Visiting Stanford, UCLA and USC: A Prequel to the Blog

Visiting and interacting with the schools that you plan to apply to is an important part of the MBA admissions process for any serious applicant.

In my inaugural post, I talked about taking a pay cut to take on a job opportunity that would better position me for the mid-to long term trajectory that I have planned.

While I know it was one of the best professional decisions of my life, it also put a pinch on some of the expendable income that would have made visiting each of the 8 schools that are currently on my list a breeze. So naturally, I’ve needed to *cough* update my strategy.

Luckily (well, actually quite purposefully), half of the schools that I plan to apply to are in California where I currently live. That’s one of the upsides of having entrepreneurial goals–the west coast is perennially on the cutting edge of whatever is happening in that sector.

So, I’ve decided to forego visits to the east coast and/or mid west unless or until I earn an actual interview at one or more of those schools. For Cali schools, however, it would look pretty bad for me to apply after having made no real effort to engage them. I plan to at least attend an info session for each by the time that I apply. Here’s a recap of the visits that I’ve made (or attempted) prior to starting this blog.

Berkeley Haas:

I didn’t include Berkeley in the title of this post because the visit hasn’t happened yet. It was actually supposed to be the first school that I engaged because they were the first to send me an invite to do so. Unfortunately, by the time I got the notice on my blackberry while running errands and got home a mere two (2) hours later to register for their LA info session, the event was 100% booked! Boy, I really need to upgrade to an iPhone.

Since most schools don’t host info sessions over the summer and admissions season is technically “over” until the new apps go live in July/August, there is a possibility that I won’t be able to either attend an info session or do a campus visit for Haas until after I’ve applied (being that I’m aiming for the 1st round); bummer.

USC Marshall:

I was initially pretty excited about this visit. Since I’m not a California native, I didn’t know much about USC before I moved here outside of their football dynasty. Over the years, I’ve been quite impressed with the mystique of this school in general. They have what is by far the strongest alumni network in Southern California, and one of the strongest in the nation when it comes to being loyal to fellow graduates of the university.

On the day of my scheduled visit I came to work extra early and planned to leave late so that I could spend an hour or two speaking with admissions staff and touring the facilities. My admissions office guide had been very helpful and thorough in making sure that I had specific directions on where to park, how early to be and exactly how to get to the Marshall School from the closest parking garage.

As I was arriving, I noticed (to my dismay) that there was a detour blocking all through traffic to Figueroa Blvd., the main artery that I would need to get to the parking lot in the directions. After some driving around, I quickly found out that all of the umpteen parking lots on campus were 100% full. One of the guard shack employees informed me that I’d have to park in an off-campus lot that USC owned in downtown Los Angeles and take a shuttle back over to campus. There goes being 45 minutes early, I thought.

By the time I fought through traffic, got downtown, found the garage, parked on the 4th level and walked to the lobby I realized that whatever confusion was happening on campus had cost me 35 precious minutes. I only had 10 more minutes until my scheduled appointment was supposed to start. Then, to add insult to injury, I noticed that the next shuttle was not due for exactly another 10 minutes. I hate being late. *Growl*

When the shuttled arrived 10 minutes later, a brief conversation with the (very attractive) driver revealed that she did not know where the business school was; I was even more alarmed to see a  map of the campus in her hand (I hadn’t seen a map like that since Thomas Guides from 10 years ago)–it was her first week on the job. Could this get any better? I swear to you that I’m not capable of making stuff up that’s this good.

After several disappointing shuttle stops (we were basically dropping people off everywhere BUT the business school) I decided to jump off at the next exit, which just happened to be the renown (top 10) Viterbi School of Engineering. I got off right in front of a golden statue of the bent, the symbol of Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society, which I was inducted into as an undergrad. This had to be a good sign. After asking a few students where the heck I was going and trekking a good mile around campus (disclaimer: several path changes from going in the wrong direction are included in that distance calculation) I finally arrived at Marshall sweaty, panting, and 20 minutes late.

When I went upstairs to check in, I was told by the administrative assistant that my name was not on the list for a campus visit that day [PAUSE: bite tongue; turn away; scream silently; turn back; smile; be gracious]. I thanked her with the little breath that I had left, commenting that I’d reschedule later. During the shuttle ride back to the downtown lot (it was all of 10 minutes but felt like 30) I pondered how my well laid plans had been derailed in such a ceremonious fashion. I had wasted my entire lunch hour and change with nothing to show for it.

Then, a little more salt was sprinkled onto my wounds. I looked up as the shuttle crossed Figueroa heading back into downtown and saw a stage, 100s of balloons and a huge sign that revealed the cause of the mass confusion around  campus that day: The Kids Choice Awards. WTH?!?!?? Well, I guess this is Hollywood, after all. I soothed my shock and pain by simply laughing out loud; and I was in a fairly good mood again by the time I hit the freeway on my way back to work. Ten minutes into my drive I got a call. It was my admissions guide. She apologized profusely for the mix up, explaining that her department had no idea about the awards show ahead of time. Her small gesture in an attempt to make amends for my lost time made a big positive impression on me. +1.

UCLA Anderson:

After my Marshall visit attempt, I approached my scheduled visit to the Anderson School of Management with a dose of thick-skinned caution. However, I didn’t end up needing it; logistically, everything was pulled off without a hitch. I zoomed up the normally jam-packed 405 freeway in all of 20 minutes ( I had planned for 45), easily found the right parking garage (I cheated. My mentee  is an undergrad bio/pre-med major at UCLA and I’ve met him a few times for breakfast on campus before work) and arrived at the info session nearly 40 minutes early. And because Anderson was gracious enough to schedule their info session at a time that allowed me to attend after work, I wasn’t pressed for time.

I could easily see why UCLA had been named as having one of the best business school campuses. I found it to be quite an inviting place. On my way in I passed a group of about 30 Asian students practicing some hip hop routine. I remember when I used to perform in those kinds of groups back in undergrad. I was almost inspired to mimic a few steps; nah, I’d probably injure myself now trying to do some of what I used to do–no, I’d certainly injure myself. Just keep one foot stepping in front of the other, dude; one false move and you won’t be able to hit the gym for a week.

When I arrived at the Anderson complex I found clear signage that led me right to where I needed to go. Having been a facilities engineering supervisor for a while (about 5-6 years ago) has given me a certain level of  appreciation for proper signage. The presentation started a few minutes late; apparently, because the grad student who was supposed to host it flaked out at the last minute. However, I must say that I was impressed that a senior admissions officer took the time to run the session instead. +1.

When the introductions started, I quickly noticed that my little drive from across town was nothing compared to what many of the other prospective students in the room had gone through to get there. I’d say that out of about 15 prospects, 8-10 had traveled either from out-of-state (including a banker from NYC and a consultant from DC–the usual suspects, I guess) or from another country (there were multiple people there from Asia).

The info session was long enough to be informative, yet brief enough so that your interest did not become stale. Later I discovered that this was partially due to the fact that there was an EMBA evening class coming in right after us (I’ll discuss in a later post why I do not want an EMBA, though that is the option that most people in my age group go for).

I found the admissions officer to be quite welcoming. It was obvious that he really cared about the program and the quality of students that came into it. One thing that slightly perturbed me, however, was his response after I asked a question about grade non-disclosure. I asked the question because I was still coming down from my hookah-and-opium-like philosophical high after visiting Stanford just a few weeks prior.

Before visiting “The GSB” (Stanford Business School’s nickname) I had actually never heard of grade non-disclosure before. Apparently, it’s one of may bourgeois perks that those of us who’ve attended state schools are none the wiser to. In a nutshell, students don’t disclose grades to each other or potential employers. The goal is that by doing so they will a) not be afraid to stretch, explore and take risks and b) create an environment that is much less competitive and catty than many top-ranked MBA programs are stereotyped to be; BRILLIANT!

So anyway, I’m casually asking about whether or not Anderson had or was at least considering a similar policy. Actually, I already knew that they didn’t have the policy. I was doing a litmus test (something that I’ve learned to employ before entering into ANY long term relationship) of the philosophical bent of the leadership of the program. Twelve years in Corporate America have taught me that the best way to gauge whether the right fit exists between you and an organization is to gauge how its leadership thinks (if you’re under 30, you can pay me later for that advice. It will potentially save you years of agony; I accept paypal and gift cards).

If their philosophy jives with you then so will the culture and the kinds of people that they allow to thrive. If not, don’t try to overlook it. Your eyes and ears are not deceiving you. Run from it like a genital sore on a hot date; because if you don’t, you’ll likely end up in a bitter divorce down the road anyway. Therefore, its just easier and better to cut ties right away before anyone (most likely you) gets hurt.

What raised my brow in this interaction was not the fact that the program did not have grade non-disclosure; several of my target schools do not. I was taken aback by the fact that the (still very gracious) admissions officer thought that I was somehow trying to hedge my bets against making bad grades and flunking out. Honestly, I was quite insulted. Was this a racial thing? Naaaah. ::sideeye::

He talked about the program being rigorous and that there would be an expectation that I perform academically in order to avoid academic probation.  Then, as my eyes began glossing over in dreamy disbelief, he suggested that I take a few “quant-heavy” business courses like accounting or economics to help prepare me for the challenge (I think an eyeball actually popped out and fell onto the floor at that point). I didn’t bother to tell him that I had an honors degree in electrical engineering; remember, this was a litmus test…and it wasn’t going well. My chief concern was whether his bent on this issue was indicative of a more traditional, uber corporate-leaning culture at Anderson.

One of my top criteria for business schools is that they have an open-minded way of viewing the world of business and bend over backwards to stay on the cutting edge of new trends and the latest groundbreaking ideas. Those are the kinds of environments in which entrepreneurs flourish.

I’ve been particularly impressed with how Harvard and Wharton–two schools who became world renown for their corporate bent–have invested such vast resources into entrepreneurship and innovation over the past few years. Initially, I wasn’t considering any schools on the east coast other than MIT due to thinking that it was the only program in that region (other than Babson) that fostered entrepreneurship. However, upon further research I was pleasantly surprised (blown away, actually) at just how much focus the aforementioned programs now place on this area.

So back to Anderson: I dunno; the jury is still out. I’m still heavily considering their program, but any final decision will be based on the outcomes of subsequent probes into how truly entrepreneur-friendly their culture is–provided that I even get accepted. Anderson is a top 15 program and not easy to get into at all. As I always say, time will tell.

The Stanford GSB:

If I had to choose just one word to describe my first visit to Stanford, it would be enchanting. Back in March I took a day off work to join 100 other prospective students at the Many Voices diversity event that the GSB hosts each year. Since I was going to be there anyway, I also chose to come a day early and sit in on two classes the day before the Saturday event (hence, the day off work).

This blog post is already way too long, so to get to the point I’ll just say that so far there is nothing that I don’t love about this school. For starters, it was one of the most intellectually stimulating environments that I have ever been in. And was I able to say this not only about the students, faculty and admissions staff but about my fellow prospective students as well.

The guest lecturer was an alumnus who is now the Director of Operations for Consumer Products at Google. She talked a lot about how much she loved her experience at The GSB and how that experience has helped her be more effective throughout her (very high profile) career–like when she was called upon to set up and run Google’s India operation a few years ago.

During the classroom discussions, we (as visitors) were supposed to sit quietly in the back and observe. Though I complied with the rules, I had a very difficult time not raising my hand and actively taking part in the discussions. To think that it might be possible to gain such a world-class experience while having to give up neither the California weather nor Trader Joes is the stuff that dreams are made of (well, California dreams anyway).

The only irritant that I experienced had nothing to do with the actual GSB program. Though I’m all for the kum ba yah atmosphere at Stanford (it fits me quite well, actually) there was one student there who I found to be obnoxiously sanctimonious.

After going on and on bragging about her Ivy League undergrad education and how it had prepared her for Stanford (I actually had no problem with that part; I think people should be proud of their accomplishments) she turned around and tried to convince me and a few other prospective students that we really shouldn’t put too much pressure on ourselves to score highly on the GMAT (mind you, Stanford has the highest average GMAT of any school in the world; not to mention the lowest acceptance rate to boot @ just 6.5%).

I thought silently, speak for yourself, you glib little prep school brat. Some of us have a lot more to prove. Her paternalistic commentary reminded me of some rich liberal (living on trust fund money, no less) giving a speech to poor people about how money isn’t everything. Though there is some truth to that, how can someone who has never experienced not having the benefits of it speak about it with such familiarity? That would be like me, a black man from the south telling a polar bear to not be so sad about the snow because summer’s coming.

At any rate, that was just one small moment in a 3-day weekend of awe and bliss. Actually, I won’t be too hard on the aforementioned student because I know that she meant well. I think her true intention was to implore us to “dig deep” and be introspective about why Stanford might be a good fit for us. In fact, she’s someone that I’d love to be in class with/get to know. I have no doubt that our experiences are quite unique from one another’s and we could learn a great deal from each other’s perspective.

Ultimately, I liked most about The GSB were the intangibles that seemed to be offered outside of the classroom. Its collaborative, innovative culture, close-knit student body and emphasis on thinking big and taking risks provide one of the more natural environments for entrepreneurial incubation that I have ever seen.

After speaking with two of my classmates from undergrad who completed studies at The GSB in ’06 and ’07, respectively, their sentiments about the school completely validate my experiences during that weekend.  By the time we got to the final presentation from the all-powerful admissions committee I was on such a high that I was certain it would be a group hookah session. It wasn’t; but it was a nice thought.

To be fair, Stanford is the only school that I’ve gotten a chance to attend an actual hosted event at yet. I’ll gladly sign up when the other schools that I’ll be able to afford to visit send out invites for similar events. Until then, Stanford = +1 x 10^12.

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About mbaover30

Wharton MBA and admissions expert

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31 Comments on “Visiting Stanford, UCLA and USC: A Prequel to the Blog”

  1. cheetarah1980 Says:

    I know that school visits can be really expensive and I understand not wanting to travel to the mid west schools on your list unless you get an interview. However, 8 schools is a lot. I know you want to cast a wide net but you may be underestimating how much work even one application takes. Just like your visit to USC helped you cross it off the list, I am sure visiting Kellogg, HBS, Wharton, MIT, etc will help you narrow down some of those too. Many schools start their visit programs at least 6 weeks prior to the R1 application deadlines (plus 8 schools in R1 is beyond aggressive). I highly recommend attending the diversity weekends if possible or at least the daily visit program. You can hit MIT and HBS in one trip and do Kellogg and Booth (really consider adding this one) in another.

    Also, I know that right now it seems that you might not get in anywhere, but have you thought about what you will do if you get into 3 or 4 or more of your schools. Believe me when I say that choosing amongst schools of this caliber is beyond difficult. There is such a thing as having too many options.

    One other thing, have considered applying to Anderson and Haas through the Consortium?


    • mbaover30 Says:

      First cheetarah, I just want to say that I love how engaged you are on my blog; awesomeness. It’s funny that you mention the Consortium, because that is the only thing that makes applying to these schools even possible. I plan to apply to UCLA, Berkeley, and possibly Yale and Tuck all through one Consortium application. So effectively, I am only filling out 6 applications either way you slice it. I’m also glad that you’ve mentioned Booth; its the 3rd confirmation that I’ve gotten about that school with the past 3 days (1 year ago I didn’t even know the program existed) and I LOVE what I’ve seen thus far. I am trying to decide whether I will ADD Booth or completely REPLACE Kellogg with Booth. We’ll have to see. I’ve been digging for more entrepreneurial info about Kellogg but what I have come across thus far seems lacking compared with their competitors in the top 10-15.


    • mbaover30 Says:

      Oh and one other thing…If the sky opened today and rained down an acceptance to each of these programs, I know the exact order that I would choose them in based on fit, curriculum, location, opportunities and network.


  2. cheetarah1980 Says:

    Word of caution about the Consortium application: it’s not as common as it’s purported to be. You still have to write school specific essays in addition to the common Consortium essays. Some schools only add one or two supplemental essays, others just tack on ALL of their application essays to the Consortium’s common app. If you apply to H/S/W, MIT, K and/or B, and 4 Consortium schools that is still a lot (even with the Consortium common app). I initially intended to apply to 9 schools (4 though the Consortium). In the end I applied to 4. It’s easier to make the cuts before you apply than after you’ve submitted an app and realize you don’t really want to be there.
    The good thing is that you’ve started early. You have plenty of time to work through all of your options and figure out a plan of action. You seem cool so I’m definitely rooting for you.


    • mbaover30 Says:

      I appreciate you lending this wisdom and will definitely think long and hard before making any final decisions. I do plan to start very early and may end up making some of the cuts you speak of when the time comes. Thank you again.


  3. Vico Says:

    I’d be interested to read your reasons for pursuing an MBA full-time rather than taking the EMBA option. Think it would be informative for other prospective applicants in the over 30 group….most are influenced to pursue the part-time & EMBA route either by advice of cohort, mentors, family and the like or posts on b-school forums…


    • mbaover30 Says:

      I agree with that Vico. I’m already working on that post and you should see it within a week or so. Make sure to subscribe (upper right side) so that you can be updated when it is published.


  4. juggurnaut Says:

    mbaover30 , did you eventually visit Haas last year ? From what you write , i think i have a very similar preference for the kind of environment i want to be in . However being an international student , it is very difficult to travel and visit campus and thus get the first hand feel of the philosophical and ideological bent of the school ! Personally , i would want to be in an intellectually stimulating environment where the focus is more on brainstorming , networking and getting things off the ground rather than traditional delivery of management concepts! So far from my research i have found Booth , Stanford ,MIT emit the kind of vibes i would want to absorb . What would your take on Haas be , if you did visit ? Did you find it similar ?



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