5 Questions for an American MBA Student at HEC Paris—Margaret Hoffecker

We sat down with an American MBA student studying in Paris to see why she chose Europe for business school, the pros and cons of studying abroad, and some wisdom for potential MBA students looking outside of the US for graduate school.

Can you tell me a bit about the experiences and thought processes that led you to Europe for your MBA? 

I started my undergraduate at UCLA, and transferred a year and a half later to [The College of] William & Mary; I was paying out-of-state tuition at UCLA—97% of the students there are in-state, so I was paying a lot for education. A lot of people don’t know that William & Mary is a state school. 

I majored in international relations with a French minor, and when I graduated, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do—I applied to the Peace Corps, got far along in the process but hadn’t received a proper invite yet. In the meantime I’d applied to a PR agency, got that job, and figured that New York in my 20s only happens once. A month after I moved to the city, I got the invite from the Peace Corp for a position in Morocco, so I had to turn that down. I worked in New York for 7 years, mostly in market research. 

One of my bosses had gone to London Business School, and planted the idea of business school in my head; I didn’t even know what an MBA was at that point—I didn’t have much exposure to it. So I thought about business school for a long time; I had different dreams I wanted to chase, like living overseas. Three years ago I moved to London with another employer, but was getting to the point where I was trying to figure out my next step; I was not feeling like I wanted to go back to US. I felt a bit stagnant in my role, and was determined that I didn’t want to work in PR in an agency anymore. 

After talking to my two bosses who went to LBS, business school seemed like the perfect opportunity to expand my horizons and really have a transformational experience in terms of my career. I wanted to stay in Europe; I actually never considered American business schools—it just wasn’t something I was interested in. LBS and HEC just seemed like the right fits for me. LBS was very finance focused, and INSEAD was similarly great in terms of engaging people—I went to an event of theirs and really liked it—but the school is very consulting focused, and I wanted a little more generalist background with the possibility of getting into marketing. HEC seemed like a really good fit, and it was the only school I applied to. 

How would you say the education systems or traditions differ between European programs and US ones?

Having grown up overseas, I gravitate toward environments with diversity. At HEC, there are roughly 44 different nationalities in our class. I’m surrounded by people who are not like me. In an office, you are often around people like you—you’re striving for same goals, maybe you have different clients, but you're all hiring each other, in a sense. Here, we’ve all been selected by various admissions officers who are themselves from different places and trying to create the most diverse group they can. We all have totally different backgrounds, and I know that’s how business school is, but I don’t think the international aspect comes through as much in the US. 

Our professors are similarly, from all over—Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Croatia. For me that’s the most enriching thing; it’s teaching you to work with people who are just not like you, which is just the reality of the world. I think that for me the biggest advantage of HEC has been the truly diverse nature of it—and since we’re more generalist, not everyone wants to get into consulting or banking, so there doesn’t seem to be that cutthroat nature.

Also, my class is 137 people; all-told, the school is around 400 students—that’s a lot smaller than a single intake at INSEAD, or any US school. This way I’ve gotten to know my classmates more. You get more interaction in the classroom.

Anecdotally, would you say that a lot of peers are following your path? 

From talking to my American friends and even people here, I hear a lot of focus in general on the fact that European programs are much shorter; HEC is only 16 months, and at INSEAD it’s even less, with the 15 to 21-month option. That was a big consideration for me. In the US, you’re out of the workforce for 2 years, and that’s a huge loss of wages. If you really want to get a solid education and get on with your career, a shorter program like the ones in the EU can be a really good option; it allows you that flexibility to explore. For me, value for money was big driver. What I’m paying for my entire program is what US students pay for a year, and it’s 2 years.

In terms of job opportunities, what’s your horizon like—will you stay in Europe, or head back to the States? 
I’d like to stay here; I realized that sponsorship is challenging, especially in the UK; anecdotally, I hear from friends that once you say you need sponsorship, some companies just shut down. But I also know people have been successful with that, so you never know. I figured for me, I’ve gotten jobs in the US in past—I think I’m going to be employable, even if they have no idea what HEC is. But I’d love to stay in France if I can; HEC is extremely well-known here. 

I’d ideally like to look for Paris-based jobs. Honestly when I moved to London from New York, I was totally confronted by the craziness of New York—the rat race is real. In London they leave the office at 6pm and go to the pub; and going from 10 vacation days to 25 is not a bad bonus. I loved the lifestyle in Europe, and also the opportunity to travel.

Read: Europe: The Next MBA Frontier for Americans?

In terms of career, I’ve had an interview at a consulting firm, and applied for a few internships at companies. I’d love to get into pure marketing; I’m passionate about the consumer, and would like to work somewhere in-house—I don’t want to be the market research girl anymore.

If you could give advice to an MBA applicant looking to non-US alternatives, what would it be? 

Consider where you want to end up! That’s one of the biggest considerations. That said, you can always do exchanges with other US schools, so if you don’t want to end up in the US or rely on the US network, that’s okay too. It’s not for everyone; I think my own background played a big role in my choosing to go abroad; my family moved to Riyadh when I was 7, then India, so we were overseas until 1998. When I moved to States, I thought, ‘I’m not American, I don’t feel American.’ Eventually I got over that, but there was always something in me that was itching to get overseas again.

I would also consider how valuable your time is. Do you want to take two years off from work? Can you afford to do that, or do you want something a little more accelerated? I haven’t been to US business school, but it feels very full-on—activities every day. I would also just advise that you kind of have to be open to learning from people who are not like you, and your opinion is not going to be the dominant one. And you’re going to end up with a global network at the end of your time here—you might butt heads along the way, bt if you’re open to the diversity, then it will be open to you. 

Headshot courtesy of Margaret Hoffecker

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