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Commencement—and What My Mom Knew

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by Dan Dombey ’01

Three years ago, every time I heard the word “commencement,” it reminded me of the uncertainty ahead. A few days before graduating with an econ degree in 2001, I expressed my career and life concerns to my mother. She replied, “Try to relax. Your father and I have never been able to accurately predict what would be happening in our lives two years down the road, and we’re 50 years old!”

There couldn’t be more truth in that statement. If my mom had asked me to predict what would happen to me over the next three years, I would never have replied that I would hold three jobs, live in four apartments in two states, and own three different vehicles.

Luckily, I knew I wanted to pursue management consulting as a career, but I also knew I would need an M.B.A. from a top school to do that. Top M.B.A. programs require a minimum of three years of relevant work experience, with the average student having five years under his belt. So what was I going to do for the next three to five years?

I had no idea how to find a real job that I actually wanted. Looking back, I spent a lot of time being unproductive—sending out résumés for jobs I wasn’t qualified for and playing Nintendo with my roommates. When this seemingly infallible technique failed, I came to the realization that I needed to focus on some short-term goals to reach my longer-term goal of becoming a management consultant. Relevant Work Experience became my mantra.

I soon landed a job as a financial adviser. I must admit this was not a good career fit for me, but it provided the crucial work experience that I needed—and in a finance-related field. It was a great start, but unfortunately, it had a quick finish.

The events of September 11 ended many recent grads’ campaigns at financial advising firms, and I was no exception. Selling securities isn’t an easy job, especially when you are expected to make 200+ cold calls per day. After hearing “Call me back when they get Bin Laden” one too many times, I realized I wasn’t where I needed to be. Maybe my mother had been onto something.

I networked with a fellow Lewis & Clark graduate, and quickly landed a great job in the field of home equity. I hit this booming market at exactly the right time, and I was very successful. But more importantly, I added to and diversified my résumé.

Just as things were settling down a bit, life threw me another monkey wrench: My longtime girlfriend was accepted into law school 2,500 miles away in Texas. I was starting to realize that my mom really did know everything. We packed it in and moved to Texas, sight unseen.

Based on my previous sales experience, and with the help of another Lewis & Clark alum, I was able to land a great job working with annuities. More importantly, this job represented a step into management, a crucial component of any M.B.A. application. After two wild years, the pieces were in place, and it was time to apply to business schools. The next hurdle? The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT).

Most people assume that a GMAT score in the 99th percentile will get you into a top M.B.A. program. Nothing could be further from the truth. Business schools are looking for future leaders—people with demonstrated track records of success, great ambitions, and the communication and analytical skills to be successful.

That said, the GMAT is a bear, and should be taken seriously. I spent two hours before work at Starbucks (college habits die hard) studying every business-related book I could find for almost three months. You have to make this kind of commitment, because there are 5,000 to 10,000 other applicants doing exactly the same thing.

Next came the school search. I zeroed in on five schools over a 10-month period. During this process, I learned that the most critical aspect of an M.B.A. program is fit—you need to fit in with classmates, faculty, and school recruiters. Like it or not, M.B.A. admissions committees are insanely good at recognizing fit. Looking back, I can honestly say that I was declined at the schools where I would have been the least happy and accepted where there was truly a good fit.

This fall, I start my M.B.A. program at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University. I’m eager, but also a little nervous—and my girlfriend and I will need to deal with the separation. However, I’ve learned you have to take the vicissitudes of life in stride, and focus on your long-term goals. In other words, Mom was right.

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