In the whirlwind months that comprised my business school application process, it felt as though I flirted with the idea of practically every business school in existence (both in the U.S. and internationally). Convinced that more was more, I found myself staring down a veritable mountain of applications, promising myself that when the time came, I would be able to narrow the field. This was, I quickly found, a ludicrous proposition for me, and I would venture, a ludicrous proposition for most potential business school applicants.
While the notion of optionality can be beguiling, casting a wide net in the application process isn’t always the best strategy. These applications require an almost inordinate amount of time, money, and your (and your friends’ and your recommenders’) energy. As such, being intentional about what you want out of your MBA experience from the outset and creating a shorter, more targeted list is, I would argue, the best place to start.
Of course, it can be difficult to determine exactly how to go about narrowing the field. After all, business schools are phenomenal marketers, and attempting to identify what key characteristics are important to you can be a daunting challenge. But if you take the time to think critically about what exactly you’re hoping to gain from your two years back in school, you may find that you have a more fruitful (and certainly less tiresome) experience as a whole.
When considering which MBA program is right for you, there are a few key aspects you’ll want to keep in mind:
Location, location, location
Whether you’re targeting the United States, Europe, or Asia for business school, keeping location in mind is truly key. Not only will the city (or town, in some cases) become your home for the next year or two, but it will also dictate a number of key experiences during your schooling experience, both in terms of recruiting and socializing.
While it’s true that many business school networks pride themselves on being national (if not international), there remains some additional concentration in the immediate geographical vicinity. That is to say, schools located in Chicago tend to have a greater number of alumni in the midwest, whereas schools in New York tend to have more alumni in New York, and a school in London likely keeps more former students in the U.K. and surrounding regions. This is a relevant consideration for post-MBA opportunities, but also important to keep in mind during recruiting season. If you’re looking to minimize cross-country travel while in business school, you’ll want to be deliberate about where you want to spend not only your post-graduation years but also your summer.
Location will also play a key role in dictating your non-academic life at school. Whether your primary form of decompression is hiking or clubbing, be aware of the social opportunities that your city provides you. Again, the nightlife in Paris is decidedly different from that of Hanover and could impact the way you unwind.
Speciality degrees and specializations
If you have a distinctive interest in driving your desire to apply to business school, figuring out which programs would be most amenable to this passion will serve you well.
Not all business schools offer specialized tracks, but that doesn’t mean they’re not known for certain aspects. For example, Yale School of Management attracts socially-minded folks who may be more likely than the average business student to work at a nonprofit. Similarly, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania specializes in finance, with plenty of graduates heading to Wall Street. If you’re craving a more global experience and hope to focus in international business, INSEAD could be a good fit; not only does it have campuses in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, but the school also requires students to speak two languages upon matriculation, and a third by the time they depart.
While some of these specialities seem more to be a product of the types of students the business schools attract, there are also schools that offer specific concentrations. Think of these as corollaries to your undergraduate major. If you’re an accounting nut, the College of Business at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign has a reputable accounting concentration, whereas the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business has an excellent marketing concentration. London Business School allows students to declare a concentration by taking a majority of electives in a certain subject, providing graduates with more latitude in determining their focus.
Not only will you want to consider what your speciality might be, but you’ll also want to think about how you’ll pursue that speciality. Going to business school doesn’t have to involve quitting your job and moving to a brand new city. While the full-time MBA program is generally the most popular among students, there are also part-time and Executive MBA programs.
For example, Chicago has a fantastic reputation when it comes to the Executive MBA, which is geared toward managers and executives who want the benefit of an MBA education while maintaining their day jobs, so to speak. Both the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Management and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management are known for these programs. Unlike the part-time MBA, most Executive MBA programs are two years.
The part-time MBA, on the other hand, can vary in length, with some schools allowing students to graduate in two to three years, while others require longer tenures (up to five years). New York University’s Stern is known for its accelerated part-time MBA, which maintains the two-year timeline; the University of California Los Angeles’ Anderson School of Management, on the other hand, offers an excellent two and a half to three-year option for part-timers.
It goes without saying that recruiting and post-graduation opportunities are the end goal of most business school applicants. Generally speaking, MBA programs want applicants to know about the successes of their alumni. As such, be diligent about looking up “who went where” reports that programs release on an annual basis. These reports not only detail the percentage of students who receive post-MBA job offers but will also break out these offers by industry. As such, if you know you’re interested in pursuing consulting, check out schools that have historically placed well in the industry, like the Duke Fuqua School of Business. The employment report from MIT Sloan, unsurprisingly, reveals that over a quarter of students end up in the tech industry.
Finding these reports is generally quite straightforward. If you’re looking to find where Harvard Business School graduates go (and how much they earn), a quick Google search for “Harvard Business School employment report” reveals a relatively diverse set of post-MBA job opportunities (with no one category claiming more than 25% of students), and a median salary of $140,000.
Strongly related to recruiting opportunities are the strength of the clubs. Much of the preparation involved in consulting, banking, or marketing recruiting is overseen not by professors or classroom lecturers, but rather by 2nd-year students running clubs.
Not only do these professional clubs organize the curriculum that will guide your recruiting process (including casework, technical preparation, and the like), but they also often organize alumni happy hours, industry panels, conferences and job treks.
But it’s not just the professional clubs that are worth checking out; as it turns out, MBA students tend to have diverse and not entirely business-related interests. The Ski and Snowboard Club at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, for example, is an active group of folks with plenty of opportunities to enjoy winter sports. There are also schools with wine clubs, service clubs, and importantly, affinity clubs that provide spaces for minorities and other underrepresented groups.
Yale School of Management’s Women in Management club, for example, puts on a conference known as Fempire, whose theme varies from year to year to highlight important issues facing women at the intersection of business and society.
Ultimately, clubs offer an important way for students to take learning outside of the classroom. To the extent that your MBA is an opportunity for exploration, joining a diverse set of clubs may be the best way to truly expand your horizons, and finding a school with clubs that speak to your interests is key.
Not all business schools are created equal when it comes to the intensity of academic rigour. Chicago Booth (like much of the University of Chicago), has a reputation for focusing more on academics and academic performance, and HEC Paris is also known for being quite challenging in terms of classroom requirements. Other schools, on the other hand, may focus more on the networking aspect of the MBA, and de-emphasize classroom attendance or performance. Academic rigour does not necessarily indicate the quality of the MBA program, but it can dictate the values of your peers, which of course, can, in turn, dictate the enjoyability of your overall experience.
Also important to consider is the degree to which your business school will allow you to take classes outside of the MBA program. Yale School of Management, for example, prides itself on being the school “most integrated with its home university,” and encourages students to explore the myriad courses offered not only by the College but by other graduate programs as well.
Last but most certainly not least, it is the people of your MBA who will ultimately make or break your experience. Despite the relative brevity of most business school programs, the intensity of the two years often creates strong friendships that can last a lifetime.
Unfortunately, while this is one of the most important elements of your business school decision, it can often be the most difficult to ascertain. But there are certainly ways to work around it. Even before you begin your applications, scour your network to see who you know at what business schools, and start reaching out to chat about their experience. Ask them what makes them tick, what they tend to do on weekends, or how they met their closest friends. Ask to be connected to other folks within the school, and consider how natural your conversations feel.
Moreover, take advantage of campus visits. If it’s relatively easy for you to get to a school, take the time to pay it a visit. You’ll not only meet current students but other prospective students who will give you an idea of what your incoming class might look like.
Many schools also offer meet-ups in large cities during the application process, which feature panels of current and former students and serve as an excellent way to get answers to some of your burning questions about the MBA experience.
When choosing an MBA program, be sure to take your time and weigh the different pros and cons of each program. A general rule of thumb and good starting place is deciding where you’d like to be geographically, which can at times be the most challenging decision. Once you’ve settled that, the rest will follow.