Interview with MBA Graduate Tim McCormack

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in 2006. Mr. McCormack graduated with an MBA from Pepperdine in 2007. Since then has founded Finance Agents and Lentuit.

The first time Tim McCormack went to college, funding issues got in the way. Several years in the workforce in a variety of sales and digital marketing positions were enough to make him realize that obtaining a bachelor’s degree would be beneficial. A stint living abroad in the Dominican Republic led to his choice of the BS in business from online powerhouse University of Phoenix.

But with business degree and work experience in hand, Tim still felt that he was missing some of the core business principles needed to truly be a mover and a shaker, and started investigating MBA programs in his home state of California.

The program focus, atmosphere and a full-ride merit-based scholarship led to his choice of the Graziadio School of Business & Management at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

“For me, the networking and career advancement opportunities found in campus organizations are as important as anything I’ve learned,” he said.

Education Information and Advice

How did you initially decide to pursue a BS in business management, and then an MBA in entrepreneurial management?

What it came down to for me is I have a broad range of interests; I wasn’t sure what I was going to end up doing. That’s the biggest reason I went into business. I did a couple of years of college right out of high school, and then had a funding failure. So I went and worked for a long time, which made me realize how much I needed the undergrad degree. After being in the work world for a couple years, it made it easy for me to decide to get a degree in business.

For me, the MBA was really a no-brainer. I had been living out of the country, so some of my local business contacts had dried up. As the world progresses, you used to have to get a high school degree or you were nothing, now you pretty much have to get a college degree to get a good job, so anything extra you can do is beneficial.

There are a lot of people out there with MBAs, but it still sets you apart, and it’s definitely worth the effort. The University of Phoenix is great university for a lot of things, but I didn’t feel like I learned enough about the core principles of business that I needed to understand to go into advanced management, so the MBA worked out perfectly.

How did you choose University of Phoenix for your undergrad studies?

I knew I was going to be going abroad, and I really wanted to get my degree, so it was pretty much my only option. University of Phoenix was the only online university that was accredited. I needed to get my degree, and I was going to be in a situation where I had time to study, but still needed to work. I didn’t want to go to the one of the universities abroad because they aren’t recognized in the U.S.

How did your online University of Phoenix education meet your expectations? Any downfalls?

There are positives and negatives to classes online.

You have one class at a time, each class lasts five weeks — you really cram on one class, then move on to the next class. It’s set up where they have what they call an online newsroom, sort of a chatroom, where the teacher posts lectures weekly, and students are required to post as part of class participation. There is a large amount of class participation that is required; we had to make sustentative postings; so there is a lot of writing.

One of the strengths of the program is that everyone is working together to help their fellow students. There is a positive side to all the postings; it’s very good for developing writing skills. I was a good writer before, now I’m a great writer, and can write very quickly.

You do work in teams, and you get assigned team projects. That’s good, because business is all about teams these days; it’s definitely the buzz theory. It does give you experience working in teams, which was beneficial for me. At Pepperdine, we constantly worked in teams, so it was good training for me.

On the downside, certain classes really do not lend themselves to the online environment, and presently, it seems like there’s no real way to execute that on line. For instance, I took two accounting classes, and I still got kicked in the teeth with my first serious accounting class in Pepperdine. I’m sure that’s not too uncommon. Accounting, statistics, classes that require a lot of questions are difficult online; for one assignment, you may have 20 questions, and waiting a day or two for a response makes it difficult. I really learned to do a lot on my own.

For some classes, it would have been a lot easier if I would have had someone that I could have asked questions to directly, even classmates. As for prestige-wise, I did have concerns about getting into grad school with an online undergrad degree; some of the top universities won’t even look at you. You will want to look at that, because if you want to get into top 20 business schools, you might have a tough time. There are also definitely some businesses that don’t view University of Phoenix the same as a traditional four-year university. Given my situation at the time, the University of Phoenix was perfect and it worked well.

What led you to Pepperdine University for your MBA studies?

I was going to be moving back to the Los Angeles area, and as far as I know, UCLA, USC or Pepperdine are the big choices. Due to some timetable issues, when I started looking at getting my MBA, I planned to apply to start in the following year. I came in and had an interview at Pepperdine, and the people were incredible. They were very helpful, friendly and they really bent over backwards to make things work for me, they were very accommodating. They let me apply late after the deadline, and discussed scholarship options. I actually got 100% scholarship from them, which helped in my decision considerably.

UCLA and USC do have stronger brand names, especially in the area of hiring. Pepperdine has a bit of a younger program, and may not ever have the same size as UCLA and USC, but it’s a great university. The atmosphere was incredible, and so is the curriculum on international studies, which was something that was very important to me.

They have a strong entrepreneurial management program, which was something else that I was looking for. And the scholarship money was a big deal for me as well. Really, they had everything that I was looking for. Plus, the campus is incredibly beautiful, on the mountains in Malibu, overlooking the ocean; the whole graduate campus has a 180 degree view of the ocean. You come in every morning and thank God you’re alive — it’s very beautiful.

Tell us about your MBA experience.

Classes are very demanding. The way classes are set up at Pepperdine is in trimesters, four classes at a time. Each class meets once a week, four hours a day, for seven week class; four, 13-week trimester. It’s broken up in such a way that it’s manageable. I’m also getting into the Pepperdine study abroad program. I applied for IESE in Spain, which is ranked No. 6 in the world, it’s set up by Harvard case study model, a little different than what Pepperdine does. I’ll be starting the four month program in September of 2006.

Pepperdine has so many different opportunities for clubs and participation, so when I got here I jumped right in. I’ve had a great experience so far. I started my own club, the Executive Alliance, which is still pretty young. I never had played golf before, and I wanted to learn how to play. So I decided to start a club that focuses on golf and golf training as a way to tie in to our huge alumni groups, as well the fully-employed MBA students and other people from the communities. Basically, we’re all just playing golf together; the idea is to create more connections between the alumni and the community.

The Alumni are great to work with; the idea is that we’re building one skill pretty commonly used by executives to tie everybody together and get them involved.

I’m a member of the Entrepreneur Club, which mainly revolves around the business plan competition, which I really want to participate in next year. You create business plans, submit them to a committee, pitch them, and the winner gets between $20,000 and $30,000 seed money.

Out of all the things that I’m in, I feel the most honored to be selected as an Emerging Leader. This is the first year of the program at Pepperdine; I was one of 12 students chosen by the faculty as one of the emerging leaders in our class. We have meetings with the program director, and we offer perspective on what’s worked, what hasn’t and advice from student perspective. We’re working on setting up a mentoring process for the next school year. As second year students, we’ll be given a portion of the incoming student class that we’ll be responsible for mentoring throughout their school time. It will be sort of an active leadership-training practicum. We’re creating it as we go, as it’s a new program.

How is active participation in campus organizations contributing to your MBA experience?

It’s definitely a major part. Though it’s not like this for everybody, for me, the networking and career advancement opportunities found in campus organizations are as important as anything I’ve learned.

The more people I can meet and the more exposure I can get to different industries, the better for me. You hear of some university MBA programs that are very competitive, but Pepperdine has a very friendly atmosphere. Here, it’s more collaborative between students, and there are a lot of things going on, charity activities and such.

Personally, I think its very important to be involved; you can learn everything, in the end, a lot of the extracurricular things you put on your resume are as important as anything else. A lot of companies don’t even ask for your GPA, but they want to know what organizations you’ve been involved with and if you’ve had any leadership roles. For me it’s a very important part, and I’m glad to be at a university that offers lots of opportunities.

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your business education?

If I could give any sort of advice it would be pick a career path, pick an industry, and a career goal, and work toward that consistent goal, and you’ll get a lot more out of what you’re learning. I’ve been broader in my focus; so in that sense, I haven’t been able to take advantage of all of the opportunities because I haven’t always been able to express where I want to go with it. If you are focused the entire time, you have a much better chance of graduating and getting into any kind of job you want.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an MBA program?

It depends on what’s important to you, because everyone has different things that are important. Obviously you need to look at what you want to do, because different universities have different strengths. Beyond that, look for cultural fit. It’s really important, because you are going to go through two years of very intense study, and if you don’t work well with the people around you, it’s going to be tough.

Any advice for students considering scholarship opportunities?

Look into scholarships. I didn’t have any idea that I could get a full ride. Until I came to visit Pepperdine, I hadn’t even taken the GMAT yet, as I was planning to apply the next year. I spoke to an admissions counselor, and she told me that if I could get above a 700 on the GMAT, there would be scholarship money available, so that became my number one goal after that.

There are a lot of scholarship opportunities, especially if you are willing to forgo the universities in the top 10-20 rankings. If you can get a high GMAT score, then there is so much money available. An MBA is a lot of money, so if you can find a way to avoid loans, do it. It’s worth it. In fact, not a lot of people apply for the scholarships; there was a recent 6,000 scholarship at Pepperdine that only 10 people actually applied for.

How can prospective business school students assess their skill and aptitude?

When I started undergrad the first time, I did not consider business as a major at all. I wasn’t really interested in numbers, as I was a more creative type. But business is so important; you can use it to do anything you want.

As far as assessing aptitude to go into it, for most programs in the U.S., barring a few universities, it really is not so much aptitude as much as how much work you are willing to put in — how you apply yourself. There are very smart people who fail, and there are people who aren’t that bright who do excellently in a business program. I wouldn’t be as concerned with aptitude as with being able to buckle down and do the work, and figure out if you’re at a place in your life where you are willing to put in that time.

A lot of undergrads in different fields, such as science or technology, come and do an MBA program, and find that it’s more challenging than for those students with a business degree. Students might want to consider taking classes in some of the disciplines at a community college level. If you have bachelor’s in science, but haven’t ever taken a business class, then it might be a good idea to take accounting at a junior college before you come in.

What can students applying to business schools and MBA programs do to increase their chances of being accepted?

If you’re applying and you have some time, one thing that is good to do is to make sure you are doing something besides work, such as volunteering, which big tier universities especially are looking for.

The essays are very important. I spent about two months working on my essays — six different ones; you really have to set your life down on the paper. You have to brand market yourself in these essays, you need cohesive themes, so take your time on the essays, ask for opinions, and listen to those opinions. Edit the essays 10 times if you need to. References are pretty important, as well; just like with your essays, you need to have a similar theme, feel free to tell your references what you hope for them to say.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

I think it makes a difference. It was still a trade-off for me. I’m basically getting my MBA for free at a less-recognized university, but I am saving between $60,000 and $80,000 on school costs. All you have to do is compare starting salaries: I heard it reported that Harvard MBA starting salaries are $140,000 a year, while right now the average starting salary for Pepperdine MBA graduates is between $70,000 and $88,000. So you’re making twice as much money out of the gate from Harvard.

What are some common myths about the business profession?

There are a lot of them. I think most are true, yet again, untrue. It depends on where you are. Some industries are very dog-eat-dog; others are a lot more cooperative.

Underestimating the impact of the change to the business world into a global economy is the biggest myth, though some people take it seriously. If someone tells you that outsourcing isn’t going to be a big deal, that would be a myth. It’s going to happen so much more; I was living abroad in a country where a fulltime web programmer with five years experience thought $500 a month was a good solid wage. We are going to see a lot of major shifts in a lot of major fields that we couldn’t even imagine would be outsourced.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about the field of business in order to be successful?

If your business is art, you just have to be passionate about your art, to facilitate your art. If your business is a professional manager, a CEO, then you need to be passionate about it for success. After all, this is going to be what you are doing a minimum of 40 hours a week.