Hyperbolized information sessions, tours of grassy quads and impressive libraries, meetings with cheery admissions officers—you know the drill. After visiting several business schools as a prospective student, they all start to sound the same. Each school touts its incredible resources and famous alumni, but how can you really dig deep into a school’s soul and get beyond the retouched photos and inflated statistics? The secret is talking to current students.
Most current MBA students are more than happy to spend a few minutes with a prospect. While you can usually contact the admissions office before your visit in order to shadow a current student, you should also seek out the less-filtered views of students not directly affiliated with the admissions office.
When talking to a current student, take full advantage by avoiding questions related to topics like class sizes or specific course offerings (the answers to which you can easily find on your own). Be strategic and focused, and be sure to prepare questions in advance. This is your real chance to interview the school; make the most of it.
Here are the top 10 questions I advise asking current students when visiting a business school:
1. What one thing would you change about the school? This is your best chance of getting an honest answer to any potential downsides of the school. If necessary, push for a better answer than “shorter lines at Starbucks” or “more couches in the lounge.”
2. How often do you interact with the professors outside the classroom? This will tell you how invested professors are in teaching (as opposed to research). Make a note if the student mentions a specific professor who really devotes him/herself to students.
3. What other schools did you consider? Why did you choose this school? Would you make the same choice again? This is a subtle way to gauge both how happy students are with their MBA program, and which schools they view as peer institutions.
4. What role does career services really play in helping find jobs? This is a way to get at the effectiveness of career services, which should be one of your most important considerations in choosing a school. While you can find out about events like career fairs and resume workshops on the career services website, only a student can tell you how valuable and pro-active the school’s career staff is.
5. How would you describe the school’s social scene? Business school is as much about developing a strong network as it is about the lessons you’ll learn in the classroom. You need to be sure the social scene will be a good fit for you, and that you’ll be able to easily build those ever-important personal relationships.
6. What activities are you involved in outside of classes? This will help you further gauge student life outside the classroom and the importance of extracurricular activities on campus, as well as which activities are most popular or important to the community. You want to be sure these align with your own interests.
7. How easy is it to get into the classes you want, especially in the second year? A course catalog will tell you which classes are offered, but if you can’t get into the classes you need, their existence is irrelevant. This is also a good indicator of how student-focused a school is.
8. Have you developed relationships with alumni during your time here? This will help you measure the strength of the school’s alumni community and how connected its members are to current students. An active and dedicated alumni base can be critical as you strive to find your ideal job in a still-challenging economy.
9. What resources does the school offer to help students launch ventures? While this is especially important to students interested in entrepreneurship, it is a critical question for all prospects, as it speaks to the environment on campus and the school’s faith in and commitment to its students.
10. Do you know where you will be working next year? Listen for not only the specific company and position, but also for any insights into how challenging this process was and which companies recruit at the school. You need to find out if this is a “core school” for the companies where you hope to land. Be especially wary if the student is still looking for even a relatively basic post-MBA position.
Shawn P. O’Connor is the Founder and CEO of Stratus Prep, a New York-based test preparation and admissions counseling firm serving a global clientele of applicants to the world’s premier business schools. O’Connor is an honors graduate of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Prior to launching Stratus Prep, he worked for McKinsey & Company, Lehman Brothers, Mercer Management Consulting, and the Boston law firm of Sullivan & Worcester.