Which MBA Program is Right for Me? The Ultimate Guide to Choosing an MBA Program
In 18+ years of MBA admissions consulting, I have found that otherwise highly capable and focused people often basically wing it when it comes to creating their target list of business schools. I’ve heard things like: “I’m just applying to all the top ten.” Top ten according to what source? And this: “I realize now [after R2 deadlines have passed] I was overreaching. Are there any good schools I can still apply to?” Probably. And even this: “I’m applying to H/S/W, with Duke as my safety.” Duke as your safety?
By starting to develop your list of prospective schools now, you can avoid these and similar problems.
Why it’s so important to choose the right MBA programs
By approaching school selection thoughtfully and systematically, you will save time, money, and effort in the long run (even if you expend more of all three initially). You will conserve precious energy for the nitty-gritty work of the applications. You will also be able to devote time to planning school visits and recommendations, two things that often get neglected in the heat of the application season.
In this post you’ll learn about:
Let’s jump right in and develop a strategy that will get you accepted to your top choice b-schools!
4 steps to jumpstarting the b-school selection process
Here are four things you can and should do right now to get started on the school selection process for next season:
1. Take notes.
Write down those random thoughts that have been floating around in your head, for example, “top 10,” “friendly to older applicants,” “strong quant focus,” “need to be within an hour by plane from my ailing mother,” etc.
2. Surf social.
Read blogs and scroll through newsfeeds on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube of MBA students not just at schools you’re already interested in but from a wider array of schools – both the substance and the tone of those blog posts will give you a subjective feel for different programs and your own responses to them.
3. Talk to MBA students, current and alumni.
If possible, talk to MBA students and ask them about their school selection process, about what went well and what proved difficult or problematic. Also ask what they would do differently.
4. Visit schools.
Visit schools you know you are interested in (you can always revisit later), schools you might be interested in, and even schools on the margins. The best time to visit is when schools are still in session and when you’re not pressed by the application process yet, but when it’s still close enough to application time for your insights from the visits to be relevant if you discuss them in essays. Take advantage of travel you may do for business or pleasure to schedule a visit, rather than trying to cram everything in the fall – when you’ll be even busier than usual with applications plus work. Moreover, visiting early on (like in the spring) gives you time to digest and reflect on your campus experiences.
We’ll delve deeper into each of these topics in the upcoming sections of this post, so keep on reading!
Assessing your MBA admissions profile
Thinking about what you want and need in an MBA program is the fun part. Before you do that, though, you’ll need to tackle the less fun part: assessing your profile. Knowing a program has everything you’ve ever dreamed of is nice, but if it does not welcome applicants like you, it’s just a fantasy, not something to expend effort and money applying to. Conversely, learning that a seemingly so-so program would likely value your candidacy might prompt you to take a closer and warmer look.
5 factors to consider when evaluating your profile
Break down your assessment into several basic areas, as follows.
1. Work experience
There are many dimensions to the work experience element: your industry and company, your role overall, how you compare to accomplished peers, how fast you’ve advanced and/or how impressive your impact has been, and your leadership (formal and/or informal).
What are your strengths in this area, and what are the weaknesses or challenges? A challenge might be, for example, that you’ve increased responsibility significantly but because you work for a “flat” company you don’t have promotions. Another challenge: You work in the tech side, so you have to illustrate your business knowledge and exposure. One more: You’re a successful consultant or financial analyst, but how do you differentiate yourself in this group?
Strengths would be distinctive roles or industries, visibly rapid advancement, clear leadership. [For more information, check out How an Admissions Committee Views MBA Work Experience]
This part includes your undergrad GPA and transcript, grad GPA and transcript (if any), and GMAT or GRE score(s).
What are the strengths and weaknesses in each area, and how do they add up overall?
For example, a weak undergrad GPA and solid GMAT will not be great if your GPA trended down and the quant section of the GMAT was under 80%. However, if the GPA trended up and your GMAT quant was 90%, you’re in much better shape. A strong grad GPA won’t completely neutralize a low undergrad GPA but it can go a long way to doing so. (NOTE: If your GPA is low and you have time to take a class or two and earn A’s, this can help mitigate your lower GPA – I recommend doing this even if you have a high GMAT.)
3. Post-MBA goals
Ask yourself these questions when evaluating this aspect of your profile:
At the least, extracurricular activities will round out your profile. At most, they will set you apart and give your application extra sparkle. They will be more important to some programs than to others. And the weight they have in any individual application will vary depending on the other factors, as adcoms review the applications holistically.
5. Other miscellaneous factors
Honor code infraction, DUI, DWI, academic probation – all clear negatives, but again, how negative they truly are will vary. Perhaps the worst is the honor code infraction. On the positive side: obstacles overcome, extraordinary level of achievement in almost any area, and military experience.
With a clear understanding of your profile and your competitiveness, you can determine which schools are likely safeties, on-pars, and reaches.
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Determining your needs and wants in an MBA program
You’ve assessed your academic and professional profile. You now know who you are; but do you know what you want? Now it’s time to focus on the future: what you want and need in your MBA program.
If you are visiting schools now, the visits can help you sort through these points and see them in a new light. For example, you might have thought you could never spend two years outside a city, but stopping by Tuck on a ski trip opened your eyes to the abundant diversity and culture the campus and town offer, and you give the excellent program a closer look.
How important are these 7 factors to you?
Whether or not you get a chance to visit schools before compiling your school list, consider the following factors and decide what’s important to you in each category:
This category includes the curriculum structure and approach (for example, preset concentrations versus flexible), strength in particular disciplines, professors in your areas of interest, degree of analytic rigor, opportunity to take courses outside the b-school, and study abroad options.
2. Recruiting and career services
Recruiting for both internships and post-MBA positions should be relatively strong for your goals. But students’ actual need for this service varies depending on their existing contacts and resources. Similarly, some people have more need than others of career services’ support.
3. Extracurricular opportunities
Most people will want to see that the school hosts clubs and activities in their areas of professional interest. Other than that, do you want certain volunteer activities, arts or cultural activities, religious resources, or political opportunities? Are you looking for people who share your interests? If you don’t find something you need, would it be easy to initiate a club or activity?
This factor is critical to some, insignificant to others, and somewhere in between for most. There is brand in your own perspective, and brand in the eyes of your prospective employers. Probably the latter is more important and less open to compromise. Do not mistake “brand” for “ranking.” If you need a highly competitive program such as Columbia or Wharton, that’s fine. But the issue isn’t “top 5”; it’s the value of the specific school brands for your context.
5. Environment and ambiance
Do you prefer a warm and fuzzy or a hard driving learning environment? Everyone wants diversity, it seems, but what kind: geographic, professional, functional, ethnic, religious? Do you prefer a small, close-knit campus or a large, teeming one? Does it matter to you if the student body has a more conservative or liberal orientation?
Where would you like to be? Start broad, like continent. Many non-US applicants think globally, considering programs in Asia, Europe, or the US. Many Americans however remain fairly US-centric almost reflexively. If you are an American traveling abroad, try to visit some of the overseas MBA programs. You will be pleasantly surprised.
7. Other personal factors
Do you need quick access to an international airport? Special medical resources? Resources for a spouse or partner? Or maybe you’re really into bobsledding and want a track nearby….
Once you’ve established what you’re looking for, you’ll have an even easier time narrowing down your choices and selecting the programs that are just right for you. But first, you’ll need to weigh those items that you’ve deemed important or unimportant.
Let’s break it down
Break down your likes and dislikes into four categories:
Let’s delve deeper into each of these.
What are the things that you absolutely cannot live without?
These are your Essentials. This category applies to things that you must have no matter what – without them, you can’t attend a program. If you are making a career change into marketing, you need a program with strong marketing curriculum and recruiting. Period.
What is important to you, but you’d be willing to settle without?
This category applies to the things that are highly important to you, but are not “must-haves” like those above. Things that you would consider compromising on if you really, really had to, but really, really don’t want to. For some people that might mean a geographic location, for others a warm and open community, for others the chance to take courses in the university’s law or public policy program.
What would be nice to have but not entirely necessary?
These are things that would make a program more attractive to you but wouldn’t necessarily be a deciding factor.
What do you really not need at all?
This category means simply not a factor. Some people would just as readily have curriculum flexibility or structure or would just as readily live in Palo Alto or Fontainebleau, strange as that may seem.
The importance of defining your priorities
The main purpose of this exercise is to think about and define your priorities. Some people may be comfortable keeping these rankings in their head as they go through the next steps; others will make a spreadsheet with them.
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Reaches, on-pars, and safeties
Now it’s time to determine what types and levels of MBA programs you’re competitive and qualified for, and what if any are out of reasonable reach.
I use the following categories:
1. Reasonable reach: Acceptance is not likely, but with a great application, is within reach.
2. On-par: With a great application you’ll have a solid chance of acceptance.
3. Safety: You will likely be admitted if you present your case credibly.
There’s also a fourth category: out-of-reaches. Conceding the wisdom and validity of “never say never” and “nothing’s impossible,” there are still much, much better ways to spend your energy and time than applying to such schools.
3 main factors to consider when determining your reaches, on-pars, and safeties
Keep in mind that these factors all work together holistically.
1. GPA and GMAT
Let’s start with the basics. How do your stats stack up versus the mid 75-80% of students in a given program? To be fundamentally qualified you’ll want to be in the higher two-thirds of that range at least. If you’re above or in the upper one-third of this range, you’re competitive in this area. If you’re in the middle third you’re qualified, and if you’re in the lower third or below, you’re reaching.
2. Work experience
This is the next factor to consider, specifically, the quality of your experience. The more competitive the MBA program, the more important it is to have strong and demonstrable advancement, impact, and leadership relative to your accomplished peers, regardless of your function, industry, or organization. Quality of work experience is a key factor in determining the level of program you would be competitive in; top-tier programs turn down many applicants with near perfect stats who lack the requisite professional accomplishment.
Being in an overrepresented or underrepresented industry, demographic group, or global region/country will affect your competitiveness. Perhaps the largest overrepresented group is Indians in technical fields, a group that also has relatively high average stats. Schools that might be reasonable reaches for others will be almost out of reach for many in this group. On the other hand, no matter how underrepresented you are, if the adcom doubts you can handle the program, you won’t be admitted. As you can see, this factor influences what programs would be reasonable reaches, on-pars, and safeties.
Other factors to consider
A myriad of other factors will also affect your qualification and competitiveness. Having fewer than three or more than eight years of work experience or already holding an MBA from another program usually makes you less competitive.
If you have an unconventional background, such as teaching or airline pilot, you face extra burdens in making your case. However, if you successfully make the case for your qualifications and need for an MBA, your nontraditional background may become a plus in this competitive process.
As you research and visit MBA programs, determine how qualified and competitive you are for them.
How to research and choose the best MBA program for you
You may be researching schools already. Going through the steps we’ve already mentioned will help you do so efficiently. It will also help you remain objective.
That means that you should eliminate from consideration:
Some applicants will immediately run into a dilemma here: What if you need a globally recognized brand, yet you don’t qualify for schools that carry the desired panache? In some cases, you might find it worthwhile to apply to such schools’ part-time or EMBA programs. Or you may target programs recognized globally in your niche, but not for overall brand. Or you may decide it’s not worth it to pursue an MBA. Luckily, most people can find programs that offer their must-haves.
Let’s define our terms
“Qualified” means you meet the basic standards of a given program. You can be fully qualified but not competitive – this is exactly the problem that many excellent Indian IT applicants face. “Competitive” is more nuanced; it encompasses the preferences and character of the program, the commonality or distinctiveness of your background, and even sometimes political and/or economic trends and events. When you happily conclude that you are qualified for Columbia, don’t forget to ask yourself whether you are also competitive there.
When you identify schools that meet your needs and important wants, determine whether they are reasonable reach, on-par, or safety schools. First examine the GMAT and GPA ranges, and analyze student profiles. How do you compare? The numbers are easier to compare; it might take some digging and some thoughtful self-critique to determine how you stack up in terms of quality of work experience and leadership. This aspect is at least as important, if not more important, than the numbers for competitive programs, so buckle down and do the qualitative evaluation of your work experience and compare it to the level of achievement of students in your desired schools. Otherwise you won’t know where you really stand.
Then look at other qualitative factors that would make you a great fit or a challenging fit for the school. One main point is status in an underrepresented or overrepresented group. Then there are the individual qualitative factors. For example, you’re a finance professional and one program you’re considering has a great finance curriculum but is not reputed for it. Your finance status would be a plus for such a school, whereas you might not stand out from the army of finance applicants at a known finance school.
Finally, combine all these factors – your scores, qualitative analysis of your work experience, and any other issues pro or con – to refine your determination of reasonable reach, on par, or safety for each school of interest.
It’s not ALL objective…
It’s true that you should be objective. Still, don’t ignore the subjective factor in your research. If you find yourself falling for a school that doesn’t seem like a great fit – you wanted intimate campus and yet when you visited NYU while on a business trip to the Big Apple, you found its downtown vibe utterly scintillating – well, great! It’s possible you’re momentarily infatuated, and it’s also possible that there’s a side of you that this environment has opened up and brought to light.
Allow yourself to be enchanted and surprised in the process.
So, how many MBA programs should I apply to?
At this point in your school research, you know what you’re looking for in an MBA program, but what’s the magic number? How many is too many and how many is not enough?
Deciding how many schools to apply to is another often shortchanged step in the pre-application process. It’s something that people seem to think just happens. And it will just happen, but not necessarily in an advantageous way, unless you take control of the process. Your specific situation and needs should drive your choice of how many schools to apply to – in each category: reasonable reach, on-par, and safety. Having a clear idea before you start your applications of how many schools you’ll be targeting will help you plan and allocate your resources. (By “number” I mean roughly; a short range such as “five or six” is fine.
How many business schools to apply to: Let’s talk numbers
A “typical” applicant would apply to about five or six programs: 2-3 reasonable reaches, 2-3 on-pars, and 1-2 safeties. The rationale for this scenario is that it yields a decent possibility of acceptance at a reach, likelihood of acceptance at an on-par program, and certainty through the safety.
This typical case doesn’t apply to a lot of people though. Here are some common exceptions:
Last but not least, this number isn’t written in stone. The application process is dynamic, and you are not closing off opportunities by deciding on a number to target now.
Putting together your initial list of b-schools to apply to: Which MBA programs are right for me?
As you have gone through the previous steps in this process, a group of feasible and appealing programs most likely has evolved almost organically. It’s time to firm it up in preparation for the hands-on application process.
Break it down into categories
Establish your desired balance among our three categories: reach, on-par, and safety, remembering that these categories have variations within them. Whether you are applying to ten programs or two, you should be clear about where each falls on this continuum vis-à-vis your profile. Out of the total number of programs you’ll apply to, how many do you want in each category, and why? Answer this question based on your previous evaluations, and make your list accordingly. This allocation should be deliberate and informed, not accidental.
Mix and match with your wants and needs
Now take the list of schools that meet your needs and, ideally, fulfill your important wants, and that also are viable targets (meaning, they are not out of reach), and sort these schools by reach, on-par, and safety.
If your research yielded more programs than you want to apply to, you’ll need to further whittle down the list. Which programs in a given category meet the most of your wants and/or best meet your needs? You can also factor in where you have the better chance of admission, since the programs within a category will vary in competitiveness.
Balance your scales
What if this process results in an imbalance? You wanted two reaches, three on-pars, and one safety. You ended up with no safeties, one on-par, and an overabundance of reaches. It’s not uncommon. Remember, competitiveness will vary within category. So some reaches might be close enough to on-par to almost fit in that category or straddle the two. If not, you have some hard choices to make:
Especially if you are applying to numerous programs, consider balance within categories as well, and try to widen your scope of programs. Say you’re a consultant. The majority of consultants will gravitate to the known consulting programs (e.g., Kellogg); but you’ll stand out more in programs renowned for other areas (e.g., Chicago Booth). This balance within categories is especially helpful because the vicissitudes of the upcoming admissions season are still unknown. If a flood of consultants apply, your breadth of programs will be all the more important.
Now you should have your list of MBA programs. Or, I should say, your preliminary list. Since you continue to learn as you go through the application process, it’s quite possible that you will modify this list. This list should be firm but not rigid; you shouldn’t veer from it on a whim (otherwise, what would have been the point of all of this work?), but you should be open to change for a solid reason that engages your initial assumptions or preferences.
Two examples of how to choose which MBA programs to apply to
Let’s get practical. How can all of this information be practically applied? Here are two examples that illustrate how this school selection process works.
Example 1: Ted
Who is Ted?
More about Ted
His career track record of impact and accomplishment is solid but not exceptional; similarly, he demonstrates clear but not outstanding leadership. His extracurricular activities are consistent but do not elicit a “wow.” MBA brand is important to him, but he accepts that he may not be competitive at Wharton or Columbia. Given his age, he would rather reapply (at least he knows where he can improve if need be – leadership, impact, and GMAT) than attend a program that does not excite him or that represents a steep compromise, and since no safety schools excite him, he selects only reaches and on-pars. Still, he’d love to get in this year, so he decides to apply to eight programs over Rounds 1 and Round 2 to widen his chances.
Which MBA programs does Ted apply to?
During his research he was surprised to find a few on-pars that interested him, and he put all three on his list:
The five reaches vary in competitiveness:
Example 2: Joyce
Who is Joyce?
More about Joyce
Joyce needs to get in this year because of her age, since she knows that chances of acceptance become increasingly difficult for each year after the age of 30. Her work experience is a strength, in part because women in operations are relatively few, but also because core manufacturing related experience isn’t highly represented in many programs. She doesn’t have the time, the resources, or in fact, the desire to apply to more than six schools, and she feels she should be able to gain acceptance to an exciting program if she approaches her list thoughtfully.
Which MBA programs does Joyce apply to?
Joyce targets two reaches:
And two safeties:
For both of the above hypothetical applicants, objective assessment of their profiles, thoughtful examination of their needs and wants, extensive school research, and consideration of the number of schools to apply to yield promising lists of targeted MBA programs.
Adapting your list of b-schools to apply to as the season progresses
As you know, your initial school list isn’t set in stone. It is a firm starting point that allows you to plan and to proceed efficiently and systematically through the often unwieldy application process.
As you progress through your applications, continuously assess and respond to any new developments that might warrant revising your list.
Examples of situations that may impact your school list:
If you applied to reaches and on-pars with competitive interviewing and you don’t receive interview invites even from schools you considered on-pars, it’s a sign that you may have miscalculated your competitiveness. On the other hand, if you receive an interview invite from a high reach that you really didn’t expect, a reassessment might reveal the advisability of adding another reach or two in the second or third round. In either of these cases, revisit your list. Changing it may involve replacing some programs, or simply adding some.
As the application season progresses, life goes on. Personal needs change: geography, partner and family issues, personal interests. Professional needs and goals change – perhaps you lost your job; perhaps a new healthcare project intrigued you and you now want to consult in this area. Revisit your list, see what works and what doesn’t, and adapt it accordingly.
Look at your list: Would this program replace another one on your list? Or would you want to add it? Either option is fine, depending on your needs and resources.
We’re here to help
By following the steps in this post, you will create a list of MBA programs that meet your needs and will yield admission to desirable programs. This systematic approach will also help you keep sane during the application process.
You can significantly increase your chances of getting accepted by applying to the programs that are the best fit for your unique qualifications, goals, and preferences. Our MBA Admissions Consulting Services will provide you with the one-on-one guidance you need to submit the best MBA applications to the best MBA programs for YOU! Are you ready to GET ACCEPTED?
Cindy Tokumitsu has advised hundreds of successful applicants, helping them gain acceptance to top MBA and EMBA programs in her 20 years with Accepted. She would love to help you too. Want Cindy to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
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