How To Know If Your Target B-Schools Really ‘Fit’ You

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The most common advice given to prospective students who want to get an MBA is to select a business school based on “fit.” But what really is fit and how do you get beyond all the marketing BS to determine if a school’s MBA experience really fits with your wants, needs, and character traits?

Put simply, ‘fit’ means that someone belongs at a school, feels comfortable in the learning environment, and graduates knowing they made the best possible choice.

“Whether deciding between the two or three great offers of a place you’ve received for an MBA in the fall, or coming up with a meaningful shortlist of schools that match your personal and professional goals, finding the right fit can make the difference between another degree on the wall, or a life changing experience,” believes Matt Symonds, co-director of Fortuna Admissions, an MBA admissions consulting firm, and author of The MBA Admissions Edge. “Get it right, and it is like the perfect pair of Paul Smith shoes that make your feet sing and match any occasion. Get it wrong, and it’s like spending a painfully long evening in a dress you saw in Vogue that was meant for Kate Moss.”

AFTER RANKINGS, FOCUS ON THE PEOPLE AND THE PLACE

While rankings are helpful to explore your initial options and put together a short list of schools, that is merely the first step in the process of considering an MBA program. “If you know that the school can help you to open the career doors you want, this is the time to turn away from the endless chatter about rankings, and focus on the people and the place,” adds Symonds. “Interaction with students, staff and alumni are a remarkably reliable indicator about the culture and personality of an institution.”

Here’s something else to keep in mind when thinking about fit. “Candidates with a really strong sense of fit end up being better applicants and actually have a better chance of admission,” says former INSEAD admissions director Caroline Diarte Edwards, Symonds’ co-director colleague at Fortuna. “Their passion shines through their essays and gives them a critical boost for the interviews. Schools want to feel that the candidate really understands the DNA of the school and clicks with that.”

But ‘fit’ also requires work. Candidates have to invest the time and energy to think deeply about their own needs.”I think the problem with fit as a concept is that it can easily be taken as an abstraction and post-facto explanation for why someone was or was not admitted to an MBA program,” says Adam Markus, a top MBA admissions consultant. “The value of the idea is when you get beyond the abstraction and look at the elements of fit. The biggest challenge that applicants often have is to actually define their own needs.”

‘IT’S AMAZING HOW MANY PEOPLE IGNORE THEIR OWN INSTINCTS’

If you have the stats and the background, the most typical thing is to put Harvard, Stanford and Wharton at the top of your list. But Markus has found that candidates often do that knowing little to nothing about those programs and cultures. “One way to find fit is to be a well informed customer,” says Markus. “A well informed customer compares options (Learns about different schools), asks questions to sales people (admissions officers), finds out what current and previous customers think (Talks to and or reads blogs by current students and alumni) and checks out the product or service in person (visits the school, attends a class, at least attends virtual classes/visits/chats).”

Even highly informed applicants can sometimes push aside their true needs and go for the big brand. “When someone objectively expresses, ‘I enjoy college towns, prefer lectures to cases and want to focus on consulting positions” the field really starts to narrow quickly,” says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and CEO of mbaMission, a leading admissions consulting firm. “That said, it is amazing how many people ignore their own instincts and will articulate a thought like that and then still apply to HBS. We can hold a mirror up and be as objective as we want, but applicants have to listen to what they are saying too.”

Remember: A two-year residential MBA program is a huge investment, largely because you will leave behind a well-paying job and incur some debt in going to a top business school. So it’s not only worth thinking seriously about ‘fit,’ but also getting a close-up view of the MBA experience at a school by visiting the campuses of schools you target. “When you take into account opportunity cost, tuition and living expenses, it is $500K+ for most people,” adds Shinewald. “We meet people who have test driven ten cars before buying — and a new car is a comparatively minor investment — but won’t test drive their target MBA programs. They assume that brand strength equates to enjoyment, but the schools are really different and applicants are well advised to visit campus and take that test drive.”

So here’s some basic advice. Take out a sheet of paper, list the various ‘fit’ issues that correspond to what you want and need, and prioritize them because it’s unlikely you’ll get every attribute you want. Then, use that prioritized list to go to the next step to develop a set of target schools.

The upfront ‘fit’ issues are simpler to deal with:

One Year Vs. Two Years

Do you prefer a one-year (an option at many European schools but also at several top U.S. schools) or a two-year MBA program? Obviously accelerated programs are more intense, offer fewer electives and usually lack the chance to do a summer internship. But they cost less and aren’t as time intensive.

City Vs. College Town or A Mix

Would you like to be in an urban location (think Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, NYU, London or INSEAD in Singapore) or a college town (think Tuck, Fuqua, Kenan-Flagler, Ross, Darden, Oxford, Cambridge or INSEAD in Fontainebleau) or a hybrid of the two (consider Kellogg, Stanford and UC-Berkeley)?

“Location matters to some people,” explains Markus. “Some love college towns, others need the autonomy and/or culture of a large city. Safety considerations, cost of life, and proximity to family are all
considerations that applicants take into account.”

  • MBA_pq

    I was fully sold on the network argument as an MBA applicant. In retrospect, I recommend including fit at least as part of your target calculation. A robust network of alumni in industries or careers that are of no interest to you, or alternatively a network that does not support young MBA’s, may leave you with fewer choices in the long-term. Not to mention the value of tackling MBA coursework/recruiting with people you get on well with.

  • BoothorWhartonorBust

    These rules apply when you are comparing schools within the same band = M7, the rest of the Top 15, second tier, regional.

    Otherwise, go to the top school. Period.

  • DanP

    BRAVO TO P&Q FOR THIS ARTICLE! John does a great job listing and explaining key
    factors business school applicants should consider in evaluating MBA program options. Most candidates begin the MBA search with the media rankings. That is a sensible place to start. The rankings compare many schools across a manageable list of common metrics. This is much like starting with Motor Trend or JD Power & Assocs. or
    some other quality rankings when buying a new car. However few people choose a new car based solely on these rankings. Affordability, intended function, and different personal needs and preferences for various features will drive the ultimate choice. Similarly, for the vast majority of MBA candidates, many factors in addition to rankings play into a decision on the “right” school. People who comment on P&Q articles often get in nasty arguments about which business school offers the MOST prestige value, or the highest salaries, or the best placement. There is little mention of the type of the jobs that pay the very highest salaries (which many candidates do not really want), the specific courses and career tracks that may or may not be accessible at some schools, and the huge cost of chasing the highest level of prestige that may not be needed. Not everyone wants and few people NEED to drive a top of the line BMW or Lexus. Even if prestige matters, there is a wide range of prestige. Research and “test drive” MBA program options at least as much as you would when buying a car. Consider and apply to the programs most likely to deliver your real needs in terms of education, reputation, networking opportunities, career outcomes, and an environment that will inspire and motivate you, all at a cost you are comfortable with in terms of both time and money.

  • Gekko

    Its two years – its somewhat ridiculous that one should consider aspects such as “urban location” moreso than rankings and how the school will impact the next 30-40 years of your life.

  • McDs_Front_Office

    There’s little difference in “global mindset” between the top 20.

  • McDs_Front_Office

    The students are all the same people, basically. The students at school x are not more “collaborative” barring a concrete measure like grade masking.
    Go to the best school you can get into or the best school in the geography where you want to work and live for the long term.

  • Iwantmba2makefriends

    The fact that you make lifelong relationships depends more upon you than upon the size of the class. If you’re a douche you’re not going to make lifelong relationships be it at Stanford, Tuck or Wharton. Plus, I don’t find any relationship or proof to support the fact that Stanford, MIT, Tuck etc.. are better school to making friends rather than Wharton, Kellogg. Are you only factoring class size?

  • Rough

    Emory is 3rd tier. I think he is only considering top 20 schools here in this analysis.

  • Hell_Biker

    They two aren’t entirely separable. If not so much “culture”, then pay attention to whether the school and the student body’s values align with yours.

    The number of opportunities you have is going to depend directly on the quality of the relationships you forge….so(hypothetically speaking) you’d probably be better off going to a tier 2 or even 3 school where you’re popular on campus than to be at a Tier 1 school where most of your class hates you.

  • Hell_Biker

    Not even to get into regional schools. If you want to work in Atlanta consulting/finance, go to Emory for example.

  • Rami

    FaReal,

    1) That is your opinion but you’ll also be spending 2 years of your life in that city and program, so the social life and location do matter to a lot of people. I, personally, work much harder and am more productive when I am happy with my work/life balance, which includes having other people around me who share that opinion. (To be totally honest, that played a big factor in my choosing this fall to attend IESE in Barcelona over other programs *you* may think are “better”.)

    2) Speaking of “his black and white world”, you do realize that all those stats are averages, right? I won’t belabor how averages work, but if you are at Berkeley or Vandy or Wherever and that’s a good fit for you, you can find ways to be successful- which you have to realize will not always be what your definition of successful is. (Btw, Berk is a great program with lots of advantages so your argument is ridiculous)

    Not everyone wants to work for GS, McK, Apple. And though most recruiters do favor specific programs (based on geography, teaching method, partnerships, exposure, etc), it’s true that there is little difference within the Top Tier (1-12) and little difference within the Second Tier (13-25). I know people from Vandy that went to work for McK and beyond, and people from Harvard making $80k in Nebraska. If you, FaReal, plan to be average or below, by all means, keep harboring on these stats, but for those of us who plan to be at the top of our class, we know that we’ll be just fine wherever we choose to go and happier for it.

  • Mudit

    Excellent post!

  • midwestern

    great post

  • Nick

    That’s a thoroughly valid approach. Particularly if you want a career that will put you in front of investors, boards, or other MBAs.

    On the other hand, I am interested in working in fields outside of mainstream corporate America. So while prestige matters, I would rather say that I went to Dartmouth or Yale than Chicago or the University of Pennsylvania. Do I expect most other people to agree with that? No. But most people who attend business school don’t want the type of serial adventures that I seek (some of which will involve business, others of which won’t).

    I also care about the quality of the relationships that I make in b-school. Again, I agree that the size of one’s network is important, particularly in fields like VC/PE and to a lesser extent in finance and consulting. But I want to develop a group of close, lifelong friends in b-school; attending Stanford, MIT, Tuck, Haas, or Yale will be better for that than attending Wharton or Kellogg.

    Different strokes for different folks, eh?

  • I’ve spoken to a lot of alumnus, and two areas they have told me to research about schools (after rankings and job placement records) are alumni networks and international experience inclusion (how does the school actively promote a global mindset compared to its peers). Great post!

  • Listen To Your Heart

    You said it yourself – there’s not much difference at a top 15 program. So if you reverse your statement – would an individual be better off at Booth vs. Berkeley? (Those aren’t the schools, btw, but we’ll just go with it.) And if your answer is yes – are you factoring in where this individual wants to be after graduation? Or what his/her desired industry is? (no, obviously, because this is a hypothetical example). So why are you so quick to say that one can’t be better off at Berkeley? You seem to be making contradicting statements.

    Also, you’re naive if you don’t think social life matters for business school. Most bonds with classmates (who, btw, are people you might be hitting up for jobs later in life) are formed at bars/happy hours. Every school has some form of social life, but there are schools that tout it more than others. Ask anyone who has researched Booth vs. Kellogg and they’ll tell you.

  • FaReal

    Let me chime in. Good for you pal. I doubt you are better off at a school like Berkeley (#13) versus another one like Booth (#6). I’ll tell you why, career placement? Highly doubt it, most top schools have similar placements except you’re aiming for the very best (GS, McK, Apple) etc, and even then there’s not too much difference at a top 15 program level. Class size? Who cares?? Weather, social life = listen pal, you’re going to an MBA degree not on vacations, if you’re serious enough you shouldn’t be picking #13 versus #6 based on these factors. Enough said, let the man live in his black and white world and be succesful. Enjoy the west coast and I’m sure you’re nice tan and your social life will open many doors with employers.

  • Listen To Your Heart

    If you want to live in a black & white world, then that’s great for you. I turned down the #6 school for the #13 school due to factors like career placement, recruiting, scholarship money, location, social life, class size, weather, etc. Would I have been more successful at the #6 school? Tough to say in hindsight. Did I regret my decision to choose the less “prestigious” opportunity? Not a single bit.

  • Fido_dido

    I agree. Plus I guess it depends on what you really want to do after: HBS for Mgmt Consulting / Corporate Sector, Columbia for Finance / Strategy , Wharton for Finance/ Entrepreneurship, Booth for Economics, Yale for Social Impact, Stanford for Entrepreneurship/ Tech and the list goes on….

  • MBA bound

    I never though about fit, my choice was always H/S/W/C. I got into 3 of those 4 schools and picked the one with the higher prestige. For me, prestige and network are the only things that matter in the MBA experience. Everything else is totally out of the MBA equation meaning that they are driven by other factors. Social life and recruiting depends more on you as a person and your professional background and skills. One could weight in the place were you want to live in the next 2 years too, (Eg. New York > Chicago, Boston> Philadelphia etc…) but it should matter much less versus the before facts.