Aiming for a Business Career: A How-To for College Students and Recent Grads
My day job is helping people get into the business schools in the world, and most of my paying clients are a few months away from filling out their applications. In most cases, I wish I had met them years earlier. That’s because young professionals-to-be could have taken advantage of opportunities that make it just plain easier to jump into a great enterprise after graduating.
Solid skills, leadership potential, global awareness
The MBA is not a requirement for a business career. And I don’t recommend that people set their sights on it simply because it’s another hoop to jump through. But some of the things that admissions officers are looking for are some of the same things that recruiters are looking for, which are the same things that your hiring manager and teammate wants from you: a combination of solid skills, leadership potential, and global awareness.
Harvard Business School presents essentially the same three attributes as its admissions criteria. And if you know up front that’s what everyone is looking for, you have a good chance to work on them now.
I’m leading with the math stuff because many exciting post-college jobs need you to crunch numbers and use excel. It may not be inspiring work right away, but businesses make decisions on analytics, and if you can figure your way around basic math and logic problems, you will add value to your team. Look at the job description for the analyst position at any of the consulting or investment firms, and you’ll see they are looking for candidates with strong analytic (=math/quant skills).
If you are thinking of going a less formal route, but are still considering business or professional graduate school, you should take one math course now and nail it. If calculus scares you, take business statistics (not social science stats). It’s incredibly relevant; I’ve used the tools of probability and regression time and time again in my own finance career, and never had to calculate the area under a curve.
Finally, grades matter. People talk all about the GPA, but the quality of the school, the challenge of courses and the trend are more important. Everyone forgives a weak freshman year if you turn it around by your junior year and really focus.
Patterns of leadership
Harvard Business School calls it a “habit of leadership,” There are thousands of definitions of leadership, and it doesn’t mean you have to be president of the student body or be the next Mark Zuckerberg. You should be actively involved in a select number of activities during college. Investment firms like athletes, not just because of the competition, but sports requires working hard, discipline and being part of a team. Sports show opportunities for leadership, not just for the captain, but through collaboration and helping teammates do better.
You can also start your own a club or lead an initiative. One student I worked with from Vassar (my undergrad alma mater) started two different clubs – snowboarding, electronic music, and now is spearheading an entrepreneurial effort within the alumni community.
Emerging leadership shows in the words of a student newspaper editorial or production of a college comedy troupe. You can find leadership in teaching – especially if it means getting up in front of a room, encouraging a discussion, motivating others, giving and receiving feedback. The college campus is filled with opportunities to spread your wings and make something happen. That’s how leaders begin.
I once asked Derrick Bolton, head of admissions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, if having overseas experience was a “check the box” requirement to get admitted. He demurred, but did say that he would encourage college students to become fluent in another language. MBA programs are training global leaders. Look at the single essay University of Virginia’s Darden School requires of applicants:
Share your perspective on leadership in the workplace and describe how it has been shaped by the increasing influence of globalization.
For those of you who are already bi-lingual or bi-cultural, you have a leg up on the competition. It’s no secret that business is global; it could mean living abroad or it could mean working in an international virtual team. This cross-border outlook is essential for those who want to be leaders in business or social enterprises. Having worked in Asia for 10 years, I personally believe that a cross-cultural experience should be a requirement for tomorrow’s business leaders.
Take a breath
You don’t have to race toward your career goal by doing everything perfectly, or even in a straight line. Take advantage of all the opportunities you have now.
Aim high. You’ve got nothing to lose.