Helpful books for MBA hopefuls

Hello. This morning I was interviewed by Diana Jordan of about the kinds of books MBA aspirants should read in the run-up to application season. Definitely check out the podcast and read more about the topic in this recycled “oldie, but goodie” blog entry from last year.

Setting aside time to read over the next few months is one of the smartest things you can do to enhance your candidacy for top-flight MBA programs. Many candidates have not read a book for personal enjoyment or education for years, and they often don’t consider the busy summer and fall before MBA application season a good time to start up again. But when you examine the list of reasons for diving into some good books over the next several months, it really seems like a no-brainer. Reading can:

  • Improve your vocabulary and mastery of grammar: reading is a change of pace from GMAT prep, but can still help you in this area
  • Improve your writing: your b-school essays will represent one of the biggest and most important writing projects of your life. Getting ideas about interesting sentence structures and storytelling methods will be invaluable
  • Give you more to write about: you may think of whole new essay ideas or refine ideas about certain sections of essays
  • Give you more to talk about: business school interviewers want to learn about the “full you.” Many interviews go into current events, history, politics, etc., so if you can demonstrate that you’ve kept aware of the world outside of your cubicle, you’re a step ahead of the game.

Demonstrate your passions
By no means is it necessary to plow through a stack of the latest business books so that you can drop buzzword after buzzword in your essays and interviews. And you shouldn’t feel obligated to round out the “weak” areas of your business experience by hitting the local bookstore to get “Stocktrading for Dummies” or “Marketing for Dummies.” After all, we go to business school in order to learn about disciplines that are new to us.

The most important thing is to further develop your own interests and passions, not demonstrate that you are a member of the “Warren Buffett Book of the Month Club.” If you are interested in art, read about that. If you are intrigued by the history of baseball, immerse yourself in it. If medical science advances fascinate you, find some gems in this arena. Of course, it never hurts to develop some form of “business perspective” on the subjects you feel passionately about. For instance, if you love reading about medicine, mix in some books about, say, the economics of the healthcare system in the United States or the behavior of the global pharma industry.

If you wish to transition to a new sort of career after business school, demonstrating this kind of commitment can be particularly important. If you have been an IT consultant for the last five years, but want to become an entrepreneur and launch a new restaurant concept, you should show a commitment to the area that goes beyond spending your $50 consulting per diem in the finest restaurants your client’s city has to offer. Reading about consumer trends, restaurant/retail entrepreneurs or the organic food movement helps show that you follow your interests, you don’t just talk about them.

Some ideas about what to read
To reiterate: read anything, just read! That’s the key element””thinking about words, structures, ideas and storytelling. Even John Grisham’s latest paperback helps with that.

But, if you wish to assemble a reading list with a little more of an application and interview preparation agenda, here are some ideas. First of all, I recommend that all my clients read selections from Songbook, by Nick Hornby (the fellow who wrote High Fidelity and About a Boy). This is an entertaining book featuring essays about the author’s favorite songs and the impact they have had on his life. Hornby uses music as a “door” to enter into discussions about some very serious issues, like his son’s autism. Since his essays are of a similar length to some you’ll be writing for your applications, you can really get some strong ideas about structure and storytelling.

Here are some other books that are not only entertaining an interesting, they might just influence your ideas on business without pounding you with a hail of buzzwords (Please click here to check out the reading list on Amazon):

Powerful ideas from science and history
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn
You’ve heard the term “paradigm shift” a thousand times. Read the incredibly persuasive book that essentially coined the term.

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond
Learn why some societies thrived while others vanished.

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright
Illustrates how certain ideas, philosophies and cultural institutions come to the fore; argues that one of the main motive forces of human history is a drive toward more cooperation.

Viewpoints on the economy and society
The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman
A must read in an era of increasing globalization; illustrates the technological and societal forces that make the world a smaller place everyday.

The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
Isolates the reasons why certain trends becomes phenomena.

Freakanomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Strange viewpoints and sometimes counterintuitive analyses of critical economic and societal issues

Costing the Earth, by Frances Cairncross,
A little outdated, but this is the most compelling economic analysis I have ever read about the true impact of economic activity on the environment, and the impact of environmental health on the economy; by a former Economist editor

Business books that make you think
The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen
Illustrates the organizational impediments to innovation faced by industry leading companies.

Trading Up: The New American Luxury, by Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske
Isolates the trend of affordable luxuries, a force behind many of the top consumer brands of the last two decades

The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures, by Frans Johansson
Illustrates how the most compelling innovations come at the intersection of diverse disciplines

Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things, by Donald Norman
Design is a huge part of major recent success stories such as I-pod and Target stores; read a great book about what makes great design

Business History
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., by Ron Chernow
Compelling business biography.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, Daniel Yergin
Yeah”¦more oil, but it’s important stuff and this was a Pulitzer Prize wining book on the rise of the commodity to its current place of prominence in the world economy.

Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers’ Trust from Wedgwood to Dell, by Nancy Koehn
Sweeping intro to the discipline of business history, cutting across a wide variety of industries.

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