Visiting the University of Texas at Austin McCombs MBA Program

Written by Dylan DaCosta, Head of Enrollment for The Art of Applying®

Earlier last month,  the full-time employees at The Art of Applying® had our second team retreat of the year in Austin, Texas. Our Founder and CEO Kaneisha Grayson treated us to fancy dinners (she finds it hilarious that I call the last meal of the day “supper” instead — maybe it’s a Canadian thing), arranged for team-building exercises and showed us around the city.

One of the final stops of our four-day retreat was The McCombs School of Business at UT Austin. Having just opened its new facility the Robert B. Rowling Hall about 10 months ago, it was a chance for us to see one of the city’s sparkling new buildings and a place where many of our clients are interested in applying to. The high glass walls, the amazing terrace patio and the massive suspended staircases all caught my eye.

My colleague Kyle (he’s the well-organized glue that holds the company together) and I got the chance to sit in on a second-year Behavioral Economics class taught by Professor Julie Irwin. While in the class, I was able to reflect on a few key takeaways.

Diversity of thought is crucial

Here at The Art of Applying® we attract clients from all over the world, each with their own unique story and skill set. Just like the incoming classes of elite business schools, we pride ourselves on having a diverse client base.

Very early into the Behavioral Economics class, I noticed the diversity of national origin. Among the 25 students, my Portuguese ears quickly picked out two people speaking my parents’ native language (although based on the accent, I’m pretty sure they were Brazilian). Throughout the school, MBA students conversed with one another in many different languages, and I enjoyed hearing quite a few y’alls, a word that I’ve grown fond of hearing from our Texas-based staff at The Art of Applying®.

In addition to the apparent cultural diversity, while visiting the class, I realized that diversity of thought is equally as important. Professor Irwin opened up with a few simple examples of behavioral game theory that students were asked to participate in. I’ll do my best to explain one of them.

Two students, working in a pair, each have two options: thumbs up, or thumbs down (I’m using this for ease of explanation).  At the same time, they reveal which of the two they’ve chosen. If both people do thumbs up, they each get four candies. If they both choose thumbs down, they each get 2 candies. If one does thumbs up and the other does down, the person with the thumbs up loses a candy, while the other person gains 3.

The above example isn’t exactly the same as what was used, and I’m not an economist so it’s possible that it does not entirely reflect the case used in the class I believe this particular experiment was called “the prisoner’s dilemma”. But what’s more important is the discussion that generated from this first example.

One of the male students in the class instantly went on the offensive, stating that the experiment was silly because there was no reason for the partners to do anything other than both give a thumbs up (as it gave them both 4 candies, the maximum reward). Even with more context from the professor, the student remained skeptical and even dismissive of the example. I saw more than one eye-rolling look shared between him and one of the women in the class.

It was really hard for me to not raise my hand and vehemently disagree with the student. I wanted to exclaim, “YOU DON’T GET IT!” Not only did I get the feeling he was being a bit rude (and as a fiery sports fan I’ve let one or two people know before when I felt that was the case) but I also was shocked at how wrong I felt he was and how nobody else chimed in to say so.

Again, this is all from the eyes of somebody who hasn’t attended business school. But my instant reaction was that he had misjudged what it meant to be human. He was entirely correct that a group of efficiency-driven, like-minded people would have no reason to stray from the path providing the highest output for the group. However, he was incorrect in assuming that all humans are like that.

The sheer possibility that the other person could not cooperate adds a different level of depth to the exercise. Yes, if they cooperated both people would benefit. But you’d each have to place trust in the other person to do so. If your partner did not cooperate and you tried to, the other person would benefit while you would be hurt (i.e. they’d gain three candies while you’d lose one). More than “maximum efficiency” comes into play in a situation like this; this simple exercise can also be an analysis of risk tolerance, trust and ethics (because one partner can purposely deceive the other person).

Regardless of whether my view that it’s important to take the complexity of human motivation into account is right or wrong (though I believe it’s right), the point is that people are different. If only “rational” students like the aforementioned two existed in the classroom, everybody would nod their heads and agree and congratulate each other for their mutual understanding. In order to have a thriving classroom, you need unique perspectives and individuals to generate real, meaningful discussion.

Our Enrollment Specialist – Jordan – soaking in valuable insight inside McCombs.

The MBA classroom isn’t all stats and functions

On a lighter note, I was surprised at how fun the MBA classroom can be. The entirety of this particular 90-minute Behavioral Economics class was dedicated to game theory. I could hardly believe it. We played games with candy. The entire class.

While the exercise was fun, it was also extremely engaging and imparted memorable lessons. The professor could easily have used a simple slide presentation to teach the theory. Instead, she used slides only as context to set up the students for live participation. Using candy and cooperation (or a lack thereof) students were able to put these theories into use.

My colleague Kyle and I were able to participate in a few of the games. One of the games in which we participated gave each member of our six-person group five candies each for a total of 30. Without knowing what the rest of the group was going to do, each person had to place any number of their candies into a middle pool. After all of them were in, the pool was doubled and then split evenly among everyone (regardless of how much each individual contributed). All of these instructions were given to us before making a decision.

For maximum efficiency, everybody would put all of their candies in. The 30 would double to 60, and would be redistributed with 10 per person. Everybody wins. Instead, while everyone else in my group put in 5, I put in zero (the lesson was titled “Game Theory” and as an ultra-competitive individual I may have taken the “game” part a bit too literally) and awaited the wrath of my group. The pool of 25 was doubled to 50, and everyone — myself included — got about 8 candies in return. While the rest of my group had 8 each, I had 13. It was clear that the rest of the group frowned upon my actions, but I felt I played my role in showcasing the purpose of the lesson.

As a disclaimer, my group (I believe wrongly) did the candy pool contribution one person at a time. So by the time it came to me, I was aware everybody else had put in five candies and the opportunity to “cheat” was easier to take.

Professor Irwin jokingly called me a freeloader and the general reaction of the other students in the class was disapproval. Despite their disapproval, I delighted in the most packs of the sugary, disc-shaped Rockets candies.  (It did even out later, when my group punished my previous actions by stealing candy from me — mimicking how the rule of law is there to penalize those who cheat the system.)

Regardless, I enjoyed not only the experiment but also the chance to play the villain. It was great to see that the MBA classroom can be fun, as well as enlightening — and can certainly show you who a person really is (my extreme competitiveness was hard to hide).

There is undoubtedly a heavy quantitative focus in an MBA program. But my experience showed me that learning doesn’t have to all be hard work. A disengaged student learns nothing, regardless of the quality or content of the material. By allowing students to see firsthand how game theory could unfold, it brought a reality to the situation that graphs and charts could not provide.

We’re changing lives at The Art of Applying®

For me, visiting McCombs was more than just enjoyable. Yes, I had fun learning about behavioral economics and cackling maniacally as I hoarded candy — but it also drove home just what we help our clients do here at The Art of Applying®: we help create opportunity.

To date, I have personally enrolled over 100 people into our signature coaching program, Application Accelerator®. Kaneisha proudly reminded me that I’ve enrolled enough people to make up an entire section at Harvard Business School. And the impact of the work our team does was clear at the UT campus.

My entire time there was highlighted by the sort of vibration in the air, the feeling you get, when elite minds are in the presence of one another. It’s not a feeling I can properly describe, because I’m not sure words have the ability to do so. But it was very, very evident. You can tell that these institutions mean something. That being there means something.

My colleagues and I have an opportunity to steer these potential applicants in the right direction, helping them realize their goals and dreams. It was rewarding to get a glimpse into exactly what that may look like.

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