appplicants...

Military applicants have probably been deployed at least once or twice in the past few years... and are probably lucky enough to have sustained a relationship with a spouse or significant other, let alone with a worthy non-military organization from which to solicit a letter of rec. This is why it is such a great supplement to your application. Many military applicants may only have letters of rec from supervisors, and I am proof that it may be ok. My three letters were all from previous and current supervisors (two O-5s and an O-4). I didn't have the scholastic reach to warrant an academic letter of rec, and I certainly haven't been home enough to be seriously involved with an outside organization. My purpose and sole focus in life was to train my soldiers, lead them in combat, and bring everybody home alive. I made no apologies for not having much free time outside the military. However, if you can somehow swing a balance, I think you will be that much better off.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

HBS Class of 2011 profile (Military)

HBS announced the tentative Class of 2011 profile and I want to take this opportunity to discuss some specifics that would apply to military candidates since in the past most of that information has been largely a mystery. But first, some general observations:
  • Class size was increased from about 900 to 942. Does this mean all previous classes will soon refer to themselves as the "last hard class" to get into? Did we have lower standards? Well, applications also went up, so the total acceptance rate for the class of 2010 and 2011 are identical (12%). It will be interesting to see if this is a temporary or permanent change to the HBS class size.
  • Almost half of those accepted (47%) finished undergrad within the last 3 years. HBS is only getting younger - last year it was 40%. See my post on ages at HBS for more info.
Now to the military profiles...

I did some of my own research to account for the sources of successful military applicants. For the purposes of these numbers, I'm not counting non-US military personnel. Some countries have compulsory military duty, and I think that they may warrant a different data set for proper interpretation. So let's just discuss US military for now. There are about 31 US military MBA candidates (3%) that make up the class. Most of them have a total of 4-5 years (initial obligation) in the Armed Forces. Here are some figures:
  • Army: 13 (42%)
  • Navy: 9 (29%)
  • Marines: 6 (19%)
  • Air Force: 2 (6%)
  • Coast Guard: 1 (4%)
So that definitely dispels the myth that HBS loves "McKinsey, Mormons, and Marines." I would also speculate that the Air Force numbers are relatively low because of longer obligations for many officers (re: older at time of application). Now let's look at source of commissioning (all 31 were officers):
  • US Military Academy: 7 (23%)
  • US Naval Academy: 6 (19%)
  • US Air Force Academy: 1 (4%)
  • US Coast Guard Academy: 1 (4%)
  • Non-service academy: 16 (52%)
So this also dispels the myth that West Pointers dominate in admissions, though they do have a strong showing.

Now let's look at the military background. I'm going to introduce some of my own non-doctrinal definitions for this. I have three categories: Combat Arms (Infantry, Armor, Special Forces), Combat Support (Artillery, direct air support), General Support (everything else, such as intel, signal, logistics, etc). I know some people will have a problem with this ground force biased definition, but hey... I'm not writing doctrine here.
  • Combat Arms: 6 (19%)
  • Combat Support: 3 (11%)
  • General Support: 22 (71%)
In reality most former military HBS students are not of the more exotic flavor (SEALs, Green Berets, fighter pilots, etc.) but actually rather representative of the wide variety of professions within the military.

Please note that NONE of these numbers are official HBS numbers, nor are they guaranteed to be 100% accurate. There may be 1 or 2 military guys that I missed when compiling the statistics. Nonetheless, the numbers should be of value to every curious military applicant out there wondering where s/he fits in. And that's another note; all 31 officers are male.

Final note: the picture in this blog obviously has nothing to do with HBS. It is however one of my favorite pictures of perhaps the greatest "class" of US military leaders ever assembled for a photograph.