The Information Social

I attended my first business school info session this week for the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. I walked away with mixed feelings, though not necessarily about Fuqua, but more reflective of myself and my upcoming decision to go to business school.

Let me share a little about my background. I’ve worked various roles ranging from operations in the IT industry to consulting roles at investment banks but always within the technology department, about as back office as you can get. My work has been more about Perl scripts, SQL queries, SWIFT message processing, and Autosys batch optimization then it has been about… uh, NPV calculations, financial models, Excel, Bloomberg terminals, or whatever it is that investment bankers do. There is no glitz and glamour in the IT roles at banks and even more rare (in this post-Great Recession era of our time) are firm socials and team outings. As one of many cost-saving measures, very little of the firm’s budget is allocated to social outings for non-client-facing departments.

So why do I bring this up? Well, this “information session” was essentially 1-part lecture and 2-parts socializing. And it served as a striking reminder of what was I getting into: a whole lotta socializing. In that regard, the MBA is quite different than earning a degree in medicine or law. In no other world is “who you know” and social skills more important than that of a business world setting where networking, socials, and presentations (whether in a classroom setting, elevator pitch, or meet n’ greet) are located at the turn of every corner. And if I’m being honest with myself and to my amazing reader audience (yep, all 7 of you!) then I have to admit I’ve developed considerable rust on my networking and presentation skills. Sitting in front of a work computer and working with a VP that doesn’t plan many team meetings can do that to you.

The event ran fairly well. The attendees included a solid mix of admissions staff, Fuqua alumni, current Fuqua students, recently admitted applicants, and prospective MBA students, with the latter two categories serving up the majority of the group. There were maybe 3 or 4 Fuqua FT alumni students. That morning, I had whipped out a necktie and tied it around my neck, only to then run a quick Google search and decide the necktie wouldn’t be necessary. Although I was right, I wouldn’t have been in the wrong either, as a good quarter of the males present were wearing neckties. I presumed the majority of these guys had come straight from work. So for all of you considering attending a business school information session, wearing a suit jacket and tie is really up to your preference. But don’t wear anything more dressed down than business casual lest you intend to give off a I-wear-hoodies-like-Mark-Zuckerberg vibe.. or look like an unprepared person!

The first twenty minutes of the event amounted to an unofficial game of find-someone-to-chat-with-among-a-crowd-of-strangers. Everyone had a name tag with their name and either the current Fuqua program they were attending or had been admitted to, or a company title to indicate that you were a prospective. I met an amiable fellow who had recently been admitted to the Cross-Continent MBA Program, a 16-month format consisting of 17 weeks of “distance learning” (attending classes online) interspersed with overseas residency periods at Duke-affiliated locations ranging from Dubai to Shanghai. It was a very unusual approach to the MBA, but one that I was uninterested in due to the majority of time one would need to spend learning from a computer at home. But it was clear that this program was incredibly useful for people unable to uproot themselves from their current location or want to retain their business or professional work role that they’ve already established. I also overheard the CC MBA admissions counselor say that having a GMAT range in the 600’s was acceptable for the CC program, which made me suspect that the CC admissions criteria was about on par with other Part-Time MBA programs and not as competitive as the Fuqua Daytime (Full-Time) Program. Another part inside me squealed, Score!! My GMAT score totally cleared the 600’s! Maybe I’m a decent candidate after all!

As I chatted and exchanged stories with my new best friend, a third individual awkwardly tried to walk past the two of us in a tight space between rows of chairs. Upon noticing both of our nametags, she lit up at the sight of a fellow CC matriculant and promptly positioned herself somewhat between the two of us and began talking excitedly about the CC program, effectively shutting me out of the conversation. I raised my eyebrows. Well, I suppose I may have had done the same if I were in her shoes; there’s not much an already admitted CC matriculant could learn from a prospective FT applicant. With an internal shrug, I moved on and found a fellow prospective student and we began chatting about Duke and its global presence. About 20 minutes into the start of the event, we all took seats in the room.

The speaker was Jennifer Francis, the Senior Associate Dean for Programs, whom I was quite impressed with from both a teaching perspective as well as her command of domain knowledge. A highly ranked business school is very much defined by the quality of their faculty, so it served as no surprise that a promotional event would be headlined by someone of her caliber. She concluded with a Q&A session where various questions were posed, which was then followed by drinks and socializing.

A couple randomly scattered observations from the night:

  • MBA students, matriculants, and prospectives are mostly tall. And mostly good looking. Are they asshole-y as some stereotypes claim? Sample size… too small.
  • The Fuqua alum student I conversed with was friendly but not that enthusiastic. Didn’t give off a lot of energy or enthusiasm about his time at school, and felt more like a straight arrow. He had graduated 6 years ago though, so age may have played a factor here
  • The moment I had with the admissions counselor was brief and a bit stoic, probably due to my efforts. Perhaps my introduction was too rushed? Or my smile too forced? My questions too formulaic? To the prospective student before my turn she had loudly exclaimed, “My card is on the table by the door. Please reach out to me for ANY questions or concerns you might have!” All I got was a shake of the hand and a “Nice to meet you, Em Bee Ay.”

I left that night second-guessing myself (one of my flaws is my over-analysis on everything). Wondering if I had the innate social chops to make the full-time business school experience worthwhile. Imagining myself attending halloween costume parties and standing around at bars with a drink in my hand, secretly wishing I’d rather be dressed more comfortably at home with a few friends around a board game. Questioning whether business school bred leaders or if leaders attend business school.

I’m an introvert at heart but that is not to say that I’m no social hermit or recluse either. I consider myself a solid conversationalist, but I’m not much of a party animal. I love sports, competitions, games, trivia, clubs, anything with target goals and clear objectives. However, place me in a large social setting with no set agenda and I admit I tend to find myself on the outside looking in.

The information session offered a sliver of information about Fuqua but left me with more additional questions to ask myself. I hope in the forthcoming months to really hone in on this concept of “fit” at specific schools. The MBA application process is more self-prospective than I could have imagined. Amazingly, it is really just beginning.

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