Business Schools

Setting Priorities


"The vast majority of MBA students have high expectations of themselves, and it is almost guaranteed that those attending top-tier schools are accustomed to being the best"

The circumstances that influenced my process of choosing the business schools to apply to were unique. I was deployed in Afghanistan during 2006 while my wife was pregnant. I came home for the birth of our daughter, but I did not return to Afghanistan because our daughter passed away when she was nine days old. We decided that if we were going to have children, it would only get harder for us emotionally as time went on. We found out that my wife was pregnant again in January, shortly after deciding that I would apply to B-school. It was important to my wife and me that we find a school that was near family, offered scholarships and other forms of financial support, and was the best school in the area. Based on these stipulations, I came up with two candidates: the University of Washington's Michael G. Foster School of Business, near my family, and the University of Texas' McCombs School of Business, located a couple hours from my wife's family.

We decided to apply only to Washington's B-school because of its proximity to family. Also, I had a continuing monthly obligation with the National Guard. Placing all of my eggs in one basket was risky, but applying to just one school has the benefit of reducing the amount of work I had to do. I was able to write my essays and polish my résumé in a weekend with the help of volunteer editors. (Grammar and punctuation have never been a strong suit.)

Financial-Aid Opportunities

Preparing for the GMAT took much longer than anything else. I never had to diagram sentences or analyze their structure during my first 16 years of education, and several years had passed since I used geometry and algebra in an academic context. The test was daunting, and I studied more than what I believe is normal. I checked out a GMAT prep guide from the local library and proceeded to read the entire thing and to take all the tests. From my previous experience in test taking, I knew that it would be as important to understand the questions and what kind of answers the test makers sought as to understand the content that would be tested.

Applying to business school was a difficult decision made easier by the financial-aid opportunities provided by the University of Washington. A more important factor was the school's goal of fostering a close-knit class in which personal relationships will all students can be developed. Obviously, developing and maintaining relationships is an important skill to have, one that's especially important for a manager. The Michael G. Foster School of Business focuses as much on building relationships as on academics, so students do not concentrate solely on the book side of an MBA and miss the other half of their education.

While I waited to see whether I had been accepted, I looked for financial-aid opportunities available to me through the Army and the university. The application process required filling out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for the university and various other forms through the Special Services Office for the Army. I strongly suggest filling out any and all financial-aid forms if you're not independently wealthy, because you might get several thousand dollars for an hour of your time and you can decline the loans if you determine you will not use them.

Setting Priorities

When we found out that I was going to receive the university's W. Hunter Simpson Scholarship, we were very excited. We were going to have a daughter arriving at the beginning of the school year, and every dollar was a blessing. We knew we would be able to provide our daughter all that she needed, but the scholarship allowed us some breathing room. The University of Washington also recently instituted a tuition waiver for veterans. The waiver is generous and simple to apply for.

The key to applying to business school is starting early. I began relatively late, January, and found that a lot of the appointments for taking the GMAT were filled. I got one of the last available appointments that would allow me to submit my application on time with my GMAT scores. To avoid this scenario, try to start the process in October.

The greatest difficulty that I have faced this quarter is balancing the priorities of school and family. There are three major priorities that I strive to maintain: 1) Spend time with my family; 2) Find the job I returned to school for; and 3) Get grades that appropriately reflect the knowledge I gained from my studies. Achieving these goals is time-consuming, to say the least. For those of you who are married or will be in a relationship while attending school, the best piece of advice that I can give is tell your significant other that studies and job-search activities will consume 10 to 20 hours more a week than you initially anticipate. This may at first seem unethical, but I assure you that very few will be able to get a 3.7, network, and prepare for internship interviews while maintaining a relationship with their family and a few friends on more than five hours of sleep a night.

I can safely say that the vast majority of MBA students have high expectations of themselves, and it is almost guaranteed that those attending top-tier schools are accustomed to being the best. What takes time to get accustomed to is that being among the best makes the perspective of being average change dramatically. At Washington there is no lack of competition between students, but there is a willingness among students to see everyone do the best they can.

Team Structure

To further the interdependence of the entering class and to foster support from within, our class was organized into two sections and 20 small teams of five to six students. Each team's composition was designed to reflect the overall demographic of the entering class. This immediately created a close-knit group of individuals from diverse backgrounds that led to relationships with people outside of the team that I may not have met otherwise. The personal relationships that stem from the team structure helped to inspire and motivate success based on genuine personal interest of my teammates. People in this program want to see everyone succeed in class, in their search for a job, and in their personal lives. It still remains a mystery how the admissions staff was able to sift through the applicant pool and create such a united class, but from the discussions I have had with members from previous classes, they are successful year after year.

My team is composed of six people born in five different countries. There are four U.S. citizens, and each person speaks at least two languages, whether it is Hindi, Arabic, Polish, German, Spanish, or Chinese. Team meetings are part stress relief and catching up and part project planning. It is not unusual for us to get off track and talk about our different cultural and professional backgrounds or diverge from our original goals because an unexpected humorous circumstance. It has been an absolute joy to be part of a team that works well together.

The first half of the quarter has flown by with the help of long days of intense schooling, joyous evenings spent with family, and consolation found in the joint misery of life dominated by learning. I by no means regret the decision to return to school, and I would have been severely disappointed had the schooling not been challenging. There are days when I know that I will not be able to study as much as I want to or complete all the tasks I have set for myself, but the constant reprioritization of these tasks has helped maintain continuity. Finding continuity has saved me a lot of trouble in sustaining the three priorities I mentioned earlier. To ensure that I spend time with my family, I made Sundays off-limits for school and group activities unless a dire situation arises. On Saturdays I take two hours to focus on searching for jobs and preparing cover letters. The third goal of achieving good grades, as stated before, is achieved by means that are generally fluid in form and in level of priority.


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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