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Managing Your Career: Business Students Get 30 Minutes To Launch a Career

December 5, 1995

Imagine the pressure on Ernest Blazzard as he faces the gantlet of corporate recruiters at the recent M.B.A. Consortium in New York, sponsored by 15 U.S. graduate business schools.

Both he and his wife, MaryLynne, interrupted their careers to simultaneously seek M.B.A.s at Cornell, going deep into debt in the hope of skipping a few rungs on the ladder of success. For two years, he has juggled a full-time M.B.A. program, part-time work and family. Last year, the couple’s first baby arrived during finals; they took their exams in the hospital.

Now, Mr. Blazzard, 31 years old, hopes the payoff is near, in the form of a job with a starting annual salary somewhere near the $63,600 averaged by last year’s Cornell M.B.A. graduates. But with competition for the best jobs growing more intense, mass-interviewing forums like this are gaining importance. Companies see them as cost-effective alternatives to campus visits, while candidates get exposure to companies that might never visit their campuses. ``It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,″ says Mary Kowenhoven, a Georgetown M.B.A. student.

But the meat-market atmosphere can be nerve-racking. Mr. Blazzard and Ms. Kowenhoven, whom I followed through the daylong event, are among 403 candidates from 15 schools interviewing with 62 employers, including Citibank, Goldman, Sachs & Co., Lotus Development Corp. and Merck & Co.. Their possible reward? The two consortia held the past academic year by the 15 schools yielded 121 job offers for the 677 participants. The group’s next event is Jan. 26 in Atlanta.

They have just 30 minutes to make an impression and no time to make a damaging career blunder.

So for all of you involved in M.B.A. programs or considering seeking an advanced degree, here’s what you have to look forward to, and some advice from those who have been there.

Mr. Blazzard, a former Arthur Andersen consultant seeking a finance post, has four interviews scheduled. To help him prepare, Cornell’s career services office brought in consultants to stage mock interviews. He practiced being relaxed, a lesson learned during last year’s internship interviews. ``I had all the answers at the tip of my tongue,″ he says. ``It sounded fake, like I had a script. I have to show that I have passions, that I’m not a robot.″

Ms. Kowenhoven, 26, a former Boeing engineer, is also seeking a finance job, preferably with a company that has some involvement in aerospace or transportation. She prepared for her 7 interviews (the maximum) by studying annual reports and newspaper clippings and quizzing other students for interview intelligence _ such as some of the dreaded ``brain twisters″ high-tech firms like to ask to test your reasoning and quantitative powers. One example: How many ping-pong balls can you fit into an airplane?

Interviewing starts early and continues all day, for a total of 1,188 sessions. Candidates crowd the hallway outside a large room, where several companies interview simultaneously, emitting a constant drone. (Some companies opt for more comfortable _ and quiet _ suites).

In his suite, Robert Weiss of Amerada Hess Corp. offers this advice to candidates: Know the business of the company you’re interviewing with and the requirements of the job. If the interviewer doesn’t have to explain them, you have more time to sell yourself.

Ask questions that show you’re interested, and leverage your experience. ``If you’re an engineer and you say you want to try financing, that won’t work,″ he says. ``We’re not an on-the-job training company.″

The interviews go reasonably well for our two candidates, although when asked about weaknesses, Ms. Kowenhoven is stunned to hear herself blurt out, ``chocolate.″

A recruiter for Wheat First Butcher Singer asks her how an increased budget ceiling would affect interest rates. She has to analyze specific business cases for interviewers from consulting firms.

An executive from Mervyn’s spends most of Mr. Blazzard’s half-hour explaining the retailer’s attempts to reinvent itself. A Fitch Investors Service recruiter subtly tries to determine if Mr. Blazzard thinks Wall Streeters are weasels. Lotus recruiter Seth Hollander sticks to traditional fare: Where do you want to be in five years? Why Lotus? Tell me about your internship.

Mr. Blazzard answers earnestly, his hands drawing patterns in the air. He neatly ties in his past experience with Lotus Notes and hesitates only when asked for a list of technical systems, which prompts a follow-up query about his comfort level with technical systems. Mr. Blazzard assures him he is a quick learner.

Mr. Hollander also asks whether a family man can handle the heavy workload and travel that Lotus requires. Mr. Blazzard, naturally, says it wouldn’t be a problem.

By mid-January, most companies will have decided who they want. Presumably, our candidates will have several choices (both already had one job offer before the forum). How will they decide? Ms. Kowenhoven stresses the importance of finding people she wants to work with. ``At Boeing, I spent more time with those people than they did with their families,″ she explains.

Mr. Blazzard has devised a formula using about a dozen weighted factors, including: compensation, opportunities for growth, will he enjoy the work and will there be time for family. ``I’m looking at what emphasis they place on your time,″ he says. ``It speaks volumes about how they value their employees.″