Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Why Smurfit?

Many people asked me after my first blog entry, why Smurfit? I will answer the question in this post.

Application strategy

My application strategy was pretty simple: apply to a couple of very top tier schools and to a couple of schools with opportunities for scholarships. I applied to HBS, Washington University, and Smurfit. HBS replied me with a 2 page letter saying I didn’t even get to the interview stage. However, after going through full admission process with Smurfit and WashU, by Christmas I had offers from both of them with full tuition scholarships.

Choices to be made

Having these offers there were choices to be made.

  1. Should I continue applying? Try INSEAD, LBS, Booth, Kellogg?
  2. Which one should I pick out of WashU and Smurfit?

Should I pay 100-150K premium for a brand name?

First I had to decide, whether to continue applying to other top schools. Northwestern and Chicago University are big names, but I knew I cannot expect a good scholarship there. European schools like LBS and INSEAD usually grant even lower scholarships. In the end, had I gotten a place in one of those programmes, I would have had to borrow quite a large sum of money for tuition. Probably, I would have ended up with a loan of 100-150K.

The decision to take a loan or not in this situation depends on the aims for pursuing MBA, I believe. If the aim is to land a job in a top consulting firm or an investment bank upon graduation in London or New York, I certainly think it is better to aim as high as possible and disregard the costs. First it is an unfortunate fact of life that top firms for their top locations recruit mainly, if not exclusively, from the very top schools. Second the earning potential is high, so paying off the debt is very realistic.

My objective for pursuing MBA though is largely personal development: becoming a better leader, taking a step back from daily work to see a wider picture, and reassessing my career. I want to have an option to come back to my home country, and I want to have an option to go to work for a non-profit, if I choose so. These options are hardly manageable with a looming loan.

First question is answered – pick one of the scholarship offers.

Smurfit vs. WashU

This analysis of Smurfit vs. WashU probably would be applicable to most other US programmes as well.

I have to admit that first I picked WashU and kindly rejected the offer from Smurfit. Then I was contacted by their admissions office willing to provide me more information (by the way, the responsiveness of administration at Smurfit is amazing).

My main motivation for picking the US school was that the programme is two years long and much more flexible, which allows to get in-depth into a specific area of interest. Most US schools have core curriculum only for the first semester, and for the following three semesters every student gets to pick their own courses. Usually the catalogue is quite large - WashU had about 150 courses to choose from.

The admissions office at Smurfit suggested that I could pursue specialization at UCD in one of two ways as well: (i) by choosing Yale MAM programme, (ii) by going for an exchange semester after the core year (partners of Smurfit include McCombs and IE).

Yale MAM

Smurfit is a part of GNAM network, which unites approximately 40 business schools around the World. Yale is considered to be the lead school in GNAM, and it offers a special programme for GNAM graduates. After completing MBA degree at their schools, students could apply for Masters of Advanced Management at Yale, which is a one year programme, in which its participants join Yale second year MBA students. The best part of the programme is that besides a couple of mandatory modules on global business, students could pick ANY subjects from ANY graduate school at Yale (not only SOM). I was given contacts of two Smurfit-Yale alumni.

Both said the programme is great, because students enjoy the same benefits as Yale MBAs, but expand their network through being in 2 schools during their studies. Also they said MAM degree is considered by some employers to be superior to a regular MBA, while other employers consider it to be the same. MAM students get full access to Yale career services and become full members of its alumni community. So the opportunity to get a degree, which is at least as good as a regular MBA, from an Ivy league institution is definitely a good option for the future. However, one of the alumni I contacted gave me useful insights beyond MAM programme about Smurfit MBA in general. Now that I am four weeks into my MBA, I see all of them are very much true.

Leadership Development Programme

Smurfit praises itself for putting Leadership Development Programme (LDP) as one of the major components of its MBA. These are workshops, trainings, even individual coaching sessions delivered thorough the year. Normally, we would have at least one day per week devoted to these activities. The feedback I received was that Smurfit surpasses (!) Yale in this area. Now I see that the investment Smurfit makes into this programme is truly enormous: we have workshops on team work, presentations, leadership. Each student is assigned to a personal coach and gets at least 4 coaching sessions thorough the year. These all activities are not for credit, but constitute a major part of learning experience. Because my initial motivation for MBA was leadership development, going into a school with such a programme was very logical.

More mature class, more challenging lecturers

Another insight was that Smurfit class tends to be older and more mature, which provides better environment for the development of soft skills. Also the class is more collaborative and team work oriented, while students at US schools were painted as younger, less mature, and more individualistic J I have never studied in the US and I generally try to avoid stereotypes, but in terms of future work it is better to learn to work in teams. Even the smartest person in the World is a poor leader, if he or she is not a good team player, and it seemed Smurfit provides better environment for learning that.

Now that I am here in the programme, I agree with all said. I received a comment to my first post about average GMAT, and I also had first some reservations about that. The average GMAT score at Smurfit is 630, while at WashU it is 700. However, I see that GMAT score is not at all an indicator of individual capabilities and capacity to contribute. It is only natural, if in a US school, which tends to have a younger intake, the score is higher. I took GMAT myself, and I must say the score is an indicator of time and effort put into preparation, less so of individual abilities. I often get a banner of “from 470 to 740” GMAT prep course through Google ads. If it is possible to improve one’s score by several hundred points, I don’t think the test is good at identifying inherent capability of individuals.

Lastly, about lecturers. I got feedback that lecturers at Smurfit were very engaged into class and interested in developing students. I see that lecturers here are extremely approachable, and even though they try to push students hard academically, they provide very high level of support. I guess that a class size of only 32 people (compared to US programmes normally of at least 200 people) provides better opportunities for interaction and personal engagement.

International outlook

Last reason to choose Smurfit were international opportunities. During this year we will have at least 3 international weeks. First all students participate in a GNAM week in October, and personally I will go for a week long course at Yale. Second we will visit a foreign market in Spring (it is likely we will go to Japan and South Korea this year, but not have been confirmed yet). Third used to be a trip to China as a part of Global Strategy, but this year it seems the plan is to tie a trip to the Capstone project. However, more to follow on this one. And by the way, in January we will have a Virtual Team exercise with Yale students, working on a specific project distantly, to learn how to collaborate across continents.

WashU MBA programme had almost no such opportunities, except for a consulting project in Budapest. Also I found a lot of reviews about WashU MBA being focused primarily on Midwest recruiters, and the contacts I made with current students or alumni confirmed it. They said that if a person wants to get a job in another part of the country, it has to be done independently, as well as a lot of money has to be invested into plane tickets to go for interviews. Even though living for two years in St. Louis sounds fine, I am not sure I would want to stay in Midwest for work afterwards.


Overall, because of great Leadership Development Programme, academic rigor, and international outlook the balance tipped in favour of Smurfit. This is not to say that MBA programme at WashU is poor. I am sure it is a brilliant programme, and I even picked it first. I got very good feedback about teaching there, and in general US business experience is a valuable asset. It seemed that for me, however, the right choice was Smurfit.

Several lessons for future MBA candidates: (i) define your objectives, (ii) research the schools and programmes thoroughly, (iii) contact alumni, (iv) geography, apart maybe from top 10 programmes in FT rankings, is extremely important.

Finally, even though I did all of that on my own, my decision changed after speaking with the school’s administration. Don’t be afraid to do that as well! Talk to admissions office, raise any issues or questions you might have. People are there to help you and are very interested in providing maximum information for you to make an informed decision.


Now that I am in Ireland, I have also learned that rankings is not a perfect indicator of the quality or reputation of the school. Maybe, if I do a bit of research on that, I will write a post about it. But for now I have learned that Smurfit is a good brand name in the region (Ireland and the UK). My landlord’s daughter did her first Master’s in Ireland and went for second Master’s to LSE. Then she went on to work for Goldman and has achieved quite a good career there. My landlord said her feedback was that Smurfit was known and well regarded both at LSE and at Goldman. I guess this should be a reasonable indicator.

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