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October 08, 2009

A Happy Story of HBS Rejection

A Happy Story of HBS Rejection: Reflections on The Snowball by Alice Schroeder 

Once upon a time a slightly odd nineteen year-old with a continuous entrepreneurial track record from early childhood, an odd university history (attended a top East Coast School, but graduated from a public university of little repute outside its home state), and who happened to be the son of a United States Congressman applied to HBS.  He was interviewed by a highly judgmental alumnus who decided on the spot that the young man was not ready for HBS.  He was rejected.

The young man than applied to Columbia Business School because he realized that the author of a book on investing that he considered to be one of the best on the subject taught there.  He applied and was admitted without interview. The author became the young man’s mentor.

From one perspective, it could be said that HBS had made perhaps the worst admissions decision ever as it lost the chance to educate the young man.  But for the young man, his HBS rejection worked out just fine.  Maybe he would of benefited from a case study based education, but maybe not.  One thing is sure, the young man greatly benefited from his association with his CBS mentor.  Finally, it is rather clear that CBS made a great admissions decision. 
The young man was Warren Buffett and his mentor was Ben Graham.   Buffett’s authorized biography, The Snowball,  does not record who the HBS alum was, but clearly the guy did not have an eye for talent. And yet, if one considers the issue of fit, everything about Buffett as a person strikes me as wrong for HBS and right for CBS.

The funny thing is, I am not sure the situation has changed.  While HBS certainly now is taking them rather young, would someone like Buffett even get in?  And more to the point, why would he want to go there?

Buffett applied to HBS because he assumed that is where he would want to learn business, but actually he wanted to master investment theory and company valuation. Studying with Graham gave Buffett the perfect education and network to pursue his dreams of wealth.  Did Buffett really want to master general management or leadership? It would hardly seem to be the case that Buffett was looking for that.  Buffett probably would have been as bored by HBS as he was as an undergraduate at Wharton.  What he really wanted to learn, how to make money, required a practitioner’s instruction.  Graham provided that to him.

Buffett’s authorized biography reveals the extent to which Buffett is a real weird guy, a true non-conformist, and someone who had little in common with the corporate mentality of the 1950s.   Looking from that perspective it is hard to imagine him fitting into the HBS of the 1950s. He was totally immature.  I suppose HBS has room for such people now, but I tend to doubt it based on the clients I have worked with who were admitted there.  Even my client who was just admitted to HBS 2+2 demonstrated social maturity way beyond his or her age. My view is certainly based only on the clients I have worked with and one visit to HBS, but I am inclined to think that HBS is still not the place for true eccentrics who lack a particular concern for sensitivity to group dynamics.    

For years now, Buffett has been meeting with MBA students, but I wonder if a Buffet of today would actually get to meet him. To some extent, I think Haas, Columbia, and Chicago would probably be our contemporary hypothetical Buffet’s best shot now.  I am not sure if he could make it to the interview invite round without significant coaching (from a mentor or admissions consultant) for Stanford or MIT as his emotional intelligence and leadership experience might not make it past the present clinical methods those two schools use when analyzing applicants behavior as demonstrated in their behavioral essays. 

Can you imagine our hypothetical Buffet applying to Stanford and writing,  “What matters most to me is becoming rich?”  Would Stanford go for that? I have joked about someone doing that theme, but I still have not worked with anyone who had the right background and perspective (and guts) to try it.   (Please don’t send me your essays where you do unless you are one of my clients!)

I think Buffett’s MBA story is above all, a story of two factors, fit and luck.  He was a good academic fit for CBS, but not for HBS.  He was lucky to be rejected from HBS and lucky not to have to interview for CBS as he might not have survived that one any better than the HBS interview.  Once he failed that HBS interview and figured out that Graham was at Columbia, he apparently wrote a very effective application essay indicating that he wanted to study with Graham. It did not hurt that the Associate Dean in charge of Admissions was David Dodd, Graham’s junior partner.  Still, it can be said that Buffett made his own luck when he applied to CBS.  He knew why he was applying there and did not focus simply on the brand name as had mistakenly done with HBS.  He found fit.

-Adam Markus
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