Roadmap to School Selection: Phase 3

Over the past couple of days, we’ve talked about how to begin our school selection process online (Phase 1), and to narrow down our results by speaking with students and alumni live (Phase 2).

We’ve now reached the third and final phase of the school selection process.

This final phase typically occurs while you are actually applying to school, and may even extend past interviews and into Admit Weekend for the schools where you are accepted. This is no longer about figuring out where to apply (save any last-minute surprises), but rather about determining what schools you actually plan to attend.

PHASE 3: Experiencing it Live

By this point you should have a very good understanding of the programs to which you’re applying; enough to write about them in your application essays, and to describe your interest in the school in an educated fashion in the context of an interview. Yet, no matter how thorough your research or how much knowledge you think you have amassed, nothing beats experiencing an MBA program first hand.

Thankfully, this is not difficult to do. All it takes is committing the time to go visit campus, and as long as travel logistics are at all feasible, it’s something we strongly advise you to do.

When you visit campus, definitely make sure to take part in all the organized activities. Take a campus tour, attend the info session and ask questions, get lunch with some students, and attend a class.

Attending a class is especially useful because it gives you a sense for the academic environment at the school (which will form a significant part of your everyday life), and also provides insight on the nature of the interactions among students. Is the discussion lively? Is there even discussion? Do students mingle before class? Do they speak with the professor during the break? Are they even paying attention to the professor during class, or are they heads-down gaping at their laptops? These are all valuable clues into what a school is really about.

Finally, when all the official activities are over, resist the temptation to take the earliest bus back home. Stay on campus a bit longer and try to imagine yourself doing this day after day.

Go to a coffee shop, sit down in the library or the study lounge, take a stroll outdoors if the weather is nice. If you have friends at the school, or if you hit it off with any of the students you met during the day, kindly ask if you can stick around with them a bit longer. Even better, make plans to go out with them that evening if you can. All this will give you a sense for what it would feel like to be part of a particular MBA program.

Indeed, while many aspects of your MBA decision are going to be clear and quantifiable, your personal fit within a particular program is largely an emotional thing. Yet it is no less important than career statistics or academic specialties. Fit is what is ultimately going to make you excited to wake up in the morning and go study and hang out and network with your classmates. It is perhaps the greatest single indicator of your future success during your MBA program and beyond. So don’t take it lightly.

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Roadmap to School Selection: Phase 2

Yesterday we talked about Phase 1 of the school selection process, which begins with some independent research online. Now onto the next phase of our Roadmap…

PHASE 2: Reaching Out

Now that you have a sense for what schools might interest you, it’s time to reach out to students and alumni to get a better perspective for what life there is really like. It will also provide you with an opportunity to get a more informed opinion on all the conclusions you drew from your independent research in Phase 1.

The best way to reach out to students and alumni is through friends, family and colleagues, since that connection will incentivize them to give you a really honest insider’s perspective. If you can’t get in touch with anyone directly, certainly reach out to the schools themselves and they’ll be able to put you in touch with someone willing to talk to you. Definitely also make sure to go to information sessions in your city, and take a campus tour if travel logistics are at all feasible. This will also benefit you in applications and interviews, since it demonstrates your interest in the program and enables you to speak about it intelligently and from an informed perspective.

An additional resource that you should not discount is online MBA discussion boards. The two most active ones are GMAT Club and the BusinessWeek MBA forums. There you will find both applicants and students willing to help each other out and provide an additional perspective on schools and the application process. The signal-versus-noise ratio is sometimes not perfect, especially with service providers using these forums as a marketing vehicle (the BusinessWeek forums primarily, since GMAT Club is more actively moderated), but they can be a valuable fount of information.

In addition to helping you verify your conclusions from Phase 1 of the investigatory process, speaking to students and alumni will further enable you enrich your knowledge of MBA programs along the dimensions of culture and fit.

Here are a few questions worth asking:

  • How close are you to your classmates?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • How competitive or collaborative is the recruiting process?
  • How competitive or collaborative are academics?
  • How accessible are the faculty and other academic services?
  • How much interaction is there between first and second year MBA students?
  • How much interaction do you have with people outside your career track?
  • What is the relationship of the MBA program with the rest of the university? Is there a lot of interaction, or do they operate largely separately?
  • What student leadership opportunities are there?
  • What is the relationship between the administration and the students? How involved are students in campus initiatives?
  • What student groups are especially active on campus?
  • What student groups are you involved in?
  • What roles do student groups (both social and career-oriented) play in your daily life?
  • What would you change about the program if you could?
  • Why is 6 afraid of 7? (Because 7 8 9!)

Another very important thing you can glean from talking to students is specific insight on the recruiting process, which ultimately will be the most important part of your MBA program.

Valuable questions here are the following:

  • Do you currently have a job for the summer/full-time?
  • How supportive is career services in the recruiting process?
  • How understanding are professors about recruiting schedules?
  • Do XYZ companies take part in on-campus recruiting?
  • Is ABC industry well-represented in on-campus recruiting?
  • What kind of support does career services provide for off-campus recruiting?
  • How much of the recruiting process occurs on- versus off-campus?
  • Beyond career services, what organizations or student groups are there to offer assistance in the recruiting process?
  • How helpful are second years in recruiting?
  • How helpful are alumni in recruiting?
  • Any nightmare recruiting stories?

At this point, you should have a good sense for what schools you actually want to apply to. Your short list will likely include a couple of top choices that you really love, and some back-up schools that while not ideal would still suit you well in terms of fit, career prospects, and academics. To be clear, your top schools need not be the highest ranked ones, or the ones with the most notable brand. Your top schools should simply be the ones that you would be most excited overall to attend.

Armed with this knowledge, you should begin working on your applications, even as you enter Phase 3 of the school selection process. That’s right, the school selection doesn’t end here. Chances are, it’s going to last all the way to the day you finally sign your acceptance letter.

Up next… Phase 3: Experiencing it Live.

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Roadmap to School Selection: Phase 1

Welcome to square one.

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.

Next up on our roadmap… Phase 2: Reaching Out.
And later… Phase 3: Experiencing it Live.

Posted in Business School, Organization, School Selection, Tips & Hints, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Don’t miss the MBA Circle starting tomorrow!

The awesome folks at The Economist are hosting another free online event for prospective MBA applicants.

At The Economist’s MBA Circle candidates can speak to admissions officers from leading business schools and get practical advice on pursuing an MBA. Participants will meet admissions officers, students, alumni and view webinars, attend chat sessions, and access critical MBA resources all in one place.

When? March 29th & 30th
Where? Register for FREE here.

Exhibiting schools include Darden, MIT, Yale, USC Marshall, London Business School, IE Business School, IESE and IMD.

An MBA admissions consultant will also be there to answer questions and will giving away a valuable guide free to all visitors.

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Win a free iPad at the Global MBA Forum!

Don’t forget, today is the last day of The Economist’s free Global Online MBA Forum, and if you visit five or more booths you could win a free iPad.

In addition at the Forum you can access the Forum’s interactive features including:

  • Online discussions with admissions officers, current MBA students and alumni
  • Webinars and videos with advice from an admissions officer and current students
  • Topical chat sessions about student life and special programs
  • Downloadable brochures, videos and school applications

Register today!

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to check out our online seminar, The Admissions Roadmap, on what to expect during your admissions season — narrated by yours truly. The Apply in the Sky steam has pooled all their extensive MBA admissions experience (and the long list of mistakes we wish we could have avoided) to help guide you through the process, and handle the emotional ups and downs that will most likely accompany it.


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How to stay organized through MBA admissions

Here’s a word we hear often in MBA admissions circles: overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed with essays, overwhelmed with GMATs, overwhelmed with chasing down your recommender at the last minute though you know that the first thing she’ll ask you about (since she’s your boss!) is the status of that marketing presentation that you didn’t do because you were scrambling to write that last MBA application essay that you somehow completely forgot about until a day before the deadline.

Wow, I think my adrenaline levels spiked just writing that. Oh yes, I know that feeling well. When I was applying to school, panic attacks were a regular occurrence.

But here’s the secret… this can all be avoided as long as you start off right.

Rule #1 about getting organized: Never trust yourself.

Though one might argue that, in certain circles, an MBA provides a reproductive advantage, this was not true historically, and human brains never evolved to juggle the complex organizational challenges of applying to business school.

If you try to rely on your wits alone, you will forget deadlines, misplace to-do lists, procrastinate asking for recommendations, and needlessly stress yourself out. And stressing yourself out is always a bad idea.

Thankfully, we live in the 21st century, and there is a wealth of technology available at our finger tips to help us tackle life’s challenges. So do make sure to take advantage of the tools available to you. There are many available, to suit all preferences and levels of technical aptitude.

“I’m an investment banker. I live and die by MS Office.”
Alright… sounds like Excel might be the tool for you. Open up a spreadsheet and start writing out all the schools you’re applying to. Then write down the application deadlines for each school, and all the different requirements. As you get things done, color-code them as such. The one thing we would advise, however, is to put your spreadsheet online. Organization very quickly falls apart if you need to take note of something but you don’t have your spreadsheet on you… You start creating new versions and files, and next thing you know you’re juggling 8 spreadsheets and have lost track of everything. Go on… Give Google Docs a try. I hear they’re building short-cuts so you won’t even have to touch the mouse.

“I was among the first 1000 users on Twitter. Web 2.0 is my thing.”
Sound like you need a more tech-savvy option. May we suggest our start-up to you? It’s called Apply in the Sky, and it’s a cloud-based hyper-organizer for MBA applicants. All you have to do is select the schools you’re applying to, and we’ll provide you with a pre-populated dashboard with everything you need to stay organized during your application process. The service is free to try out for two weeks. Check it out at

“I’m a jetsetter. I’m always on the go.”
Sounds like a mobile option is right for you. Thankfully, several companies have created convenient MBA planners for iPhones, smartphones and iPads. So take a virtual trip to the app store and start exploring the options available to you to keep track of your MBA applications from the convenience of your phone.

Don’t forget, organization is your first defense against feeling overwhelmed down the road.
And the right time to get organized is always right now.

Good luck!

Posted in Admissions, Apply in the Sky, Business School, Organization, Technology, Tips & Hints | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Don’t Miss The Economist’s Global MBA Forum!

If you’re considering an MBA, here’s an event worth attending, and an excellent opportunity to discover schools that are right for you.

On March 22nd & 23rd, The Economist will bring together business schools from around the world to meet you and answer your questions at their free Global Online MBA Forum.

At this free event, you can access the Forum’s interactive features including:

  • Online discussions with admissions officers, current MBA students and alumni
  • Webinars and videos with advice from an admissions officer and current students
  • Topical chat sessions about student life and special programs
  • Downloadable brochures, videos and school applications

Apply in the Sky will also be featured at the Forum, and we’re very happy to offer all Forum registrants a $10 discount on premium Apply in the Sky accounts.

Register today, space is limited!
Don’t miss this opportunity to find the right MBA program for you.

Some of the business schools participating in the Global MBA Forum include:

  • Baruch College – Zicklin School of Business
  • Brandeis University – International Business School
  • City University London – Cass Business School
  • Copenhagen Business School
  • Swiss Business School
  • TiasNimbas Business School
  • University of Geneva – International Organizations MBA
  • University of Glasgow Business School
  • University of Oxford – Said Business School
  • University of Virginia – Darden School of Business
  • Virginia Tech – Pamplin College of Business
  • The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Posted in Events, Global MBA Forum, The Economist | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments