Getting Started: Asking the Right Questions

*Note: This post is primarily geared towards MBA candidates, but is largely applicable to JD prospects as well.

Shout out to Mikhael Abebe for being the inspiration of this post. 

I start this journey at the most opportune time for the audience. As July closes and August is quickly upon us, some of you are amidst intense GMAT/LSAT preparation, finalizing that list of schools, scheduling visits, and drafting essays. I do however, want to call your attention to doing your due diligence.

So, this is related to the finalizing school list component. Many prospective students use their networks and the resources institutions offer to connect with current students. And, in my humble opinion, talking to current students is the best research you can do. Current students are the best resource to utilize because: 1) they are actually current consumers of the program and thus 2) they have an accurate gauge for the school’s relative strengths and weaknesses. No business school is perfect folks! Remember that. And even if there is a perfect business school, it may not be perfect for you. Current students can help you determine that.

Assessing “fit” is and should be the single most important factor in determining where to spend the next two to three years of your life. And that my friends, is the value in these conversations. They are not evaluative assessments of your candidacy. Now that is not to say to not come correct! It is a professional interaction and while those current students more than likely can’t help your case, they can certainly hurt it. That means polished mistake-free emails and code switch game on fleek. But I digress. In those interactions with current students, it is the student’s job to aid and equip you with ACCURATE intel to help you make a decision. They are there to serve your interests, ESPECIALLY if the school in some way, shape, or form has signaled that these students can field your questions.

Now, remember I told y’all I’mma share my experiences? Here we go. When I talk to students, sometimes I feel they are trying to “check the box” so to speak. When I say “Check the box,” prospectives are trying to cover their bases with respect to completing all the touch points with the school. They ask pretty generic questions (unfortunately some that can be answered vis-a-vis a visit to the school’s website.) And consequentially, even though I preface the end of those dialogues with “Did you find this dialogue fruitful?,” and they say “Yes”, I feel they don’t get what they’re suppose to. And while I try to lead the conversations in ways that would be most beneficial to the student’s diligence, it is not the current student’s job to hypothesize what components you prioritize in determining which MBA or JD program you choose and orient his/her answers accordingly. That criteria should be determined by you and prioritized before your calls with current students, which will help guide your question asking.

Now black people, we like to ask about diversity, but before I even touch that, you should ask general questions like “What is your school’s unique value proposition and how it differentiates itself from its peers?” If their answer is lackluster, ask them simply “What schools were you considering towards the end of your admissions cycle and what was it programatically that allowed you to choose School X over School Y”. You can also ask “In your opinion, what is your career development office’s biggest weakness?” My personal favorites are “How does the administration engage with student’s concerns?” and “Is there a formal/informal channel in which students can voice their concerns?” I love that one because no MBA education formula is free from flaw—so having a sense of how administration prioritizes students’ concerns and how they adjust accordingly is important. Ask about academic support and what does that infrastructure look like? These questions and even how the student answers these question stems (demeanor, attitude) can help you discern the character of a school. Also, students can’t be experts at every aspect/element of their school. If you ask about venture capital and they are not interested in that field and thus lack knowledge about the school’s offering or history in successfully placing people in those opportunities, they should connect you with a student who can. And most importantly, a student should not have or be shading other institutions in their answers. To me, that’s always most telling about a school’s atmosphere. And you have to ask yourself if that is what you’re looking for. And guess what? Maybe you are looking for it. If you aspire to go into an extremely competitive post-graduate career (cough..investment banking..cough), there could be a mental preparation benefit to being in a more cut-throat space to readily prepare yourself for the industry.

Now, asking about diversity.  First, let’s keep it all the way 100. These are top-MBA/JD programs. There is never, at least for the foreseeable future, going to be an abundance of black people. So ask yourself what are you looking for in a good answer or if there is really a good answer to the “ diversity” question? Because let’s think, if business schools had some great diversity strategy, the CEO of Goldman Sachs would be Black. But we know better. We know this country as a whole is not there yet. So now that I’ve provided that lens, let’s scale back the expectations. lol. In my opinion, you should inquire about diversity strategy. “What initiatives are in place to tackle diversity?” “At what stage is the institution in this strategy?” “Other than admissions, how can students become involved with larger diversity institutional efforts?” Ask them to define “black community” at your school. For example, Tuck is significantly smaller than HBS and YLS is significantly smaller than HLS. In addition, those schools also attract largely different people (the difference is definitely more distinct for b-school than law school). This is how you get school-tailored definitions of black community. Lastly, I would inquire about community building at the graduate program. It’s important you have an established vehicle to grow together and fellowship, so get a sense of that.

AND IF WE REALLY ABOUT THAT LIFE!, you find a white man in the Finance Club and ask those same diversity questions. Because if a white man in a school’s Finance Club can give you an answer about diversity that you can happily digest, then you struck gold. I would say that speaks volumes and that school may have drafted the first top-tiered school diversity template.

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