If you’re ambitious and have big dreams for your career, then pursuing a Master of Business Administration degree — or MBA — could be the logical next step in your path to leadership.
However, because there are so many MBA programs all over the world, it may be difficult to decide where to go to business school. Nevertheless, since the numerous MBA programs available aren’t identical, business school admissions experts say it’s imperative for every MBA hopeful to differentiate between programs which are suitable for them personally and those which are inappropriate given their situation.
The Art and Science of Choosing the Right Business School
A school’s prestige is something for future MBA students to evaluate when comparing programs, but they shouldn’t stress about slight differences between the rankings of one school versus another, MBA admissions experts say. When looking at MBA rankings, future business students should not only look at their target schools’ overall rankings but also examine specialty rankings within specific academic disciplines, such as accounting and strategy. Students shouldn’t take B-school rankings at face value but should instead dive deep into the underlying data that is used to calculate those rankings and that is published alongside the rankings, experts say. A B-school’s cost figures, employment statistics and corporate recruiter evaluations are worthy of scrutiny, according to experts.
Programs of comparable quality often differ in significant ways, according to experts. The learning environment and mission statement of one great business school may be diametrically opposed to that of another outstanding B-school. Each MBA program has its own unique alumni network, career services, extracurricular activities, location, school culture and student body, experts say, and prospective students should consider each of those factors.
What to Look for in a Business School
MBA hopefuls should examine the information a B-school publishes about its values, since those priorities establish “the core of what makes one school different from another,” says Hillary Schubach, president of Shine MBA Admissions Consulting in California. “They really live and breathe and embody these principles, and it matters a great deal to them,” she says. When a school expresses great pride in a particular aspect of its identity, it is likely to be a defining feature of the school, Schubach explains.
Some business schools offer a strong curriculum within a particular domain of business — such as entrepreneurship, marketing or finance — and have less compelling course offerings in other areas, while other B-schools have multiple exceptional academic departments, according to experts.
“Make sure the curriculum lines up with your goals,” Apeksha Kothari, the COO of Rare Carat — a jewelry company, wrote in an email. “If there are not courses that pique your interest it doesn’t matter how good the school is because you won’t want to concentrate on the syllabus.”
Prospective MBA students should ask current students at their target schools about how heavy their workload is, Kothari suggests. “Students who feel challenged and are having fun do better than students who are swamped and exhausted,” she explains.
Experts urge prospective MBA students to ask themselves the following questions and to answer these questions honestly: Do they want to attend a B-school that tests their limits and exposes them to people unlike those whom they have met before? Or, would they prefer to go to a school where they feel completely in their element and have a strong sense of belonging?
Another factor to consider, according to MBA admissions experts, is a business school’s teaching style, since MBA programs vary in their pedagogical approaches. Some B-schools heavily rely on the case method, which involves classroom discussions about various business case studies. Other schools offer a significant number of lecture courses. MBA students are often required to participate in group projects, and their courses may require them to come up with solutions to real-life problems faced by actual businesses.
Schubach cautions students against focusing exclusively on whether a school will help them achieve short-term objectives, such as securing a specific type of job. Business school is a long-term investment that pays dividends over the course of decades, Schubach explains. So the first industry someone works in after B-school isn’t necessarily the sector where he or she will spend his or her entire career, she says.
“I just always encourage people to consider the longer term play of their careers,” she says. “No matter how hard you plan, there’s going to be something new that may take over your career trajectory.”
Arman Davtyan, assistant dean of enrollment management at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School in California, advises prospective MBA students to think about both their career aspirations and the skills they wish to cultivate.
“Some MBA candidates are seeking to grow their leadership capacity, while others may be more interested in gaining technical skills in areas such as accounting, finance, or digital marketing,” he wrote in an email. “In the case of aspiring entrepreneurs, they may benefit from the opportunities of a professional peer network afforded by entering an MBA program. Identifying these specific needs and interests will help guide one’s search for compatible business programs.”
Another factor for MBA hopefuls to consider, Davtyan says, is which type of MBA works with their schedule, since there are both full-time and part-time options. Cost is another important consideration, he suggests.
How to Get an Accurate Impression About a Business School’s Culture
It is prudent to reach out independently to a school’s current students without involving the school, says David White, a founding partner of the Netherlands-based Menlo Coaching admissions consulting firm. “I advise applicants to speak to students through their personal network rather than relying exclusively on official student ambassadors and admitted students’ events,” White wrote in an email. “The official channels will be great at highlighting the MBA program’s many strong points, but might be less candid than someone in your personal network. In a pinch, admitted students can use LinkedIn to contact current MBA students who have something in common with them, like attending the same undergraduate institution or working for the same pre-MBA employer.”
Prospective MBA students should also investigate whether alumni of a particular school frequently find employment in their desired occupation, White says. “If you want to work for a specific employer, or in a specific city, you should ask the career development office about this, and do research on LinkedIn to see if your target MBA program has a good history of making such placements,” he suggests.
Kelsey Kephart, a former admissions officer at Columbia Business School who now runs the Embark MBA admissions consulting firm, encourages prospective MBA students to sit in on a B-school class offered by whichever school they are evaluating. While observing a class, MBA hopefuls can witness both the ways in which students interact with one another and their relationships with professors and gauge whether that school is someplace where they would like to enroll, Kephart says.
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