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When I was working on my MBA, and planning to attend law school next, I asked one of my professors, who had received a law degree, if she thought I needed to take Kaplan to prepare for the LSAT. “Yes,” she said. “You have to take a preparatory course because everyone else does. If you don’t, you’ll be at a disadvantage.” So I spent almost $1,000 taking Kaplan (no surprise, the price has since gone up) so I could bring up my score by likely a similar percentage as did everyone else that took Kaplan to bring up their scores. Did the course make me smarter? I did learn how to efficiently solve logic puzzles by drawing sketches and quickly organizing multiple variables – that’s a useful skill – and my score did improve, but would it have been worth the expense if many of my prospective law school competitors had not also been taking the course?

So goes the increased educational expectations by employers. The 2011 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics reported that, “From 1998–99 to 2008–09, the number of degrees earned increased for students of all racial/ethnic groups for each level of degree…” An increased educational attainment level is a good thing, but is the level of attainment required by employers really necessary to perform a job in question? And does hiring someone with a master’s degree to be an administrative assistant result in a happy employee committed for the long term? In both cases, likely not. The current economy exacerbates today’s competitive demands. But as long as there is a more qualified candidate (at least on paper) we rush to better ourselves to compete.

Chances are likely that if we all scaled back our efforts we’d all end up obtaining a similar level of knowledge that we obtained from all of our preparation. I remember a guest speaker in my MBA program who prompted a fellow student to comment, “He knows everything that we’re learning, but he learned it through experience.” But who will be the first to trust the trajectory of his or her success to pre-graduate degree, innate smarts, and hard work?

The bar has been raised; competition is here to stay. The new requirements may not impart knowledge that you wouldn’t have acquired along the way – but they are a requirement to get out of the gate.