What It’s Like to Apply for a Master’s in Finance or MBA in 2021

By - Apr 18, 06:30 AM Comments [0]

What It’s Like to Apply for a Master’s in Finance or MBA in 2021

Are you considering a Master’s in Finance or MBA degree? [Show summary]

Admissions veteran and Accepted consultant Dr. Christie St-John explores the latest in MBA admissions and provides insights for those applying for a master’s in finance.

Read on for must-know admissions insights! [Show notes]

In May of 2020, admissions veteran Dr. Christie St-John joined Accepted as an MBA and graduate admissions consultant. Today, I’m going to speak with her about MBA admissions and about master’s in finance admissions.

Dr. St-John was a guest on our old chats as Associate Director of Admissions for Tuck. More recently, she was on Admissions Straight Talk as Director of Vanderbilt Owen’s MBA Recruiting and Admissions, and most recently as an Accepted grad school and MBA admissions consultant. Today, Dr. St. John is going to share her expertise with you and me, once again, on this podcast.

You’ve been advising applicants as a consultant for about a year now. How has your perspective on the admissions process evolved since you moved to helping applicants, as opposed to evaluating applicants? [2:37]

I’m looking at their resumes and their essays much more critically because I know what is going to be said and discussed on the other end of it. While they may think they have wonderful essays that explain everything, sometimes they are too close to what they’re writing about, and the message is totally lost because they are leaving out important elements of it. That has really helped me get people on the right track to making their essays as detailed, yet still concise, as possible so that their best qualities will show up.

Let’s just talk about the resume. What are some of the more common mistakes that you see, or that you are now correcting, that you saw as an admissions director? [3:41]

A lot of times the candidates would just put down a job description, and that is not what we’re looking for. We’re actually looking for results. Showing that you have initiative, that you have actually had an impact, however small, on the organization you’re working with. That’s what the admissions committees are looking for. In many, many cases, members of the career management staff will also be on the admissions committee. You can believe that’s what they’re looking for because their job is to get you a job. If you don’t have the experience or the qualifications or any sort of leverageable skills that they can help you with, they are probably going to nix your acceptance because they can’t help you. The whole point of you’re going to a school is to be helped to find a job. You need to be a bit more self-aware of what you know how to do, and what you don’t know how to do as well, when you’re coming up with your long and short term goals.

What about the essays? What are you looking to improve? [4:55]

The first thing is to make sure they’re actually answering the question that’s asked, because that is quite often the main issue. They’re thinking, “I’ve already done it. This is similar to what I did for X school. I’m just going to cut it and paste it and put it in here for Y school.” Sometimes that might work but, for the most part, no. Each school knows what they want. It should be obvious in the question the way it’s asked. If you’re answering something totally off the mark, you get points off for that.

There’s no right or wrong answer, but there is an answer that makes sense to the question. When it says, “Tell me about your short-term goals after the MBA,” and you say, “My short-term goal is to get an MBA,” that’s not after the MBA. You need to have reasonable goals. You cannot reform the entire education system or the healthcare system of the United States, or any other country, by yourself. Have realistic goals.

Do those goals have to be a little bit ambitious too? [6:09]

It’s always good. That’s another thing that admissions committees will look at. They’ll look at your transcript, not just for the grades, but to see if you took some classes that were quite challenging. Have you taken on responsibilities at work or outside of work that have challenged you and helped you grow? That’s very important. We don’t want a list of extracurricular activities just to have a long list of things. We want to see that you’ve actually been involved and invested in the organizations you’re working for.

Many applicants will soon be resigning themselves to the fact that they may need to reapply next cycle. What’s your advice for MBA reapplicants? [6:50]

Sit back and look at your application with a very critical eye and find what you think is the weak part. You’re probably going to guess it. It could be that you have not expressed your goals in a realistic manner. It could be that your GMAT is just way short of the average, or it’s right at the average, and with the over abundance of applications this year, being at average just doesn’t cut it in some schools. It could be that you are talking about going into an industry that the school doesn’t do, so it’s not the right school for you. That’s one of the things that you have to be really aware of when you’re selecting your schools: if they’re going to give you what you need. Just because they’re ranked number one, two, five, 10, or whatever doesn’t mean that they’re going to be the best school for what your goals are, but there is a school out there that is right for you.

Who should take advantage of the test waivers, and who should take the test? [8:05]

I was just reading an article the other day that shows that your undergraduate GPA is not necessarily the best at forecasting how you will be doing in school, but the GMAT is. If you have really high grades and you’ve gotten lots of quant classes, I don’t think a school is going to think twice about waiving your test score, or if you have an exceptionally long amount of work experience. But if you have a lower than average GPA, and you have not had any quant classes, you’re really shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t take the test because you need the extra oomph that the test will give you to be able to get in the school. If you’re below average, you’re not going to get the top schools. Even some of the lower ranked schools are picky about it because they don’t want anybody to enter the program who’s going to fail the first semester. That’s really depressing for everyone. Study, get really good test guides, and pay for test prep with someone. I recommend one of the regular test prep companies rather than a private tutor, because sometimes private tutors may not know what the GMAT really is. But study for it and try to do the best you can. If you can’t do the GMAT, then do the GRE at least. Show them that you have the ability to do the quantitative work.

How should applicants plan for the increased competition we’re experiencing this year? [10:01]

It has been considerably more competitive. The number of applications has gone up from 41% to 67% or something like that. It’s about a 26% increase in applications in two out of three schools. That’s a lot. It doesn’t matter where the school is or its ranking. They’ve gotten more applications, and they’re being pickier. Again, look at your application with a very critical eye, and look at your essays. Are they really saying what you’re thinking about? Does your resume actually show what you’ve done? Do you have enough leadership or extracurricular activities to make you a well-rounded human being? Do you have instances of initiative? There’s so many things to look at. If your grades are really low in quant classes, go out and sign up for something on Coursera or at your local community college. Do something to make your application improve. I remember once we had a candidate who applied four years in a row and didn’t change a thing about her application. Not the essays, not her test scores, nothing. She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t getting in.

What are some of the different kinds of master’s in finance degrees out there? [11:28]

I was really surprised when I started looking into all this, because some of them are 10 months or nine months. Some of them are 18 months. There are a couple that have an internship track, and others have just an academic track, so you don’t have an internship. Others will help prepare you for the CFA, which is pretty important I think. Others, you will be sitting in on MBA classes. That’s going to give you a different network as well to speak to and a bit more of a challenge. I think that for the most part though, the MS Finance programs are really focused on theory and technical skills, as opposed to the MBA, which gives you a much larger view of business since you learn all the functional areas. MS Finance is just focused only on finance and statistical modeling and things like that.

When you’re looking at those programs, find ones that have a capstone project so that you actually apply what you’re learning. This is always good to put on your resume to convince an employer, “I’ve done this. I know how to do this.” If you want to take the CFA, make sure your program is affiliated with the CFA so that it’s preparing you to do that.

What careers do master’s in finance holders typically pursue? [12:52]

Anything from investment banking to financial analysts. They’ll start out as financial planners, some of them will go into the stock trading area, commodities trading, corporate finance, obviously. They’re not going to start out on the same level as an MBA, but they will catch up pretty fast. The difference is that the master’s in finance programs, of course, do not always require work experience. The schools would like for you to have a couple of internships, at least, but it is not required. Whereas with an MBA, you do need work experience.

What do you think applicants should look at when they’re researching master’s in finance programs? [13:46]

That’s what I tell all my clients: I say, the first thing you need to do is look at the career report. How many people are getting jobs and where are they going? Because that’s in there. And if you don’t see the companies that you’re interested in on that report, there’s probably a reason. They don’t recruit there. Then after that, go look at the curriculum. What exactly are they doing in the curriculum? And then go start looking at other schools, because you will just be terribly frustrated. What’s sad is that the students will end up taking it out on the career management office, saying “They didn’t find me a job.” The career people really try very, very hard. If you end up in a school that doesn’t do what you think you want to do, the career people will, if they are ethical (and they all are as far as I know), try to make you see the reality of life. That you cannot just step into a VC job or a PE job if you have no finance experience at all. It’s just not going to happen. They will try to help you make parallel movements so that you will eventually get there. They will be the first thing you have coming out. That’s why they’re good at what they do.

What kind of academic background should someone seeking their master’s in finance have? [15:30]

I’ve been looking at the requirements for a lot of different programs this year. If you’ve never seen accounting, if you’ve never taken statistics or even Algebra II, you’re going to have a really rough time. You need to get at least that accounting class, statistics class, Excel, you need to know Excel and Algebra II minimum to be able to pass finance classes. There are a lot of free courses online. I would suggest hopping on a Coursera class and learning about Python. More and more schools are wanting to know if you’ve got these technical skills: Tableau, and Python, and Sequel, and SAS, and SP. But if you can do those on your own, or if you’re still in school and you can take those at school, do it. They will enhance your resume for certain. You’ll also be able to get through your work a lot quicker if you know how to do it.

What about work experience outside the classroom? What are most master’s in finance programs looking for? [16:39]

Most of them are designed for candidates coming right out of undergrad. Again, they would like for you to have a couple of internships so that you’ve at least worked in an office atmosphere and know what finance really means. Most programs do tracks or have companies visit, and they will go over the different jobs that they’re looking for, so you get a better idea of it. But if you’ve actually worked, even if it’s only for a couple of months, it gives you a leg up in the recruiting process, as well as understanding why you’re studying one particular thing in a class.

You mentioned that one of the distinctions between the MBA and the MIF is that for the MBA, you are expected to have significant work experience, for the master’s in finance, you’re not. Also, the MBA is a broader degree, where you’re exploring multiple areas of business functions. A master’s in finance is strictly finance. Are there any other significant differences? [17:30]

Not that I can think of. The salaries coming out will be slightly different. They’ll be higher for the MBAs and the MSFs. But at the same time, for any graduate business degree, an article I just read showed that it was about a 75% increase from what someone with an undergrad degree coming in the same job would have. 

Every so often we come across somebody who did the MIF and then they decided they still wanted the MBA. Do you think that’s justified or a good idea? [18:23]

I’ve long been a proponent of the MBA. I think it’s the best degree that anyone can have. But I know at Vanderbilt, if you went through the MSF program there, then you could come back in about a couple of years, once you got some work experience, and it would only take you three semesters to complete the MBA program rather than two years because you’d get credit for all the undergrad programs. But generally that will only happen if you are attending the MBA at the same school you did the MSF. It’s possible that they might give you some credit for classes, but most MBA programs do not accept transfer credit.

What do you wish I would’ve asked you? [19:33]

Are all the different specialized master’s degrees cannibalizing the MBA? In a sense they are. But in another sense, I know that the current generation wants to get through school and get out in the workplace as fast as they can. A lot of them don’t see the need for going and getting work experience first. “I’m ready to do this now, let me in!” The specialized master’s degrees give them that. A lot of times they are seriously only interested in doing data analytics, or finance, or marketing. They don’t really care about the rest of it. Why shouldn’t they have that option? The MBA will always be there, but I think it’s going to be a little bit different. We may see people coming into the MBA classroom who have specialized master’s degrees, and they’re going to give the people coming in without that a run for their money. It might be a little more competitive. 

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This article originally appeared on blog.accepted.com.

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