Straight Shooting with Alex Zarganis
Updated: Feb 1
Alex Zarganis is the man of the hour.
Alex has a dual degree in Private School Leadership, an MBA from Columbia Business School, and fourteen years of experience in Admissions Consulting. So there’s very few people out there more qualified to discuss the business school admissions process. Alex’s expertise and insights have earned his clients admits to schools such as MIT, HBS, Stanford, Oxford and INSEAD, along with thousands of dollars in scholarship money.
It’s safe to say that Alex has seen it all.
Our new video, “Straight Shooting with Alex Zarganis”, features Alex in his element - dispelling myths about the application process, sharing constructive advice, and dropping insider information on what it takes to get into top MBA programs. Tune in here.
Alex’s experience at Columbia
So, what was it like to do an MBA at an M7 business school? Alex recalls the most distinctive features of his program:
Clusters and a Non-Disclosure Policy
There’s a myth out there that Columbia is a competitive school where applicants would sooner sabotage each other’s coursework than help each other out. Alex totally disagrees.
He argues that Columbia has a highly collaborative atmosphere that prioritizes learning and growth. He points to several specific policies and measures that the school has in place to ensure this.
First, the clusters. The class is divided into clusters of 65 - 70 students. During orientation, you spend a whole day of activities with these 65 people. This allows you to get to know your cluster and build relationships with them before classes start.
Within the clusters, Columbia Business School then divides candidates into learning teams to do homework, projects, and other activities together. This helps candidates feel safer in an unfamiliar environment and builds friendships with diverse peers.
Second, there’s the non-disclosure policy. Alex argues that a key reason that allows CBS to build such a collaborative environment is the adoption of a non-disclosure policy. Several elite schools in the USA, such as Wharton, GSB, Booth, Johnson, Ross, Haas and CBS have opted for a non-disclosure policy.
The policy states that the school won’t disclose your grades to potential employers, and dissuades candidates from disclosing grades to recruiters to promote an equitable learning environment.
Why does a non-disclosure policy help? First, it discourages a competitive attitude among candidates. By reducing the importance of getting a good grade in a class, candidates tend to be more willing to help a friend in need, even at the expense of their own grade.
Second, grade non-disclosure encourages candidates to take risks. If you're concerned about your GPA, you are likely to pick an easy class to get a higher grade. But when there’s non-disclosure, you’re more likely to take that interesting but challenging class that you’ve always wondered about.
However, you are free to mention special awards or distinctions like the Dean’s List on your resume, if you choose.
Columbia has one of the largest MBA programs in the world. You would be in a cohort of ~800 incredibly smart and motivated students. Bouncing ideas off this diverse crowd and spending time with other students lets you make the most of the peer-to-peer learning opportunities.
Additionally, the CBS alumni network has tens of thousands of people around the world who are happy to help out a fellow graduate, whether it’s for advice or a job. The time you spend at networking events helps you build connections that can present valuable opportunities in the future.
Dual Degree Program
When Alex joined Columbia, it was their first year running the dual degree program with the Teacher’s College, School of Education. In a small cohort of 20 students, he studied in a close-knit circle of colleagues with years of experience and in-depth industry knowledge. Other dual degree programs are offered by Columbia, including one with the School of International Public Affairs (SIPA).
Top tips from Alex
Alex’s Education experience (he set up a school!) and MBA give him a rare perspective into the
admissions consulting process. For this year’s aspirants, here are some of his top tips for business school applications.
How should applicants research and show interest in a b-school?
To show real interest in a business school, you should be as specific as possible. Anybody can talk about how great Columbia is. That it's got an international flavor. It's in New York!
If possible, you should try to attend a few in-person classes at the University. Columbia, for instance, allows prospective applicants to get a taste of the MBA program by attending classes and shadowing a current student. When you discuss the time you spent there, your experience of the classes you attended, how you liked the case studies and teaching style, you’ll be adding real value to your “Why Columbia?” essay. Plus, you can bring it up in your interview.
But this may not be possible for everyone, so sign up for virtual tours, attend webinars, and attend virtual coffee chats whenever you can.
Let your presence be felt. Being active in these sessions has a bigger impact than you’d think. Decision-makers at the school notice people who ask good questions, show genuine interest, and who have done their research.
What are the biggest mistakes MBA applicants make?
Not starting early enough
Many applicants make up their minds about MBA applications a few months before the deadline, oblivious to the time it takes to build a strong application. Alex advises starting a year in advance to allow yourself enough time to develop your story. It will also give you enough time to write thoughtful essays or improve your GMAT or GRE score.
Poor school research.
Your personal stories can be the same across different school applications, but your intention to pursue an MBA at ‘X’ school over ‘Y’ obviously has to be unique to the school. It should be well-researched and backed by specific reasons.
Try to go beyond stating obvious facts about the school that you found online: Bring up your target electives, specializations, clubs, or activities in conversations with alumni, current students and adcom. Use these discussions to get some interesting anecdotes from them about it so you can demonstrate you’ve done your research and you know what you’ll be doing during the program.
Should applicants apply in Round 1?
Alex argues that the rounds are less important than the internet would have you think. Sure, applying in Round 1 is ideal. But submitting proper essays and a competitive GMAT/GRE score are far more important, even if that means delaying your application by a round.
What’s the process you follow with your clients?
Not every consultant works in the same way. Alex walks us through what clients can expect from his process.
Assessing schools: When most applicants reach out to an Admissions Consultant, they already have some idea of where they’d like to go. So, the first step is to understand which stage the applicant is at and build a step-by-step plan for their MBA applications.
Managing expectations: It’s important to identify if their target schools are realistic. At this stage, Consultants need to manage expectations. Typically, Alex divides the schools into three categories - dream, reach, and safety schools and advises candidates to apply to at least one of the schools in each category.
Research: To write successful application essays, you need to know as much as possible about the school. Particularly schools like Columbia, that have entire essays dedicated to “why our school?” So, Alex will guide you through the process of researching schools and having conversations with alumni, current students and adcom.
Essay writing and reviewing: You’ll spend several meetings with Alex to identify themes in your profile and build your narrative into essays. Then, he’ll get a colleague on board, either Sam Weeks or Jon Cheng, for checks. We like to do a first-read where we spend 3 minutes on the essays to get a first impression, similar to what AdComs do, before diving into detail.
That’s a wrap for Straight Shooting with Alex. Watch this space for more from him! Do you have more questions for Alex? Book a chat with him right away.