What Burning Man and B-School Have in Common

As part of our month-long anniversary celebration, I’m highlighting some of my favorite blog posts from along the way that I think will really resonate with applicants who are gearing up for submission this fall.  …


As part of our month-long anniversary celebration, I’m highlighting some of my favorite blog posts from along the way that I think will really resonate with applicants who are gearing up for submission this fall. 


I’m devoting today’s post to Burning Man, the late-summer ritual that draws over 60,000 participants to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada every year.

For the uninitiated, here’s how Burning Man works: Each year, participants build an entire city from scratch and live in it for a week. People work together to build elaborate camps and villages—their themes and functions varying widely. You can find open mic lounges, yoga and meditation spaces, collaborative art installations and just about anything else imaginable.

While Burning Man is unique on many levels—it is the self-described “annual art event and temporary community based on radical self-expression and self-reliance in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada”—one of its most fascinating rules is that nothing can be bought or sold, with the exceptions of ice and coffee. No one receives any financial compensation for his or her efforts.

95598535_e4c4d53f1a_zThen, at the end of the week, all the camps are burned or completely dismantled. One of the rules of Burning Man is to leave the desert exactly as you found it.

On the surface, it would seem that there is very little overlap between the cultures of Burning Man and business school. The former’s participants are largely stereotyped as hippies and artists running off to escape the constraints of society for a week, while MBAs are seen as leaders of the types of industry and societal structures that Burning Man participants are trying to flee.

However, a closer look reveals that there is more in common between the two than one would think. In fact, aspiring MBAs can learn valuable lessons from the Burning Man community:

1. Self-sufficiency is key.

Because Burning Man has no vendors (there’s no money, remember?), attendees must make sure they come in with ample provisions for the week—food, water, gear and clothing—enough for 100- degree days and near-freezing nights. Participants must be prepared for anything.

Similarly, many MBA grads describe the time they spent in B-school as the two most intense years of their lives. Admissions committees are well aware of this. When reviewing applications, they will look for candidates whose stories demonstrate resiliency. They will also want to ensure that you have a realistic understanding of the drive and dedication it will take to succeed in their program.

2. Your leadership skills will be tested.

Time and again, aspiring MBAs tell me that one of the main reasons they want to get in is so they can improve and refine their leadership skills. Burning Man is nothing if not a week-long leadership intensive.

Consider this: How can you get people to work for you when you can’t offer them the usual forms of compensation like money and promotions? How can you get them to build something that will be completely dismantled at the end of the week?

The camps and projects that succeed at Burning Man have one thing in common: leaders who clearly express their vision and create a positive shared experience for their fellow participants.

3. Teamwork is key.

At the same time, it’s important to know when to step away from leading and become part of the team. That’s essential to the Burning Man experience, where the point isn’t simply to build your own structure but to participate in others’ camps and villages as well.

Understanding the importance of collaboration and teamwork is vital to growing and learning at B-school.  Make sure that your application contains examples of your ability to play both roles—leader and team member—effectively.

4. Creativity counts.

At Burning Man, people express their creativity through their appearance and by being problem solvers—for example, figuring out how to anchor installations against high desert winds. While you won’t have too many opportunities to wear tutus and animal costumes at B-school, you will be asked to apply creative thought to problems.

The admission committee will look for evidence in your essays and your interview responses that show you have a unique perspective that will add something new to the classroom.

5. Be an individual but participate in the collective.

Every year, Burning Man has a theme. Participants can interpret these themes however they like, and part of the fun is seeing the variety of installations and spaces that spring up according to themes like “Rites of Passage” and “American Dream.”

Like Burning Man, all MBA programs have their own unique culture. The key for your application is to speak to the individual attributes that make you a great candidate, conveys your understanding of the school’s culture and reveals how you will be a great fit there.

Image credits: Flickr users Bexx Brown-Spinelli (CC BY-ND 2.0) and Aaron Logan (CC BY 2.0)

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Weigh Being a Generalist, Specialist in Business School

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News. After the Great Recession hit in 2008, business schools started ramping up their menu of specializations to meet the demand of students eager …

generalist or specialist mba

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.

After the Great Recession hit in 2008, business schools started ramping up their menu of specializations to meet the demand of students eager to differentiate themselves as experts in a given area.

This expansion into concentrations has become a way for schools to innovate while they educate the next generation of business leaders. It has also become a way for them to distinguish their own MBA programs from other top business schools.

Unlike a master’s degree in finance or accounting or other specialty, an MBA is by definition a generalist program, which exposes students to many different disciplines – both hard disciplines like finance and soft like organizational behavior.

If you’re contemplating business school, think about whether you’d prefer a general management approach or one that offers majors or concentrations. Choosing to be a generalist or specialist at business school depends heavily on your end goals.

Advantages of being a generalist: Business schools want to fill their classes with students who will not only get hired after graduation but eventually run the firm.

Most applicants see business school as a way to grow as a leader and advance their career. The degree imparts a strong foundation of general business knowledge, allowing students to gain a greater understanding of how various departments operate.

Although students typically come to b-school with a clear career goal in mind for after graduation, an MBA program is actually an excellent time to explore a variety of subjects and experiences that may ultimately redirect your path. For long-term flexibility in the global marketplace, career-switchers need a breadth of courses to prepare them for the myriad management responsibilities they will encounter in whichever sector they end up.

The only potential drawback to a general MBA is that you may not acquire the depth of knowledge required for a particular position. However, that broader know-how and wider range of career opportunities that come from earning an MBA at a top program is almost always worth it.

Advantages of being a specialist: MBA specialization is a good move for individuals who know exactly what they want to do with their career and who want to build a stronger skill base in that area.

If you already know that you’re interested in an area like digital marketing, real estate, business analytics, social innovation, health care and so forth, then earning an MBA with a concentration can make you even more marketable. Recruiters like to see a strong focus on a particular field or functional area.

In today’s competitive job market, having that specialization on your resume, bolstered by a supporting internship or extracurricular activities, will help you stand out from the crowd. Students who specialize can also grow their niche network during the MBA program and then be ready to hit the ground running on day one.

Drawbacks of being a specialist: While specializing in a certain area of business is fine, know that it can be limiting.

One could even argue that you should just earn a degree in that specialty instead. Depending on the career path you have chosen after graduation, by specializing you could inadvertently pigeonhole yourself and narrow your job prospects, especially if you’re a career-changer.

A recent Harvard Business Review article detailed how Tulane Assistant Professor Jennifer Merluzzi and Columbia Business School Professor Damon Phillips studied the records of almost 400 students, who in 2008 and 2009 graduated from top U.S. MBA programs and then entered the investment banking field.

Among their findings, the researchers discovered that, “specialists were definitely penalized by the market. Not only were they less likely to receive multiple offers, but they were offered smaller signing bonuses. In some cases the specialists earned up to $48,000 less than their generalist peers.”

The classroom experience may also differ notably for specialists. Instead of classes with individuals who have multiple, diverse perspectives that enrich a traditional MBA experience, participants in the same specialization will likely have similar backgrounds and professional experiences from which to call on.

Ultimately, when you’re running a company, chances are you won’t be pulling together the financial models or balancing the books. Understanding those aspects is important, but you don’t need to be a master – ideally you will hire others to do the deep dive.

My friend and executive at a Fortune 100 company, who has thousands of employees reporting to him, once explained his role to me. He said, “I know what needs to be done and I get people to do it for me.”

Whether you choose to pursue a general or specialty MBA, pay close attention in all of your classes – even the areas you would plan to outsource when you have the budget.

Image credit: EIO on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Tuesday Tips: The University of Texas at Austin McCombs 2017 MBA Essay Tips

University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business is a globally recognized MBA program, located in the center of technology and creativity that is Austin. Programs like McCombs can provide an especially strong regional …

mccombs school of businessUniversity of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business is a globally recognized MBA program, located in the center of technology and creativity that is Austin. Programs like McCombs can provide an especially strong regional network if you are currently in Texas or plan to settle in Texas after your MBA.

When approaching these essay questions think about the reasons you are pursuing an MBA, particularly at McCombs. Thorough school research will help you come up with specifics, by taking to current or former students, visiting campus, or attending admissions events.

Essay 1. The University of Texas at Austin values unique perspectives and cultivates a collaborative environment of distinct individual contributions. It is the first day of orientation. You are meeting your study group, comprised of five of your classmates from various backgrounds. Please introduce yourself to your new team, highlighting what drives you in your personal and professional life.

Select only one communication method that you would like to use for your response.
• Write an essay (250 words)
• Share a video introduction (one minute)

For an open-ended essay with a creative option (the video) it can be daunting to think of a topic. Rather than focusing on how you are going to communicate, start thinking about what you want to communicate to the McCombs admissions committee by introducing yourself to your new study group.

The best essays will dive deep into your motivations and aspirations, perhaps getting into your cultural background, formative moments in your life and friends, family and colleagues who have influenced you. To identify one or two key stories you may want to tell, think about those pivotal moments of change in your life.

For many people the transition from high school to college and from college to work led to personal change. Others had formative childhood experiences or experiences that led to shifts in perspective like travel or living outside your home country. Any one of these moments could be a good way to illustrate who you are and what motivates you.

Once you have identified the content of your essay you can decide how to present it. A video could give you the opportunity to add elements of emotion, such as humor, that are harder to convey in writing. A video also allows you to include graphics, photos or other visual elements. If your story fits better into a written narrative you may choose the written essay instead.

Essay 2. Based on your post-MBA goals and what drives you in your personal and professional life, why is the Texas MBA the ideal program for you and how do you plan to engage in our community? (500 words)

This essay is your opportunity to demonstrate strong fit with the Texas McCombs program. As part of your homework before starting this set of essays you have learned as much as possible about the school, now you can bring in your own aspirations and goals to describe what you plan to be part of.

Some of the unique opportunities at McCombs include the Venture Labs, supporting your entrepreneurial dreams, and The MBA+ Program, with opportunities to work with influential companies through a variety of touch points. Austin is another unique benefit to the program that you may want to discuss in the context of your background and goals.

For example, perhaps you are interested in working for a major technology firm to learn product manager skills that you will then take into starting your own business. While at McCombs you can test ideas with the Venture Labs, and also consult for major companies like Adobe or HP to learn how large companies work. These experiences will certainly give you an advantage as your build your post MBA career.

Don’t forget the personal – Texas McCombs has an active and engaged student culture with many student organizations you may be interested in joining.

Optional Statement: Please provide any additional information you believe is important and/or address any areas of concern that will be beneficial to the Admissions Committee in considering your application (e.g. unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, academic performance, or extenuating personal circumstances). (250 words)

This optional essay provides space for you to add your own context to any information that may hinder your admission prospects. For example, if you have a lower than average test score, any grades below a C on your transcript, academic probation or a significant resume gap, you can explain here. Keep your explanation concise and factual, and focused on context for the issue rather than excuses.

Stacy Blackman Consulting can provide personalized, strategic guidance for your Texas McCombs MBA application. Contact us to learn more.

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Tuesday Tips: Michigan Ross Fall 2017 MBA Essay Tips

Michigan Ross is a program that emphasizes learning both inside and outside the classroom, and is seeking candidates that are intellectually curious and able to accomplish their goals. Ross is also a close-knit community and …

Michigan Ross MBA admissions

Michigan Ross is a program that emphasizes learning both inside and outside the classroom, and is seeking candidates that are intellectually curious and able to accomplish their goals.

Ross is also a close-knit community and fit with the program is important to demonstrate in the application process. Visiting Ross or learning about the program through current students, alumni or faculty would be helpful before starting this set of essays.

The Ross admissions blog is an excellent resource for tips to approach these essay questions, and gives you a window into what the admissions committee is looking for.

Essay One: What are you most proud of outside of your professional life? How does it shape who you are today? (up to 400 words)

Last year Ross permitted either a professional or personal example for this essay. This year, Ross Admissions Director Soojin Kwon explains: “The motivation for adding “outside of your professional life” (to Q1, which asks what you’re most proud of) was to get to glimpse into the personal side of you. We’ll already have your resume and rec letter to give us a sense of your professional life. Besides, would you want to read thousands of essays about the time someone was a project manager and completed the project on time and under budget? (I hope you said “no”). Me either. (I’m going to assume you said “no”).”

Some of the personal attributes most valued at Ross include community engagement and interpersonal, communication and teamwork skills. When you consider topics for this essay you may want to write about an important extracurricular moment, a challenge you overcame, or an event in your life that highlights something unique about your background.

For example, if you have a track record of club leadership through college and afterwards that can be compelling evidence of your community engagement and leadership skills. On the other end of the spectrum perhaps you have spent time outside your home country for school or work and that has shaped how you approach your life and decisions.

Take note that this essay is really about getting to know you as a person, not as a collection of accomplishments. Your values and personal life will ideally shine through, as you explain what is most important to you and why.

“Why” is a crucial part of this essay, along with how your values have impacted your life. Finally, make sure that your values, as expressed in this essay, are aligned with how you want to be perceived by the admissions committee.

Essay Two: What is your desired career path and why? (up to 250 words)

Michigan Ross is interested to hear what you plan to do after your MBA and what is motivating that decision. Both traditional and non-traditional MBA goals are welcomed as long as you are sincere about the path you plan to take.

This essay is straightforward and Ross is not looking for extra explanation. Ideally you can describe your career path in a sentence or two and use the remainder of the space to elaborate.

Answering “why” you chose your career path is crucial. As you describe your career path make sure you explain what has led you to pursue it, and why it resonates with you. The answer doesn’t need to be elaborate or dramatic, but it should be convincing and real.

The question doesn’t ask “Why MBA?” or “Why Ross?” but you may want to address both questions. If Ross has unique resources that will help you achieve your goal, this is a great place to describe how you will use them.

Optional Statement: This section should only be used to convey information not addressed elsewhere in your application, for example, completion of supplemental coursework, employment gaps, academic issues, etc. Feel free to use bullet points where appropriate.

Take it directly from the Ross admissions director: “The optional essay should only be used if there’s something in your background that requires a brief explanation. It’s not the place to submit an essay you wrote for another school, or to tell us how much you love Ross.”

Think about anything that may raise questions while reviewing a resume, transcript or recommendations. Typically the kinds of gaps that raise questions are significant gaps in employment (more than a few months), anything below a C on your college transcript (particularly in quantitative coursework) and low test scores.

Stacy Blackman Consulting has worked with successful candidates to Michigan Ross for over a decade and can offer comprehensive strategic advice every step of the way. Contact us to learn more.

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Why Do You Want to Go to B-School?

You’re going to be asked that question a lot over the next several months, so you need to come up with a good answer.  Actually, several different good answers, each tailored for distinct constituencies. MBA …

why business schoolYou’re going to be asked that question a lot over the next several months, so you need to come up with a good answer.  Actually, several different good answers, each tailored for distinct constituencies.

MBA Admissions Committees: Show them that you know appreciate the value of learning opportunities and have taken advantage of them.  Illustrate how the MBA program will be a better place to develop your skills and further your interests than your current job or even your likely next job would be.

Colleagues/Managers: There are many firms where young professionals regularly exit to attend MBA programs, and a fresh crop of MBAs cycle in every fall.  In other workplaces, some colleagues might view an exit as “giving up on the team.” You don’t want your MBA admission to cast a pall over your final months in your current job.

If you explain your MBA as an opportunity to prepare yourself for opportunities a decade or two down the road—rather than as a route to get a better job than you could get coming from your current position—they may be more supportive.

The Doubters: Last year, a couple of my clients recounted how alumni interviewers probed deeply on why they were applying, even going so far as to say to an entrepreneurially inclined individual, “You don’t need an MBA to do what you want to do.”

Candidates who may want to stay in the same field (or return to the same firm) after graduation and those who want to enter the not-for-profit or government sectors often hear the same stuff.  My would-be-entrepreneur candidate was prepared: she countered with a list of a half dozen world-renowned entrepreneurs from this particular MBA program.

The Haters: There are people who don’t see the value of business school at all (shocking, I know).  After all, business people usually don’t need accreditation like doctors, lawyers and some other professionals.  With these folks, you should be prepared to talk about why this will not just be a “two-year vacation” for you.

So, dear readers, how many of these scenarios have you already come up against?

Image credit: inertia NC (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Does an MBA Pay Off? Ask Paul Ollinger

Sometimes, applying to business school can seem like such an uphill slog that you really need to disconnect from the process from time to time in order to recharge and remember that there are other people in …

Paul Ollinger book cover

Sometimes, applying to business school can seem like such an uphill slog that you really need to disconnect from the process from time to time in order to recharge and remember that there are other people in your life that you’ve probably been neglecting, and other interesting things you could be doing in addition to brainstorming MBA essays and filling in data forms.

If you’re looking for something to occupy that down time, you should check out the new book by Tuck School of Business grad Paul Ollinger, “You Should Totally Get an MBA: A Comedian’s Guide to Top U.S. Business Schools.” 

Ollinger has graciously allowed us to post some excerpts of his book on the blog. Here, we’re sharing a chapter that will answer a burning question for many professionals wondering whether going to business school is a wise financial decision.

Chapter 5: Does An MBA Pay Off?

Me: Hell yes it pays off.

You: Is that a guarantee?

Me: Yeah, man. Haven’t you been paying attention?

You: So it will absolutely, positively have a positive financial ROI?

Me: Well… While attaining an MBA will move you down the road to enlightenment, getting an MBA is still really, really expensive. You might logically ask yourself, “What’s the ROI on enlightenment?” Excellent question!

Now you’re thinking like an MBA. Let’s do the math. For our purposes here, we’ll assume that you are going to HBS (hey, you deserve it).


  • HBS first year tuition for Class of 2017 = $61,225
  • HBS books, materials, fees = $7,655
  • Total for first year = $68,88011 We will assume that tuition and fees increase 5% for year two, so that:
  • Total tuition and fees for second year = $72,324
  • Two year total = $141,204

Yikes! That’s a lot of dough. And like the guy selling knives on late night TV says, “But wait—there’s more!” The average HBS grad walks out with about $84,000 in student debt, and that debt costs money. The price is the interest that you pay until you pay it off.

If you have the means, you can pay it off more quickly, but let’s assume it takes you a decade to knock it all out:

  •  Student loan interest: 6% * $84,000 * 10 yrs = approx. $27,908
  • $141k in tuition/fees + $28k in interest = $169,000

And we’re still not done. Because you won’t be working during your two years at HBS you have to factor in your lost wages in the calculation. Let’s say you make $85,000/year at your good preMBA job.

Including your foregone income of $170,000, the total cost of getting a Harvard MBA (or one similar) is about $339,000. Holy crap. Enlightenment is expensive! Is it really worth $339,000?

Enlightenment is hard to put an exact number on, but wage growth isn’t. And this is where HBS has a dynamite return on average (we’ll get back to the assumptions we’re making a little later). If you go to HBS, you will not only get a bunch of crazy smart friends and a closet full of crimson hoodies, you’ll also get on average a very juicy pay bump and an accelerated career path.

Here’s what that might look like:


  • Base pay bump from $85,000 to $140,000
  • Signing bonus: $25,000
  • Summer internship income: $20,000
  • Career accelerator (4% raises v. 2% raises)

Let’s take a look at what that pay bump and career accelerator look like in action. Your MBA begins paying off in the form of increased income in your first year out of school. You make $55,000 more than you would have without it, and life is good. But wait—there’s more!

Because HBS has put you on an accelerated career path (and the steeper income growth trajectory that comes with it), your pay grows at a faster rate than it would have sans-MBA. So that annual pay differential continues growing as you relish your MBAness and continue to kick business world ass.

It is in this stream of MBA-powered increased income that we answer the question, “Does an MBA pay off?” You can see that over your first 10 years out of HBS, your income will be $750k more than it would have been had you never pursued that MBA. Using our friend NPV (Net Present Value), we then measure how much that stream of income is worth today, relative to the $369k that the MBA costs.

While the NPV is less than the $750k, and varies depending on your weighted average cost of capital, in both scenarios, an HBS MBA is a homerun, positive ROI fiesta de dinero! By the way, weighted average cost-of-capital is one of those great things you’ll learn about at business school.

And this is just for the first 10 years out of HBS. You will likely work for another decade or two beyond this, and in those prime earning years, that pay differential will—theoretically—be even more pronounced.

ON THE OTHER HAND… There are some really meaningful and impactful assumptions we’re making in the model above. And, to paraphrase the monetary philosopher Ol’ Dirty Bastard, assumptions’ll “bust yer ass.” So we should be aware of them, lest our assuming asses get busted.

First, remember that the average first year income for HBS alumni includes very non-average people making crazy money in consulting, investment banking, hedge funds and the like. If you are not committed to a career in one of these fields (or if you’re in these fields but below the mean earners in those fields), your income will likely be lower-to-much-lower.

This doesn’t mean that your HBS degree will have a negative ROI over the long run, but it just might take longer to break even. That’s worth keeping in mind. Second, these reported incomes are skewed way high by alumni living in New York, London, San Francisco and Hong Kong, i.e. the most expensive cities in the world. So while they may be making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, they may also be paying $4,000/month (or lots more) to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

You shouldn’t look at these average incomes and think, “I am going to live like a king on $175,000/year in Tulsa, OK!” ‘Cuz that’s probably not where you’re going to find these juicy pay packages. Third, you are a growing and evolving human being. Your interests, desires and passions will change over time. The career you find intriguing right out of business school might not float your boat 5, 10 or 15 years later.

Maybe you just decide that you’re not interested in doing [fill in the name of career] any more, and that you really want to [work with kids / do something for the developing world / become a stand-up comedian]. Or maybe the grind of an 80+ hour work week is something you can tolerate when you’re young and single but not when you’re older, married and raising children.

Or maybe some health issues present themselves and you need to hit “pause” on your career to deal with them. In any of these scenarios, the juicy comp packages and steepened earning curves pretty much fly out the window.

Fourth, the model above represents an uninterrupted, positive career trajectory. Due to the vicissitudes of the market, the economy and personal wackness, careers often do not maintain a smooth progression upward and to the right. If historical economic trends continue, you should expect some kind of ugly macroeconomic tornado to blow through every seven years or so.

Whether it’s dot-com bubbles busting, global mortgages imploding or Adam Smith’s invisible hand getting caught in the cookie jar, bad stuff that is way out of your control happens, and it’s going to affect your career. You get out of school and everything goes dandy for two years. Then in year three, the world explodes and you get fired/laid-off/made redundant from your job.

Maybe you saw it coming or maybe you didn’t, but that doesn’t really matter as you getting canned is the result of an industry-wide meltdown and no one—I mean no one—in your industry is hiring. So you sit on the sidelines for a whole year and log a goose-egg in the old income column. Meanwhile, you still got those big ol’ student loans hanging over your head, with the interest meter still running.

An MBA isn’t a Harry Potter invisibility cloak that hides you from nuclear macroeconomic meltdown. It also won’t give you x-ray vision or the ability to fly. Further, some people just aren’t down for the whole business school experience itself. The long hours, grueling workload and late night stress-busting parties don’t suit everyone’s lifestyle.

Prospective business school students should do their due diligence to make sure they know what they are getting into. Some MBA programs saddle their graduates with massive piles of debt without providing an income that enables the graduate to battle that debt monster.

A degree from a school ranked #50 might provide you with a leg up, but it will not do the same thing for a career that a degree from Wharton or Kellogg would. Even from the top schools, an MBA is a powerful credential, but it is only potential financial energy until you turn it into debt-slashing income through year after year of hard work.

Net: don’t pursue business school unless you can pay for it outright or you’re committed to paying back your loans. Enter the process with eyes wide open—these loans are big numbers that grow while you sleep. Their very existence will exacerbate the stress of any fluctuations in your career. Banishing them from your post-grad life might mean sticking with a job you don’t love for a lot longer than you otherwise would have…assuming that’s even within your control.

You may also be interested in:

Paul Ollinger Says “You Should Totally Get an MBA” 

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