Selecting which programs to apply to (and ultimately attend) is no easy task. There are lots out there, and lets be honest… going by the info that the school’s put out, it can be pretty tough to find meaningful differences. Ultimately most of us will end up applying to a number of programs (my recommendation is at least 5, more on that later) and end up letting the schools do a lot of the thinking for us.
Here are the 7 things that I think are most important when choosing which programs to focus your energy on.
With some exceptions, MBA programs based in the USA are going to be 2 year programs beginning in August or September and ending in the May or June with a summer in between where you’ll have the opportunity to do an internship.
Most programs outside of the USA will be 1 year programs, beginning in the fall or in January. There are a number of reasons for this, but the key thing to understand is that these are fundamentally different programs.
For one thing, the average age at 1 year programs will be higher. 1 year programs are designed for people who are typically more advanced in their careers, have more industry and possibly management experience, and need less support in their job search. They are also relatively cheaper, especially from an opportunity cost perspective.
2 year programs offer better opportunities for networking, tend to have stronger school culture, better learning opportunities and a more transformational experience overall. Of course, you have to spend 2 years there, and if you’re already 33, the 1 year MBA may be a great option.
The location of a program is going to have a massive effect on the culture of the school and the kinds of opportunities you’ll be exposed to. Location will also have a massive effect on how much you enjoy your time at the school and going back for reunions and visits, which is something lots of applicants probably don’t consider!
If you’re applying to a school in a location you’re not familiar with, visiting the location is definitely ideal, but at the very least do PLENTY of research. Aside from the broader culture of the location and its influence on the school you’ll be attending, realize that schools in urban and rural environments offer vastly different experiences.
International applicants in particular are often guilty of not giving enough thought to the location of a school they are applying to. Pittsburgh is a very different city from LA, and neither are anything like Ithaca or Hanover. If you can’t actually visit the locations, just Google them! Read their wikipedia pages! Look at YouTube video documentaries of the town or city you’ll be spending a big chunk of your life and remain connected to forever!
This can vary a lot, and seem to be trending upwards across schools on the whole. HBS is typically considered to have the largest class size with its 900 students, although INSEAD and HULT have more across their various campuses.
Smaller class sizes offer more cohesive cultures with the opportunity to build closer, meaningful relationships. Larger class sizes offer diversity, and even more importantly, a larger alumni base with better coverage in niche industries.
When trying to decide whether a big or small program is right for you, ask yourself the following questions:
Is it more important for you to connect with a cohort of lifelong friends in business school or make a few key contacts?
How committed are you to your industry? Do you see yourself as do or die within an established career path, or would you rather have the flexibility to move around laterally?
How big is your current circle of friends? Do you have multiple circles or one main group you hang out with?
This hugely important factor is so often overlooked. You may have noticed in your research that there are some very strong MBA programs held within Universities that are, by most other measures, unexceptional (e.g. Kellogg). Similarly, there are some ultra elite universities that have MBA programs that are considered strong, but not on the same level as the university as a whole (e.g. Yale SOM). There are also standalone business schools that are not part of any university at all (INSEAD).
When you go to a business school, you will definitely have opportunities to collaborate with people in other schools of the university. If you are entrepreneurially inclined; the eager, brilliant and business skill lacking students in other grad programs and even undergraduates can be a gold mine of collaborative opportunity. This is not even to mention the chance to take some really awesome classes you wish you had taken in undergrad!
But perhaps even more importantly, when you get an MBA from a school associated with a University, you are a legit alum of that university for life. Applicants know this, and this is the main reason that the selectivity and yield of a school often contradicts its rankings.
You’ll notice how low on the list this is. It’s not an accident.
Look, let’s not be naive. Not every school is created equal and you should always try to gain admission to the school that’s going to offer you the best opportunities long term. However, realize that within some fairly well established tiers, you’re WAY better off selecting your school on other criteria.
I could say a lot about this, but it can all be summarized below:
If you’ve formed a preference for a higher ranked school because of its ranking, without understanding the specific reasons why it’s a superior school you are being played by magazines for ad money.
Each and every school has a unique culture that is influenced by all of the factors mentioned here, as well as their history, leadership and a million other nuanced factors. Being able to express a nuanced understanding of a school’s culture and accurately identify what makes you a good fit is one of the skills I teach that lets applicants punch above their weight.
I’ll go into more detail on how to do this in a future message, but for now I am assuming you are early in the school selection phase and just trying to narrow down your choices. To that end, I believe there is one continuum along which most schools fit that will have the most dramatic effect on their culture.
That is the collaborative/competitive continuum. Every school will claim to be collaborative while no school will use the word competitive, but in reality schools tend to fall more so on one side or the other.
Collaborative schools are more communal and reject rock star personalities (either in the application process, or during the program itself). They will have, on average, more ideologically liberal students and alumni. Competitive schools are more individualistic and aggressive. It’s easy for softer personalities to get overwhelmed in such an environment. Competitive schools will have, on average, more ideologically conservative students. Larger schools tend to be more competitive while smaller schools tend to be more collaborative, but not on a 1:1 basis and there are exceptions.
Examples of schools with competitive cultures include Harvard, Wharton, Sloan and Booth. Examples of schools with collaborative cultures include Tuck, Johnson, Kellogg and Stanford.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the top schools do a pretty good job of being well rounded. Yes, Wharton definitely has a strong reputation within Finance and Kellogg is well known as a leader in Marketing, but unless you are both a super strong candidate and very sure of what industry you want to spend your career in, you shouldn’t be using this as a top consideration.
That said, when looking at schools outside of the ultra-elite group, this can be a more significant differentiator. There are schools outside of the top tier that have very respectable footholds in certain areas of specialization that can really increase the value of the program if you can’t get into the very best programs. This can often take a little more research as some of these opportunities are not obvious but they are out there!
Two examples are Babson, which is hugely focused on entrepreneurship, and Essec, which has great luxury and healthcare programs.
Keep in mind that no matter how many great schools there are out there, you only end up going to one. While the decision is not entirely up to you, it’s important that you focus your energy on a set of schools that offer the best potential fit for you.