You’ve decided that an MBA makes sense for you. You have a sense for how it’s going to fit into your career. And if you can just get through the GMAT, you can already begin to imagine yourself back in school, taking MBA classes, as well as networking, recruiting and socializing alongside your classmates.
The question is… Where should you go?
Time to start thinking about what schools you want to apply to!
If you’re like most applicants, a few names will immediately spring to mind – mainly because they are high in the school rankings or geographically desirable – and not necessarily because you have a clear sense for what those MBA programs are really about.
That’s not a good thing. Relying on rankings, geography or vague notions about a school’s brand to guide your decision seldom leads to the optimal outcome. Instead, you should figure out what schools will be a good fit for your personal goals. And your first order of business is to start gaining a better understanding of the schools that might interest you, so that you can then filter those down to the select few you will actually apply to.
So to help you make sure you’re covering all your bases, here’s a simple roadmap to help you navigate this first important phase of the process. We’ll be following up with additional tips for Phase 2 and Phase 3, over the next few days.
PHASE 1: Independent Research
The first thing you should do, as you start think about schools, is gain a sense for what your professional and personal goals are, and whether the schools you have in mind will truly help you achieve them. For example, are you looking for a school that is strong in general management and leadership? Or are you more interested in brushing up on your financial and accounting knowledge to complement your existing skill set? Are you looking for a full-time or executive degree program? How important is the alumni network to you? Will geography significantly affect your employment opportunities?
Once you have a list of your general criteria in the back of your mind, go online and start researching MBA programs. Start with the schools you know you’re interested in, browse through their websites, and see whether you can confirm or reject that assumption. Read first-hand accounts of the schools through blogs and guest posts in popular sites, and get a sense for whether popular perception seems consistent with the image each school might be advertising.
Then expand your universe to other schools. Sometimes it’s simplest just to take one of the popular MBA rankings (BusinessWeek, Forbes, or The Economist), and to see what appeals to you. But keep in mind that popular rankings are only as accurate as the assumptions behind those rankings and the weights that the editors of those rankings have assigned to criteria they assume to be important. Your personal ranking and fit with schools can differ widely from what Forbes or BusinessWeek may suggest, so it’s important to have at least some sense for what you are looking for before you start your research.
At this stage of your selection process, schools are going to distinguish themselves primarily along the following dimensions:
- Brand: Schools have distinct brand images that impact the way your MBA will be perceived. Some, like Harvard, Wharton and Stanford, have extremely strong brands that will automatically place them in the forefront of your mind. For other schools this might be more subtle. Your job when it comes to brand is to be aware of it and how it can work in your favor (strong brands often come with strong alumni networks and extensive recruiting opportunities), but also to avoid being entirely blinded by it. Finding the right school for you is far more valuable than just going for the best-known brand.
- Ranking: While many will argue that rankings do matter, don’t let this take precedence over other aspects of each program that will determine your experience there as well as your career opportunities on the other side.
- Geography: Don’t underestimate the importance of geography. Beyond cold winters or the opportunity to go surfing on the weekend, geography has a very serious impact on your recruiting prospects. Most industries are closely tied to certain locations: the epicenter of finance is in New York (or in London if you’re thinking about Europe); entrepreneurship is hottest in the Bay Area; much of media and entertainment is based in LA (and to a lesser extent, New York); traditional energy jobs have significant concentrations in Texas… Even when it comes to companies with multiple offices across the country and worldwide, you will always have the highest exposure to jobs in your geographic area. So it’s worth keeping geography in mind as you think about your career goals and fields of interest.
- Specialty: Different schools have different specialties, whether it’s finance, marketing, management or entrepreneurship… Often these will be advertised as such on the school websites, but you should take your research a step further. Go into the department websites for your areas of interest, and actually browse what classes they have available. Syllabi are often available online. Or you can sign up for school tours and observe actual classes. Be sure to look at this from a career perspective, as well as an academic perspective. Sites like BusinessWeek publish statistics on what industries MBA grads end up in, and this is an important indicator of what a school’s true competency in a particular area is.
- Programs Available: If you have specific interests, definitely look into all the different programs that a school offers. This may include joint degree programs with other departments (like law, medicine or public policy), study abroad programs, or specific experiential programs in particular areas that combine academics with real-world practical training through internships during the school year. Finding a specific program that is truly tailored to your interest can make for a unique MBA experience, and can turn a particular school from just marginally interesting into your top choice.
- Teaching Methods: This one often gets ignored, but it’s actually very important. As we’ve written about before, teaching methods (case method, group projects, experiential, etc.) can differ greatly by school and can make the difference between enjoying your classes and cringing at the thought of going showing up every day.
- Selectivity: Realistically, you’re ultimately going to have to balance what school you want to attend with where you can actually get in. While MBA admissions are a complex and somewhat mysterious process, you should certainly cross-check your GPA and your test scores with the averages at your target schools. If your scores are much lower than average, this doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t apply, but it might mean you should give that GMAT another shot, or think about what other strengths to play up in your application. In any case, come decision time, it pays to be realistic and you should always apply to a few back-up schools, no matter how confident you feel.
By the time you’re done with this process, you should have a short list of five to eight schools that appeal to you, including at least a couple of back-ups in case you don’t get into your top choices. Your next task will be to dive deeper into your research and refine these choices further.