How Parents Can Help (or Hinder) Their Children on the Road to Business School (featured in Forbes 01/28/14)

May 18, 2014 | by Matt Symonds

So your child has just informed you that he or she wants to pursue an MBA. Questions immediately start racing through your mind. Which schools is my child considering? Can he or she afford an MBA or handle the challenge of a top business school? Does the decision make sense, given a career track and goals? Will I still get grandchildren?

But maybe you should begin with, “So how can I help?”

This isn’t an open invitation to become his private banker (more on that later), but there’s lots you can do to encourage and support his goals, while providing a thoughtful and balanced sounding board.

However, there are dangers to avoid to prevent alienating your child or even damaging his or her chances of admission.

Consider the following do’s and don’ts:

Ask questions, encourage reflection, and listen. Often, we see applicants jump into the admissions process without thinking things through properly first. Parents can play a valuable role in encouraging reflection. Helpful questions to ask are ‘Why do you want an MBA? What are your professional and personal goals and how does an MBA help you achieve them? Is an MBA the right choice, and is now the right time to pursue one?’ This initial discussion may provide insight as to your child’s thoughts and motivation for wanting an MBA.

From her former role as Acting Director of Admissions for Wharton, now with Fortuna, Judith Silverman Hodara says “Listen carefully. If you hear things such as ‘I want to do an MBA because I feel like there are no jobs that interest me in my field’ or ‘I’m bored at work’ you might want to encourage your child to consider thinking about different options rather than just an MBA. Business school is not necessarily the best place to figure it all out.”

Promote Research. There are many great schools to choose from. Often parents who have an MBA drive their offspring to apply to the same school. Be careful about how you frame your input and advice as there’s likely more than one school that can assist them achieve his or her goals. Maintain an open mind and advise your child to conduct research and think about which MBAs could be the best fit. There are tons of resources to bring you both up-to-date on the programs, culture, and career opportunities that each school provides.

Emma Bond from Fortuna who was Senior Manager of Admissions at London Business School says, “parents need to let go of their own preconceptions of what the ‘right’ school is and let the student decide by their personal fit and feel.” She also suggests that “parents should encourage their kids to get out and experience an international program, particularly if their undergrad has been done in their home country.”

Tip: Ask your child to prepare a spreadsheet of his or her top MBA choices identifying fundamental information e.g. school highlights (strengths), weaknesses, costs, student community, career opportunities, network, etc. This will help you both compare the pros and cons and be objective about the choice of school.

Don’t get fixed on the rankings. It can be appealing to rely on b-school rankings to pick a short list of programs. However, note that each ranking has a unique set of criteria for determining the top schools, and those criteria may or may not be relevant to your child. Encourage him or her to look past the rankings and research several schools for themselves. It may be tempting to say that your child is attending the number one school in the world, but be willing to give up your bragging rights at dinner parties for a different school that may be better suited to your child.

Network. Urge your child to contact people in both of your networks who’ve earned an MBA, and set up a meeting with them about their experience. But don’t assume the uncle who gained his MBA in the mid-60s will be able to provide insight on incubators, courses on sustainability, and the latest MBA career trends. Do think about people whose opinion you trust and have recently finished an MBA, or know others who have.
Dina Glasofer from Fortuna, former Senior Director of Admissions at NYU Stern suggests, “I’ve often seen successful candidates who’ve gained a great deal from a mentoring relationship with someone who is a family friend – for example, a young investment banker who’s had the occasion to talk about his plans several times over the years with a friend of his parents who’s a regional manager for a major bank. Sometimes, such a person can be a better advisor than a parent – they may have more relevant industry knowledge, and being one step removed from the family means that the young person may find it easier to have an objective discussion. I would encourage parents to think about whether they have friends or contacts that could be a useful source of advice to their offspring as he or she plans his or her career and the best path to achieve long-term goals.”

Encourage him to plan ahead. Applying to an MBA can be a long and arduous process. The essays that are asked in an application cannot be written overnight, and most candidates spend a few months preparing for the mandatory standardized tests, the GMAT or GRE. The research and preparation needed to apply to business school usually take plenty of time over several months and this can be a challenge to juggle alongside a demanding career. Advise your child to create a simple project plan, and to let you know when you can provide useful contributions to the process.

Discuss finances. Attending b-school comes with a big price tag. You have to consider more than just tuition fees – the cost of living, textbooks, and perhaps travel, as well as foregone salary. You should sit down with your child to weigh the ROI and discuss up front how the MBA will be paid for. Will school selection be limited as a result of geographic proximity or cost? Are you willing and able to contribute as a parent? Are there scholarships offered? Will he or she need or be eligible to apply for a student loan? This financial planning should include a chat about post-MBA career plans, and the sort of salary that can be expected after business school, based on school data.

Don’t stand over your child’s shoulder. You need to give your child ownership of the process. For example, avoid following him or her around at MBA fairs or school information sessions, or asking all the questions that your 25-year old is capable of asking themselves. Also a big ‘faux-pas’ is to reach out to the school in hopes of pushing your child into the program (in this case it will be pushing them away). We, as former MBA Admissions Directors, did sometimes receive pushy emails from parents. This will not do your child’s chances any favors.

Overall, as a parent, you can be a great sounding board for your child as he navigates the MBA process. Your experience and insight can bring plenty to the conversation, especially if you have the good fortune that your child is open and responsive to hearing your point of view.

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