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Journey to my MBA

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Columbia Info Session

Here's my summary report of the Columbia Info Session that I went to on Friday.

It was held at Sun MicroSystems Menlo Park Campus. The room was rather large. The capacity was about 200. Again, there was a significant percentage of the group that was Asian. But the interesting thing was the number of women. There must have been 35 women which was nearly 20% of the group. Compared to any other info session I had been to, the number of women present was staggeringly more. That was cool to see so many women interested in B-school.

The hosts name was Linda B Mahan, the assistant Dean and executive director for admissions and financial aid.

The session was scheduled for 6-8pm. But due to several logistics problems, we didn’t start till 6:40pm. First of all, the address was not something I could find on http://www.mapquest.com/ nor http://www.yahoo.com/. What made this more frustrating was that about 3 hrs before the info session, I went to the Columbia web site to verify my registration and get a map only to find the web site was unresponsive. Despite nearly 30 minutes of constant attempts to pull up the page, I ended up having to call SUN for directions. Then when I got to the building, there was a sign posted on the door saying that we had to go to the main entrance and then walk ½ the distance of the campus to get to the building. Moreover, about ½ of us didn’t have registrations and so I had to get a walk-in one. I assume, Columbia lost or didn’t send ½ our registrations to SUN. It took 40 minutes for us to get the temp badges just to walk in. It was an absolute logistic nightmare from the beginning.

Once I got to the room, Linda was answering student questions for nearly an hour until we got settled in. There were no drinks or snacks either. Not that this was a big deal, but this again showed the lack of planning and effort to make us feel comfortable. Especially since the session was an hour earlier than any other info session I had been to. You would have thought that some drinks and snacks were needed for those of us that were coming directly from work.

On a positive note, as I walked in there was a running slideshow of the school that was very well done. There were many paparazzi type of pictures that showed what life is like at Columbia. I really think every B-School should make an effort to start their sessions like this instead of just posting the school Logo on the front screen while we wait for things to get started.

Linda began her presentation with a PowerPoint presentation that was well done. The one thing that made Columbia’s presentation distinct from the others I had seen was the inclusion of the student survey statistics.

This was a survey done by all incoming students that asked them the reasons why they chose Columbia. The reasons were as follows: (No particular order)
1) New York Advantage
2) World recognized program
3) Choice and Flexibility of the program
4) Availability of an accelerated MBA program (16 mos. Vs 22 mos.)
5) Heterogeneous community. (A play on words really. This simply described the diversity of students that come from various industry and geographic backgrounds)- Not much different from many other top schools as far as I was concerned that simply used the term “diversity”-
6) Career placement success.

The presentation was broken up into 4 main sections.
1) The Columbia choice
2) Student Life
3) Careers and Alumni
4) Admissions

The Columbia choice
The first and foremost thing that makes Columbia unique is New York. (Columbia likes to call this the “New York Advantage”. When it comes to classes being taught for example, the Value Investing class has two of the lectures being taught by Warren Buffett. In another example, the Retail class taught by Allen Kane (sp?) has case studies where Kalvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, CEO of Barnes & Noble are brought in on a regular basis to get their personal view of the case and to teach parts of the class. Numerous other large names are brought in with many other classes being taught. Plain and simple, this is because of Columbia’s great name and because of New York. Later on, one Alumnus mentioned how great it was to have cases presented and discussed with the CEO of Smith Barney, CEO of Bloomingdales and CEO of Chanel.

You’ll definitely find this kind of thing at other top 10 B-schools, but I think Columbia has a distinct advantage here. I just wonder how much of this is true of NYU-Stern and Cornell. I’m thinking Columbia can say all this, but I don’t know how much Stern or Cornell takes advantage of New York CEO’s.

I believe the 6 bullet points from student survey results are worth noting with regards to choosing Columbia.

Student Life
Linda showed a slide that had concentric circles representing the education community.
1) Clusters (center)-Like Harvard’s “Section” term or Wharton’s “Cohort” term, Columbia places students into 60 student study groups for the first year.
2) Classes (2nd from center)
3) Community (3rd from center)
4) New York (outer circle) – Again, you just can’t look at Columbia without considering how important being in New York is.

The education is very fast paced. Linda explained that students are chosen for their ability to handle the load. As I recall, the Mountak book has a comment from one of the associate directors from Columbia mentioning that

64% of the classes are case study. Some are lecture format and the rest are a hybrid of case method and lecture.

I’ve come to see that schools with 500 or more students just don’t have the infrastructure to have the faculty and staff be that close with the students as much as they would like to be. Where Stanford and Tuck keep their numbers under 300 for each class, this is entirely possible and a key marketing point for them as opposed to schools with large classes over 500 like Columbia. The reason I say this is because Linda made it very clear that Columbia won't hold your hand through the program. I don’t really see this as a positive or negative, but rather as a reflection of the class size. Combining full time students and accel MBA students, there are nearly 700 students each year. There's quite a bit you can get out of the program, but only if you take the iniatitive. To keep this in perspective, Harvard and Wharton have between 100-200 more in their class. So this feeling of being on your own a bit is probably even more true of these schools with bigger class sizes.

The concept of flexibility is shown by:
1) The ability to take core exemption exams to not have to take certain core curriculum classes. Thus enabling students to take more electives later on.
2) Cross-registration-assuming pre-req’s are met, students can take additional classes in any other graduate school within Columbia. (Law, Medical, Dental, Literature, etc..) – How cool, you can actually take Law school classes?
3) Dual-degree programs (Law-MBA, Medical-MBA etc..)
4) 200+electives – Note- the average students will take about 13 elective classes while at Columbia. So 200+ is more than enough. Linda also emphasized that Columbia elective courses have some distinct courses not taught at other schools. For example, one class is called, “In search of a perfect prince”. This is a class on mgmt, ethics and leadership that is co-taught by a prof in the literature department using Shakespeare as the context of the material. Another example is a class called “value investing” where Warren Buffett teaches two lectures.

As good as Linda made the elective courses sound, I was a bit skeptical about how she was selling us on Columbia by now. There were insinuations that NO other schools had classes like this or aspects like that. I asked myself, “how can this be?” With 100% respect to Linda and all, I honestly felt that the school was sounding great and all, but that the style of presentation was just a bit over the top in the promises. So despite my positive feel for the school, the presentation by Linda made me scrutinizing everything being said which I hated doing. Thus, my report of the info session reluctantly reflects my skeptical posture as well.

Another thing that makes Columbia distinct may be it’s intertwining of ethics and globalization in all the classes as opposed to being one or two specific classes. I genuinely believe Columbia has made this a strong initiative, I just don’t know how to compare this statement with what other schools have done to integrate vs modularize ethics and globalization. Linda stated that no other school did the globalization and ethics thing like them.

Classes: Global Reach
There is an international MBA specialty at Columbia. Aspects of Global reach include
1) The Chazen Institute – a group that manages relationship with Columbia and other International B-Schools.
2) EXCEL Language programs- exams one can take to show proficiency in particular languages. Perhaps some language classes are part of this program too? (not sure)
3) International study tours- Entire quarters of classes can be taken at International B-schools.
4) Web Journal – a journal of articles that comes out 4 times/yr.

Some more clarification on the “New York Advantage”
1) Columbia has a choice of speaker from 1000’s of companies in its’ backyard to choose from on a daily basis
2) Therefore practitioners and not just theory discussion are brought into the classroom.
3) Allows for significant informational interviews and networking when it comes to projects, talking to Alumni and etc…
4) Convenient access to companies.

Admissions
Students are admitted based on three key categories
1) Academic Strength
a. GPA
b. GMAT
2) Personal Characteristics
a. Activities Resume
b. Essay #2
3) Professional promise (the largest weight)
a. Work resume,
b. 2 letters of rec
c. essay #1 (This is an essay that asks you to define your short and long term goals. It’s also an essay to show how well you know yourself)
d. interview (The interview CAN make or break your application) – But Linda did say that they do try to take into account bad days and the admin committee may call and ask what happened and ask for clarifying answers to some questions.) Linda recommended faxing your resume to your interviewer the night before your interview. – 96% of all acceptances have interviews which are by invitation only.

Linda mentioned that when an application is received, the first reviewer condenses the application into a one page format. (Yes, everything) The second reviewer looks at the condensed version and refers to the full version if necessary to answer any additional questions. If the 1st and 2nd reviewers disagree, then Linda steps in, looks at it and if necessary brings it to a board to review the app. So in many instances, two reviewers look at the app. And if necessary, Linda makes the final call on the app.

Knowing this, let me tell you what I noticed about her. She’s ultra-confident, experienced and is strong minded. When answering a question, she was polite and gave succinct answers. When lame questions came up, I could see that she had heard them before and gave the asker a polite answer, but didn’t feed into that persons insecurity. Not that it matter’s, but she’s probably in her 50’s with a full head of grey and you can see her picture on the last page of the Columbia brochure. Every comment that I've seen in the Mountauk book come from Linda.

In one comment in the Mountauk book, she states, "We are looking for people with professional promise. We assess this by looking at the applicant's resume and recommendations. We do need to ensure that people will get through the program, so we look for competitive undergraduate schools and grade point averages, and meld these with the applicant's GMAT score. Some of ourcompetitors are more focused on GPAs and GMAT scores.

There were 495 students accepted last year in the full-time program and 185 in the accelerated MBA program. (note: the accelerated program has the same exact classes as the regular one except that there is not an internship opportunity). Linda stated that the accelerated MBA program is for those who have more experience in the work force than the average applicant generally where internships are not needed for these students.

There are fellowships, scholarships and loans one can get at Columbia to finance the MBA. But one new fellowship that started this year is the Feldberg Fellowship. It’s basically a tuition-free fellowship. It is named after former Dean Feldberg who stepped down in January of this year. Last year, a dinner was held where 1 million dollars was raised which was the source money for this fellowship.
The fellowship is given to applicants who exhibit
1) Strong Academic background
2) Exceptional leadership skills
3) Commitment to school contribution.
4) Jan 10 is the application deadline.

Columbia now has a new Dean as of August of this year. I asked a question about what the education format looks like now and where it’s heading 3-4 years from now and Linda wisely answered that with a new Dean, she had no real answers and went on to describe where it’s at now. So look for changes in the next year.

A word on housing, it appears that California residents are given about the same priority as international students when it comes to housing. This is excellent news for those of us coming from California. So local residents get lower priority when it comes to getting campus housing. Married couple housing is extremely limited and goes very fast. By the way, I’ve been to Columbia and stayed at a friends place some years ago. He was married and was going to the Dental school at the time. The location of the housing was practically across the street from Columbia, however it was a scary area. He had a car and was always concerned about waking up to not find his car there. Car theft is pretty rampant in the area, but moreover.. is an aspect of New York as a whole. Where he lived is definitely not a place to be walking alone at night. This was on the side of the school that is the site of Seinfeld’s diner on TV. As I haven’t seen the on-campus housing or the housing areas on the other sides of the school, I can’t say much more than this.

Alumni Panel:
The panel was impressive. There were 12 alumni and their graduation dates ranged from 1996 to present. They were impressive because of the level of success so many of them have achieved. Most of them didn’t exactly fight for the microphone when answering questions however. Rather than this being a negative reflection of the Alumni desire to be helpful, I came to the conclusion that this was because of the number of applicants in the audience. Not many people have experience talking in front of 200 people. As I walked out, one Alumnus and I talked about his experience at Columbia. He was very kind and helpful in telling me what he liked about Columbia. His biggest draw to Columbia was the New York advantage.

There are over 30,000 Alumni by the way.

A 2nd year student was in town which was great. Linda had her come up, tell us about herself and her background. She graduated from Princeton as an undergrad. She answered questions from students which was helpful. It would have been better were it not for the lame questions some of the applicants were asking her. One good question about what her days are like revealed that Columbia doesn’t really have classes on Fridays. So every Thursday is Martini night.

On a reflective note, I’ve been hit in the face with is the stark realization that going to an East coast school has an extremely high chance of ending up in an East coast job. The same goes for West coast schools. Now, I knew this intellectually, but this sunk in emotionally on Friday night. The reason for this is a matter of money and geography. It costs a lot of money for a West coast company to fly out East coast MBA students, put them up in a hotel, pay for their food and show them around versus doing this same thing for students that are already in the company’s backyard at local schools. Therefore recruiting is incredibly influenced by school location. Although I don’t have a problem with this, the level to which this is true sunk in as I sat there listening to the things the alumni were talking about. For example, one alumnus who was the president of the Dallas alumni association moved here to the Bay area recently and found it a bit hard to find a west coast job, but eventually found a job because of the alumni network. In another example, the student who arranged the Silicon Valley trip for last years 2nd years talked about how her trip helped get exposure for the Columbia MBA students who normally don’t get that kind of exposure at the Columbia campus.

One last thing, many schools grads talk about is how close they got with their classmates and so forth. I think Columbia has this aspect too. But I also think that it is a bit lower on the scale when compared to some other top schools. This is just a random theory I have and would rather be proved wrong on this. But I’ve been told by Linda that this was true years ago but that this has gotten much better. By how much, I don’t know nor could she qualify this. One theory I have is that New York is a great B-school resource, but is also the reason many students have amazing options when it comes to be being entertained. This entertainment value creates a decreased tendency for students to stay together as a whole. In all fairness, I think absolutely nothing can compare to the entertainment value of New York. So this is all very hard to quantify. Just something I’ve noticed over time in talking with Linda and other Alumni.

Overall, I think Columbia is a great school. And some of the top things that make Columbia unique are
1) New York – Recruiting possibilities, Company lecturers, local company resources for projects, entertainment value.
2) High women percentage
3) Integration of ethics and globalization in many of the classes.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an awesome recount of your Columbia experience. I learned quite a bit about Columbia which is my top school!! I appreciate your effort in putting this site up!! truly remarkable effort!!

8:49 PM  
Blogger Gurjotpal said...

thanks a lot for the awesome note. Just wondering if you have any info on if an accelerated MBA student is given a degree that says "MBA" or "accelerated MBA"?

I mean with the accelerated MBA, are u always branded as "almost there" :-)

thanks....geepsy

2:04 AM  
Blogger Dave for MBA said...

Good question. Frankly, when you ask someone about their MBA, the info they really want to know about is "which school" and not, "which program". Part-time, accelerated get roughly the same MBA. In other words, there is no problem in a MBA rich corporate environment to just say you have an MBA.
Which program will matter probably after you already have the job when you get to know each other better. But, it comes into play when you happen to meet someone who might know someone of the same year or or know a staff member there.
Obviously, the program issue would not matter if you were in a pure business environment. A rich MBA peer group would have this kind of info come out rather quickly as you can imagine.
I'm not saying that the accelerated or part-time programs are bad or worse than full-time in terms of quality of education. It depends on the school actually. Some schools share the same class syllabi and profs. Some schools have entirely different profs.
It's also different for every person. You may meet someone who is brilliant from an accelerated program and someone comparatively above average from a full-time program. But next week, it may be just the opposite. All in all, you generally don't get to this kind of understanding until you work with that person or you know that person's reputation.
In my opinion, it's better not to divulge that amount of info when you meet someone anyway. That would be about as socially unwise as meeting a man or woman for the first time and telling them exactly what you think of their looks.

3:22 PM  
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