Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Time for Your Questions!

Reaching into Ye Olde Mailbag to answer a few interesting questions I recently received from a prospective Darden student:

Can you tell me more about the classes, clubs, and culture at Darden in respect to your experience and interests?

First, a little background on me for those who didn't read my first Darden blog post.  I came to Darden after working for six years at an energy trading company in northern Virginia, and prior to that attended MIT where I studied economics. My background is heavily analytical but in a narrow sense of analyzing the risks and returns of financial contracts in North American power markets.  I wanted to expand my breadth of knowledge in an MBA program.

Darden has always been known for its very strong general management curriculum.  In fact, this year the Financial Times ranked Darden #1 in the world in the general management specialty, ahead of an ivy-covered school up in Cambridge, Mass.  I didn't want to specialize deeply at business school and I find that Darden discourages this, at least in the first year, by sending all of its students through a rigorous curriculum of core classes.  Darden strongly emphasizes a holistic approach to managing an enterprise.

In addition to wanting breadth over depth, I also was drawn to Darden by its superlative faculty.  In my undergraduate experience, most professors only emerged to lecture, then retreated back into their research labs.  By contrast, the professors here are extremely approachable, and most keep an "open door" policy over in the faculty building.  Without question, their top priority is to help you learn, and students commonly preserve relationships with faculty well after classes.  You even will see faculty show up to Darden Cup events.  No surprise, then, that Darden's high-touch faculty were ranked #1 in this fall's Princeton Review ranking.

Furthermore, I was drawn to Darden by the case method.  Admittedly, it's an inefficient means of learning, requiring more preparation than other approaches, but I find it equally if not more effective.  I have a "learning by doing" style and tend to lose interest with a lecture approach.  In fact, while visiting a competing school I actually fell asleep in a dry post-lunch marketing lecture.  The case method forces me to stay on my toes and find a way to contribute to the class discussion.  The most rewarding learning experiences here come when either I'm able to convince a student of a better approach to a business problem or when another student corrects my mistake.  You won't get fooled twice when you see a similar problem in the real world!

Culturally, Darden is a very tight-knit community, I think by virtue of being in a smaller town and also due to the types of students who get admitted here. Students at Darden are very interested in helping one another, be it with schoolwork, recruiting, or just helping with personal issues -- you should see how much free food my roommate has received after having his leg wrapped in a cast.  During my undergrad I felt that MIT was a cold, harsh environment, and I thrive on the support I receive from my classmates at Darden.  The environment here resembles a friendly town in the Midwest, like those near where I grew up.

Finally, there are many students here who share my interest in the energy industry.  The Darden Energy Club draws in speakers from industry who teach students about energy topics, and Net Impact actively engages the student body on sustainability issues.  Both set up opportunities for students to meet important industry players in a small setting. For example, Net Impact arranged a meeting for a group of interested students with the CEO of Gevo, maker of a next-gen biofuel / ethanol killer.  Pretty cool stuff if you ask me.  Right now the two clubs are working jointly to set up a Sustainability and Renewable Energy forum at Darden in February, and so far I've been able to bring in an associate at enXco and an executive director at NextEra, both Darden alums.  Again, pretty cool!!

Can you speak to the career opportunities?

Very broad.  A who's who of Fortune 500 companies have appeared on Grounds this fall, ranging from General Electric to Google to Proctor and Gamble to Amazon to DuPont. And of course there's all the big name consulting firms and I-banks.  Even though the overall job picture in the US still looks pitiful, from what I've seen MBA recruiting has been strong this fall.  If you want to land that big marketing job with the big boys, Darden can certainly help place you in a position to nab it (with a lot of hard work on your part, of course).

The Pillsbury Doughboy visits Darden!
(thank you General Mills)
If you're like me, focusing on smaller renewable energy companies, the Darden alumni network has been very helpful.  My focus has been primarily off-grounds with alumni who have been very willing to spend 30 minutes on the phone talking about what they do.  I'm pleasantly surprised at how simply I've been able to build up a network of industry contacts, which should pay off when my job search becomes particularly intense.

Broadly speaking, any application tips?

For any business school application, not just Darden, you need to think deeply about how you fit with the school and its core values.  These schools at the top of the heap are just so darn competitive that if you aren't able to demonstrate that fit in your application, your application gets tossed quickly into the "no" pile.  I don't care how high your GMAT score is or how great your past experience is -- you just won't cut it.

For Darden in particular, I think you need to show how you fit in with what Dean Bruner calls "high touch, high tone, high energy".  The dean can describe this more eloquently than I can in his blog (and this blogger also has a clear characterization), but I'll summarize as follows: you must show through your past experiences how you took action to build a stronger community.  Darden wants driven people, but not those driven to excel at the expense of others. Darden needs students who will give much of themselves for the sake of the group, and you must express a genuine interest in being actively involved here.

(Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  Feel free to keep the questions coming.  I can be reached at

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