Target School vs. Non-Target: How to Level the Playing Field?

Let me take a stab with my take on the controversial topic of target school vs non-target school. I will also share my advice on what non-target students should do to level the playing field.

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Throughout the article, I will use McKinsey and Goldman Sachs as examples because McKinsey is the Goldman Sachs of consulting and Goldman Sachs is well, the Goldman Sachs of finance.

What is a target school?

They are schools that elite employers target for talent recruiting. I went to a target school for undergraduate and an MBA program that I strongly believe is non-target for investment management. So I have my perspective on both target and non-target schools.

Target school students enjoy many benefits, mainly access:

Access to job opportunities at elite firms because they recruit on campus. Those firms typically associate with professions with high starting salary, high impact work and accelerated career path. For example, work in investment banking or management consulting for 2-3 years is like working in a regular corporate job for 5+ years because of the intensity, the skill you develop and the caliber of clients you interface.

You will be working 80-100 hours or flying back and forth every week, advising fortune 500 companies on financing or strategic decisions that are mission critical to clients’ success and sometimes, even survival. Having McKinsey or Goldman on your resume further signal your labor value to future employers and can have cascade positive effect on your entire career trajectory.

Access to alums who occupy powerful positions in their fields (Jamie Dimon, HBS; James Gordon, CBS) or even country leaders (Henry Paulson, HBS; Rishi Sunak, Stanford GSB)

Access to peers who have relative higher probability of succeeding in the fields of their choice.

Access to professors who are either academically very accomplished and/or very professionally accomplished who can open doors for your career

Access saves you time and time is precious because we have a limited lifespan.

Why firms hire at target schools

Presumption of quality

It’s reasonably safe to assume an average student at Harvard is a better intrinsic talent than an average student at a non-target. That’s a reason why the best firms cast their recruiting net at the target schools.

When a firm hires a Harvard candidate and she turns out to be a bad employee, people are less likely to blame the hiring manager than if the hiring manager gave a chance to a non-target candidate. 

Affinity

Most current McKinsey consultants are from Ivy League or one of the top 25 USNEWS undergraduate schools. And I bet the same schools are where McKinsey like to recruit from: People like to hire from their alma mater for a few reasons 1) They know there is certain minimum expectation for students who were able to gain admissions into those schools; 2) Something about how these students are trained academically have translated to professional success because most of the partners are from those schools; 3) There is a territorial aspect: “Okay, I went to Princeton, it’s my secret mission at McKinsey to recruit more Princeton Tigers into the firm so we have a stronger representation.” (Disclaimer: I did not attend Princeton, but I wish)

Return on recruiting investment

When firm pays a college’s career center, their goal is to meet as many qualified talents as possible. Does a non-target school have qualified talents? Yes. Is recruiting at a non-target school good ROI? No, because spending the same amount as they did at a target school just to find one or two qualified candidates is bad investment. So target schools are financially feasible for employers to target.

Has there been big apples at target schools? Hell yes. Harvard Business School alone produced the likes of:

  • Rajat Gupta, Galleon insider trading (Managing Partner of McKinsey, HBS) - prison
  • Jeff Skilling, Enron scandal (HBS, McKinsey Partner) - prison
  • Jeff Immelt, GE stock drop from $500 at peak to $60 during his time as CEO (HBS, classmate of Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan, Seth Klarman of Baupost, Steve Mandell of Lone Pine Capital) - "retired" by the board

My Experience Serving Primarily Non-Target Students

Wrong motive

A sizeable subset of non-target school candidates I have interacted with are pursuing high intensity professions to compensate for not attending a top university and to prove to their classmates or people from their town that they have made into the big league. Look, it’s going to be year 2023 soon, if you work in investment banking, most just feel bad for you, instead of being impressed.

Limited Vision

While you are in the school, your school is your own little world. At the best schools, the students know they have a shot at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs and they inspire peers to compete for those opportunities. Positive peer pressure can lift the entire community to aim higher and achieve big things.

At the non-target, most are complacent to get a regular job and call that a good outcome for first job out of college. Since only one or two alums from that non-target have gotten a job at those impossible firms in their school history, most don’t bother trying.

One of the causes of this narrow vision issue goes back to why these schools are called non-targets in the first place, which is that the top employers don’t give non-target students a chance.

While there are always exceptions, most non-target folks don’t have the willpower to level the playing field on their own.

Work Ethic

There is a socioeconomic component to this. If you have parents academically and/or financially successful, they tend to instill in you very early in life what it takes to succeed. And students from wealthy families tend to attend better schools. 

Where I went to college for undergraduate, the library is open 24 hours during final weeks, and you cannot find a seat in the library. Yes, many are cramming last minute because who doesn’t do that during college, but also people just want to win because it’s so competitive academically and good grades mean opportunity to be interviewed by top firms during on-campus recruiting or entering a top PhD program.

It creates a peer pressure mechanism for everyone to overachieve. You can say it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but really that’s what success takes. For target school students, it started really early in life whether it be a magnet / private high school or a target university.

Conversely, the best firms recruiting at non-target probably don't require as much out of the candidates in term of interview prep and intrinsic ability versus the expectation of McKinsey and Goldman Sachs where offer rate is in the low single digits. I don’t know for sure but I think it’s safe to assume most non-target students aren’t staying in the library overnight during final exam week.

I am not saying everyone needs to stay in the library overnight and I hope I don’t start such trend, but elite firms work their employees very hard so they have higher assurance in sourcing talents from schools where students already possess such work ethic before entering the professional world.

What's the Solution for Non-Targets?

I think of job search like a business. You need good product and a strong sales channel. You are the product. Your university is your sales channel. Both are important. 

I don’t know where you are in your academic journey:

  • If you are in high school thinking about where to go for college, definitely try your best to get into a target school, especially one that is very strong for the career path you are already seriously considering. 
  • If you are at a target school, do well academically and work on your job search and interview skills. I think you will be fine no matter what path you take because firms will give you a chance.

If you go to a non-target, is your life over? No. Here is what you should do:

  • Most important thing: Be a good product. Work on yourself – read, network, get mentors. Once you are out of school for 3-5 years and in the professional world, where you went to college barely matters. It all comes down to your professional accomplishment. Good thing is the information is everywhere today. The tough part is most don’t have the willpower to actually go do it and more importantly the discipline to keep at it. Again quoting my man Denzel Washington: “Without commitment, you will never start. Without consistency you will never finish” You need to be a self-starter and be disciplined to compound your knowledge.
  • Understand the system: Because your dream firms don’t come on campus, it can feel like you already lost before the battle even began. The target school folks can ask their alum about when investment banks come on campus, what are the informational interview etiquettes, and so on. Like Gordon Gekko (from the original Wall Street movie) says, “if you are not on the inside, you are on the outside.” Again, the information is out there, in many cases free too. You need to be a self-starter to go find those information to deeply understand who is who in your dream profession and the rules of the game. You will likely break into these industries through networking, but the amount of non-targets working and more importantly rising to high ranks on Wall Street suggest it’s entirely doable, at least for finance.
  • Develop a growth mindset. First thing to do is not keep bringing up you are non-target like the world owes you anything. For whatever reason, you did not get into a target school – that’s the reality. But the life isn’t over like I said before. Instead, know you can be in control of your destiny if you work harder than others to bridge the gap in intrinsic ability and access. And if you want to remind yourself you are non-target – frame it differently. Keep reminding yourself there will be always be a benefit of doubt in the professional world because of your non-target branding and you must work harder than others because you have something to prove. That’s a much healthier mindset to have as a non-target.
  • Be in a league of your own Be the very best in your non-target school. Then you need to look outside your school to find peers who are in your league. You will be lonely, but that's okay because your peers at non-target don't matter years later. There is Chinese saying of 井底之蛙 which is about the frog on the bottom of a well, you only see part of the world that’s confined by the well and you don’t know how much bigger the world is. Don't be that frog. 

I hope this helps. 

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