If you are an investment banking or private equity (PE) professional, there should always be room for an MBA in your future. Whether you are still an undergrad navigating the recruiting process, working in the first several years of the analyst/associate program at your firm, or currently applying for business schools, there is an MBA option for you. Even if you are a middle manager without an MBA, there are part-time MBA programs available. For those of you still in your undergrad years waiting for or already holding an acceptance offer to a firm, you could be looking at any number of deferred acceptance programs.
The great news is that no matter where you are in your investment banking/private equity career, MBA admissions committees are always looking for candidates from your industry—and they often find those of you from top schools who have a few years of training in bulge bracket firms and successful private equity shops. The flip side is that competition for a place at top MBA programs is stiff these days, with many millennials seeking a job change in the post-pandemic marketplace. Just think about how many of your colleagues are also applying to business schools. This leads to the question: Why should an MBA program pick YOU over the person sitting next to you?
To maximize your chances of acceptance, here are some things to focus on:
While, no doubt, you are smart, business schools need some sort of metrics to determine who the “smartest” people are. And, rightly or wrongly, the GMAT can give you added leverage by telling them that you have the academic chops. Although many schools accept GMAT alternatives such as the GRE, you as a professional in a quantitative analysis position are expected to take the GMAT and validate your quant skills with a score of 700+. Generally, the average finance “jockeys” have above-average GMAT scores. While the average GMAT score for the Stanford GSB Class of 2025 is 738, for finance folks, it is probably more than 750. Achieving this high score isn’t mandatory, but it definitely cements your status.
Also, if you haven’t taken the test yet, take it now. Every year that you wait after leaving school, the standard belief is you lose ten points of test rigor capacity. Also, beware of the GMAT format change coming in 2024, which could result in higher or lower scores.
All this means it would be great to nail the GMAT—which could equate to taking many, many practice tests; enrolling in a course to sharpen your skills; and maybe getting a tutor to help you through the rough spots.
Your Unique Experiences and Interests
Although scores show the admissions committees that you can walk the walk, the rest of the application illustrates whether you can talk the talk as well.
Given that most investment banking and private equity folks have comparable backgrounds and experiences, be prepared to tell a story in your essays that only YOU can tell. However, you should avoid discussing the last deal you worked on, as it likely will be similar to your neighbor’s last deal. Instead, share something unique about your background or your college experiences, or something you do outside of work. For example, have you tutored underserved kids, organized a conference, or had any life-changing experiences on a family trip? These are all good fodder for a unique and potentially compelling and memorable essay.
If you look at the current HBS application, for example, the school asks you to write about three things you do outside of work and why they are important to you. We all know that you work long hours and have very little time to spare for yourself. But unless you are a semi-pro gamer, telling the school about the 90 minutes a day you spend blowing off steam on Mortal Kombat is likely not the experience you want to share. In addition, don’t force it. The fact that you played rugby on a successful team in college and still play every so often in recreational leagues doesn’t prove that you are a leader or a team player. Instead, share your enthusiasm for the game, note that the school has an MBA rugby club, and express your interest in arranging and managing events and matches.
Your Reason for Pursuing an MBA
Many of the biggest banks and finance companies have moved away from requiring an MBA to progress in one’s career. Given that you may be able to succeed without an MBA, it is important to explain why you need one—and in a very specific way.
If you intend to return to a similar function post-MBA, what does your progression look like with an MBA versus without one? Or maybe you are looking to change industry or function—all good reasons to get an MBA—but you have to explain why you need an MBA to make this career decision. Be prepared to know what you need personally and then match it to the institution.
Building on your reason to get an MBA, you must be very clear about what skills you need to develop to be a success in the future—and the answer is not “more of the same.”
If you are already a quant pro, don’t say you want an MBA to study more finance. Why would you want to spend two years studying something you already know? If it doesn’t make sense for your stated career path, the admissions department will see that. The answer may be along the lines of “I know how to build a powerful financial model in a spreadsheet, but I don’t know a thing about strategy, so I want to go to business school to study strategy.” That is a more compelling answer. Of course, remember to include why you want to study strategy and how knowing about strategy will lead to success in your desired post-MBA role. Perhaps it is required to land a management role at your next stop.
In addition, make sure you can explain your short-term (post-graduate) and long-term plans. Once you do that, detail specifically how those fit with your MBA school of choice.
The admissions committees know you have excelled at utilizing your quantitative skills in a highly desired profession. Therefore, rather than explaining what you need from an MBA program, explain what you can bring to the business school and to your classmates.
For example, maybe your strengths will allow you to support your number-phobic teammates. Or perhaps you can leverage your senior contacts to bring speakers to campus. Be willing to be a resource for others; this can be compelling.
In the end, a quantitative background has both pluses and minuses when it comes to MBA admissions. In some ways, it enhances your candidacy, as business schools know what they’re getting from someone with your pedigree. In other ways, it diminishes your chances, as there are a lot of candidates who “look” just like you and are successful because of their innate intelligence. Therefore, you have to show your drive to set yourself apart.
Remember, though—business schools are looking for unique people, not profiles. How do you avoid looking like another Wall Street or Silicon Valley geek? The answer is to create an application that lets the admissions committee know that you are not just your resume; you are a unique candidate with a clear view of your future and how business school fits in. The school is your friend. If you can clearly communicate to the admissions committee where you want to go in your career, and you help them understand how you think the business school will help you get there, you could be an appealing candidate.
Erik Hom is a Stratus consultant who spent two years as an investment banking analyst on Wall Street for Citicorp before completing a two-year marketing externship with a former client. Upon receiving his MBA from Chicago Booth, he pivoted to a management consulting position.
For more guidance on your MBA admissions journey, contact Stratus today for a free consultation!