MBAnalysis Blog: A Nobel Prize for Being (a) Different (Applicant)

On Monday, Richard Thaler of Chicago Booth got the early morning call to say he had just won the Nobel Prize in Economics. For Professor Thaler, this was an honor long over-due, having already established himself as a ground-breaking thinker in that crazy world of behavioral economics; a world in which people are no longer “rational,” and instead they do things like buy a mug for $2 but not sell that mug when someone offers them $5 for it a minute later.

This has some personal resonance for me having read a lot of his work, and the work of his protégée’s like Dan Ariely of Fuqua. Also it validates the opinion of an ol’ MIT Sloan professor of mine, Ken French – now at Tuck — who said in 1998, that the only person he was sure would get a Nobel Prize, was Richard Thaler.

So what do we learn from all this? First off, different matters and is even rewarded. Richard Thaler was bumping around some less prestigious places like the University of Rochester’s Simon School of Business before he started being and thinking differently. Only then did he move from a top-20 business school to a top 5 school. (Important note: Simon is a fantastic, off-the-beaten-track-school, that more people should be applying to.)

Second, Richard Thaler’s reputation was already established some twenty years ago; long before the public knew who he was. At that point, he was still sitting in the figurative “basement” of Booth, while colleagues like finance Professor Eugene Fama (Nobel Prize, 2013) were grabbing all the attention and the students.

So, what does this have to do with applying to business school? Actually, a lot. First off, there is power in thinking differently and being different. In fact, business schools like it. In real terms this means that it isn’t enough to be an Ivy League graduate with investment banking and private equity experience. There are too many of you. Instead, what gets you noticed is how you are different and what makes you unique. Of course, you then have to explain the value of your uniqueness in a compelling way in your essays. (At Stratus, this is what we help you do.)

Second, you have to know the schools you are applying to so well that you know not just the star professors – the Eugene Famas – but the professors who are lurking in the shadows doing great and compelling work – like Richard Thaler circa 1998. So when you mention these less famous folks in your essays, it shows the schools that you have done your homework and know why you want to go to their school rather than some other. You can imagine the feeling of a Booth admissions officer in 1998 when reading the name Eugene Fama in an application – “ho, hum!” As opposed to that really knowledgeable applicant who talks about Richard Thaler. “Yikes!” thinks the admissions officer, “finally an applicant that knows why Booth. I am going to remember them.” Who do you think gets accepted?

In the end, what gets you into business school is being like no one else. Explain why you are different, and why the business school you are applying to is right for you. While I can’t say this will win you a Nobel Prize, I can guarantee you that there will be a prize nonetheless. This time, hopefully, in the form of an acceptance letter from your top choice school.

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